TV3 Turns 25

Grow your own goodness  

In the 25 years since it first went to air, the country's first private TV network has taken more creative risks with local content than the state-owned competition.

The rewards of its commissioning strategy are the icing on the cake of this month's anniversary celebrations, with Outrageous Fortune one of New Zealand's most popular dramas, and a prequel series now in production. Regular comedy series 7 Days and Jono and Ben at Ten make positive ratings headlines too.

These heady triumphs are a long way from the channel's dull early commissions, when it relied on talent that hitherto had been TVNZ identities, like Billy T James, David McPhail and Jon Gadsby.

The Billy T James Show (1992) straitjacketed the iconic comedian into a sitcom format that never fitted while, ironically, McPhail and Gadsby had more success when they quit their limping satirical legacy (1991's Issues) for the character-driven shenanigans of 1994's Letter to Blanchy. Blanchy ran for three series but each comprised only a handful of episodes, typical of the truncated commissions that have traditionally hindered the evolution of primetime drama and comedy here.

While TV3 had singular personalities off-peak, for better (Nightline's Belinda Todd, You and Me's Suzy Cato) or worse (The Earlybird Show's Russell Rooster), what it lacked was a breakout star in a peak-hour showcase. Cue Melody Rules, a vehicle that was engineered not only for Todd but also for the kind of long run that sitcoms need to build viewership, characters and storylines.

A US doyen of the genre, Noam Pitlik (Barney Miller, Taxi, Wings), was brought in to help shape the show. But the series so alienated viewers with its artificiality and awfulness that it never recovered from the premiere's blistering reviews and letters to the editor - although the network persevered for another 43 episodes.

Things weren't much better on the drama front. TV3's first stab at a soap, Homeward Bound (1992), came off second-best against TV2's Shortland Street and was quickly axed, while the network declined to renew its glossy TV news drama, Cover Story (1996), only to watch TVNZ, in a Machiavellian programming power play, pick it up for a second series.

TV3's biggest successes sprung from developing comedic talent, with sketch shows like Away Laughing (1991), Skitz (1993), and the stand-up initiative, Pulp Comedy (1997), which featured prospective 7 Days stalwarts Jeremy Corbett, Paul Ego, Michelle A'Court and Rhys Darby.

Back then, 7 Days producer Jon Bridges was one of the young stars of the offbeat youth hit ICE TV (1996), along with network sweetheart Petra Bagust and Nathan Rarere, who went on to voice characters in the first primetime NZ 'toon, bro'Town (2004).

This South Auckland spin on The Simpsons spearheaded a golden period for quintessentially-Kiwi comedy and drama on TV3 - one that not only gave the network an edge, but also redefined New Zealand on air with the likes of the award-winning Pulp Sport (2003, although TV3 didn't pick it up until 2008), The Jaquie Brown Diaries (2008) and Outrageous Fortune (2005).

Traditionally, NZ drama has been more polite than provocative. Few have been as innovative as the teen-oriented Being Eve (2001); occasionally a Doves of War (2006) was so ambitious that viewers took flight, while Outrageous Fortune forerunner The Strip (2002) mistook brazenness for brilliance.

But with Outrageous Fortune, the country's leading drama producer, South Pacific Pictures, took the earthy 'Westiness' that was central to 2000 movie Savage Honeymoon, and turned a clan of petty crooks and their white-trash subculture into fair-dinkum household favourites, winning more awards, accolades and audiences than any other local drama series.

Moreover, the show's unprecedented popularity rejuvenated drama commissioning at rival TVNZ, leading to the TV2 hit Go Girls (2009) and series that fared less well but not for want of trying to push the awards envelope (2009's The Cult, 2010's This Is Not My Life).

TV3's risk-taking hasn't just been limited to small-screen drama - it also helped to bankroll beyond a licence fee the Aramoana massacre dramatisation, Out of the Blue (2006) - and although in 2008 it lost the commissioner pivotal to its biggest successes, the late Caterina de Nave, the network's commitment to groundbreaking local shows appears just as steadfast.

In 2011, TV3 debuted The Almighty Johnsons, about four blokes with superpowers, which ran for three series and is now screening internationally. The network has also commissioned a number of comedies, including Madeleine Sami comedy Super City, an observational satire directed by Boy's Taika Waititi, and Brown Bruthaz, a sibling rivalry romp about a hip-hop duo trying to stage a comeback.

TV3 launched with the slogan, "Come home to the feeling." It was a trite sentiment more akin to US TV; not so the uniquely New Zealand content that, 25 years on, has cemented the channel's coming of age.

 -- Phil Wakefield writes about TV and film for website