Kelly Martin was raised on Auckland’s North Shore and attended Northcote College. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in history and political science at Auckland University, she scored a summer gig in 1990 helming a photocopier at TVNZ, then a role as graphics librarian.
In 1991 she shifted networks to TV3, where she worked in scheduling promotions for TV shows, before moving on to scheduling programmes themselves. In 1996 Martin became an acquisitions executive back at TVNZ, which saw her travel to international TV markets, where she assessed and bought content.
She became a programmer at TV3 in 2000; responsible for local production strategy and commissioning. At the time local drama and comedy was not prolific, and the remit was considered something of a hospital pass. Martin would make it the defining success of her MediaWorks programming reign. Under her watch, local produce included bro'Town, Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons, The Strip, What’s Really in Our Food?, The Secret Life of Dancers, Missing Pieces, and numerous Inside NZ documentaries.
Martin took special pride in Outrageous Fortune. In a 2015 Sunday Star-Times article, she explained the elements that got the show greenlit: "the premise of the show and the fact it was centred around a strong female character, and was set in a world that felt like the real world were all attractive. We had about three other series in front of us, but it stood out as something that would work.”
In the same interview, Martin said of the show: “Drama is always such a gamble. It did okay for the first couple of years and really got a following in the third year. We stayed with it as a network because I think audiences take a while to find things. We liked it and we really trusted the writers and producers, and once it took off it became a juggernaut.”
Outrageous co-writer James Griffin has credited Martin for giving the show's creators space to express their vision.
In 2006 Martin was promoted to TV3's Director of Programming. She developed the network’s successful homemade comedy strategy, which began with bro’Town and included The Jaquie Brown Diaries, Pulp Sport, Hounds, 7 Days, WannaBen, Jono and Ben at Ten, and various AotearoHa live specials.
When the concept of a Friday night panel comedy show fronted by Jeremy Corbett was pitched, Martin recalls that TV3's salespeople were very skeptical. 7 Days became the flag bearer for a resurgence in local comedy on-screen. Not all the programmes took off, but the successes arguably helped bring about a culture change: Kiwi comedy on TV was no longer seen as cringeworthy.
Martin reckons that she never had a career plan, but has "just taken opportunities when they’ve been presented". When quizzed about especially challenging assignments, she muses that "the whole business is challenging: programming while the channel [TV3] was being sold, budgets, never enough money or time, and working through an era of unbelievable change at an unbelievable pace".
She acknowledges that programming is "ultimately a crap-shoot". But Martin's dice have regularly turned up with the numbers. At the 2010 Qantas Awards, TV3 shows won a trifecta: Best Comedy (The Jaquie Brown Diaries), Drama (Outrageous Fortune), and Entertainment Programme (The Topp Twins and the APO). For Marti, the awards were a testament to both the production teams, and TV3's local network executives.
Martin argues that her network (rather than production) background meant that she could come at programming clean: focussing squarely on whether audiences would like it, "do I like what it looks like, and is it working on-screen?" These instincts helped her select shows on subjects from P to pirouettes. When Drug Bust became a surprise hit in 2012, Martin spoke of knowing that "audiences liked watching real people get into trouble on television, but the numbers far exceeded expectations". At the other end of the cultural spectrum, she put classical dance in primetime in The Secret Life of Dancers, which helped revive popular interest in the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
After 12 years programming at TV3, Martin resigned and shifted to South Pacific Pictures to be the CEO. In a press release announcing her appointment, Martin said she was thrilled to "learn from the best in the business". Since joining South Pacific in 2012, Martin has worked as an executive producer on everything from TV2’s top-rating Shortland Street and Step Dave, to TV One’s Nothing Trivial.
When it came to pitching Outrageous Fortune offshoot Westside, Martin gave her old TV3 colleagues a week to decide if they wanted a prequel to the series she'd originally programmed. Prime TV’s The Brokenwood Mysteries has sold well globally — including a prime time slot in France. 800 Words, a sea change drama involving an Australian family moving to Aotearoa was 2015's highest rating new drama on Aussie television.
In a 2015 piece on 'Auckland’s Most Influential', Metro editor Simon Wilson wrote that South Pacific Pictures was in safe hands, with founder John Barnett’s mantle "shouldered by the dynamic Kelly Martin".
From photocopying to boss, Martin’s mantra has been if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. With a commissioning kaupapa forged around enabling creative voices and anticipating audience demand, Martin maintains that the future of delivering screen content is "not quite as scary as people think". In an industry that is "all about personal relationships", she singles out Rachel Jean as a significant collaborator (Jean headed drama and comedy at TV3 and C4, and now works with Martin at SPP).
Martin has been President of the Kiwi branch of WIFT (Women in Film & Television), and SPADA (the Screen Production and Development Association). She won the Award for Outstanding Contribution to the New Zealand Screen Industry at the 2020 WIFT NZ Awards.
Originally published on 25 February 2016; updated on 9 December 2020
'Kelly Martin: From the copy room to CEO...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 2 September 2016. Accessed 9 December 2020
Michelle Duff, 'Once upon a time in the West: An oral history of Outrageous Fortune' - The Sunday Star-Times, 29 May 2015
Simon Wilson, 'Auckland’s Most Influential: In the Media' (broken link) - Metro, 24 July 2015
'John Campbell wins at Qantas Awards' (Press release) Newshub website. Loaded 18 September 2010. Accessed 9 December 2020
'Kelly Martin' South Pacific Pictures website. Accessed 9 December 2020