The Secrets to Country Calendar’s Remarkable Longevity

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This story comes from the team at thespinoff.co.nz.

New Zealanders simply can’t get enough of a 56-year-old TV show about farming. Tara Ward asked longtime Country Calendar producer Julian O’Brien why.

In July, the peaceful documentary series Hyundai Country Calendar featured an episode that shocked viewers across the country. It followed Geoff and Justine Ross, owners of the Lake Hāwea resort in central Otago, and initially looked like any other sweet trip on the country calendar to rural New Zealand. Like other farmers the show has featured over the years, the Rosses were passionate about life on the land and wanted to do things differently. This included regenerative plantings and unconventional ways to improve animal welfare, such as playing classical music in the shearing shed and providing soft mattresses for freshly shorn sheep to land on.

These little sheep mattresses were the final straw. Viewers flocked to Country Calendar’s Facebook page to express their outrage, voicing their objections to the episode’s “wake-up call” and accusing the show of ditching “real farming” for stories about wealthy urban entrepreneurs. Some said they turned off their TVs in disgust, while others said it was the worst episode of Country Calendar they had ever seen.

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All of a sudden, people were talking about the humble old country calendar with a furious fervor usually reserved for All Blacks losses. Series producer Julian O’Brien knew viewers would be surprised by the Lake Hāwea story, but he was taken aback by the “noise” of the response online. Country Calendar had featured stories about regenerative agriculture before without backlash, but this was different. It was something he had never seen before.

After 56 quiet years on our screens, Country Calendar has become the most controversial show on New Zealand television.

A unifier at work.

Roz Mason/TVNZ/Via Spinoff

A unifier at work.

Since 1966, Country Calendar has been a soft mattress for New Zealand viewers to land on. What started as a 14-minute rural newsletter for farmers has grown into a viewing-by-appointment, placid but inspiring show that celebrates the diversity of New Zealand’s farming industry. O’Brien thinks it’s amazing that Country Calendar is our oldest and arguably most popular program. “If someone were to offer NZ On Air or TVNZ to do the show now, it would be ‘that doesn’t sound very exciting’. We would never cross the line.

Figures provided by TVNZ confirm that we love watching farmers talk about their lives almost as much as we love the Country Calendar theme song. The show consistently ranks among the top five rated programs in the country for all viewers ages 5 and up, and over the past five years each episode has reached over three-quarters of a million viewers. Even more surprisingly, Country Calendar is bucking the annual trend of declining television ratings, now attracting a wider audience than in the pre-Covid environment of 2019.

But it’s not just mainstream viewers who are addicted to rural life. Last year, online viewers watched a record 1.1 million streams on TVNZ+, a massive 43% year-on-year growth from 2020. Nearly 900,000 streams have already been generated this year, and two out of five of them are episodes from previous seasons, proving that Country Calendar remains popular with viewers long after the episodes have aired on TV. Even the dogs are happy with it. We are a nation of thirsty beasts with our heads in the trough of the national calendar, and it seems we will never be satisfied.

Julian O'Brien, producer of Country Calendar.

Ivars Berzins/TVNZ/Via The Spinoff

Julian O’Brien, producer of Country Calendar.

Julian O’Brien first joined Country Calendar as a reporter-producer in 1985 and began producing the show in 2006, watching the show grow from 12 episodes a year to 40 currently. It’s our country’s television love affair that shows no signs of slowing down. down, and O’Brien believes that it all depends on our relationship with the land. With the majority of New Zealanders living in towns and cities, says O’Brien, Country Calendar connects us to a world many of us don’t have easy access to. “I think it helps open a little window into the rural life that people want, but don’t have an easy way to get to.”

These high ratings prove that Country Calendar is not just a program for the rural community. “To be honest, if only farmers watched the show, it probably wouldn’t exist,” says O’Brien. With just under 50,000 farms in New Zealand, O’Brien says the reality is that more people watch Country Calendar in Parnell or Te Atatū than in rural Paeroa, something his team is always aware of. “We try to present the show in a way that the farmers don’t feel like we’re teaching them to suck eggs, but at the same time the townspeople don’t say, ‘I don’t understand this,'” says -he. . “It’s always a bit of a delicate balance, but I think the numbers show we’re doing quite well.”

The key to the show’s success, O’Brien believes, is that it allows rural people to tell their own stories. There’s nothing flashy about Country Calendar and generally nothing flashy about people’s profiles. While the rest of the world has changed around it, Country Calendar is done today much the same as it always has been, and O’Brien is proud of the show’s traditional craft. . It uses simple, observational storytelling grounded in some of New Zealand’s most dramatic landscapes, and rather than making a lifestyle series, O’Brien says it’s crucial they present the realities of the rural life. This way, the audience knows that the show is authentic and that they are choosing to hang out with “good people who won’t give a fuck about them”.

Longtime Country Calendar fans have fond memories of vintage episodes like the 1974 Fred Dagg special or the iconic parodies, but O’Brien feels the old shows may not be as captivating as people expect. remember it. Perhaps they’re part of our collective nostalgia for a simpler time when farming was farming and fences serenaded the nation, but these days Country Calendar is more likely to feature stories on sustainability and climate change. The show continues to innovate and evolve where it can, and the current season features a Northland pineapple orchard, a pāua farmer on Rakiura Stewart Island, and iwi owners of a beef farm and East Coast sheep.

Every Sunday night the show takes us to corners of Aotearoa we might never have seen before, and the Country Calendar team wants every episode to appear artless. “We want it to feel like we’re just walking past a farm and we were like, ‘I wonder what’s going on there’ and they turned out to be quite friendly and said, ‘Come and take a peek. glance,'” says O’Brien. . Of course, the reality is different, and it’s a challenge to shoot around 40 episodes each year while making everyone feel sweet and unhurried. “Making something that looks simple takes a lot of care.”

Of course, the response to the Lake Hāwea Station episode was anything but mild. “I think it tapped into the feeling of a lot of rural folks that nobody cares about them anymore,” O’Brien theorizes, adding that while the Rosses weren’t going to lecture people, they did. said they were determined to do things. differently. “I think a lot of people interpreted that as being lectured by townspeople, even though the Rosses aren’t townspeople. It’s a growing feeling right now in the rural community that everyone is a bit against them.

Hossack Downs, featured in a 2022 episode of Country Calendar.

Richard Langston / TVNZ / Via the spin-off

Hossack Downs, featured in a 2022 episode of Country Calendar.

O’Brien is optimistic about controversy, the same way Country Calendar is always optimistic about agriculture. He believes that any response – even a negative one – is a sign that New Zealanders feel ownership of the show. It also means he doesn’t see the country’s calendar going anytime soon. “There will always be a demand for good storytelling about New Zealanders from other New Zealanders,” he says. “As long as we can be true to the show’s origins and meet that demand, I think it’s very likely to be around 20 years from now, maybe longer.”

Our enduring love affair with the quiet farm show looks set to continue, sheep mattresses and all. “People are fundamentally interested in other people,” says O’Brien, adding that most Country Calendar stories are about New Zealanders doing things “in their own quiet way.” It’s ordinary people doing interesting things, and that’s what makes the show special. “It’s just really nice after half an hour of looking at Country Calendar saying ‘what great people, what a great thing they’re doing,'” O’Brien says. “Country Calendar isn’t rural news, it’s personality profiles, and I think people like to watch it.

Hyundai Country Calendar airs Sunday nights at 7 p.m. on TVNZ1 and streams on TVNZ+.

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