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50 years of television, Part two

GRAHAM DAVIS: May 2005. The King is dead. And courtiers and subjects alike pay their last respects in the small NSW town of Mittagong. For many watching, Graham Kennedy's dignified and moving farewell symbolised the end of an era, the gradual thinning of the ranks of the pioneers of television, fading into history like old soldiers. Of all the troopers of the past 50 years, many believe Kennedy deserves the biggest salute. What, to you, was so special about him?

SAM CHISHOLM, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PBL TV: He was a genius. He was unique. There are not degrees of unique. He was absolute genius.

GRAHAM DAVIS: What younger Australians may find hard to grasp is that, at first, the King's rule was confined to Melbourne. Devoid of any live link until 1963, Australia's two biggest markets grew in isolation. But, in the case of IMT, that was Sydney's loss and Melbourne's gain.
ACTRESS: It's a miracle! The lion dropped dead before it could eat him!

GRAHAM KENNEDY: It choked on his St Christopher medal!

GRAHAM DAVIS: Do you think he was the greatest?

SAM CHISHOLM: Yeah.

GRAHAM DAVIS: You do?

SAM CHISHOLM: Mmm. I do.

GRAHAM DAVIS: With his recent death, we've seen many of Kennedy's better sketches again. But there are more. Many more. Even the commercials were a treat. Kennedy did them live and nothing was sacred, advertisers frequently the butt of his wicked humour.

HAROLD MITCHELL, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, MICHELL PARTNERS: How much could Graham get away with? I would say, the answer was, everything. I booked as many live commercials with Graham as I cancelled. I would invariably book them on a Monday and cancel them on a Wednesday as Graham went to air the night before and did something terrible about the client's product.

GRAHAM DAVIS: But, hey, the audience loved it and even pilloried products flew off the shelves, spurring advertisers to extraordinary lengths to get theirs on IMT. In later years, Sam Chisholm would get whatever he wanted at Nine as its chief. Back then, he had to get into line.

SAM CHISHOLM: I was working for Johnson's wax at the time, and I don't think he believed my ...

GRAHAM DAVIS: Sales pitch.

SAM CHISHOLM: Assertions about this product. So I said, "I'll go and polish your floors and prove it to you." Which I did.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Over at his home?

SAM CHISHOLM: Absolutely.

GRAHAM DAVIS: You got down on your hands and knees at his home?

SAM CHISHOLM: Yep. I started off as his housekeeper and ended up being his boss.

GRAHAM DAVIS: The Melbourne-Sydney divide has been a constant theme of the past 50 years, Melburnians especially resistant to any encroachment from the north in what they watch. Former Nine news director Gerald Stone on what it's like to get trampled in the Melbourne-Sydney ruck. You started something called News Centre Nine, didn't you?

GERALD STONE, FMR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, '60 MINUTES': Well known but not well liked for what I did. Yes, when I took over in 1974, as news director of Channel Nine, I came up with the bright idea of networking the Sydney and Melbourne news. The newsrooms hated each other's coverage, absolutely despised it. But I came up with a saying that everything leaves Melbourne perfectly and then turns to shit over Albury-Wodonga, because that's what seemed to happen.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Cultural divides between cities and cultural divides between networks. In the case of Nine and Seven, it was rooted in the vastly different personalities of their owners, the Packer and Fairfax families. Glen Kinging started at Seven as a stagehand in 1957 and would go on to program the network for a record 25 years.

GLEN KINGING, FMR NETWORK PROGRAMMER, CHANNEL 7: Most people in the industry believe that Nine runs on an element of fear — you deliver or you're out of a job.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Tell me about it.

GLEN KINGING: And the Sevens weren't. The Seven were almost ... In fact, I remember once saying I think we get it too easy and we need a kick up the bum sometimes. I think we were just, just not as driven. And not as afraid.

GRAHAM DAVIS: It was the Packers that were driving Nine ...

GLEN KINGING: Absolutely.

GRAHAM DAVIS: ... in a way in which the Fairfax's either couldn't or wouldn't.

GLEN KINGING: I think both. Couldn't, because it was not their nature — they were such gentle people.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Certainly, the very Christian Sir Warwick Fairfax, and later James Fairfax, the art connoisseur, were hardly swashbuckling adventurers. They were unlikely to have done what Kerry Packer chose to do — go to East Timor during the 1975 Indonesian invasion, a roll of the dice that could have had a very different outcome given the risks involved.

GERALD STONE: I called up Kerry and said, "Look, we have this chance to go on a boat to Timor and I think we should do it," and Kerry said, "Well, only if I go with you." Now, my heart ...

GRAHAM DAVIS: And he did?

GERALD STONE: And he did. We went up to Darwin. We got in this boat. It was a converted Japanese trawler run by two sort of renegade-type Australian guys who were willing to break this ban to go there and we ended up outside Timor harbour, an Indonesian gunship off to one side. You could hear shooting in the street.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Gerald Stone on the frontline. Kerry Packer just behind, out of the camera's way. He would eventually be Australia's richest man. But here is Kerry Packer in East Timor 30 years ago, ferrying refugees — an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary life.

SAM CHISHOLM: I would think that he is far and away the most influential figure in Australian television.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Bar none?

SAM CHISHOLM: Bar none. I think that he has had great courage and great foresight and he has been the strength of this network. And it is his backing, and his attention to it, and it is something that he has a great flare for and a great feel for.

GRAHAM DAVIS: It was Packer who personally changed the game of cricket forever when, in 1977, he took on the establishment with World Series Cricket. And it was Kerry Packer who, with Sam Chisholm, personally forged Nine's glory years, creating a huge stable of stars.

SAM CHISHOLM: We all sort of drew the conclusion that television was sort of Australia's Hollywood and so therefore ...

GRAHAM DAVIS: You'd have Hollywood-style stars.

SAM CHISHOLM: That is exactly right. We did that. And we brought that sort of unique culture to Nine.

GRAHAM DAVIS: In the late '70s, over at Seven, Kerry Packer's lifelong friend, Bruce Gyngell, had emerged as a worthy competitor. Not for the last time, someone imbued with Nine's winning culture was given Seven the edge.

GLEN KINGING: They were Seven's very successful years because what he did, he went out and bought a lot of British programming, which until that time had only ever been seen on the ABC.

GRAHAM DAVIS: You guys also had a very cheeky tag at that stage, didn't you?

GLEN KINGING: It was called, "Seven is revolting", revolting against bad — no, against BLAND programs.

GRAHAM DAVIS: But the Seven revolution under Gyngell wasn't the first time Seven had been an innovator. The Fairfax's might have been straitlaced, but in the 1960s they nourished those with subversive tendencies with the fondly remembered 'Mavis Bramston Show'.

GLEN KINGING: That show got us into so much strife because of the political things or the subject matter. It was the first ...

GRAHAM DAVIS: It was a satire on contemporary politics.

GLEN KINGING: It was a satire. Every week there would be a major, major outcry over something they had parodied that week.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Though nothing like the outcries that emanated from the conservatives when Australia's maiden aunt of broadcasting suddenly began kicking up her heels. Once prim and proper, something got into Aunty ABC in the 1960s. And, to the delight of her loyal audiences, she's never really been the same since. It was called This Day Tonight, TDT, the first of the nightly current affairs programs on television that remain a staple 38 years on.

PETER LUCK, JOURNALIST: I said, "I don't know anything about current affairs television so why ask me?" And Ken Watts, who was the prime mover in the ABC, said, "Nobody knows anything about current affairs television, so you're not whistling Dixie."

GRAHAM DAVIS: Peter Luck, one of the founding Dixie whistlers at TDT, an alumni that includes many other broadcast greats, like Mike Carlton, who back then thought he could also sing. And a host of others, including compare Bill Peach, the other Carleton, Richard, and Gerald Stone, to name but a few.

PETER LUCK: It started in '67, which was an amazingly fertile period of activity in the Australian consciousness. There was Vietnam, the great battles there. There was the pill, there was the sexual revolution. There was censorship, capital punishment, all these major issues swimming around, and into this you drop this amazing crucible of untried talent trying to do something that had never been done before — a nightly, national current affairs program.

GRAHAM DAVIS: All the more reason why TDT broke like a thunderclap over the parched conservative landscape of the time. Like the day President Johnson came to town and the NSW Premier Bob Askin became enraged with antiwar protesters blocking his motorcade.

PETER LUCK: Askin in his inimitable fashion said, "Run the bastards over!" And of course today it would have been treated with great gravitas. We decided it didn't warrant that. If fact, what it wanted was a mass choir, singing it.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Singing "Ride the bastards over!"

PETER LUCK: And it was done to 'John Brown's Body', I think. "Run, run, run the bastards over! As I said to LBJ."

VOICEOVER: And darkness was upon the face of the electorate.

GRAHAM DAVIS: And when Gough Whitlam finally broke 23 straight years of conservative rule, TDT was there to puncture his epic ego.

VOICEOVER: And Gough said, "It's time."

PETER LUCK: TDT was hopelessly undergrad. We thought it was hysterical at the time. What endeared it to the Australian public — its larrikin quality — had to come from being let loose.

VOICEOVER: And the scribes and the pharisees rejoiced.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Yet it was also the start of the ABC's uneasy and sometimes fraught relationship with our politicians that continues to this day.

BRIAN JOHNS, FMR MANAGING EDITOR, ABC AND SBS: There's always a tension there, but some governments, and, regrettably, this government, has taken a very punitive and heavy-handed attitude towards the ABC.

GRAHAM DAVIS: And how do you feel about that?

BRIAN JOHNS: I feel crook about it.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Brian Johns is the only person to have headed both the ABC and SBS. In the case of the ABC, he says, a funding shortfall and excessive regulation continually hamper its ability to properly serve the community.

BRIAN JOHNS: But also, to hear the Opposition, the Labor Opposition — I don't see any marked difference between the Opposition's attitude to the ABC and SBS than the present Government, really.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Why is that? Because it is a pox on both of them?

BRIAN JOHNS: I think it's a failure of imagination. It is a failure again to regard broadcasting as an essential part of our modern contemporary infrastructure.

SAM CHISHOLM: I think the ABC is very important because the ABC can do a raft of things that commercial television can't. I think that where the ABC sits now is exactly where it should. I think it is something we can all be proud of.

GRAHAM DAVIS: While debate rages from time to time about whether ABC TV is too much like the commercials these days, there's no question that only Aunty would have funded such an ambitious program like Four Corners in the early days. Nine once poached a producer called Bob Raymond from the ABC to do its celebrated Project documentary series. But for serious long-format current affairs, it wasn't until Sunday came along in 1981 that Four Corners had any real competition. Peter Luck worked on both programs. How important has Four Corners been in the development of current affairs in this country?

PETER LUCK: Oh, supremely. I think it's still — it is a toss up whether Sunday or Four Corners to this day. And they've got 70 years on air between them.

GRAHAM DAVIS: One ABC reporter in particular was to make his name in commercial television like no other, becoming a household name both at Seven and Nine. Mike Willesee would popularise current affairs with the classic tabloid formula of reporting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. His crusading reporters sometimes got as good as they gave. And then, in 1979, the most commercially successful current affairs program of all.

GERALD STONE: It's main strength was — in a period when, let's say a program like Four Corners might have a reporter come on air one week and then not be seen for five or six weeks later — the 60 Minutes formula was to keep your reporters on air each week so your audience could identify with them and say, "Gee, I like his style," or her style, when Jana came along.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Strange as it may seem now, given its longevity and ratings dominance, it took a long time for the audience to warm to 60 Minutes. Week after week in the Sunday night slot, Seven gave Nine a caning with Peter Luck's epic nostalgia series This Fabulous Century.

PETER LUCK: We had a 36 rating on the first night, 60 Minutes had a 9. We won every night of the year but one. We had a wonderful first year, they had a terrible first year. But then we moved aside, because we were a finite quantity. Gerald went on to have 20 years at the top.

GRAHAM DAVIS: 60 Minutes would turn journalists into stars to add to Nine's firmament. These were the years of producer Peter Faiman's lavish specials, of personalities as big as their mouths and unassailable dominance around the clock in news and information. The one thing Nine couldn't seem to get right was drama. That was Seven's strength.

GLEN KINGING: Seven was very, very into drama and variety shows. And while they had stars, their stars were actors playing a role. So even in things like A Country Practice you would more likely remember Grant Dodwell for his onscreen name than Grant Dodwell. So that was a difference between the networks for years and years.

GRAHAM DAVIS: The wedding between the character played by Grant Dodwell and Penny Cook was huge, wasn't it?

GLEN KINGING: I think it was the highest-rated TV show of any show to that date. I remember the Daily Mirror doing a 5-page liftout on the wedding. For that to happen today ... I couldn't imagine.

GRAHAM DAVIS: By now, a very different player was firmly established in television, "Bringing the world back home," it used to say, largely multicultural at first, now decidedly mainstream. SBS was the initiative of Malcolm Frasers's Liberal government, Bruce Gyngell its first chief executive. Once entirely funded by the taxpayer, SBS now gets a growing proportion of its revenue from advertising. You brought advertising to SBS, didn't you?

BRIAN JOHNS: Yep.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Do you think that that in any way diminished its role as a public broadcaster?

BRIAN JOHNS: Not at all. I think it strengthened its role.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Does it mean that ads should be on the ABC?

BRIAN JOHNS: No, it doesn't mean that they can be. If the ABC took he advertising, the existing networks would have something to say about that as you could well appreciate. The ABC electorate would have something to say about that because it just wouldn't cop it.

GRAHAM DAVIS: But right now all eyes are on commercial television and especially the titanic struggle between Nine and Seven.

SAM CHISHOLM: To some degree it's become a two-station market. Ten is not doing — in my view — as well as they should. So therefore, you know, the market has got tighter. It's got more competitive. But, as I say, having said that, the viewer is the winner in all of this.

GRAHAM DAVIS: I mean, Nine is still the one, isn't it?

SAM CHISHOLM: Yeah.

GRAHAM DAVIS: But Seven has been closing very, very quickly.

SAM CHISHOLM: Sure.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Did we take our eye off the ball? Is that what has happened?

SAM CHISHOLM: I don't want to get into that.

GRAHAM DAVIS: One thing Sam Chisholm will say is that he knows his competitors, David Leckie, the boss of Seven, and Nick Falloon at Ten, and the way they think. They've essentially learnt what they know from you. That's true, isn't it?

SAM CHISHOLM: I don't know whether they've learnt it from me. They've learnt it at Channel Nine. They've learnt their skill set here.

GRAHAM DAVIS: They are now using those skills against the network. Does that kind of thing bother you?

SAM CHISHOLM: No, no, no. Because it make it easier to read them. I think Seven's become a sort of branch office of Channel Nine because most of the people that worked there were trained here, like David Leckie, Peter Meakin and Ian Ross. They all learnt their craft here, as indeed did we all.

GRAHAM DAVIS: In Sydney, the biggest market, Seven has pulled ahead of Nine in the vital 6pm to 7pm news and current affairs slot. Why have they done that, do you think?

SAM CHISHOLM: I think to some degree the lead-in is a very key factor, as you see on Sunday night. We are unmatched — nobody can catch us on Sunday night because we go out of the league and go into the news. During the week we obviously have to do something about our 5:30 program.

GRAHAM DAVIS: And you're working on that?

SAM CHISHOLM: Yeah, absolutely.

GRAHAM DAVIS: And for audiences, there is the inevitable impact of change, of the departure after almost 40 years of the main evening newsreader on Nine.

BRIAN HENDERSON: People in the news will often tell you that is a drug. I believe it is. It took me about two years to get unhooked.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Really?

BRIAN HENDERSON: Oh, yes.

GRAHAM DAVIS: You've been going through withdrawal?

BRIAN HENDERSON: Yeah. Six o'clock feeling.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Are you interested in coming back?

BRIAN HENDERSON: No, not now. Not now.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Definitely?

BRIAN HENDERSON: Definitely.

GRAHAM DAVIS: They've asked you?

BRIAN HENDERSON: Yes.

GRAHAM DAVIS: And you said?

BRIAN HENDERSON: No. Thank you for the offer.

GRAHAM DAVIS: When we talk to Brian Henderson and Roger Climpson, his opposite number at Seven for all those years, we are talking to men whose experience spans the full history of television in Australia. They've seen it all — the personalities and the successive program genres right up to the last big wave — lifestyle, and the current big wave, reality TV. Is the audience better off than 50 years ago? Well, generally yes, in their view, with one notable exception. How do you feel about sex on television and the sort of stuff we've seen on Big Brother? It's a far cry from what was served up in the old days, isn't it?

BRIAN HENDERSON: It is. I've never tried sex on television, but ... Please don't do that. I had a look at it the other day, wondering what all the fuss is about. I just thought it was gross. I found it somewhat deplorable that the kids are behaving as badly as they were.

ROGER CLIMPSON: I don't like it at all. Cut or uncut. Sorry. I think the language is disgusting. I think what you're allowed to see on television these days should not be allowed. I think the use of the 4-letter word is totally unnecessary. And I think that it's having a very bad influence, I think, upon people's general attitudes, certainly the younger people.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Sentiments shared by Nine boss Sam Chisholm that will have the management of Ten on the defensive.

SAM CHISHOLM: It is not sort of thing that we would do. It is not the sort of thing that Nine would do.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Why not?

SAM CHISHOLM: Under any under circumstances.

GRAHAM DAVIS: Nine's brief doesn't include young people behaving as poor role models for the rest of their peers. Is that what are you suggesting?

SAM CHISHOLM: Mmm. I am. You can watch the US Open and see a wonderful role model in Tiger Woods, as a young man. I don't know whether, you know, if you wanted to find a role model that, for young people, that Big Brother would be your first port of call.

BRIAN HENDERSON: It certainly indicates standards have changed. '96' was pretty bold back then. But 'Big Brother' has taken it to a different level — lower.

GRAHAM DAVIS: And can we take it from that that Brian Henderson doesn't approve?

BRIAN HENDERSON: You can take it from that I'm not going into the house.

ROGER CLIMPSON: Not even fully clothed, I can assure you.

GRAHAM DAVIS: So cop that, Big Brother. The way it is, as Hendo used to say, isn't the way it should be.


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