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SPAA 2008 - HECTOR CRAWFORD MEMORIAL LECTURE

GET ON WITH IT
Brian Walsh, Executive Director of Television and Marketing at Foxtel, delivered this year’s lecture at the screen producers annual conference on the Gold Coast (November 12 – 14); he cited Crawford as a man who succeeded by not being constrained by the form of delivery. Today, the consumer has choice; the market has multi-faceted new players and the Australian screen production community has, with it, a vast new opportunity with which it is only beginning to engage. Get on with it, he says.


I am honoured to be giving the Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture not only because of the compliment I find in the kind invitation to speak, or for the association with the prestige and passion of this lecture’s former speakers. I am most pleased today by being brought into a context of connection with a great man like Hector Crawford whose colourful legacy sounds with particular resonance to a song and dance man like me.

Hector Crawford’s career, like so many others, was founded in one medium and unfolded with extended success in another. There are many in the room here today who are facing the imminent challenges and opportunities offered by digital and personalised media and you will attest, that, to make it happen in this industry, our abilities, like Hector Crawford’s, need to transcend form. Or, rather, what I mean to say is; truly great creative abilities can always use whatever media and whatever resources are to hand, in order to realise the dreams of the capable and the imaginative man. For all the change there is about us that is one continuing and reliable fact.
In his twenties Hector Crawford produced Music for the People – an outdoor concert series which, as an exercise in personal enthusiasm, was a labour of love and, for Hector and his sister Dorothy, it embodied a natural fit for their combined resources of musical talent and training. They were willing and able to make the personal into the commercial and pursued this match with the creation of Hector Crawford Productions which had, early on, a considerable and popular output of music and drama programmes sent out over the radio.

a man with the drive and the confidence to try something new and timely

Without missing any time after the genesis of Television, Hector Crawford was producing a Game Show, Wedding Day, for HSV Seven and, over the next eight years had some success with a sitcom, Take That. Crawford Productions pioneered a courtroom daytime drama, Consider Your Verdict and went on to introduce Australian audiences to Showcase, hosted by Gordon Boyd. Then came the signature dramas which, to this day, are acknowledged as iconic programmes and early entries to the encyclopaedia of Australian television hits. I’m referring to Homicide, which enjoys enduring success, Division 4, Matlock Police, Cop Shop and, in 1976, perhaps his greatest contribution to the heritage of Australian Television, The Sullivans.
When I mention these titles I have used, fittingly, words like ‘career’ and ‘heritage’ and ‘iconic’ but I must put it to you that these words, and their tone of reverent praise, are only attributed to achievements after time has secured their status. At the time, before these shows became archived achievements, they were new, and at times risky, enterprises. Hector Crawford, notwithstanding the reliability of his talents and his instincts, was, certainly, a man whose success allowed him to take some chances. He was however, in the first instance, a man with the drive and the confidence to try something new and timely.

The connection to Australian audiences was never better evidenced than when Crawford’s responded to the Cash Harmon hit Number 96 with the equally-controversial drama serial, The Box (a personal favourite of mine). I suppose that the novelty of Crawford’s output is lost, perhaps, because once he had found success in treating memorable characters and institutional situations, he zeroed-in on his niches and exploited his brand. Who wouldn’t?

It should be re-assuring to all of us here that there were some cancelled dramas along the way and series such as Skyways and Holiday Island don’t seem to be the kind of blockbusters we associate with the Crawford name. It is here, in his not-so-successful attempts, as well as the classics, that we find the proof of Hector Crawford’s pioneering legacy. His creative spark was able to create such a prolific fire because it was allowed to find the oxygen of the market which business acumen can bring to raw ideas.

the fruitful symbiosis of creative individuals with company pioneers

Now you can only make an idea work (and re-work it) once you have an idea to begin with and, alone, an idea will sit idle in the mind of its creator. For me, the consistent pattern in Australian television has been the fruitful symbiosis of creative individuals with company pioneers who have each lived their respective dreams – one by embracing the market and the other by engaging with creativity.

Rupert Murdoch has, throughout his illustrious career, been a champion of Australian ingenuity and has, throughout his vast media empire, transplanted many talented Australians into key positions in his business operations and thereby others into creative roles around the world. Kerry Packer, whose force of personality and unbridled love of television produced the most distinguished and successful era of any network in Australian television history, did so by taking calculated risks and investing in people. The same, it must be said, is true of Sam Chisholm and Bruce Gyngell. Their entrepreneurial flair, knowledge, instinct and sheer force, were the hallmarks of their enormously successful careers.

Reg Grundy, like Hector Crawford, was one of the most prolific producers of Australian television. Reg, like Hector, began in radio (where great ideas are often born) and moved across to the new medium of television. He was able to find, in changing times, the consistent performance which the ingenuity of others can yield. These figures and many others are inspirational to those of us of who see that their own dreams can only be made real in concert with the development of their peers and, for me, those dreams, and their reliance on leaders, are very dear.

I would put cellophane over the screen so that I could see images in colour

I am not afraid to tell you that, as a boy of twelve, I was captivated by Television. Back when there was a Crawford Production showing on every Australian commercial network I often, of an afternoon, gave my homework a miss and, instead, allowed my imagination to run wild in an exercise book - one of which I still have. It contained my plans for a country TV station. It had all the best shows from all three big city stations and the local news. That afternoon distraction was TV utopia for me. When I was very young, and TV was in Black and White, I would put cellophane over the screen so that I could see images in colour. I remember watching Lost In Space and Adventures In Paradise and imagining how incredible they must look in life. With recent investments in high definition delivery I am amazed at how far have we have come since then. What’s the next layer of cellophane have in store?

After the move of television into colour, the VCR revolutionised the way people watched their favourite shows and leveraged technical advances in the interests of an increasingly flexible consumer experience. To some extent the viewer had become the programmer by being able to choose what they watched from the selection of shows purchased or recorded.

The arrival of satellite and cable television in Australia broadened the palette dramatically so that now, along with the types of content people can download off the net, Australians have exponentially more options from which to choose. Over the next couple of years the arrival of broadband will further fragment the means by which we access television and boost the kinds of television available. FOXTEL subscribers will be able to download programmes on-demand using the internet, and will also be able to transfer these programmes to other devices.

a vast new opportunity

FOXTEL’s iQ2GO will liberate consumers to take their favourite television shows to wherever they can take their memory stick. By way of such marvels we are becoming connected to the world in a way which we have never known before. We have access to channels dedicated to children’s television, documentary and news channels, movie services, lifestyle and general entertainment and, of course, live sports around the clock.

I know that this is not the Hector Crawford Memorial Infomercial but, by pointing out to you the diversities contained within a nuanced array of niche channels I am suggesting that; the consumer has choice; the market has multi-faceted new players and; the Australian production community has, with it, a vast new opportunity with which it is only beginning to engage.

Yes, we are living in rapidly-changing times with technology facilitating our viewing habits, but what does this mean for producers and the creators of content? I cannot emphasise enough that, as ever, skill and imagination in story-telling is the foundation without which delivery would be empty and meaningless.

the pragmatist and the visionary are not enemies

At FOXTEL I sit in between interests which can be called (if you wish to distinguish them) the economic and the creative. My task is often to reconcile them with each other and I want to tell you today that my career in Television has shown me that the pragmatist and the visionary are not enemies. As I have foreshadowed by my praise of the industry’s great men, successful partnerships which marry synthetic creations with practical realities are what create results. I am, for once, not talking about viewer numbers or revenues for I see these things as being enablers of results. The result I value beyond these is the sensation television can deliver to its many audiences.
We must relish the chance to recognise and cultivate the creativity of others. We are blessed to advance the prospects of great ideas and talents which I see all about me every day, and it is on encouraging those talents to collaborate, that the future of Australian Television relies - just as much as on men like me, just as much as on revenues and just as much as on technology. When we start to think that meeting the needs of an audience is something we can formulate coldly or that what we require from our programming can be entirely predicted, we must be careful that we have not ‘put the cart before the horse’.

Yes, we are in the business of content delivery, but the business models which facilitate this transmission and the modes in which the service is provided are always secondary and subordinate to the product itself. Commercial realities provide us with amazing access to people’s homes and minds and it would be detrimental if we were to use this access as a means of advancing the cynical exploitation of the habits of viewers in the easiest way to hand.

I certainly believe in reprising and adapting proven ideas and programmes when the chance to do so in a fresh and entertaining way presents itself, as our industry has done with shows such as Australia’s Next Top Model or Australian Idol. I am also glad that Australians can access so much strong content from the US, from the UK and from anywhere else. I am a champion of choice and of removing geographic borders when it comes to the television menu. Australians are better off for having access to ideas and entertainment, however substantial, however frivolous, from all corners of the globe. We must not ignore, however, the chance of discovering truly new and original ideas which reside here amongst our own creative community.
Audiences here and abroad deserve to be able to consume a vast array of Australian-produced programming; drama, comedy, general entertainment, news and documentaries. It is essential to us finding our place in the world, of the world finding-out about us, and, let’s face it, it’s the source of income and creative expression for so many Australians who are blessed with engaging talents and perspectives. It is right they are shared and that they are made to be economically viable today.

Television production, in a small market like ours, is fraught with market forces which seem to dog it. Because, as Sandra Levy pointed out in 2003’s Memorial Lecture, Australians are usually keen to enjoy an eclectic cultural diet and, because we can access international television, there is great competition for anything local that wants to get up and on-air. Of those difficulties I am sure you are all very well-aware.

They watch Australian productions because they enjoy them

I don’t like to think that Australian stories are only being told at the point of an auditor’s pen and that it is legally enforceable benchmarks alone which get Australian content to air. One national broadcaster, the ABC is able to broadcast television without the prohibitive precondition of broad popularity and, as the national broadcaster, this is their role.

FOXTEL and AUSTAR, the other national broadcasters, are similar in their approach but very different in their obligations. We are absolutely compelled to be desirable and watch-able by individual tastes which vary from time to time – person to person. Our subscribers are customers, who will tune in or opt out of their subscription and, as current sales and churn figures indicate, they are increasingly delighted with the array of programming we have to offer. It is not always hyper-intellectual, although that niche is stimulated by our offering, it is not dogmatically educational although we are proud of the depth of our factual productions. The point with the subscription model is that it is supple to the tastes of the consumer and will bend to satisfy everyone.
As well as wanting to watch a variety of programming which derives from international producers our audiences love Australian content. That is why we put it to air. I do not think that, generally, audiences watch locally-produced content because they should. They watch Australian productions because they enjoy them. The commercial networks, as I have said in the past, do what they must do in order to deliver audiences to the advertisers on whom they rely.

A few weeks ago we heard a lament over the departure of probing journalism from Nine’s stable of news programmes. This was the inevitable result of their performance returning insufficient audiences for the FTA business model to support. I would put to you that, in this age of ready access to information and 24 hour news, this eulogy for journalism could also be read as a form of confirmation of other news services.
There have never been more outlets or more opportunities for the production community – be it in news, sport or general entertainment - than there are now. In the multi-channel universe, which includes the government-funded, the commercial, as well as the subscription offering, channels provide greater opportunity and more options for storytelling of all kinds than ever before. It is a big risk to commission new work, but I remind all of you that, in the interests of the kind of career satisfaction that men like Hector Crawford earned, be a champion of your idea and find a way to make it work.

At FOXTEL, and at the offices of our competitors, you have at your disposal all means of making a fist of your ideas. We have schedules to take them, marketing plans to build around them, even foreign content with which they compare so well. We need to fill the unique offering of so many of our niche channels with the right niche programmes.

Mass markets and enormous numerical targets will only deliver if the substance is there, for, the business end of things is, of course, essential, but, the business here is entertainment and there is no substitute for, or modelling around, the indispensability of new ideas. We are very good at seeing and exploiting the potential of creativity but the organic forces which drive it must hold the whip over bureaucracy and process – not the other way around.

Originality must find a way to make the commoditised media pay the rich dividends of its audience’s sensation. This sensation is the real end game and it must not be held ransom to, but work in tandem with, the healthy pursuit of profits. This approach seems to me, even though I am not an economist, to make good business sense. As with any stock, popularity of investment will see fortunes rise to a point. Without some diversity of investment though this high will only last so long unless it can build on new avenues and, as yet, unseen possibilities.

let us not waste the opportunity by playing it safe

Now that we have entered the much-feted age of digital technology and niche business models where means of delivery have become so cost-efficient that even what would have once been called ‘unpopular’ entertainment can turn a profit; now that we have so many new and personalised ways of reaching audiences; now that we can find them in far more intimate surrounds than we could have a decade ago; let us not waste the opportunity by playing it safe. Now creativity has a real chance of getting out from under the broad brush of mass media or government support and can exploit itself by making niche ideas available to niche audiences.

In this vein I would like to take the economic analogy further: Creativity goes against the herding mentality of others. It takes hold of a new idea – like buying low – and develops it, builds it, makes it grow and to the point where it delivers returns – such returns as could never be garnished from a safe bet. In this positive endeavour you will need us as much as we will need you.

Those of us fortunate enough to work within a subscription model are lucky to have the opportunity to find under-capitalised ideas and to invest in them. Without needing every move to break records overnight - without that prohibitively fierce and nervous competition at our throats week-on-week - we are able to see, with the aid of our instincts and persuaded by your pitches, unproven potentials and we can give them a chance to gain strength. By relying on content in this way, and allowing content providers to rely on us, we can entertain all of the people all of the time down one channel or another. That is what Australian television audiences are telling us. Look at the numbers.

ideas are encouraged to flourish

Even though Subscription Television is not in all homes, it accounts for more viewing – across the board - than any other network. Now, it is true that this is because it is the conglomerate of some one hundred channels none of which, alone, return the viewer numbers essential for the FTAs. But in our business model, where we are serving any number of niche audiences at any one time, ideas are encouraged to flourish and shows permitted to build. Would Love My Way or Satisfaction, or The Battle Of Lang Tan or Thanks For Listening, have ever succeeded on commercial television? I doubt it. In fact I doubt they would ever have been commissioned.

That is not in any way to denigrate my colleagues at the commercial networks but simply to illustrate that a healthy television industry in 2008 is one in which all players can cultivate ideas, be it for mass or niche. As Shirley MacLaine has said in her now legendary Out on A Limb, “...the fruit is much sweeter out there”, meaning, you have to be prepared to go out and get the sweetest fruit, knowing that the branch could break.

The man after whom this lecture is named would encourage your creativity. I want to put it to air and make it a success. I want it to move audiences all over the world but, perhaps most importantly, I want your enthusiasm to beget more enthusiasm.
I know that this is not the kind of message we read about in the business pages or hear at board meetings but, when all is said, and done, and put to air – when the ratings are collected and the revenues from ads and subscriptions are devoted to buying and commissioning next year’s content – what is of importance (second only to the pleasure of our audiences) and what really matters, is the reward we can draw from carrying our inspiration through to the inspiration of others.

It is only by taking risks that this energy of enterprise is built between colleagues, competitors and generations. I would, certainly, acknowledge the extent to which Hector Crawford played to his strengths. I would hasten to add however that, in order to find out what these were, that Hector, and the nation along with him, had to try a fair bit on for size.

it is in the substance of what excites audiences which we need to invest

This process is ongoing and, of course, it requires investment in production of a financial nature. This should only be pursuant, however, to a value of creative and intellectual capital and it is to the reserve of these human resources that we turn to the people in this room – people whose mettle will be tested and proven by careers which will surely end up in a media landscape very different from that in which they have started.

We need now a volume of high-quality product to match the proliferation of niche delivery methods because, although the ipod and the IQ are in themselves wonders of technology, they are, at core, only methods of time and place shifting. A storage device will never supplant a melody or a plotline and it is in these – in the substance of what excites audiences – which we need to invest as heavily as we have in technology. The iQ2GO will need something to hold onto – something worth taking away and no amount of cellophane will ever obscure that fact.

Published November 20, 2008
 

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Brian Walsh, Executive Director of Television and Marketing Foxtel

SPAA - Antony Ginnane

SPAA - Chris Adams







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