Mr TV Sport 

3 Jun 2006 0 tbs.pm/2106 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

If Lew Grade of ATV was the ‘Mr Variety’ of Television, then the late Kerry Packer, owner of Australia’s biggest TV network, Channel 9, was ‘Mr TV Sport’.

Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer 1937-2005

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After a long illness, Kerry Packer died at home in Sydney on December 27, 2005, his Nine Network the first to announce his death on its breakfast TV morning show Today. Packer, aged 68, was Australia’s richest man, net worth $A 7 billion (Australian Business Review).

One of the last of the truly great TV moguls, in the same league as Lord Grade and the Bernsteins, Packer did for TV sport what Lew Grade did for TV variety. Ahead of his time and despite his enormous wealth, Kerry Packer had an uncanny knack to deliver what ordinary people wanted on TV. Packer read people, understood what viewers wanted, and delivered.

In 1953 Packer was sent to Geelong Grammar in Victoria. He described himself as “academically stupid ” but excelled at sport and at the time had undiagnosed dyslexia. His father, Sir Frank Packer, was a strict disciplinarian, who, when Packer returned home from boarding school without his tennis racquet, ordered him to take the 12-hour-plus train ride back to boarding school to pick it up, so he would never forget again.

In 1958 his elder brother Clyde was promoted to Managing Editor of his father’s magazines, at age 22. Owner of provincial newspapers, his father, ailing in 1972, allowed his beloved Telegraph newspaper to be sold to Rupert Murdoch for $15 million. The same year Kerry’s elder brother Clyde resigned as managing director of the Nine Network after Sir Frank insisted an interview with future prime minister Bob Hawke not be shown on air. Clyde was self-exiled to the United States and Sir Frank cut him out of the family fortune and business. In 1974, Sir Frank Packer died, aged 67, and Kerry was left in sole charge of Sir Frank’s media empire of magazines, newspapers and the Nine Network. Kerry Packer’s love for the Nine Network blossomed.

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Ahead of his time, Packer introduced breakfast television in the late 1970’s, long before TV-am was conceived; the Midday Show, a daily lunchtime 90-minute chat/variety show; and his flagship early evening news and current affairs programme – polished shows that reflected Packer’s confidence. He appointed Sam Chisholm (Sky TV UK 1990s) as Managing Director to the Nine Network. His love of sport was reflected in the network’s coverage of all major events via Nine’s Wide World Of Sports. In 1977 he made a bid for test cricket from the Australian Cricket Board, who offered the coverage to the state run ABC TV. Despite Mr Packer offering $500,000 for the rights, the Cricket Board snubbed him – not a clever thing to do, it turned out.

Packer was to declare war on the ACB, and create World Series Cricket, with night games and players in brightly-coloured outfits – a super-series, again well ahead of his time compared to other TV moguls who years later would attempt the same with the ill-fated Super League.

Players around the world would be paid six times their normal salaries. Many agreed, and only England’s Geoff Boycott declined the offer. Once word of the world series broke, there was outrage – but later, the one-day tests provided exciting coverage, huge profits and advertising revenue the world over, representing perhaps one of Packer’s greatest television achievements. It also included technical innovations such as tiny cameras built into wickets – unheard of in the 1980s.

Kerry Packer’s other great sport achievements were Rugby and Golf, and days before his death he took over negotiations for the rights to Aussie Football, the AFL, with a $780 bid from the Nine Network. A few days after his death, the rights were awarded to channels 7 and 10 who made a combined bid to match Mr.Packer’s offer.

Kerry Packer knew how to make money, and in 1987 Alan Bond, a UK-born West Australian entrepreneur, offered Kerry Packer $1billion for the Nine Network’s Sydney and Melbourne stations. That was certainly over-valued and Bond Media became the new owners. On selling the Nine Network for an obscene amount of money, Packer commented, “You only get one Alan Bond in your lifetime, and I’ve had mine.” Three years later, like most stock-market-crashed businessmen, Alan Bond was in deep financial trouble, and Kerry Packer bought back his beloved Nine Network for a mere $200 million dollars – one of his finest hours.

Packer was ruthless, and ruled the Nine Network with an iron fist – after all he did own it. Anyone who was brave enough to take on the job as Head of Sport, or Executive Producer – Sport for Channel 9 had their work cut out for them. Packer was constantly on the phone during live sports coverage, especially if the camera angles weren’t correct or to his liking, and his TV presenters were often summoned to his office in Sydney for the dressing-down of a lifetime.

During the late 80’s, Nine ran an Australia’s Naughty Home Video show and after five minutes, Mr.Packer was on the phone to his MD. “Get this s**t off now,” he is reported to have said, and when his managing director refused to take the show off the air, Mr Packer simply rang the Channel 9 switchboard, was put through to the presentation controller, and had the show ripped from air. The MD was summoned to Packer’s office for one of his famous dressing downs. The MD told Packer he thought he would be fired, but Mr Packer noted instead that he admired him for standing by his decision and convictions – even though he was, of course, wrong.

Kerry Packer was ruthless in business, but he also had one hell of a heart. He also watched TV sometimes 12-14 hours a day. If a battler was on a quiz show going for car prize and lost, Kerry Packer would often ring up the producer of the show and tell them to give the car to the contestant anyway – without publicity. During a rugby match he went to watch, he noticed a group of children in wheelchairs at the front of the field watching the big game. He sent a business card down to the teacher and asked that they contact him; and a few weeks later, a Qantas jumbo jet was flying the children on an all-expenses-paid trip to Disneyland, the plane specially fitted out to carry wheelchairs. Mr Packer did not seek publicity: it was simply part of his wonderful caring nature to help the disadvantaged. Generous to the letter, he also liked to gamble, and gamble heavily. He could easily lose $20 million on a horserace or in a casino, but he could also win, and win he often did. Once at a London casino he asked the croupier how much she made, and then asked how much her mortgage was. He left the croupier a tip in casino chips to the value of her mortgage.

Luck and fortune seemed to follow Kerry Packer around, even when problems struck. In 1990 he suffered a heart attack at a polo match in Sydney, and was clinically dead for 8 minutes. An ambulance arrived, equipped with a defibrillator, which successfully revived Mr Packer. At the time only 50 of the 900 NSW ambulances were equipped with such devices. After making a full recovery, Packer rang the premier of the NSW state government and offered to fit out every ambulance with a defibrillator if the Premier matched the gift dollar for dollar – which he did. Today’s estimate is that they save about 20 lives per week – so some 16,000 people can claim to be saved by what is popularly known as the ‘Packer Zapper’.

Apart from sport, Kerry Packer’s other great love was news and current affairs, and the Nine Network had the national flagship in the early evening news. Kerry had a feel for television, and decided to move the programme from 6.30pm to 6.00pm. His long-time newsreader bravely told Mr Packer it would be a disaster, but the news was moved regardless to the 6.00pm timeslot. It was an immediate success, and whenever Packer bumped into that newsreader again, he would often quip “Still want the news at 6.30pm”?

Despite his evident power, Packer – unlike Murdoch or Berlusconi – never tried to influence news reporting. The News on Channel Nine was regarded as particularly impartial. But even so, even an off-the-cuff remark from the great man could cause a stir. When he once mentioned that John Howard (Australia’s current Prime Minister), then in Opposition, would make a good PM, the government of the day went into damage control – it was read as Kerry Packer suggesting that it was time for a change in government.

The end of the 80’s saw TV in decline, and Channel Nine suffered along with the rest: revenue was down and competition was growing. Packer took some hard decisions by scrapping the Midday Show and Sunday’s Wide World Of Sports. With increased competition from Pay TV, Packer and Sam Chisolm went shopping for stars, recruiting big names to Channel Nine as a draw card – and whilst Pay TV took the movie rights to blockbusters, Channel Nine created more miniseries and game shows. And what Packer lacked in drama on the Nine network he more than made up for with sport, news and current affairs.

As the turn of the century arrived, Packer had made Rugby League the centrepiece of his television empire, making it a real entertainment showpiece and changing the face again of TV sport once again.

Kerry Packer leaves behind a wife, Ros; daughter Gretel; and new chairman, son James Packer. Rumours are already rife that James will concentrate on the family casino and magazine empires, and that Channel Nine could be up for sale: TV in Australia will never be the same again.

Kerry Packer did more for TV sport than most modern day TV moguls, and he did more than anyone in lifting the quality of television in Australia. The last word on Kerry Packer goes to Dr Rudi Webster, manager of the West Indies team during World Series Cricket: “He brought life to cricket were there was no life. He brought financial gains to players who were not making much, or not making what they deserved. He brought joy to fans, and changed forever the way the game was viewed”.

James Barrington

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