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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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