Last of the Falling Stars

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Ray Martin’s decision to part company with the Nine Network after nearly 30 years marks the final unravelling of the famous "star system" that helped make Channel Nine "the one". It is also a kind of subdued on-air post-script to the lurid backstage drama that has cleaned out the network’s top management over the past seven years.

For more than three decades, Nine ruled the Australian television roost with a high-spending, high-rating model backed by Kerry Packer’s deep pockets and one of the strongest organisational cultures in the industry.

During the 70s and 80s, Packer and his executives like Sam Chisholm spent money to make money, investing big sums in gambles like the World Series Cricket takeover of Australian cricket coverage, which transformed the way the sport was televised and promoted.

60 Minutes was another example of Nine’s former philosophy. The successful US format was adapted to Australian TV and given top local talent, a fat chequebook and a premium time-slot. It worked. 60 Minutes, particularly in the 1980s, produced compelling television journalism — news as drama — and became one of the highest rating shows on TV in the process.

As The Australian‘s media analyst Mark Day noted in 2005, Sam Chisholm "was a floor wax salesman from New Zealand". He worked his way up to the top of the network, where he created Nine’s famous "star system" for Kerry Packer in the 70s. A stable of talented journalists and newsreaders were hired — many from the ABC — who became icons of the Australian media. These included newsreaders like Brian Naylor in Melbourne and Brian Henderson in Sydney, as well as current affairs journalists like Richard Carleton, George Negus, Ray Martin and Jana Wendt.

The star system backed its big names with big money and big marketing campaigns. They were given a lot of leeway and shown that the network had a lot of confidence in them. Stars who were between projects were "warehoused" — kept on the salary while a new project was developed for them — in order to prevent them leaving for other networks.

Although for a time Wendt was the biggest thing on Australian TV — backed by a matchless promotion campaign that included a famous spot showing Jana in her full glory to the tune of Dire Straits’s ‘Lady Writer’ — it was Martin who came to represent the star system at Nine.

Martin won five Gold Logies and more than 20 Silver Logies, fronted The Midday Show in its hey-day became one of the highest paid presenters on Australian TV — reportedly banking over $2 million a year. As Matthew Ricketson and Helen Westerman noted in an Age article on Nine’s bloodbath last year, Martin was "probably the most successful Australian journalist in commercial TV history".

Management matters in the media. In retrospect, it is now obvious that the beginning of the end for Nine was the departure of Chief Executive David Leckie in January 2001. Leckie’s replacement was former Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief John Alexander, who, along with his then Deputy David Gyngell set about systematically dismantling the management team that had run Nine so successfully for decades.

Out went respected professionals like Nine Melbourne boss Graeme Yarwood, head of sport Gary Burns and head of drama Kris Noble. Nine’s marquee head programmer John Stephens sniffed which way the wind was blowing and left for Seven. Nine’s head of news and current affairs Peter Meakin followed him — the beginning of a wholesale cleanout that has seen many top Nine executives and journalists move over to its chief competitor. Many were not even able to pick up their personal items on being told of their dismissal.

When Nine promoted former sports journalist and successful television host Eddie McGuire to the top job at the network, it discovered the limits of on-air talent. McGuire lasted barely two years.

The immediate trigger for Martin’s departure — the radical pruning of its once-flagship current affairs program Sunday — is symptomatic of Nine’s decline. Sunday was always a loss-leader, backed by Kerry Packer to be an example of quality journalism that would "make me proud". Sunday broke stories and set agendas through its political editor Laurie Oakes. It showed Nine was willing to invest in real investigations and long-lead indepth stories.

Those days are gone now, like the old man who once ruled the place — and nearly all of his best lieutenants. The future for Nine will be as a kind of hybrid Channel 7/10, appealing to specific demographics with bite-sized chunks of commissioned programming and vast swathes of filler bought in from the US.

Although there will undoubtedly still be the odd success story in drama or sports, its now clear the glory days are over. Like the best years of Ray Martin’s career, they have been for some time.

What next for Ray Martin? Maybe he should give John Safran a call.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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