One Friday during the 80s, some senior executives from Kerry Packer’s media empire, including Channel Nine boss Sam Chisholm, went to the exclusive Darcy’s Restaurant in the inner Sydney suburb of Paddington for lunch. They were still there at midnight.
Darcy’s was famed for its extensive wine cellar, but by late that evening it had run out of bottles of Australia’s most famous and expensive red, Penfold’s Grange Hermitage. “There was no more Grange left by the time we had finished,” recalls Trevor Kennedy, who was Packer’s second-in-command and a close associate of Chisholm.
Another time Packer was being chauffeured to Sydney airport to catch an early morning flight. It was about 5.30am and the car’s two-way radio lit up with a call from Consolidated Press’ garage, and the following message: “Please arrange for Mr Chisholm and his party to be picked up at Rogue’s nightclub.”
Yes, Sam Chisholm was, as they say, a “legend in his own lunchtime”. From regular Friday night follies drinks at Channel Nine’s headquarters in the Sydney North Shore suburb of Willoughby to tete-a-tete lunches with one of Nine’s suite of “stars”, Chisholm’s capacity to keep pace with the best and the worst, while still managing to enunciate clearly and, somehow, remain focused on the main game, was unmatchable. It helped to make him an astonishing success in running Channel Nine in Australia and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV in the UK.
But in a career of extraordinary highs and a few lows, what has not been revealed until now is that not long before his death in December 2005, Packer told close friends he had secretly negotiated with Murdoch for Chisholm to leave the Nine Network in Australia and take over the reins of Murdoch’s then ailing Sky operation in the UK.
The object of their discussion was a short, pugnacious looking man, with a jutting jaw and slightly bulging eyes. Chisholm could, particularly if viewed through an alcohol-fuelled haze, resemble an Antipodean Jimmy Cagney. He was withering, witty and warm, often in the same sentence.
“He was very tough and he could make you feel very small, but he had this vision for Nine and he surrounded himself with great people,” recalls Helen Dalley, who worked as a reporter and presenter on Nine’s current affairs programs such as Sunday, Business Sunday and A Current Affair during the Chisholm era.
Mathew Horsman, author of Sky High: The Inside Story of BSkyB, told AFR Weekend that “nearly everyone I know in British media count him among the giants”.
The curtain was finally drawn on that giant’s era last Monday when Chisholm died after a short illness in Sydney Adventist Hospital with his wife Sue, and daughter Caroline, by his side. He was 78.
Born in New Zealand, Chisholm attended King’s College, Auckland, and moved to Australia, where he worked as a salesman. Legend has it that he gained entry into television by offering to wax Melbourne GTV Channel Nine variety host Graeme Kennedy’s floor. “Gra Gra” was so impressed by Chisholm’s salesmanship and enthusiasm that he was awarded an advertising sales job with the Nine Network. Chisholm won rapid promotion to become sales director, and in 1975, at the age of 35, he was appointed head of Channel Nine.
His promotion into the top job at Nine coincided with the glory days of Australia’s free-to-air commercial television. The introduction of colour TV, advent of satellite feeds, improved outside broadcast units, stunning success of long-running Australian TV soaps on Nine such as The Sullivans, the networks’ pioneering of advanced TV coverage of sport including cricket, rugby league and golf, plus its successful expansion into TV current affairs with programs such as Sunday and 60 Minutes, all took place on Chisholm’s watch.
Nine attracted and kept a range of stars, from Jana Wendt and George Negus at 60 Minutes, to Brian Henderson reading the news, Daryl Somers and Hey Hey It’s Saturday, Michael Willesee at A Current Affair, and many others. It pioneered and then dominated a sophisticated and highly successful approach to covering sport. Courtesy of Packer’s great cricket hijack, the big breakthrough for Nine was securing the coverage of one-day games and cricket Tests, but equally important for winter ratings was rugby league.
A less charitable view of Chisholm’s achievements during this time comes, surprisingly enough, from Channel Nine. A Nine spokesman last week told Fairfax Media that Chisholm “was always regarded as a pugnacious go-getter: the so-called ‘starmaker’ at Nine with a big chequebook and loud opinions.”
More measured and perceptive is Trevor Kennedy’s take on Chisholm: “He was a clever bastard. Sam understood very well his strengths and his weaknesses. He was smart enough to have some very good people around him, and he learnt from Kerry that sport was a ratings winner.”
To explain the difference between these two perceptions of Chisholm it’s necessary to go into the un-Sam-Chisholm-like world of Buddhist philosophy. As a person experiences life, he or she goes through an organic process, revealing and removing a multitude of layers, rather like peeling an onion, according to the Buddhists. Translated to Chisholm’s 14 years as boss of Nine, Packer was effectively his own program manager at his own television network, but Chisholm was learning all the time; he was peeling the onion.
Further, Chisholm’s role was at least equally important – and certainly complementary – because “Sam kept the talent happy”, as one insider put it. According to Kennedy: “Kerry’s great strength was television, and Sam was a good learner. Nothing major happened in the 80s without Kerry’s okay.”
Reflecting on a corporate culture that may have been rough and tough, but was also effective and well-informed, Kennedy says: “We all got on very well. We’d go out and get on the hooch and swap stories about Kerry but in the end we all had a great deal of admiration for him. This was the best time in television. Money was no object. Everything was growing like stink.”
A big man with a volcanic temper and a mean tongue, but capable of great generosity and human empathy, Packer was also a TV pragmatist. He decided to import the US 60 Minutes program concept, holus bolus, to Australia, even including the 60 Minutes stop watch call-sign. He recruited Gerald Stone, a former UPI war correspondent in Vietnam, and then later a TV reporter on the ABC, as executive producer of the Australian 60 Minutes. He was soon followed by the editorially sharp, tough and telegenic Jana Wendt, plus the swaggering George Negus, with his penchant for cowboy clobber.
Sixty Minutes became a smash hit for Nine and once again it was Chisholm who kept the program’s egos under control.
Another Nine TV journalist from that period, Helen Dalley, recalls that in the early days of her career “Sam was very respectful [towards young female staff]. He was a tough, gruff guy but there was nothing untoward. Sam was often standing by and watching. For me personally he was absolutely fine. But he was fearsome.
“I became a TV journalist who wasn’t scared of people, but I was scared of him. He sidled into a room and Sam remembered every single thing that was said at the bar. Everyone was into banter and it was all one-upmanship but you would be cut down at the knees if you said something stupid.
“Sam was very tough and he could make you feel very small but he was a visionary in many ways. He surrounded himself with great people and he had to manage Kerry. That obviously was very difficult.”
According to Tom Krause, a one-time producer on Nine’s Sunday current affairs program: “Sam was tough but he was a very good manager. He was a hard bloke but he was also really good if you were loyal. Any employee he didn’t want to lose, he would take them out to lunch and they would stay. He was in the office when you needed him. He had Sam’s bar. He was good at television; he and Kerry were on top of things.”
“Sam was the classic boss who’d been around and done things. He knew television in and out and he was really good at managing people,” Mr Krause, who now edits a blog called Gonzo meets the press dot com, said.
According to Helen Dalley, Chisholm “really did have a big impact with [programs like] Sunday and Business Sunday“. Nine’s then news and current affairs boss Peter Meakin “used to like to say Nine was the national broadcaster for news and current affairs”. However, Nine under Chisholm and Packer never embraced that editorial edge that the ABC displayed at the time in programs such as Chris Masters’ Four Corners expose of rampant corruption in the Bjelke-Petersen government and police force in Queensland.
At this point, however, and just as he seemed to be riding high, things started to go awry in Chisholm’s peeling of the onion. Corporate buccaneer and America’s Cup yacht race winner Alan Bond made Packer an offer he couldn’t refuse and purchased the Nine Network for the then whopping price of $1.05 billion.
Bond launched a spending splurge and Chisholm went along for the ride. He had the executive floor at Nine’s headquarters building changed into green marble, and the rest of the Nine headquarters were beautified. Executive salaries skyrocketed while Nine was “still the one” in ratings terms.
The symbolism of those uber-glamorous, free-spending days was epitomised by the huge party Nine threw at its Willoughby headquarters to celebrate Chisholm’s 50th birthday in 1989. “It was in the dying days of the Bond media ownership,” Dalley recalls. “And the executives gave him a Harley Davidson. It had to be lifted by crane into Sam’s executive suite and they removed a window, so it wouldn’t smash the glass. It was memorable.
“Sam got used to it and liked Bond owning Nine because he could call the shots.”
But it was not to last. Bond’s corporate empire drowned under a sea of debt, and later the one-time high-profile global raider was jailed for committing what was in effect corporate theft. During this fraught period, according to Dalley: “Sam actively worked against Kerry [re-taking Channel Nine] and tried to get CBS involved. Kerry obviously knew this was going on and I don’t think this [Chisholm possibly working under Packer again at the Nine Network] was going to work.”
Sure enough, the Nine Network reverted back to Packer’s ownership and the common talk around the corridors of power at the Park Street, Sydney, headquarters of Australian Consolidated Press at the time was “it’s back to boarding school for Sam”.
However, the high-stakes intrigue ran much deeper. According to impeccable sources, Packer told close friends shortly before his death that he had in fact made personal advances to Murdoch, knowing his new satellite TV operation in the UK was in deep trouble, to the point where its losses were imperilling Murdoch’s global newspaper, television, magazine, book publishing and film group.
Packer offered Chisholm’s services to run Murdoch’s Sky TV in the UK, Murdoch started negotiating with Chisholm, and Chisholm accepted the offer, according to these same sources. Packer’s motives were complex. He knew Chisholm would chafe under a boss who was essentially dismantling much of what he had built, but he also knew Chisholm was a highly valuable management tool in television, and parking him offshore, and away from his domestic competition, in a challenging position, had added appeal.
Once in London, Chisholm drew on what he had learnt from Packer, turned around Sky and effectively saved Murdoch’s media empire. In the days after the two rivals, BSB and Murdoch’s Sky, merged in November 1990, an audit by Arthur Anderson revealed the combined company was losing about $40 million a week.
Instrument of torture
Chisholm took to cost-cutting with a vigour seldom observed in the more genteel climes of UK media. As he told Horsman in his book Sky High: “The tactics that I employed were probably not the tactics that they would have employed so it was easy for them to sit back and say, ‘Look, he’s uncontrollable, this guy, he’s tough’. I was everybody’s instrument of torture, but I made it very clear from the start, the quicker we can take this business back, the quicker we can take it forward.”
Even Murdoch, who has presided over numerous editorial floor meltdowns, was somewhat taken aback. “Sam likes to talk about the turnaround, but remember, we put these two companies together, and the big losses only lasted for about a month because Sam was in there on the first day firing everybody,” Murdoch told Horsman. “I think only two people survived from BSB. I’m sure some people got fired who shouldn’t have been fired, but that is really the only way to do it in a business facing bankruptcy.”
One of those Chisholm kept from BSB was its head of sport, Vic Wakeling. Soon the two would be plotting a Packer-style takeover of the broadcast rights for the new English Premier League, beginning in 1992, and operated behind the by then merged BSkyB’s TV paywall. It was a stunning success, and Chisholm’s extraordinary turnaround achievement in the UK under-wrote Murdoch’s ascension in the 90s and naughties to become the most powerful media figure in the world.
Chisholm’s No.2 at Sky, American broadcaster David Chance, recalled in an interview with The Guardian newspaper in the UK in 2004: “They were great times. You felt you were part of the pioneering spirit of bringing multi-channel television to the UK and we were fighting against the establishment of the BBC and the established broadcasters. We were very much the underdogs. But then it was built up through creating a basic tier, getting the Premier League sports rights, building up Sky Sports, doing the movie channel deal.
“As we used to say, we built up the distribution base dish by agonising dish,” Chance said.
Horsman told AFR Weekend that Chisholm was “irascible, sometimes petulant, but an agile operator and a keen strategist”. Horsman said his book was “effectively all about Sam’s [and Rupert’s] business acumen, management style and success in turning Sky from serious loss to impressive profit in just a few years. Today’s soaring valuations for Sky [as Comcast and Disney/Fox battle it out] would not have been possible had Sam and his team not saved Sky from the brink of financial disaster in the early 1990s.”
Murdoch himself released the following statement last week after hearing of Chisholm’s passing: “Sam was one of the best executives I’ve ever worked with. He led Sky during a transformational decade that put the company on the map, changed UK television forever, and paved the way for the Sky pan-European business we know today. The choice and quality of television that British and European viewers enjoy today owe much to Sam’s leadership.”
Nine years after taking over the reins at Sky, Chisholm returned to Australia in failing health. He took on some media directorships and consultancies but was biding his time and waiting for a suitable donor to have a lung transplant operation due to chronic emphysema caused by an enzyme deficiency that ran in the family. The operation finally took place in 2003.
According to Trevor Kennedy: “After his double lung transplant operation he was given five to six years to live, and he did spectacularly well by living another 15 years. Sue Ward [Chisholm’s second wife and a former publicist at Channel Nine] was an incredible strength to him.”
However, Chisholm went into another non-“clever bastard” phase and once again failed to peel the onion in the right way. Packer was ailing, and the hard heads within the empire – knowing the salad days of free-to-air TV were over because of the internet – were readying Nine for sale, this time to a private equity group. Chisholm was sent in to fix the figures by cutting a swathe through the Willoughby operation.
“He was an arsehole,” says one executive at Nine during that period, recalling executives weeping in the corridor. The bitterness that flowed from this period may partly account for the Nine spokesman’s “pugnacious go-getter comments”.
But that is not the end of the Sam Chisholm story. He spent the next 12 years a happy man, living with Ward on their magnificent cattle stud property near Jugiong, in the Murrumbidgee River area of central-west NSW.
Asked if Chisholm entered a period of serenity in his final years, Kennedy pondered for a moment, and replied: “Serenity is a strong word, but, yes, it’s right.”