Perhaps it’s because I am officially a professor of media studies (for a little while longer), or perhaps it’s because I love books that explore the politics, personalities and powers that lie behind huge corporations, or perhaps it’s a mixture of both. Whatever the reason, I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Bodey’s Broadcast Wars.
As a respected media and film journalist with years of experience, Bodey is well-placed to cast a critical eye upon Australia’s major media players. While the focus of the book is primarily on free-to-air (FTA) networks and then, mainly channels 7 and 9 (though 10 comes into its own towards the end of the book), the book also delves into the national and international relationships and businesses, as well as the politics and policies, including those that inform pay TV, that make up TV in Australia.
Bodey discusses both unfamiliar (to general readers) government and internal policies and behind the scenes machinations as well as the general day-to-day business that when all is said and done, culminates with what viewers consume on screen. In this regard, the purchasing of series, films and basic programme packages at home and abroad is explained – so is why some shows, despite our interest in them, are pulled from air after only a few episodes, and why others are given more than a fair chance to find their demographic. The chutzpah of some of the production companies is mind-boggling and quite wonderful – but how particular shows even get to air, the salesmanship and favouritism, never mind the risks that are taken, is also fascinating. Sales meetings, private ones and the relationships between Australian networks and their international partners are all there and are very interesting to read about.
However, what really makes this book is Bodey’s no holds barred examination of the toxic personalities behind the screens – the CEOs of 7 and 9 especially. From the indomitable will of Kerry Packer and his beloved Channel 9, to the seeming indifference of James and the seething purposefulness of Kerry Stokes, the abusive and cocky CEO of 7, David Leckie, who’s idea of people management was to shout, scream and demean them – often in public – it’s sometimes, jaw-dropping reading. Drunken antics and threats, secret meetings and promises, the poaching of star personalities from one channel to another, it’s all there. So are some of the more infamous moments in contemporary television – such as the ‘boning’ of then Today co-host, Jessica Rowe, the rise of Eddie Maguire to 9’s CEO, the Beaconsfield miners’ story, the good behaviour and the bad of various media personalities and shows, and how the stations were perceived over that, the ‘turkey slap’ incident on Big Brother that everyone from the Prime Minister down calling for Big Brother to be taken off air – it’s all there and Bodey explores these more salacious pieces of information with seriousness but without spoiling the effect that you’re being given not only some wonderful gossip, but a fly-on-the-wall access to the big personalities and machinations that keep our TV stations humming.
He also discusses the lack of understanding that executives from FTA (but not, it seems subscription TV) had/have about HD TV and multimedia platforms – amazing in this day and age where interactivity and cross-platform media is so embedded in daily life.
At the heart of the book, however, is the ascent of 7 at the expense of “still the one” channel 9. From the rise of Sunrise (which became known by the media pack at Beaconsfield as “Scumrise”), to their luck in buying both Desperate Housewives and Lost when there was a lack of depth in their programming, to all the problems with the personalities on Channel 9’s morning show, Today. There’s also the tale of how 10 trumped many of the stations with the 16-39 demographic through what we call reality TV with Big Brother, Australian Idol and how Channel 10 took the biggest gamble with a show about, of all things food – Masterchef – a risk that paid off and continues to do so.
If you enjoy your TV and want to understand the people who bring our beloved and loathed programmes into our living, bedrooms and onto our mobile devices and what makes them tick, then this is the book for you. Full of information and richly entertaining, I found it hard to put down. My only criticism (apart from a little repetitiveness as some of the chapters cover similar territory – the book is not linear and I feel it might have been better had it been), is that there is no conclusion. The last chapter ends with literally a two sentence flourish that, I guess, is meant to be the summary. Pity, I would have liked Bodey to inject his wit and insights one more time and felt the book would have been even better for a few more pages. But then, it also begs a sequel in a few years, doesn’t it? Because if one thing is made clear, a battle may have been won, but the broadcast wars are not over.