60 years of TV: Graham Ross, Russell Howcroft and Adrian Swift reflect on the highs and lows
Jaci Burns speaks to TV personality Graham Ross, network executive and former ad industry leader Russel Howcroft, and Nine’s leader of non-scripted programming and entertainment Adrian Swift, about their careers in the industry and reflections on Australia’s television industry.
This content originally appeared in The Content Issue, our August/September 2016 issue of Marketing magazine.
The King’s gardener’s great-nephew
He’s been on our televisions every week since 1978. With nearly 40 years of experience reporting, producing and presenting television, Graham Ross reflects on his career in front of and behind the camera.
It’s 1978 and ABC TV is on the lookout for a fill-in for its weekly gardening program. Long-time presenter Allan Seale is heading off to host a 13-week cruise for The Australian Women’s Weekly.
“They rang me and asked if I knew anyone that could do that job,” recalls Graham Ross, the then principal of the School of Horticulture in Sydney.
Ross was extremely reluctant but the producer, Max Donnellan, was very persuasive. A few days later, Ross got up at 6am, pruned off some branches, and took his bucket up to the Gore Hill studios for his screen test.
“I’ve seen The Don Lane Show, I know how it works,” he declared as the floor manager explained the purpose of the three cameras. And with only gentle direction, Ross seamlessly started working his way along the table, giving tips on how to grow the plants. “Next thing the door burst open and Max came in and said, ‘That was absolutely fantastic! We’ll put it to air tonight!’”
Ross skulked back to school and conducted the remainder of the day’s classes without a word. When he came in the next morning he discovered every teacher and every student, had seen the program. In fact, 600,000 Australians had watched (Ross hadn’t).
“I had a phone call from my immediate superior, and his superior,” says Ross. “I got in a whole heap of trouble.”
As it transpired, the ABC offered Ross a job. ABC Rural was at that time the most powerful department in all of the ABC with programs including Big Country and Countrywide. Ross slotted easily into a “totally un-ABC lifestyle program”. Called Lookout, the one-hour show was filmed at midday live from shopping centres around Australia and aired in competition with Mike Walsh on Channel 9.
“The learning curve was vertical – it was enormously exciting. There are people who’ve been in TV for years and never done one minute of live TV and virtually my first series was a live TV program,” says Ross.
For close to 40 years, Ross has been on our television sets every week. He’s reported, produced, presented and has worked on all networks. Since the mid-1980s, he has called the Seven Network home.
In many respects, Ross is a pioneer, whether by chance or by choice. For example, he was a presenter of Earth Watch (ABC), a program produced for children, and by children, about the habitat and environment. “This was the very early days of children’s television,” Ross explains. “The kids were the journalists. We’d go into burnt out forests, to the Reef, the Snowy Mountains, and they’d interview me about what was happening and why it was important.”
Ross’ career in television has not been without its challenges. At times he’s been frustrated because the commercial networks didn’t understand the economics of gardening.
During another period he was paid a “staggering sum of money” to move to Channel Nine, only to discover he’d been ‘warehoused’ by Kerry Packer so that Burke’s Backyard would have a free run.
Having presented over 700 episodes of Better Homes and Gardens, Ross has covered some amazing stories. His career highlights include 15 years covering the Chelsea Flower Show, appearing for two years on the Today Show with Liz Hayes and Steve Liebmann, being invited by Earl Spencer to film Princess Diana’s memorial, and earlier this year filming the gardens at Buckingham Palace where his great uncle had served as the King’s Gardener.
“The Queen was in residence, about to have her 90th birthday garden party, and we were filming in her garden with an entourage of people from the Palace. It was like walking in my uncle’s footsteps.”
TV advertising. Like it? Love it!
Marketing: What was the first TVC you created?
RH: A commercial for Calder Park Raceway. The second was in 1988 for Holden’s VN Commodore (‘Like it? I love it!’), it launched during the Seoul Olympics and it won Campaign of the Year.
M: What ad are you most proud of?
RH: There are lots. On a trade website the other day there was a story about a fellow whose music ensemble, Machine Gun Fellatio, was hired by an agency I co-started and part owned (Brand House) to do the soundtracks on a number of ads for brands including Schweppes and Cottee’s. The ads were on the website. Even 10 or 15 years old, they were outstanding commercials – high quality, good branding, stories well told. I was very pleased to see them again, they’d stood the test of time.
M: Can you give an example of a successful ad made despite challenging circumstances or limited budget?
RH: We did a Solo commercial 15 years ago. They’d created a wider aperture to drink Solo through. All we did is have shark mouth and it just got wider and wider and wider. It was very, very cheap for the client and it worked very, very well. It would absolutely work today.
M: Have you ever had TVC envy?
RH: Absolutely: over the Carlton Draught ‘Big Ad’. It was mind-blowingly good. The global one is, of course, the Old Spice commercial.
M: What has been your career high?
RH: Surviving! No, genuinely, career highs are when the work you’re involved in succeeds and that sometimes happens often, sometimes not so often. When you win a pitch, or win the night with a show you’re involved with, or when the feedback you get means a trophy at the end of it. Little wins. I think there have been lots of really powerful little wins along the way.
M: Who’s your professional crush?
RH: Jeffrey Katzenberg. He was the second in command at Disney and was responsible for Lion King, then founded DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. When I think about the creative firepower of Katzenberg and what he’s created, yeah, I’ve got a crush on him.
He’s clearly relentless and he knows how to make things happen. Lots of us have got ideas, but not many of us know how to make ideas happen. Shrek was probably his first big success at DreamWorks and they’ve just kept on coming. He’s a brilliant, creative businessman.
M: What has been the low point of your career?
RH: I always got very down when clients decided in my old ad life to leave the agency I was working for, or that I owned. I take it very personally. I’ve always taken those moments to heart because I know advertising people – agency people – only have the client’s best interests at heart. Sometimes you wonder if they see that or not.
Going off script
As a young man he looked like Leif Garrett – the quintessential 70s spunk. He’s a journalist at heart with a passion for sports. Today, at Nine, Adrian Swift is responsible for non-scripted programming and entertainment.
Marketing: How did you get into the media?
Adrian Swift: I started out as a weekend copy boy at Fairfax in 1978. In those days at News Ltd you had to be a copyboy in order to be a journalist.
At Fairfax, it was a very well paying weekend job. As a copyboy, I was earning $180 for two weekend shifts. When Fairfax offered me a job as a cadet journalist my salary plummeted to $113 per week. As a cadet, I did everything from investigative journalism to writing for The Guide to sport to the shipping news and law notices. It was a cadetship in the oldest sense. I did shorthand and even started picture subbing (Mr Fraser dot dot dot furious).
M: What inspired you to move into television?
AS: When was writing for The Guide, I met David Hill who worked very closely with Kerry Packer to develop World Series Cricket. I’ve never met a more impressive man in my life. Around that time, Les Murray, the much loved weekend soccer commentator for SBS, was working weekdays as a subeditor on The Sun. Les asked me to come over to SBS as a news reporter. I thought, ‘SBS? No one watches SBS!’ but it was a step in the right direction so I took it. After a couple of years, David Hill invited me to go back to Channel Nine.
M: Who is your professional crush?
AS: David Hill was my crush back in the day because he had a vision for television. By the 1980s TV had become a fussy, serious business with lots of technicians in white coats and people telling you what you could and couldn’t do. David thought differently. He had a sense of the theatrics and he understood how to tell a story with a camera. My latest professional crush is on Beau Willimon who wrote House of Cards (the Netflix production). He’s just an extraordinary writer.
M: What’s been the low point of your career?
AS: We’d spent months and months recruiting The Voice coaches. Getting people to come to Australia wasn’t easy and we knew the talent had to be big. The first person we got for season one was Keith Urban, who was just utterly delightful – charming, clever, funny, and unbelievably musically accomplished. A lot of the other coaches came on-board because of Keith.
On Christmas Eve, Keith’s manager rang to say, ‘Keith wants to pull out.’ We were starting to film in three weeks! By Boxing Day, I had talked Keith back into wanting to be involved, but that was a really, really shit Christmas.
M: What advice do you have for young people who aspire to a career in television?
AS: Don’t do a journalism degree! Don’t do a communications degree! Do a law degree, get a degree in economics, get a really well-rounded arts degree with a couple of languages in it.
The journalism part is still very much on-the-job training. What we want is people who can communicate, people who can express themselves, people who think clearly and that’s what a degree does for you – it really helps you with that clarity of thought and that ability to lay out ideas.
What we don’t need are people who are imbued in the tenets of journalism over the last 400 years, because the reality is journalism today is so fundamentally different to what it was, not 10 years, but one-and-a-half years ago, that it’s almost impossible for those sorts of degrees to truly give you a sense of what’s going on in the media landscape at the moment.