Thursday, 30 August 2012

Kerry Packer's War

I was a teenage cricket fan in 1977 when World Series Cricket split the cricketing world down the middle.  Kerry Packer, having recently taken over from his father as head of Channel 9, was rebuffed in his attempts to buy the broadcast rights to Australian cricket despite offering vastly more money than the ABC.  Not being one to take no for an answer, he set up his own rival cricket competition, recruiting virtually the entire Australian and West Indies teams (the two strongest in world cricket at the time) and a host of other elite players from around the world.  Rival international competitions were staged for two years, the cricket authorities filling their teams with second string players, before peace was finally made in 1979.

I remember it well. So I watched Howzat! Kerry Packer's War on Channel 9.  I was pretty underwhelmed. 

For a start, it's just a poor piece of story-telling.  The cricketers, even those with central roles in the saga like Ian Chappell and Tony Grieg, are barely even cardboard cutouts, played with suitable ineptness by no-name actors.  Only David Hookes' character is given any depth, and he is portrayed as a nervous, gormless young man - hardly the way the brash, overconfident Hookes would want to be remembered.

Nor do the business people fare any better.  John Cornell is shown as a very bland if slightly cowboyish business-man, while his partner Delvine Delaney, Australian TV's glamour queen of the 70s, is merely eye candy and the other executives, whose names I never gathered, are just targets for Kerry Packer's volcanic temper.  Only Kerry himself is portrayed with any depth, his sneering and bullying offset by a tenderness and vulnerability which slides out at unexpected moments. 

Packer is long gone and his son James has scaled back his interest in Channel 9, yet the story is still shamelessly propagandistic.  Despite Packer's bullying, Channel 9 and World Series Cricket are obviously the good guys.  Occasional glimpses into the boardrooms of the Australian Cricket Board and the International Cricket Conference portray short-sighted, inflexible, reactionary men in suits who care nothing for their players, easy prey for Packer's superior sense of strategy.  As for the official Australian team or the travails of its players, these are totally invisible - it is as if World Series Cricket is the only cricket being played.  Yet for all this, we are offered little insight into Packer's motivation.  What was he hoping to get for the vast sums of money he spent on WSC?

Of course it's not hard to understand his strategy, and it was breathtakingly successful.  Packer knew that cricket had the potential to be a huge money-spinner on commercial TV, providing hours of content and capturing viewers of all ages from across the country for whom cricket is synonymous with the Australian summer.  Yet for this to be successful, the game had to change in significant ways.  He needed to have a lot more control of the grounds than previous broadcasters so that he could place cameras and mikes wherever he chose.  He needed the game to be more aggressive, more compact.  To make serious money, he needed games to be played in the evening, in prime time.

In the end he got everything he wanted.  As part of the peace deal, he got broadcast rights in exchange for handing back control of the game itself to the cricket boards.  He also got the changes he was looking for - an extended international program, lots of one day cricket played at night in coloured clothes, cameras at every corner of the ground, pitch mikes, stump cameras.  He paid through the nose but it was worth every cent as the advertising revenue rolled in.  Financially, everyone was a winner.  Channel 9 became entrenched as the most-watched station on Australian TV, the Australian Cricket Board shared the riches and the top tier of players became absurdly wealthy.

Yet there is a lot more to be said for the ICC and the Australian Cricket Board than the producers of Howzat!  would like you to think.  They understood very clearly what they would lose if they accepted Packer's money.  The ABC was a very undemanding partner - as a public broadcaster it didn't need to sell advertising or worry about viewer numbers, so it was happy to broadcast whatever cricket the authorities served up.  Gaps in the international season were filled with domestic matches - the Sheffield Shield featured regularly as did the domestic one-day competitions.  The Australian Cricket Board was free to focus on the grand traditions of the game.

All this had to change in order to bring in the money for Packer.  The audience for domestic cricket was too small, so it rapidly disappeared from our screens and hence from public consciousness.  The program had to be filled with international cricket for the whole summer, so extended triangular one-day series took the place of domestic cricket in the TV schedule and in the lives of international cricketers, who now rarely played for their states.  Nor was the effect confined to Australia - the business model pioneered by Packer quickly spread around the globe.  Soon international cricketers were on a treadmill, playing year round in increasingly forgettable one day and 20-20 tournaments to satisfy the insatiable demands of global television networks.  Like so much male elite sport in the last two decades, cricket was transformed from a game into a product, from contest to content.

Ultimately, the Australian Cricket Board lost their fight against this trend because they misjudged their players.  The board refused to be bought by Packer.  The players, on the other hand, were eager to sell.  Ian Chappell, in so many ways the leader amongst his generation of cricketers, was tired of fighting the board for a fair deal, tired of having to choose between playing international cricket and earning a living.  Howzat! captures it well, portraying Dennis Lillee, the greatest fast bowler of his and perhaps of any generation, complaining that he was paid less than the sight screen attendant.  When Kerry waved the chequebook, their eyes lit up.

You could hardly blame them, but my sympathies are still with the Board.  Packer's success is just one small part of the commodification of everything.  In my childhood, cricket unfolded ad free on my television at the pace of a lazy summer day.  My friends and I would hit the ball in the backyard for a while and then, hot and sweaty, would make ourselves ice-cold cordial and watch the players we had been imitating.  Now there is an advert every three minutes, the commentators clumsily spruik Channel 9's latest prime time reality TV show, every person, word and action is branded with the logo of some sponsor.  Money is king.  The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.


Brad McCoy said...

I really enjoyed it! It did pirtray Packer a little too virtuous for my liking (although the ending was quite clever - he beat the ACB into submission, and then moved onto casinos, suggesting it had all been an act and all he'd ever really wanted was the money). Some of it was a bit one dimensional but you can't expect too much from an Aussie miniseries!

Jon said...

Hey Brad, I finally found your comment on my spam folder 2 days after it popped up in my e-mail inbox. Blogger!

I obviously enjoyed it enough to write a review, even though I thought it was poor. Funnily enough given my life since, my 16-year-old self leapt immediately onto the side of the establishment and I barely watched any WSC. I still think my instincts were right although my reasons were wrong.

Brad McCoy said...

No worries. I didn't even know there was a spam folder for blog comments (will have to check my own!).