Saturday, August 20, 2011

What is genius? Ian Carroll, a celebration


Cleverness. Genius. At their core is the ability to spot patterns, usually across contexts.

Ian Carroll was extraordinary.

As executive producer of every one of his TV shows I had friends working on, and as executive producer of the one I worked with him on he would come up with story ideas others were inclined to dismiss as off the pace. And then time and time again, two or so weeks later his idea would turn out to have been exactly the right one. He could do this because he was always taking in information ans seeing the skeleton behind the form, spotting a pattern, seeing how things would pan out. To talk to him was an education.

And I did, long before I worked for him.

He would ring me up out of the blue and say - what do you think about this.

His professional and romantic life was played out on a giant canvas. Yet he was completely self-effacing, shy.

As a force for good in the ABC he was probably unrivaled, yet he was never managing director.

What follows will leave out a lot. There's a lot I don't know. Read about Ian Carroll here and here and here.

In 1985 after working on Nationwide (a precursor to 7.30) he got what he had been lobbying for - a chance to take over ABC television news. Until then ABC TV news had been prepared using ABC radio reporters such as myself and TV reporters who were also required to file for radio. In Sydney they were in separate locations... With no training or tutoring in how to put together television reports and without the opportunity to view the vision, people such as myself made pretty average television stories. ABC TV News even used the radio theme music. On D-Day the two separated. (Not that us radio reporters minded - one had a sign on his door that read "all I want is a day when I can stop working for television".)

To fully take on the commercial networks the new program (called The National) started at the commercial 6.30 pm time slot, rather than the old ABC time of 7.00 pm.

So worried were Nine and Seven they immediately moved forward their bulletins to 6.00 pm where they have remained ever since.

The National ran for 60 minutes and melded news and current affairs, using a news presenter Richard Morecroft and a current affairs presenter - a young, recently on-air pregnant Geraldine Doogue.

ABC traditionalists hated it. At the end of the year ABC TV news returned to 7.00 pm.

But under the apparent form of failure lay a victory. I am sure Carroll knew it.

The old TV news bulletin hadn't returned. The new one was made by the new all-TV staff. (Nor did the old theme return. The theme Carroll introduced in 1986 is still regarded as the best ever. Last year it came in at Number 11 on JJJ's Hot 100).

He had something of a personal victory as well, ending the year with Geraldine Doogue who he later married - the whole thing played out in the gossip pages, especially those of the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

Gerry and Ian were made for each other. The perpetually curious had found the perpetually insightful. And the perpetually shy had found the perpetually outgoing.

Some years later, forewarned the new ABC administration had it in for him, he fled to Nine and Today.

He made Today a cutting edge current affairs show, using the his instinct for knowing days or weeks ahead how something would pan out and what people would talk about.

(Incidentally he turned the other cheek and hired the same Daily Telegraph gossip columnist, who had made his life a misery, as his gossip/society reporter. Not many people would do that. Of course it worked. Carroll wouldn't have doubted it. The man who had caused him anguish was forced to confront the fact he had been dealing with a human being. Later he did the same thing at Four Corners, giving the ABC critic Gerard Henderson a role as guest reporter.)

While in commercial television he conceived LateLine and came back to the ABC with Kerry O'Brien. It worked partly because of Kerry's formidable interviewing skills. But it worked mainly because of the breadth of topics covered and the way in which almost every one was exactly in tune with the times. Carroll again. He read, he thought, he saw patterns.

Then there was Four Corners, the new national 7.30 Report (on which he employed me) and sudden retirement from all program making. He wanted a rest from continually thinking about the news, he told me.

In his new role he was a strategist, helping ABC adjust to new environments and new technology.

He foresaw the way TV reporters would eventually come to edit their own stories. He outlined this to me back in the late 1990s a decade before it happened. Equipment had traditionally been very expensive and staff relatively cheap. So it made sense to work a few pieces of editing equipment hard with dedicated editors. As equipment became dirt cheap and staff relatively expensive there would be little cost in leaving the editing equipment idle, putting one set on each reporters desk... and so on.

He set up the ABC's first add-on digital channels (later temporarily abandoned in a cost-cutting drive) years before the more recent, much praised ABC 2 and ABC 3.

And he saved Australia Television. Seriously. When the part-Murdoch owned Sky News made a bid to replace the ABC as Australian government's overseas television broadcaster during the Howard years, Murdoch was certain to win.

That Murdoch didn't was incredible. Unbelievable. Building the case, building the coalitions, understanding the subtlety of everyone's different positions, winning over a government that wanted to punish the ABC was almost impossible, and nearly killed Ian.

Saving Australia Television will be far easier this time. Well, it ought to be.

Along the way Ian quietly applied to be managing director of SBS TV. He made the mistake of telling the selection panel their mission statement was wrong. Rather than "communicating Australia's living diversity" the SBS should be focused on bringing stories from other nations to Australia.

He didn't get the job, but a few years later the SBS saw the light and adopted his sort of slogan: "Six Billion Stories and Counting". He was right, early.

Ian died last night of cancer, his family and friends gathered around him.

He was impossibly young - 64.

In one year we have lost Murray Sayle, Cathy Carey, Tony Barrell and Ian Carroll. We shouldn't have.





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. Tony Barrell, living legend

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