One needs a certain passion in life to outperform and, for thirty years, Kerry Packer gave it to Channel 9. He was a hands-on boss who wanted his business to be numero uno in terms of ratings and hence (the theory went) in terms of dollars. His son James, and ex-print media genius John Alexander, who became CEO of the broader PBL organisation, had more narrowly defined bottom-line approaches - Channel 9 was just a business to them and the objective was to cut costs and maximise short-term profits in the face of a switch in consumer loyalty away from TV to the web. The result was a set of sackings followed by defections of key media brains to Channel 7 and a major decline in the fortunes of 9.
This book could almost be a business school case study but it is probably too much fun. The business itself was full of overpaid prima donnas who made piles of money for themselves and Packer. It faced competition from the web but so too did Channel 7 which stole its thunder.
Cost-cutting and rationalisation might have been necessary at 9 but it wasn’t well done. Hand-shake deals were reneged on, trust was lost, internal power plays dominated good judgement and employees with enormous egos, but also with huge talent, stopped having fun. Figures such as the short-term CEO of 9, Eddie McGuire, emerge as minor figureheads caught in the cross-fire between the cost-cutters and Channel 9’s talent base.
Commercial TV is a fascinating business where gaining an understanding of a complex market is vital. John Alexander knew about print but didn't seem to understand TV. Gut feel, track record and experience as well as passion are the ingredients for success. Kerry Packer, as a human being, is a fascinating composite of cynicism, brutality, sensitivity and high intelligence. He was a powerful man who would not apologise to anyone but who clearly had self-doubt.
I wonder if James Packer will do as well as his father did given his attempts to refocus PBL in the gambling area. JP was probably commercially astute to move away from TV and to engineer the links between Ninemsn and Microsoft. But the gambling industry is political and will run into problems if only because of its huge money-making successes. I’ll watch with interest.