By former Nine employees


Did the AFL offer from Nine
hasten Kerry Packer’s demise? A ghoulish question perhaps, but he
rushed home from Argentina before Christmas to take charge of the Nine
Network’s huge $700 million-plus offer for the 2007-2011 AFL broadcast
rights (with Foxtel) when it looked like Nine was going to lose to a
big offer from Seven and Ten.

The Nine offer, or rather the
Kerry Packer offer, won the nod from the AFL in an announcement made
last Friday. But Nine insiders wonder whether the long flight home from
Argentina to take charge of the Nine bid preparation, brought on his
death Monday night. It was a long 19-or-so hour flight in a fully
pressurised aircraft; not the best for someone in poor health with
circulation problems.

It’s not that he wasn’t sinking slowly:
there had been two reports this past year about his death, the most
recent in October, but they were denied. But at Nine there’s also
evidence of what the AFL offer represents: an offer from Kerry Packer
and not some minion like Sam Chisholm or Lynton Taylor or even David
Leckie.

It was 50% bigger than the existing Nine/Ten/Foxtel
deal and around 20-25% bigger than the new offer from Seven and Ten.
And the way he ran Nine was like that: from the days of World Series
Cricket, to the starting of the Today Show, Sunday and 60 Minutes, he left his imprimatur on the network and on Australian TV, for the good.

The
bad is what we have seen since 2001 when son James Packer was allowed
to sack CEO Nick Falloon and appoint Peter Yates, a Macquarie Bank
investment banker with no media experience. Falloon, now at Ten
Network, was sacked because he didn’t like the PBL involvement in
One.Tel: a piece of farsighted business thinking.

The One.Tel
collapse brought Kerry Packer back to the PBL boardroom after his
kidney transplant the year before. It also brought him back to Nine.
During his time away he had been festering about the way the Network
was being run.

There was the famous ‘I’m back and in charge”
lunch at Nine 2001 after the One.Tel collapse had stricken James. The
fund managers and brokers were all called to Nine for the lunch and
left with no doubt that the Big Fella was indeed back.

But this was not to be the return of the prodigal father figure: it was more the return on a vengeful baron.

On
January 2, 2002 he called David Leckie in from holiday and sacked him
as CEO of Nine, appointing John Alexander, the head of ACP Magazines as
head of PBL Media, with David Gyngell, son of Bruce Gyngell (the first
face on Australian TV) as the head of Nine.

Both then set about
hacking and slashing into the established winning Nine culture, without
too much damage to Nine’s place in the ratings until this year. Senior
executives like programmer, John Stephens and then News and Current
Affairs boss, Peter Meakin left or were forced out. On-air talent was
flicked on a whim from the third floor or Park Street. Instability was
the norm from 2002 onwards.

A clutch of other executives were
sacked or their contracts were not reviewed. But in late 2004 Nine’s
winning position was starting to be threatened by Seven and by an
exploding cost base. This year saw costs continue to grow, revenue slow
and the company’s earnings fall. David Gyngell left, Sam Chisholm was
brought back from the past to be the interim CEO and he preceeded to
cut hundreds of jobs and slash program budgets and the value of the
Network’s inventory to try and lower the cost base.

While
executives like James Packer, David Gyngell, John Alexander and Peter
Yates were responsible for much of the change and turmoil at Nine since
2001, Kerry Packer didn’t once say “stop.”