It is never a dull day in Australian media with on-air gaffes and management shake-ups the new normal but 2019 had some big surprises that even those closely watching the industry didn’t see coming.
There were five media identities in particular, including the return of some well-known personalities, that shaped headlines last year and are likely to continue having a major influence in 2020.
1) Ita Buttrose
Prime Minister Scott Morrison selected media identity Ita Buttrose as the chairwoman for the ABC in February, marking the end to a period of instability for the public broadcaster that culminated in the departure of chairman Justin Milne and managing director Michelle Guthrie in late 2018.
The former women’s magazine and newspaper editor, television personality and executive was a surprise pick, having been headhunted for the job, and has already started making major changes at the broadcaster alongside newly selected managing director David Anderson.
Buttrose has taken a strong stand on press freedom, promised to make the broadcaster more relevant to Australians and is pushing for greater media diversity at the ABC. She has called for some “quid pro quo” with government if the ABC is expected to do more with less at a time when the taxpayer-funded organisation is facing pressure on its $1 billion-a-year budget.
2) Antony Catalano
Former Domain Group chief executive Antony Catalano appeared in headlines for the biggest media deal at the end of 2018 with a failed attempt to derail the merger of Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment Co (Nine is the owner of this masthead). Following the merger Catalano bought Australian Community Media from Nine in 2019 backed by billionaire investor Alex Waislitz, making “The Cat” executive chairman of a major regional newspaper business and owner of titles such as The Canberra Times and The Newcastle Herald.
This wasn’t the only big move Catalano made last year. He spent the last few months of 2019 acquiring a stake worth more than 14 per cent in Prime Media Group and successfully disrupting a high-stakes deal between Seven West Media and its regional affiliate. Major shareholder and rival network WIN TV owner Bruce Gordon also opposed the deal, blocking it from going through and leaving Prime’s future up in the air. Gordon is also a shareholder in Nine.
Catalano is expected to emerge as a major player this year as he doubles down on his plans for ACM and tries to pull off deals with Prime, Seven and potentially other media businesses at a time when regional news is struggling and the government seems unlikely to change media ownership rules in the bush.
3) James Warburton
One of the biggest surprises last year was the quick departure of Tim Worner from Seven and his replacement by James Warburton in August. Seven chairman Kerry Stokes said it was time for a “change in direction” for the network, which was lagging behind on a digital strategy and losing audience share.
This shocked many in the industry as Stokes stuck by Worner when details of the media boss’ affair with Amber Harrison was revealed in 2016. Picking Warburton to helm the company was, however, even more of an astounding choice because of a rocky past between the media executive and the broadcaster.
Warburton had famously left Seven after eight years at the broadcaster to move to Network Ten as chief executive, prompting his former employer to take him to court claiming he was in breach of contract. Warburton counter-claimed at the time but Seven executives say it’s now water under the bridge.
Warburton is rapidly shaping Seven’s future including a program shake-up and several corporate deals, including the failed attempt to buy Prime and a planned sale of magazine arm Pacific Magazines to Bauer Media Group. He has also flagged hopes for a tie-up with a streaming video service.
4) Brendon Hill
Bauer Media Australia chief executive Brendon Hill stepped into the role in May, replacing Paul Dykzeul, and has since planned major changes for the magazine business.
The German-owned company will take a step into the Generation Z space with Syrup this year, a digital-focused publication, as part of his two-year reinvigoration plan after Bauer posted a profit on the back of severe cost-cutting.
Hill will become an even more influential media boss in 2020 should a $40 million acquisition of Seven’s Pacific Magazines be cleared by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. A decision is expected in April and if successful will make Bauer an even more significant presence in consumer magazines.
5) Alan Jones
Macquarie Media’s 2GB shock jock Alan Jones rarely stays out of the headlines for long and 2019 was no exception. His re-signing with the radio network in May and his controversial comments about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in August were heavily scrutinised.
The top rating radio veteran’s $4 million-a-year contract was up in the air for months, amid tensions with management following a string of widely criticised on-air comments. This included a tirade against former Opera House boss Louise Herron due to her opposition to promoting the Everest horse race on the iconic building’s sails, and a $3.7 million defamation payout to a Queensland family after Jones wrongly claimed they were responsible for 12 deaths during the Lockyer Valley floods in 2011.
He has since faced the biggest brand boycott against his breakfast show in the radio network’s history for saying the New Zealand Prime Minister should have a sock shoved down her throat. Jones apologised but the show has yet to fully recover from the loss of advertising revenue that at one point was down 50 per cent.
Nine took full ownership of Macquarie at the end of 2019, putting further scrutiny on the network, and replaced chief executive Adam Lang with the TV network’s former sports boss Tom Malone. He has promised to win back advertisers and this year will be a test of the effect of the boycott and whether it will continue.
Source: Thanks smh.com