TV executives swear by David Leckie

David Leckie must have been shaking his head as he read the eulogies in the media today … he was “the best television executive in Australia,” according to his boss, Seven owner, Kerry Stokes; “David is an outstanding TV executive,” former Nine CEO, Sam Chisholm; and “David has been the  most successful TV executive in the industry for the past 20 years,” his friend and current Nine CEO, David Gyngell.

In fact, the headline for a good profile of Leckie by Amanda Meade and Damon Kitney in The Australian today was: “Best TV Executive in the Country.” (http://bit.ly/LOpbfM  Photo above from The Australian.)

But during his career, Leckie has been treated like a lackey by Kerry Packer, excoriated by journalists for his boorish, foul-mouthed behaviour, and knifed in the back by rivals whenever they saw an opportunity. He must have the most lacerated hinder regions in television – in an industry famous for inserting the blade.

Yet, he was able to lead two commercial networks, first Nine and then Seven, to ratings success for nearly two decades, despite his reputation as a macho man.

He knew what rated on television, but never tried to axe serious current affairs programs like Sunday because he recognised what kudos and credibility they brought to the network. He once said to me: “I don’t always understand the stories on Sunday, but I know they’re important.” I’m sure he did understand, but it was part of his image not to appear too intellectual. And in public conversations at Nine, he would bag the Sunday staff for taking off five or six weeks when the show went into hiatus during the summer. He had an insult for every occasion and every program.

And I know he’ll hate me for saying this, but David Leckie could be a nice bloke. I first met him at a Chinese restaurant on Sydney’s North Shore, and he introduced me to his family, and was very friendly in greeting mine. Not a swear word in hearing distance.

He also gave me his seat in the Channel Nine box at the MCG for the Sydney Swans-North Melbourne Grand Final in 1996 after I appeared on A Current Affair — a disgruntled Swans fan unable to get a ticket. He called me and said: “Oh for F—k’s sake, if you’re going to start whingeing on A Current Affair, you can have my ticket. I wasn’t planning on going anyway.”

And he always invited me to go to the Channel Nine box in Sydney when the Swans were playing, but I declined – except on a couple of rare occasions – because I wanted to sit with my mates in the Brewongle Stand across the ground. He said he kept an eye on me with his binoculars. I think he was joking!

There was another chief executive on display in his bar – Leckie’s Bar – connected to his office on the third floor of Nine’s headquarters in Sydney. The bricks and bouquets – okay, more of the former than the latter – were hurled at all and sundry (and sometimes Sunday) when he was in a bad mood, but he stuck around to face the music and staff brave enough to stand up to him on such days (or sit on the stool next to him trading barbs). It was not a bar for faint-hearted producers.

Yet it was a place to go at the end of the day, or the end of the week, where executives and middle management could communicate with the staff. And in the communications industry, lack of communication is one of the major problems.

‘HIS RESULTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES’

David Leckie did not treat everybody with kindness.  Colleagues told me their departures from Nine were hastened by conversations they had – where he initiated the friction that led to the fraction. In television, executives, particularly chief executives, are told they have to be tough to be good. Balderdash.  As I once wrote in an article for The Weekend Australian in 2007, heads of departments and executive producers should “treat all employees as you would want to be treated.” David Gyngell is the nicest CEO I worked for at Channel Nine, and he left in 2005 because of all the interference he was receiving from too many bosses, four to be exact: Kerry and James Packer, Sam Chisholm and John Alexander. He returned in late 2007, as his own man, and Nine is back on top.

Gracious as usual, David Gyngell praised his rival yesterday: “His results speak for themselves. I don’t hold anybody in this industry in higher regard. Channel Nine’s value has gone up today simply because David won’t be running Seven anymore.”

Media analysts were calling it the end of an era when David Leckie stood down as chief executive of Seven West Media yesterday, but as long as Peter Meakin is running the news and current affairs departments, the tradition of excellence will continue.

Leckie is now the executive director of media for Seven Group Holdings, which means he probably won’t be as hands-on as he has been. He’s never been good at taking it easy, so it will be interesting to see if he makes a comeback somewhere else. His health hasn’t been all that great since his finger got stuck in a garage door and he wound up with a severe infection and was placed in an induced coma.

TS Eliot wrote in Ash-Wednesday:

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

David Leckie is not the type to sit still.

Finally, in this fortnight of media shakeups, the most poignant video came from Fairfax journalists usually known for their prose. It demonstrates that writers like David Marr, Peter Hartcher, Kate McClymont, and Jessica Irvine can make a passionate statement on camera – and that the digital revolution will not leave them behind. Eat your heart out, Gina Rinehart  (who’s probably already eating her heart out after being told by the Fairfax board she can’t have a seat!). Have a look at this Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance video and if you agree with their commitment to the Fairfax Charter of Editorial Independence, you can show your support on this link: http://bit.ly/MTEgza

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8 thoughts on “TV executives swear by David Leckie

  1. there hasnt been better in my lifetime, if it wasnt for leckie – the industry would be a complete basket case. He’s made sure this business didnt always end up in the hands of accountants. I’ve been lucky to have had worked at Nine when he was there, I wish him well , and shit we need more people like him right now, the industry needs quality leadership, not former accountants or muppets. Meakin is the other saving grace, it will be a sad day when Peter quits, If it wasnt for Peter – we’d be watching fox news, play school and something in between. We wont realize how good these guys have been until they arent there any more. flemo

    • Flemo, you couldn’t have said it better. The fact that the replacement of David Leckie with an oil and gas executive from WA with little media experience caused a 14 per cent drop in Seven West Media’s share price is a sad commentary on the state of the industry. The price recovered a bit yesterday, but Darren Davison in the Business section of The Australian reports today that Voelte’s “lack of media experience and the absence of clarity about the company’s financial position is creating uncertainty among investors.” Voelte is obviously a top-notch businessman, but a media company is not an ordinary business, and it needs leaders who understand that. Voelte told The Australian yesterday: “Business is business — a lot of it isn’t different.” No further comment is necessary!

  2. The Voelte appointment has some similarities to the appointment of one J. Alexander at 9 some years ago… although he had media experience, he knew nothing about television. There’s been a whole book written about what happened next…

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