Sam Chisholm: Return of the great sacker

The former chief executive of BSkyB was ruthless in shedding staff at the satellite broadcaster. Now he's back - in Australia - doing the same for Channel Nine. Not bad for a man who survived a double lung transplant. Raymond Snoddy meets Sam Chisholm
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The Independent Online

Hold a competition for the most influential broadcaster in the UK over the past two decades and the winner would not necessarily be Greg Dyke, Lord Birt or even Michael Grade.

A really strong case could be made for a diminutive New Zealander who started his career selling floor polish.

The James Cagney lookalike kicked, swore and sacked his way to creating BSkyB, now one of the world's leading satellite broadcasters. And for much of that time, Sam Chisholm was so ill that he had to sleep in an oxygen tent.

Now at the age of 66, Sam Chisholm is back, reinvigorated by a successful double lung transplant, and sacking people with his former gusto as he tries to get the ratings and advertising revenues up one last time - as acting chief executive of Australia's leading commercial channel, Channel Nine.

In the foyer of the headquarters of Nine in the Sydney district of Willoughby, purposeful young people come and go while the daytime American advice show, Dr Phil, plays on multiple screens. Suddenly the man with one of the most fearsome reputations in broadcasting appears silently as if from nowhere looking unusually fit, but still slightly battered, following the successful transplant that saved his life when he was within a couple of weeks of death. His father, brother and sister all died prematurely of the same genetic lung disease.

"How about a helicopter ride before lunch?" suggests Chisholm and it's off on the Nine news helicopter round Sydney harbour and out for a swoop over the luxury marinas of the exclusive Sydney suburb of Palm Beach.

Chisholm then settles down to the prospect of a long lunch in the boardroom with a few words of preliminary advice on money. Chisholm, who cleared more than £25m from his days as a broadcasting executive in Britain, has a theory.

"The ideal is to make your money in the northern hemisphere and you spend it in the southern hemisphere," says Chisholm. He has taken his own advice and his Australian assets include a cattle ranch the size of a small country not far from the family homestead of his old boss Rupert Murdoch, and a home in Palm Beach.

Eventually Chisholm, agrees to sit down on the sofa and talk about why he's back slashing costs and sacking people by the dozen - just like in the old days.

Chisholm, a non-executive director of Kerry Packer's Press and Broadcasting Holdings, owners of the Nine Network, was called back to the colours after the channel started to lose ground to Channel Seven and the managing director David Gyngell - son of the late TV-am boss Bruce Gyngell - departed abruptly.

"I am fairly positive that it (the departure) wasn't anything to do with me," says Chisholm rather unconvincingly. Others say Gyngell left because of widespread interference from above. "In life you are driven by two things, I suspect. It's whether you are doing what you want to do or whether you are doing what you should do. I tend to fall into the latter category, so here I am," he says.

Since returning to Nine in May Chisholm has restructured the company and taken an axe to middle management with around 200 jobs in all going in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. He has also brought back many of his old mates from his first long stint in charge at Channel Nine before he left for London.

A recent profile in Sydney's Daily Telegraph has him dressed in Sgt Pepper gear at the heart of "Sam Chisholm's Old Boy's Club Band" and few papers have been able to resist headlines such as " Play it again Sam".

Chisholm presided over Channel Nine for a Bollinger-fuelled, star-studded 15 years. To mark his 50th birthday, his broadcasting mates delivered a Harley Davidson to the executive suite and a hole had to be knocked in the wall to get it in.

When Chisholm was brought to London by Murdoch to run Sky in 1990, a number of Australians who had come to London mainly to get away from him quaked in their boots.

It is what happened next that established Chisholm's reputation - not to mention the considerable fortune - as one of the most remarkable figures in recent broadcasting history, although one admired and loathed in equal measure.

Chisholm was given the task of merging British Satellite Broadcasting with Sky at a time when both organisations were bleeding to death. "I am a firm believer in the fact that you need degrees of management for degrees of competition," explains Chisholm. The degrees of management needed for BSkyB involved Chisholm sacking virtually the entire staff of BSB. There were only two survivors, Richard Brook, who became Sky finance director, and Vic Wakeling, still their sports supremo.

Apart from dynamiting costs and terrorising management, some say to an unnecessary degree, at what were to become notorious Monday morning executive meetings, Chisholm pulled off two coups that probably saved the company.

The two British satellite operators had indulged in a ruinous bidding war for Hollywood film rights. Chisholm, who has finely honed advertising sales and negotiating skills, went to Los Angeles and somehow managed to persuade the studio bosses to renegotiate the film deals.

"I would probably think it's not as easy now to renegotiate contracts in Hollywood. It was simply a choice. Renegotiate or we would have gone under. We couldn't afford to pay the prices we had paid," says Chisholm.

The new film deals dramatically reduced costs but it was the deal Chisholm did with the Premier League for exclusive live football rights that gave Sky a future. At the time sport on Sky was little more than a version of the Eurosport channel.

Chisholm is still diplomatic about his old boss Murdoch, the man he calls "the businessman of the century", despite many confrontations and an eventual parting of the ways. "I think we agreed that this is what we had to do. I think we were able to spot in London, quite quickly, the fact that British broadcasters had no understanding of the power of sport. Murdoch said sport is a huge factor in this country and the broadcasters are asleep at the wheel," he recalls.

Chisholm first approached Greg Dyke, then chief executive of London Weekend Television, over lunch at Langans to see whether they could work together to "have a crack at this".

"He laughed at me. He said why would I do it with you when ITV can do it on our own," says Chisholm with a smile.

So the BSkyB chief executive went instead to Will Wyatt, the managing director of BBC Television, and said: "We will have to use your respectability and our money." In the end Dyke and ITV lost out; Sky got its live football and the BBC got what it wanted, Premiership highlights for Match of the Day.

"As a result we had something unique to offer. Sky would probably have survived anyway but it would have been very difficult," Chisholm concedes.

He believes that the satellite group will also survive the growing threat from Brussels to its exclusive live Premier League rights. "I think everything at Sky is very well thought through and they are used to dealing with the regulators over the years. They created the Premier League. They built it; they made it the competition it is and I think they are entitled to keep it," insists Chisholm.

Rather more surprisingly, the buccaneering commercial broadcaster remains an ardent admirer of the BBC and its current chairman Michael Grade.

"I think Michael Grade is one of the great broadcasters in the world and I think the BBC is amazing. It's obviously the world's richest broadcaster and influential, but I think the things they produce and the things they do are remarkable, although the amount of money people have to pay for it is also significant," says Chisholm.

At BSkyB there were many famous spats - one of the most colourful when Kelvin MacKenzie decided he would like to try television after stepping down from the editorship of The Sun. The relationship didn't last long and in the end MacKenzie just walked out. "Kelvin is an extraordinary character, and there he is no doubt that editing The Sun he was a genius but he knew nothing about television. He was square peg in a round hole," says Chisholm. MacKenzie has been somewhat less measured in his verdict and has described Chisholm as "a revolting little turd".

Another of Chisholm's achievements was to float BSkyB on the stock market - a manoeuvre that included a Chisholm contract that gave him 0.5 per cent of the profits. By the time he finally resigned from the BSkyB board, his accomplishments had included racking up a record annual pay cheque of £6.8m.

He decided to go mainly because of his declining health and because Sky was about to move to the next stage, digital, and he did not think he would be well enough to see it through.

There were also fights with Murdoch and Chisholm wasn't totally overjoyed at the arrival of Elisabeth Murdoch in a senior position at BSkyB. In private Chisholm referred to Murdoch's daughter as "the management trainee". Rupert Murdoch himself has described Chisholm as "an effective executive". But he has added other more trenchant comments: "He's territorial as hell. He calls the plays and he gets it right more often than not. The problem is he plays favourites and he frightens people."

By the time the long-awaited call came from his transplant surgeon in 2003 Chisholm weighed six and a half stone and he had his own doctor, nurse and physiotherapist in residence to try to keep him alive until organs became available.

It took him more than 18 months to get back to anything resembling normal but now he has the lungs of someone between the age of 20 and 25.

He asked his surgeon Dr Michael Wilson how long they would last. The reply was: "Sam, they'll last the rest of your life."

At Nine he has a A$2m a year contract for two years to sort out the channel and is showing no sign of losing interest in the challenge. His final trick will be to find a permanent chief executive to succeed him.

Sam Chisholm, who is obviously just happy to be alive, says this will be definitely be his last executive job. "I have plenty of other things to do with my life, go to the beach and play with my dog."