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An ABC Visionary: Ken Watts

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As the ABC restructures and creates a new vision to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex media landscape, alumnus Eric Hunter says there’s much that can be learned from earlier – albeit simpler – times. Here he tells the story of an extraordinary executive whose vision turned ABC TV into a creative powerhouse in the 1960s and 1970s. His name was Ken Watts, and his emphasis was on attracting greater audiences through quality, innovation and experimentation.

Photo: Ken Watts in 1959

In 2023, the ABC continues to enjoy the trust of a significant cross-section of the Australian public across its radio, television and online platforms. But today’s multiplicity of other sources of entertainment and information presents the Corporation with unprecedented competition and a clear need for decisive and apposite strategies.

As the ABC restructures and creates a new vision to meet these challenges, it’s timely to consider the lessons of past experience.

In this piece I reflect on the great contribution made by a man I worked with, Ken Watts who, during a critical period in the 1960s and 70s, forged a strong vision for the ABC and had an exceptional capacity to turn his vision into reality.

While today’s circumstances are very different, there is much about the Watts era that remains relevant today.

The Watts plan

The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Ken Watts describes him as ‘creative, encouraging towards young people and occasionally ruthless’. It also noted that he genuinely cared about both the quality and popularity of ABC programs.

Watts came to the ABC in the late 1940s, after serving in the Australian Army during World War II. He’d abandoned earlier aspirations to be a concert pianist and instead joined the ABC’s concert department.

When I first met him in 1962, he was Victorian State Programme Director and was about to become Federal Director of Education. Over subsequent years, despite constant discontent from top management, he progressed to the roles of Federal Director of Television Programmes, Controller of Programmes and, at the peak of his ABC career, Assistant General Manager of Television.

He was remarkably prescient regarding political influences, a skill which served the ABC well.

Watts had been in England in the late 1950s when some British Conservatives complained that the BBC’s public funding base, the user licence fee, presented unfair competition to the commercial services. There were calls, too, for relaxation of strict quality rules imposed on the commercials by the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Meanwhile, the first serious claims of BBC bias toward Labour were also emerging.

Watts read these winds of change, along with the advent of neo-liberal economics, as eventually blowing across the Australian landscape. Astutely, he felt that in any hardening economic and political climate, the ABC, widely regarded as an ‘elite’ broadcaster, would be an easy target for future funding cuts.

To forestall such potential storms, Watts fought to establish his vision. It was simple in concept but as relevant today as it was then; perhaps even more so. He believed that the ABC had to become indispensable, and to do so it needed to build a strong cumulative audience and an unassailable public support base.

That is where his ruthlessness emerged (I call it dogged persistence), directed mainly toward an often-supine Commission and some senior executives, especially among those who ran the News Division, who disagreed with his approach. Nevertheless, he gradually won support (albeit grudging) from top management and significantly, from the Commissioners (the equivalent of today’s Board directors), most of whom were uncomfortable with any change that might upset the government.  

Quality the watchword

Watts’s plan was to build and cement solid public support through quality programming as the means of best serving Australians’ information and cultural interests. Assessment of quality was not, however, to be based on commercial-style ratings. If the quality was evident and the ABC was listening to what Australians expected, he said, reasonable audience numbers would follow.

On the other hand, Watts deplored the then prevalent management thinking that it was beneath the ABC’s dignity to have any interest in ratings. That, he said, only played into the hands of critics who considered the ABC to be elitist and a waste of taxpayers’ money. He told us bluntly and frequently, ‘There’s no point in broadcasting to a f…ing vacuum’.

Watts was instrumental in developing a small but highly expert in-house audience research unit as a vital assessment tool, to provide in-depth qualitative audience information unavailable from commercial ratings surveys designed primarily to attract advertisers.

Innovative and distinctive programming

Watts believed that If the ABC had one distinctive responsibility, it was to introduce new ideas and give creative people a chance to test them on air. This was the special role of a public broadcaster, Watts argued; to advance innovation and creativity, even though misjudgements would be made. ‘We have to allow people the courtesy of making mistakes’, he often said. Here, however, he could be ruthless; his corollary was ‘You won’t get away with making the same mistake twice’.

Watts was an excellent judge of potential program ideas across all genres1. He also had the knack of gathering around him producers and other program makers who were similarly perceptive. 

Many new locally produced commercial programs were – and still are – simply copies of overseas work that have proved ratings winners (60 Minutes was a classic example). Watts himself was happy to adopt overseas ideas – but only if they built upon the variety and range of the ABC output and were able to introduce a distinctive Australian perspective and flavour.

Watts considered the one great element lacking in ABC programs was a daily TV current affairs program that could delve fearlessly into the key issues of the day.  By far the most significant of his program innovations was This Day Tonight (TDT) inspired by the BBC’s Tonight and launched in April, 1967. (In Part 2 of this article, Eric Hunter will expand on his experience of the heyday of TDT.)

I had the good fortune to be just one of many beneficiaries of his visionary approach, when he gave me, Director Ron Davis and EP Kim Corcoran, the shared privilege of presenting the ABC’s first live satellite telecast, from Expo’67 in Montreal. Soon after, the ABC featured three items in the first global, multi-satellite TV program, the BBC’s Our World, a historic two hour-long TV journey around the globe, bringing in an unheard-of (at the time) international audience of 500 million.

It’s doubtful these landmark events would have been contemplated were it not for the initiative of Watts and his ability to find like-minded, energetic people: of note, Dr Peter Pockley, the ABC’s first Director of TV science programs, who convinced the BBC’s Head of Science that Australia should be involved. Again, I had the great privilege of being involved, presenting one of the items from the CSIRO in Canberra.

Through the 1960s and 70s, other great Australian TV programs were built upon Watts’s desire for innovation. There was the iconic Countdown, about which the producer of the BBC original told Watts, ‘Ken, your version is much better than ours’. Watts was determined to appeal to younger people and felt that the ABC’s ageing audience would be the death of the service. ‘We get them until they are 10, and then they don’t come back until they’re about to die’2.

Watts’s commitment to experimentation saw the emergence of home-grown offbeat new ideas, such as the inimitable Aunty Jack which spawned the equally exceptional Norman Gunston. But critically, under Watts’s direction all ideas had to demonstrate high production values, and numbers of ideas were knocked back under his astute eye.

The popular A Big Country (1968-1991) was the first national TV program reflecting life in our regions.

Another successful borrowing from a BBC concept was Chequerboard, a hard-hitting documentary series dealing with major issues of the day, which reached a substantial audience over its six-year life (1969-1975).

Adventure Island was one of the most engaging children’s programs ever produced by the ABC, with delightfully creative scripting that also provided quiet amusement for adults.

Watts’s legacy lived on for a considerable period after his departure from the ABC in 1975. A later program that, to me, has all the attributes Watts encouraged was Mother and Son, Geoffrey Atherden’s brilliantly written and presented mix of humour and sometimes poignant familial manipulation, which ran for ten years (1984-1994).

His constant theme was that we should try to attract new viewers, but not at the risk of alienating our existing older audiences by dropping standards. I believe it was his fine sense of balance that enabled him to succeed in this.

Drama a Priority

One of Watts’s major aims was to make the ABC the gold standard for Australian TV drama. At the time, writers, actors, directors and studio crews often couldn’t get enough steady work to build upon their expertise.

Watts introduced what was effectively an in-house drama school to enable local talent to gain experience – and confidence, through seeing their efforts go to air. The ‘school’ was the series Bellbird, first aired in 1967, which provided regular, paid ‘work-experience’ for Australian talent. Bellbird became a long-running cult series and, over time, helped provide the impetus for a stream of top-class Australian TV drama, produced mostly in-house.

Under Watts’s aegis the smaller states were encouraged to try working in areas where they didn’t usually venture. As WA Program Director in 1974, I obtained funding for a locally produced three-part drama, The House, which was written by one of our studio technical crew, Paul Kehoe, and gave local crews and local actors the chance to show their talents for the first time in serious TV drama.

Other firsts in the 1970s were the historical-adventure drama series Ben Hall and Rush, bringing a welcome Australianness to our screens. The 1974 award-winning three-part series The Fourth Wish was critically acclaimed, with lead actor John Meillon winning a Best Actor Logie for his deeply moving performance as the single father of a young boy dying from leukaemia.  It was written by Michael Craig, himself an accomplished actor. A notable feature film of the same name was later based on the ABC series.

With the significant revival of the local film industry (involving many gifted ex-ABC creatives), ABC in-house production gradually shifted to co-productions and programs commissioned from outside producers. But the quality drama that Watts had sought was sustained in the 80s and into the 90s with such productions as the gripping police procedural series shot largely on location in Melbourne, Phoenix, the crime drama Wildside and others. While the ABC has continued to excel with the quality of much of its drama output, diminished funding in ensuing decades has sadly seen the Corporation fall way behind its peak drama performance in terms of output quantity.

Looking to the Future

The ABC is still the leader in fields of information and general programming which commercial interests will never offer, and in drama that reflects the diversity of Australia today. 

It has many talented people who are outstanding in their individual areas. But it faces stiff competition. Podcasts now fill a role once reserved for broadcast radio. Streamers such as Netflix and Foxtel have recognised the appeal of Australian-made television and are investing in local production; indeed, they may soon be forced by quotas to increase their local output.

Today more than ever I believe the ABC should follow the Watts example and avoid letting ratings unduly influence program policies. It is questionable anyway whether traditional ratings are a reliable guide when audiences – particularly younger audiences – are now diffused among so many sources of information and entertainment. It’s up to the ABC to offer an appealing, innovative and trustworthy public broadcasting option among many choices.

Given my experience during the Watts era, I believe very strongly that quality is still the guiding imperative, ensuring that the ABC is the standard setter, not the follower, in all its genres and across all platforms.

Institutionally, it is vital for the ABC to re-create, develop, implement, and articulate both within and outside the Corporation a brave corporate vision for a new media environment.

A final note on Watts as a manager

Unlike his senior colleagues, who mostly worked in splendid isolation well away from any studios and program staff, Watts rarely missed going down to the local pub with us during his frequent interstate visits. Mind you, he was capable of telling us in the strongest of terms what he thought, but he was a genuine and interested listener who took full note of our views. I believe we lost a man of ideas and integrity and an inspiring boss when Watts decided to call it a day in 1975.

Far from retiring though, he became founding Chair of the Australian Film Commission as the revitalisation of the Australian production industry gained pace. He died in 1990, aged 70. 

Part 2 of this tribute can be read here

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