Are they worth it?
They score riches in sport, then win lucrative TV deals. But do the networks get bang for their buck? Marcus Casey and Darren Devlyn report
AT A time when viewers were enthralled by battles being waged in the pool and on the track at the Beijing Olympics, Games rights-holder Channel 7 and rival Nine were engaged in an equally fierce off-screen tussle.
Seven and Nine were out to snare athletes on deals that would tie them exclusively to their network — a fight that reached its most spiteful point when Seven chairman Kerry Stokes learned Nine was trying to trump him by securing athletes for a 60 Minutes Olympics special.
Stokes solved Seven’s problem by waving a chequebook. He was so keen to have champion swimmer Stephanie Rice on his books that Seven’s offer allegedly jumped in a hurry from $200,000 for one year to $700,000 for two.
Big brass, even in the excessive domain of TV, but it’s fair to ask: is it money well spent and what value can Seven hope to gain from Rice when her swimming career must take priority over other interests?
Swimming legend Ian Thorpe spent seven years on Seven’s books for a modest return — appearing on shows such as The Great Outdoors, Sportsworld and best-forgotten reality series Undercover Angels.
Kieren Perkins and Cathy Freeman are others who have been tipped for media career stardom that never eventuated. There are no guarantees sporting success will give Rice an easy ride as a TV performer.
Johanna Griggs, who along with fellow former swimmer Nicole Livingstone has carved a successful media career, has rightly suggested Seven must be careful about how it handles new signing Rice.
Griggs’ life was rocked in 1996 when Seven management revealed by fax it was sacking her.
She refined her talents at Foxtel and was re-employed by Seven in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Griggs, who says ‘‘I don’t think I’m stretching it to say I was abysmal when I started (in TV)’’, hopes too much is not expected of Rice too soon.
After the Olympics, Seven was quick to put Rice to work by having her film a spot for the Jennifer Hawkins reality show, Make Me a Supermodel.
It appears Seven is now proceeding with caution, training Rice in working to camera and avoiding making demands of her that take her out of her comfort zone.
Rice confesses she was surprised at Seven’s speed in signing her without having a clearly defined plan for how she would be used.
‘‘This whole experience for me has been new and exciting and something I never prepared for before the Games,’’ Rice says.
‘‘Heading into Beijing I was not thinking about end results, I was really trying to think about the process and to enjoy the experience.
‘‘Coming away with three golds was something I never expected from myself. I guess it wasn’t really until the end of the meet that I realised a lot of opportunities would be opening up for me.
‘‘I didn’t want to think about it before because you don’t want to lose focus. So it’s only been a few weeks for this to sink in and it hasn’t yet — it’s still all a bit of shock.’’
APART from the Make Me A Supermodel episode, Rice in the short term is likely to be seen on shows Seven produces for the Queensland market.
‘‘Signing exclusively with Seven is really exciting,’’ she says.
‘‘I didn’t think of endorsing a channel straight away, but obviously Seven want me to do things I’m interested in, that I would watch and pay attention to and be around my age bracket.
‘‘Doing something like Supermodel really fitted in around my personality and interests. I’m really interested in fashion and media, but never considered where I would be right now. I’m loving it.’’
Tim Worner, Seven’s head of programming and production, has a keen eye for talent. After an hourlong meeting with her in Beijing, Worner was certain he wanted Rice on his team.
‘‘Each person is different,’’ he says. ‘‘At times you can have a sportsperson who isn’t that well performed in their sport, but they are exceptional communicators and they become a target you want to speak to, to find out if they want to develop a career on TV.
‘‘Then you have people who are absolute superstars, who it’s very obvious the planets are going to line up for, and they are worth pursuing. Stephanie Rice is in the latter category. It’s difficult for us to say what long-term career she may have in the media industry at this stage, because she’s just a kid.
‘‘She reminds me a lot of Jen Hawkins— there is a lot of potential there, but you don’t know where that is heading. But with Stephanie it’s clear she is someone who is going to dominate headlines and airspace for a while, and for us it was worth forging a relationship with her.’’
One who didn’t take to television until after her swimming career ended was Giaan Rooney.
Rooney, who quit swimming in 2006, was interested in learning about television production and script writing, and with her manager shopped herself around the networks. Nine snapped her up, adding to its stable of former sport stars including Sam Newman, Garry Lyon, Richie Benaud, Mark Taylor and Ian Chappell.
Nine had decided Rooney had a natural charm and potential as a presenter. In two years she has gone from reporter for hire to hosting her own show, Battlefronts.
As for her media talent, Rooney says: ‘‘It’s lovely people say that, but the biggest thing for me is that I have no acting ability, so what you see is what you get.
‘‘I’d much rather be able to say what you’re seeing is me and to be as natural as possible. I think the public is smart enough and perceptive enough to pick up when someone is not being genuine.’’
IT’S a career continue. ‘‘It has been completely satisfying and exceeded my expectations,’’ she says. ‘‘I’d always heard TV isn’t as glamorous as it seems, that there are long days and long hours. But for me I feel so lucky because I love my job every day.
‘‘People ask me what is my dream job and I have to say I’m living it exactly as it is. It’s tricky putting your own personality out into the universe and hoping people like it — that can be quite daunting. But no one has rung me up yet to say, ‘‘Look, this just isn’t working’.’’