Paul Whittaker on Sky News audience growth, politics and accountability

• TV news boss on how TV ratings can be brutal as they deliver a verdict

Foxtel’s Australian news channel, News Corp-owned Sky News Australia, this week embarks on a major marketing campaign coinciding with the expansion of Alan Jones’ role at the channel. It is the biggest programming change at the channel under chief executive Paul Whittaker.

Sky News Australia had been under the control former CEO and managing editor Angelos Frangopoulos since 2000. Frangopoulos stood down for a role with Sky News Arabia in late-2018, leaving a position vacant for a senior newsperson at News Corp’s TV news channel.

That role went to the former editor-in-chief of The Australian, Paul Whittaker. While some critics think Whittaker pushed the new channel to the right in evenings, it was already a path that Frangopoulos had navigated when Paul Murray and Jones signed on and the ratings started to climb.

Since Whittaker took over those ratings have continued to lift, but not just in evenings. He has seen audience growing from breakfast until midnight indicating his move from newspapers to television has been a major success. (See separate feature on latest Sky News ratings.)

The former editor of The Australian and The Daily Telegraph had a brief from News Corp Australia group director of broadcasting Siobhan McKenna “to continue expanding Sky News to reach more Australians”.

That is exactly what has happened in the past 20 months. The latest investment to grow that audience even more arrives on Monday July 6 in the form of Alan Jones in a new 8pm Monday – Thursday timeslot. While Jones has been with the channel since 2013, this is his first daily show under his own name.

The last time Jones had a daily show was 1994 and his profile and TV skills are a lot more polished now. While he is a polarising figure, it would be a major surprise if Jones didn’t attract extra viewers pretty quickly.

As to why Whittaker chose TV instead of staying with newspapers, he told Mediaweek: “It was the opportunity to run a P&L as much as anything else. I’d been a newspaper editor for 12 years. I certainly knew the challenges of P&L in terms of taking The Australian to profitability, but running a new P&L was the main attraction. Getting the chance to run a business from top to bottom, but also having the ability to run the editorial side of the business as well. It’s quite a unique position in that regard, that you’re the chief executive, but also the managing editor.”

Tom Connell and Annelise Nieslen – AM Agenda

The biggest difference in TV perhaps was the speed at which TV needs to adapt to breaking stories. “You have to be ready to respond quickly,” Whittaker said.

And then there are the ratings. A minute-by-minute analysis of everything that happened, delivered just nine hours after primetime ends each day.

Television ratings are truly brutal. They’re unforgiving and they certainly concentrate the mind. By that I mean you know almost straight away, right down to the minute, if someone works well on television, or frankly, if they suck. There’s no real escaping that fact. No matter how much you might think the content works from your own perspective, the ratings can tell you a different story.”

Although Whittaker only got a week’s notice about his new role, he’d spent time with Frangopoulos in the past after being appointed to the board of Sky News Australia in May 2018. The Australian and Sky News had also collaborated over the years on some programming.

Andrew Clennell, Ashleigh Gillon and Kieran Gilbert – Sky News political team

The impact of Covid-19 has boosted the audience at Sky News. Whittaker: “If you look at our record, we’ve been the number one channel for the last 22 weeks on Foxtel, largely in the absence of live sport, but what’s been very encouraging is that a younger demographic has found Sky in this period.

“There’s been a general hunger for credible information and people have gravitated to us in that regard.”

Sky News has invested in some serious talent behind the camera in the past few years. Mark Calvert (ex-Nine head of news and current affairs), Chris Willis (ex-Seven News Sydney chief) and Jessica Burton (ex-creative head at Nine’s 60 Minutes) have all joined.

Audience didn’t leave when David Speers did

In front of the camera investments have included the arrival of The Australian’s Andrew Clennell in Canberra as political editor.

The losses included the departure of David Speers to the ABC. “David had a fantastic record here, and we only wish him well, but Kieran Gilbert stepped up strongly to become the network’s first chief news anchor to lead the Canberra bureau,” said Whittaker.

“The time slots that were previously hosted by David have all grown. Sunday’s Agenda has grown by 14%. That was previously Speers on Sunday. Afternoon Agenda in that time slot has seen audience increase of 28% between 4pm and 5pm, which was an hour that David did. And the Kenny Report which we moved from midday to 5pm, that’s up 35%.”

Whittaker and his team have worked ad revenue hard too. “I’ve had a very big focus in terms of advertising on not just our programmatic and dynamic advertising, but on direct sales. We’ve only had a direct sales team for a couple of years. It’s only a small team, but if you look at the sort of content that we’ve been producing, one of the series that I started was Our Town with Paul Murray where we visit regional and rural locations across Australia.

Even though we were interrupted by COVID in terms of live audiences, we’ve kept Harvey Norman on for a second year, Sony, and Commonwealth Bank came on this year.

Sky News remains right at night

Andrew Bolt

The highest-rating programming are the evening hours, which you would expect at any TV station. But the evenings on Sky News almost turn it into a different channel.

“I would argue we have a lot more pluralistic views than some of the other channels who talk about their independence,” said Whittaker. “Our business value proposition is that we give you a centre right positioning, and a political perspective in that regard. Not just running from that perspective, but also hearing other points of view. Our hosts don’t all sing from the same song sheet. They all approach issues from different perspectives.

“People tackle a whole bunch of issues and our hosts aren’t all prescriptive. One host often will disagree completely with another host. I mean, of course that’s never reflected in some of the commentary, but the truth is Andrew Bolt had a strong position in relation to George Pell and Paul Murray had a different one.

“We have lots of different voices and lots of the guests come from very different areas. Often we’ll have Stephen Conroy and Michael Kroger tackling a particular issue and giving a perspective from both sides of politics. We do that right through the day and the night in terms of our coverage. We invite many people on, some come on, some don’t come on. But it’s not for a lack of inviting them.

Alan Jones: ‘He’s not perfect’

Alan Jones

Alan Jones makes more headlines for his controversies than his broadcasting ratings record. Whittaker: “Alan has had an amazing 35 year career, and he’s an incredible broadcaster, and he’s been doing this for 20 hours of live radio a week. He’s also human. He can make a mistake, and the thing is that when you’re broadcasting that amount of content, mistakes will happen. I challenge anyone to do what he’s done and think they could do the same, and never make a mistake. But if you make a mistake, you’ve got to correct it, and in terms of that, we passionately debate and discuss the issues on the national agenda through our journalism, commentary, analysis, which is important to a healthy democracy, and we’re committed to doing that in a way that meets editorial, journalistic, and community expectations.”

When asked if he was concerned if some people might lobby for an Alan Jones ad boycott at Sky News, Whittaker said: “Some advertisers, maybe it’s more often the media buyers representing certain brands, don’t apply the same standards to the social media platforms, whereas we know, given the state of traditional media, they spend a lot more money. But they never hold them to the same account for the vile and hateful abuse, fake news, outrageous claims that they facilitate the publishing of. It’s interesting that recent events show that may be changing. But it is interesting, whereas responsible media companies and broadcasters are totally responsible for all the content they produce, and have to be accountable for it, and are.”

A week ago 6pm Sky News host Peta Credlin responded to mistake she made on air, issuing a swift apology.

Whittaker: “If we make the mistake, it’s pure and simple, we have to correct it in a timely fashion. And we do. That’s only appropriate. I’ve done that during my whole career, running newspapers, and equally here. We are responsible for what we broadcast if we make a mistake, and certainly in Peta’s case, Peta very rarely makes a mistake, but she owned up to the mistake. She took accountability for it, as we did. She apologised, we apologised, and in fact she apologised on air and she reached out to the South Sudanese community leaders in a meeting where she listened to their concerns over some two hours.”

Sky News documentary programming

Whittaker: “We’ve produced four investigative documentaries in the past 12 months. We did Bad Blood New Blood on the rise and fall of Malcolm Turnbull and the ascension of Scott Morrison.

“We did Lawyer X with the Herald Sun. We did MH370 which was our highest rating documentary to date. That did fantastic numbers, close to 600,000 viewers on Foxtel alone. Our most recent documentary, not so much in the investigative category, was The Death of the Aussie Larrikin which was number one on Foxtel, like all the other documentaries, and we were the number one channel that night as well, with 4% share.”

Trump for President coverage

In addition to the Federal Budget and the Queensland election, both due in October, the channel will also be focusing on the US poll in November.

“We’ve assembled a very good team of that, including our contributors and panellists.

“We’ve got Joe Hockey who we recently signed exclusively to Sky News as a US political contributor. Miranda Devine, who’s been doing some great work at the New York Post, who’s a regular contributor on Sky News as well, and The Australian‘s Washington correspondent and Sky News contributor, Cameron Stewart. Along with our own people who, depending on COVID restrictions, we plan to send to America, it’s going to be a very big focus.”

Top Photo: Paul Whittaker

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