If there’s anybody working in Pay TV who would be worth poaching to Free to Air, it would have to be SKY News presenter David Speers.
He’s forged a reputation for his balance, depth of knowledge, wit and an ability to keep talking during ‘rolling coverages.’ For a 24 hour news channel the latter is a pre-requisite.
“You’ve got to be able to keep talking at all times when you’re waiting for something to happen, or analysing something that’s just happened. So you’ve got to be able to have something at your disposal to pull out of your sleeve whenever you need it and that requires a fair bit of research,” he told TV Tonight.
“I guess the longer you spend doing it the easier it becomes.
“It doesn’t really faze me unless it’s a topic that I know nothing about and then I don’t try to pretend. I learned my lessons pretty early that if you don’t try and pretend you should just stop talking.”
During his eleven years with SKY he’s covered live broadcasts of Presidential visits, Royal visits, Budget reports, Election Nights, Leadership coups and Natural Disasters.
“The real challenge is finding enough experts to make a long story, where you know you’re going to be on air all day, compelling,” he says.
“That’s where preparation is key in the weeks beforehand, but you don’t always have that luxury because there are stories that just happen on the spot, such as a Leadership change and that’s when the scramble kicks in.
“When a story is big enough you’ve just got to stick with it, because viewers want to see what the next development is going to be.”
SKY presenters work without a floor manager, but producers advise them via earpieces of guest speakers, upcoming vision and breaking news.
“But a lot of the time all they can say is ‘We still don’t know when this is going to happen so just keep talking.’ They’re sometimes some of the more terrifying moments!
“The hairier moments are when you’re waiting to cross to a Press Conference that you can’t move away from and it’s just delayed and delayed.
“But you can’t go to other news because it’s a very big story, so it requires a fair bit of padding and building expectations. That’s where we’re lucky to have such a great team of commentators that we can draw on.”
The recent visit by the Queen was one moment where the politically-driven Speers was challenged.
“I’ve got to say commentating on a Royal Visit isn’t exactly my forte. I didn’t have a huge amount of information that I could draw on there. So I found that quite daunting in many ways. Having to paint a picture about what she was doing and wearing or how the people were reacting was about as much information as I could share.”
Politics remains his speciality and moderating several Election Debates, at the request of both parties, is indicative of Speers’ credibility.
“Hosting the debates in the last couple of elections with Howard and Rudd and then Gillard and Abbott have been wonderful opportunities,” he says.
“It’s great that both sides respect you enough to give you that sort of job.”
Speers has been based in Canberra for 12 years, working from the SKY News studio in Parliament House. While he commutes to Sydney for his weekly The Nation programme, he remains a big fan of the nation’s capital.
“It’s a beautiful town, I absolutely love it. It’s a small town still in many ways so you can get to anywhere in ten minutes. You finish work and you’re home straight away, you’ve got the mountains around you. I love it.”
But working so closely with those he has to scrutinise does have its awkward side. Socialising in Parliament House with those who are his news subjects requires a deft balancing act.
“It can be tricky because your viewers want you to be honest and truthful, and not to cosy up to the MPs. That’s the last thing you want to do. So there can be awkward moments when you run into them in the coffee queue, or in the corridor when you’ve just been bagging them on air,” Speers admits.
“But we try not to make it personal. It’s about the policy, the party, or what they’ve done. Many of them know when they’ve stuffed up and deserve a whack, but it can be awkward.
“The morning coffee queue is often a great source of chatter about what’s coming up that day and the various issues. So it’s more than just a caffeine hit to queue up.”
Equally, he has a friendly rivalry with journos, all of whom are after the next scoop.
“The good thing about the Press Gallery is that you do compete with each other but by and large everyone is pretty good mates. We all live in Canberra together and work in the same building down the corridor from each other and we often live across the road from each other, so it’s hard not to be good mates,” he says.
“But at the same time you absolutely want to scoop each other when you can, so it’s an interesting relationship.”
No single day better defined the two sides to Speers when he was host of the 2010 ASTRA Awards in Sydney on the same day as the “Spillard”coup in Canberra. He was praised for his charismatic hosting of the awards night and his versatility.
“It was a mad day on the day of the coup, and some very clever scriptwriters made me look slightly amusing. I enjoyed it immensely, getting up on stage and doing something a little bit different.”
It also led to many proposing his name as an Australian Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert. But while he’s a fan of the shows, Speers talks down any such shift.
“I’d love to see something like that on Australian TV, but could I do it? I doubt it. I’m simply not that funny,” he concedes.
“It would be something to think about sure, but it would be a stretch for me, put it that way.
“We don’t have as much fodder in politics and media as the Americans. It’s a pretty shallow pool we play in. So you would need more material to work with, certainly on a daily basis.
“It would mean a big career shift, that you’re not about to go and be a serious journalist again.”
For now he’s happy watching Stewart, Colbert, SKY, ABC, 7:30, Four Corners, and thanks to his 12 month-old baby, an inordinate amount of Kid’s TV.
Speers names Barack Obama as the interview he would most like (he pursued it recently to no avail) or Schapelle Corby, and names veterans like Keating, Hawke and Howard as reliable favourites. The current batch of politicians are usually available to him at some point or another.
When interviewed by TV Tonight, SKY News was still in contention for the Australia Network contract.
“The proposal that SKY put forward is a pretty impressive one, and I think it would be good for what the service is meant to be achieving: a much bigger, stronger, diplomatic voice for Australia, not just in the region but across the world,” he said at the time.
“It’s still a bit of a mystery as to what went on there.”
Finally, Speers says he sees his future as remaining with SKY News, despite some tempting offers from Free to Air broadcasters.
“There have been a couple of approaches over the years but nothing’s come along so far that’s really grabbed me,” he says.
“In the next few years I can’t see anything else that really grabs my attention. SKY News has a lot of growth ahead of it, and a lot of opportunities. The job has changed every year for the last 11 years that I’ve been here and I think that’s going to continue.
“I’m more than happy to stay put.”