TEN legacy: Mott years were bold, says industry.
David Mott's achievements weren't just noisy Reality formats, but bold moves that have changed the TV landscape.
When David Mott came to TEN in September 1996 it was was a turbulent place, having endured 10 different programmers across 17 years.
The son of a West Australian deputy police commissioner, ‘Motty’ had spent 18 years with TVW 7 Perth. By mid 1997 he became Head of Programming at TEN after the departure of Ross Plapp.
Andy McIntyre worked alongside Mott from 1996 to 2004, initially as Business Manager Network Programming and for the last five years as General Manager, Program Finance and Development.
“When David joined TEN in 1996 his influence was immediately apparent…young, energetic and had a manner about him that was impossible not to like,” McIntrye recalls. “He had served an excellent apprenticeship at Seven, knew the key international players and was supportive of TEN’s objective to build better relationships with domestic content suppliers. The advertising climate was improving and TEN was profitable. What it lacked was the prime time line up of domestic product that made Seven and Nine such ratings powerhouses. To take more control of its own destiny, TEN had to commission more local content.”
Mott’s first commission was a bold idea that had been rejected by his predecessor. Boldness would come to define TEN’s style.
“In the bottom drawer he found the pitch document for The Panel,” says Michael Hirsh from Working Dog. “That chance discovery resulted in hundreds and hundreds of hours of original television. In addition to The Panel, The Panel Christmas Wrap, Russell Coight’s All Aussie Adventures, and Thank God You’re Here followed. Thank God you opened that drawer, David, and by the way, the pencil sharpener you needed was in the top one.”
Piloted during the 1998 Winter Olympics, The Panel was questioned by critics as “radio on TV” but the warmth of the ensemble saw it become a brand-defining hit for TEN, enjoying a 7 year run.
In 1999 he signed Good News Week after its 3 year run on the ABC. Fans were outraged at a public broadcaster brand “selling out” to TEN, yet it retained all of its creative team. The show would be revived a second time in 2008 when networks were feeling the effects of the US Writers’ Strike (a period which also saw Rush emerge as a fresh, young cop drama).
After a short stint on Nine, a former Channel 31 host named Rove McManus was given a shot, with a deal inked in the pouring rain at Melbourne Airport’s taxi rank.
There were many non-believers in McManus’ first year, and the show was reviewed and renewed every 13 weeks, but Mott backed McManus into a second season and beyond. The young host helped affirm TEN’s playful and cheeky brand.
Big Brother revolutionised Reality Television. Daringly hosted by a female in Gretel Killeen, it became a prime-time Reality-soap for TEN and triggered waves of pop-culture hysteria across the country, as obsessed fans mimicked Sara-Marie’s ‘bum dance.’ Big Brother would often run out of control as a TV brand and Mott was one of several network execs on call 24/7 to respond to whatever challenges it threw up. There were plenty, stretching all the way to the media regulator and the House of Representatives.
The Big Brother deal with Southern Star also gave life to The Secret Life of Us, a burning, youthful soap from John Edwards and Amanda Higgs.
Australian Idol was commissioned at a time when Seven’s Popstars Series 3 had bombed in the ratings. Across its 7 year run, it created household names, blockbuster ratings and became a TEN “tentpole.”
Mott also backed the broadcasting of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras and the ARIA Awards.
Some ideas were so bold they were arguably ahead of their time. One was the animated chat host, David Tench Tonight.
Anita Jacoby, formerly of Zapruder’s Other Films, remembers: “It was commissioned at the time George Miller was just completing the first Happy Feet movie with animation and motion capture technology being refined by Animal Logic. We were at MIPCOM in October 2005 and over a drink with then CEO, Grant Blackley and Motty, Andrew (Denton) started pitching the idea of an animated talk show host interviewing celebrity guests, in real time. Up until then the closest animated host had been Max Headroom, but this wasn’t in real time. It was all done in post production. Motty loved the idea. He virtually commissioned David Tench Tonight as soon as we returned to Australia.”
But the format, with actor Drew Forsythe as the voice of Tench (named after “Ch. Ten”), hadn’t found its feet, and the audience didn’t know what to make of it. In the crushing world of TV ratings, Tench only lasted 15 episodes -a number that would now be deemed a hit.
Other moves would lead the pack. Under Mott, TEN became the first network to ditch the Sunday Night Movie and replace it with series TV. They said it would never work.
Working with the Fennessy brothers at Crackerjack and FremantleMedia, he stripped a US format, The Biggest Loser, into a primetime nightly format. It was the first time it had been attempted anywhere in the world and set the benchmark for Reality TV storytelling across network schedules.
Michael Cordell, from Cordell Jigsaw, says Mott took a big punt on Bondi Rescue and their new production company in 2005. The show has gone on to reach seven seasons, five Logies and international sales.
“Motty’s been one of the great champions of bold and innovative programming in Australia. But more than that he was always a pleasure to deal with, always ready with a laugh and a smile, even if he was axing one of your shows in the process. It’s hard to imagine the corporate pressures he’s endured,” he says.
Arguably his biggest gamble came in axing Big Brother for a cooking show into primetime.
As TEN’s Head of Drama Rick Maier remembers, “If you were at the Up fronts the year David announced Masterchef you would have heard the crickets. People from every corner of the business thought he had lost the plot. In its second year Masterchef‘s finale was watched by 4.8M. Still a record audience.
“When choosing the Masterchef judges David saw a big guy wearing a cravat. He just had to have him because of his look.”
The ‘MasterChef phenomenon’ phrase bestwed by media became one of his personal triumphs.
Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation brought Shaun Micallef broad commercial success, averaging 1.5million viewers in its first season. The 7PM Project struggled for nearly 12 months, with TEN resisting calls for the axe, before its hosts found a rhythm that brought it a dedicated audience.
The Australian Children’s Television Foundation also nominated TEN as the standout performer in children’s drama, under Kids drama exec Cherrie Bottger.
But there were also gambles that misfired: The Hothouse, The X Factor, The Resort, Yasmin’s Getting Married, Crashburn, The Cooks, Australian Princess, Celebrity Dog School, Guerilla Gardeners and more. Such is the nature of TV. The Renovators failed when viewers felt it had cloned MasterChef’s format too closely, and they were outraged when it was programmed in the middle of the show’s 2011 finale.
On the back of MasterChef and Your Gen‘s success TEN ambitiously sought to realign its channel to a broader audience and pitch ELEVEN to a younger crowd. Together with a massive shot at News and Current Affairs, the move proved to be fatalistic.
TEN has since undergone seismic change from within including a new board and a new CEO. In his time at TEN Mott reported to four different CEO’s and one Acting CEO. Responsibilites, including such shows as The Circle and The Project, were later taken away from his portfolio.
While Offspring, Homeland, The Biggest Loser and Masterchef succeeded in 2012, recent commissions generated negative press: The Shire, Being Lara Bingle, Everybody Dance Now, I Will Survive, Don’t Tell The Bride. There are media reports of “other hands at the wheel”.
“Anyway you slice it this is one helluva body of work,” says Maier. “Fortunately for many of us at TEN, we got to see most of this first hand.
“David’s successor, Beverley McGarvey, takes on the role with her own ideas, and her own vast experience in the industry. Beverley has also had the distinct advantage of working alongside David for the past six years. She will be brilliant.”
Andy McIntyre, now Executive Producer with Rocket Science Entertainment, says, “Motty is boy from the ’burbs and proud of it. He always assessed new content from the viewpoint of a broad suburban audience, TEN’s heartland. That’s not to say he dumbed it down. Good News Week also stands as testament to his appreciation of clever, iconoclastic comedy.
“There’s no doubt we will see Motty re-emerge as a player in the industry he knows and loves. I’d happily be his wingman again anytime.”
Ian Hogg CEO at FremantleMedia added, “David Mott’s legacy will be profound. He is an outstanding television executive, an outstanding father and husband and a great friend to so many people in the business who have learnt so much from him.”
Mott is understood to have left TEN with a 1 year payout of $1.6m, a 6 month non-compete clause, and currently considering his next move.
In departing, he noted he was proud of taking those bold programming risks.
“In a job where you live and die by the numbers, perhaps I’ve been luckier than most,” he said.
“It’s been a great ride, and I’ve loved every second of it. I leave behind a focused and committed creative team and I wish them all the best for the future.”