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IWD Special 7 Mar 2021 - 5 min read

Nine’s first ‘female cameraman’ reflects on Kerry Packer and progress

By Michele O'Neill - Director of Powered Enterprise, Nine

At 64, Michele O’Neill has gone full circle from the first women on a broadcast camera 40 years ago at Nine to an international advertising career and now back to Nine. Tales of Kerry Packer aside, she’s a “kid in a candy store” with her new gig. 

I’m like a kid in a candy store even though I just turned 64.

Michele O'Neill

Kerry Packer, publicity and Paul Hogan

I joined Channel Nine in the late 1970s when I was 20. Kerry Packer was the Big Boss. I use capitals because he was a capitals kind of man, especially when he was swearing - it always started with a giant “F”. His voice carried far; all the way from Sydney to Melbourne when the ratings were down. The only voice louder was Leslie in the canteen.

Back then Channel Nine employed women as wardrobe ladies and makeup girls. There were some in publicity, there were several on the switchboard, and everyone who typed. A good dozen women made up the achingly glamourous Channel Nine ballet, three fabulous backing singers for the Don Lane Show and one very clever Delvine Delaney - by far the smartest foil to Paul Hogan. Women were doing well as researchers and producers too. But walk down to Studio 9 or up to the carpeted management suite and testosterone was hanging heavy in the air.

I had never heard the phrase ‘The Boys Club’. Men were in charge and for the most part, women were there to help around the edges. It reminds me of the Athenaeum Club in Melbourne which I think still has a rule that even though women cannot be members, they are permitted to work there to serve the men. 

Camera-woman-man

Some of us just wanted more.  In 1979 I was completing my economics degree at Monash, juggling a part time job in Channel Nine’s Art Department doing props, but I was desperate to be a camerawoman. Only thing was, no woman had ever done that job in Australian commercial television. 

My mother had told me two things; if you don’t ask you don’t get and that I, her youngest, had hutzpah. So off I went to Ron Davis and Wally Ritter in Operations to pitch my idea. Afterall, it was the Decade for Women (the UN had decreed a weird decade stretching from 1975-1985) and surely this would be progressive and newsworthy, no?  The louder they laughed, the more I asked. I finally wore those poor men down. They had run out of reasons to say no. What I thought was the most fantastic idea was to Ron and Wally a risky experiment. That’s how men spoke to women about professional development forty years ago. But no matter, they were willing to give me a go.

On my first day, I couldn’t contain my excitement, I ran to the notice board to look for my roster. There it was: Michele O’Neill. “Female Camera Man”. A gentle request to change it to Camerawoman was rejected. I was literally trapped between two worlds.

Bathroom elite

Management decided Wardrobe should dress me in a black jump suit with shoestring straps to work the Logies, rather than a tuxedo.  Sure, I carried a heavy backpack as part of a remote crew. My back bled that night while the men wore dinner suits, well padded, no pain. As for a loo, I had to run to the other end of the Hilton as I was forbidden from using the nearby toilet designated for the male crew. 

Don’t even ask me about learning to cover the cricket or the wrestling. But I did get to drive one of those big grey and blue Bosch Fernseh cameras. And I learnt to follow a tennis ball hung and spun from a lighting grid; follow it, focus, zoom, back out, rack, track and again.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, it did. And some things you just need to get out of your system, I did. But so much stuck; like never taking no without a solid supportable reason.And how to produce 90 minutes of content in a ten-hour day.

I would later move on to advertising, an industry where I learned to make 30 seconds of content in a year. It wasn’t much prettier than TV at the time but later moving to London gave me the chance to meet and work for amazing women.I could train from the best as a brand strategist and make it to the board of Ogilvy London at 33.

Full female circle - at 64

Fast forward and I’ve come home to Nine, a company that bears no resemblance to the Channel Nine I left in 1983. 

First up I report to a powerhouse of a wonderful woman, Liana Dubois. Together with my clever counterpart in Melbourne Nicki Kenyon, we’re a start-up called Powered Enterprise. We’re creating opportunities for clients that draw on the depth and breadth of Nine to solve problems creatively in ways only Nine’s arsenal can. I’m surrounded by smart, strong, creative and kind women and men to help me do that.

This company has grown into something really special, and I couldn’t be more excited, I’m like a kid in a candy store even though I just turned 64.

When I walk through Nine’s shiny, sustainable new complex in North Sydney, women are in leadership and senior roles on and at every level. I take the elevator to Level 9 to meet Lizzie Young who leads Marketing and all the state managing directors. The executive suite includes CFO Maria Philips, Director of People and Culture Vanessa Morley, General Counsel and Company Secretary Rachel Launders and Director of Communications and Government Relations Vic Buchan. I wish I could magic up a Delorean right now and go back to the future to that carpeted C Suite in Bendigo Street. Oh to see their faces!

Down on Level 6 Lisa Davies is the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper about to turn 190, that waited a rather long 180 years to appoint a woman to the top role. Lisa is joined by her peers National Editor Tory Maguire and in Melbourne The Age’s Gay Alcorn. 

Happy place

My happy place is visiting Level 1. It takes me back to the sense of ‘live coming to you now’ that I remember from GTV. It’s the heartbeat of Nine and in the 9News Sydney newsroom women are throughout. Importantly, there is now an equal representation in the leadership not present decades before. Assignments are given to three chiefs of staff, two of whom are women. 

I meet the leaders of the iconic TV franchises; Today’s EP is Steve Burling, I’m also introduced to Fiona Dear from A Current Affair and Kirsty Thomson who heads 60 Minutes. I think how many hands I’m shaking that are women. I’m feeling very proud. At the helm of the large hub and spoke desked newsroom are Sydney news director Simon Hobbs and deputy news director Mary Davison. The crew on this 24-hour news ship are women and men with an energy and drive that is palpable.

My new job here at Nine is to solve problems for our clients creatively. It’s proven that the more diverse the people you bring to a problem, the better the outcome. Not just diversity of gender, but culture, age, experience and ways of thinking. It’s a commercial and social imperative. I think Nine is doing well on gender, but we know we have more to do elsewhere.

Oh, and I have some other good news – these days there’s a loo just around the corner.

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