The sports decider

STEVE KILGALLON.
Last updated 05:00 29/04/2012
Kevin Cameron
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

BACKROOM BOSS: Kevin Cameron will step down as director of sport production at New Zealand's Sky Television after the London Olympics.

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Kevin Cameron remembers when the first action-replay was shown on New Zealand television. The English had just pioneered the technique, and TVNZ had no idea how they had done it, but knew they needed to work it out before a forthcoming Lions tour.

An enterprising technician realised that if they ran a videotape of the game, ripped a hole in the studio wall and fed the tape around the room and back it would take 19 seconds to get there: problem solved. "It confused the shit out of the BBC, who were asking, `How did you do those replays?"' he says.

The Heath Robinson nature of this enterprise should give you an idea of Kevin Cameron's longevity. That Lions tour was in 1971; he's been involved in sports television ever since and for the past two decades has been one of our most influential sporting powerbrokers without ever becoming a headline himself.

If you wanted paid coverage on Sky TV, you had to visit Cameron and he would tell you if you would go to air, how much money you might receive, and even "guide" you on when to play your fixtures.

"I'm happy," he says, "to be in the background, making it all happen, rather than seeking the limelight."

HE IS, they say, a very nice chap, endlessly cheerful, rarely raises his voice, shows unusual loyalty to staff. "The characteristics are probably a patience and a loyalty and support of his teams, both at work and home," says his wife, Jan. Nice suits Sky, which has a near-monopoly on sporting rights that the company wants very dearly to protect.

Cameron says he is not a table-thumping negotiator. He talks about building "harmonious relationships" with national sporting bodies, about trust and respect being the key ingredients of a good rights deal. If the sports are onside (and they are), then a change to the status quo – for example, to the British system of protecting key events like the FA Cup final for free-to-air television – is unlikely.

"We're conscious we're very privileged that the market is as it is," he says. "There is an appreciation that the model is working ... it's hard to know where a lot of these sports would be if pay TV wasn't here, to be honest."

That sports are desperate for the oxygen of television coverage – coverage unlikely to be offered on the ratings-driven free-to-air networks – is most apparent in the revealing fact that smaller sports don't get paid for coverage: in fact, they are expected to contribute to the not-inconsiderable costs of the outside broadcast. Usually, Cameron and the sport try to work out something where the sponsors cover those costs. Some, he says, are "touch and go" financially, but his stance is to show as much as he can: "We have no agenda. We just look at the event, and if we can possibly cover it and it makes sense, we will."

That, in turn, means "guiding" them when might be best to play their matches: "We sometimes need their help to make sure we can get some logical order into things ... it's no coincidence the Breakers [championship-winning basketball team] are on Thursday nights."

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Want someone to blame that sport isn't played on Saturday afternoons any more (perhaps as part of a general lament about the decline of society)? Blame Cameron or, more realistically, blame the truth that nobody watches on Saturday afternoons. "What we have done is point out ... if you want to get the most viewership where people will watch your sport, it is at night. We never dictate to them when to hold their matches, but we can advise them when they will get the most viewers."

Best time? Friday nights. Even the NZRU took some nudging: in year one of Super Rugby, he smiles, they wanted to play games on a Thursday afternoon.

He is also the man responsible for wall-to-wall televised sport. The "too much of a good thing" argument is dismissed: Sky, he says, is about giving people choice and plenty of it. An example, he says, is English Premier League football. Perhaps as few as 5000 subscribers buy Sky purely for the soccer, but if they are paying $10 a week for 52 weeks, it begins to add up to a good deal.

He watches plenty. "I still get up at 3am to watch a game. It's what I do Monday to Friday, and then most of the weekend. Occasionally I might take my wife out for dinner if she behaves."

Asked if there is a sport he dislikes, he ponders, then explains how he didn't think much about curling (the one where blokes furiously scrub the ice as a large lump of stone slides along) until he was forced to learn about it for the Winter Olympics. Now he loves its "dramatic elements". His wife, Jan, calls across the lounge of their North Shore home: "He loves curling."

Sky has also been criticised, at times, for acting as a cheerleader. It's apparent the company's commentators aren't perceived as journalists: callers are instructed to "inform and entertain". Three years ago, Murray Mexted complained of being muzzled when he criticised the NZRU's decision to cull four teams from the national provincial championship, saying Cameron sent him a letter pointing out the Rugby Union was a commercial partner and he should "refrain from being critical".

Cameron is cheerfully unapologetic for this stance. "It's not in our interests to be negative in our commentary, we don't want people turning off. What we do is encourage guys to accentuate the positive. Generally, there is a way of looking at anything in a positive light: so it's more of a fantastic sidestep than a pathetic tackle."

Cameron says the sports are happy for criticism, as long as it doesn't get personal. "But we don't want that either. The last thing we want ... is for people to turn off the set, it doesn't do us any good."

KEVIN CAMERON'S first job in television was ironing the isobars on to the weather map. He was a teenage cadet at the old New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation.

Life swiftly became more glamorous: early highlights included directing Elton John playing live on local magazine show Town and Around. He soon moved into sport, as a reporter, had a brief diversion to South Pacific Pictures, which produced some "sport" if you counted the wrestling show On the Mat, then became northern sports editor (his southern counterpart was Keith Quinn) when TVNZ re-merged in 1980.

Come the Springbok tour of 1981, Cameron was seated in the director's chair. He says he was philosophically against the tour, but felt professionally, he had a job to do. He was assigned to direct the tour opener against Waikato, the game that didn't happen when the protesters, pursued by the Red Squad, stormed Rugby Park. It was his uncle, the Waikato chairman Frank O'Connor, who had to tell the spectators there would be no rugby.

Cameron's two abiding memories are of camera three operator Alan Silvester being pelted with tin cans and asking permission to leave his post. He acquiesced, only after Silvester got a widely syndicated shot of the disgruntled crowd banging on the tin fence and chanting "we want rugby". And he remembers sitting next to Kim Shippey, the South African commentator, "more English than the English in terms of his accent, ignoring all this drama and saying things like `it's a beautiful day in Hamilton, and we're looking forward to a super game of rugby"'.

Cameron was rostered on again for the final test. There were severe restrictions; police limited them to three cameras and made the TVNZ staff report for the game at 7.30am and sit in a dressing room until 1pm. Protesters broke into the sound unit before security got them, and Cameron was chastised by TVNZ bosses for failing to cut to camera three in time to see All Black Gary Knight get a bag of flour on the head.

His first experience of a big international event had been the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games, told to drive a replay machine and able to watch John Walker, Dick Tayler and Jaynie Parkhouse's "beautiful smile", and he was hooked. His story then becomes delineated by these occasions: the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics in 1984 and 88, the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1986. He was executive producer of the 1990 Commonwealth Games, when TVNZ was host broadcaster. He presented an elaborate plan to boss Julian Mounter which required four extra outside broadcast vans, then he and engineer Bill Pearson toured the country persuading each office to conjure up an OB unit from leftover gear fitted into a shipping container.

Soon after, he left, one of the first handful of employees of the nascent Sky Television as it launched with a modest three channels. "I didn't know much about pay TV, but I sensed here could be some good opportunities – particularly for sport." His wife Jan – in 1990, they had just married – remembers him fielding the offer from Sky. "I said `I think you should take it, it's a really exciting initiative'," she says. They began, modestly, with English football, some rugby league and some American sport from ESPN. Then TVNZ allowed them to cover some second-division rugby games they didn't want, and so Sky's first real live game was, he says, Counties against King Country at Pukekohe, with two cameras powered by a car battery: "Basic, but a start."

"In those early days, they [the established networks] didn't take us too seriously," he says, although Mounter had the vision to ensure TVNZ took an initial 35 per cent stake in Sky. However, they soon divested that. "I think they might have regretted that."

The tipping point perhaps came in 1995, when Sky took the cricket rights from TVNZ, signed a deal with the NZRU for Super rugby and the All Blacks and secured the newly launched Warriors and NRL. "Obviously back then there was resistance: `How come I am paying for all this stuff I have always had?"'

But buying the big sports helped. "There wasn't a big [subscriptions] spike, but we continued growing on this lovely incline," he says.

It was a quick decline for free-to-air sport: last year, TVNZ all but shut down their sports production unit.

Every year, there is a three-day rights scramble in Monte Carlo called Sportel, where distributors and rights owners flog off their wares. Each year Cameron would return home with multiple chunks of overseas action. "To be honest, for a while we did quite well because they didn't know too much about New Zealand. We are a small market, so that was something we could say with hand on heart, but it's fair to say they got a slight impression we might have been a Third World country wearing grass skirts."

Nowadays, they can hardly pull that stunt. The Rugby World Cup, for which the company was host broadcaster, sending pictures around the globe, was a huge operation, including covering eight matches in three days at six venues, and they now produce 350 "event days" (that is, sports fixtures) a year, including one day recently where they managed to show a Super Rugby game, a cricket test, a Wellington Phoenix football match, a New Zealand Breakers basketball game and the national swimming championships. Cameron had to make up the numbers and direct the swimming.

After 22 years at the helm of Sky's sports coverage, Cameron's final assignment – he retires on New Year's Eve – is to produce the Olympics. A record 74 staff will go to London, sending back 13 high-definition feeds for eight dedicated channels. He already knows to the minute the entire schedule for the Games. This is a long way from punching holes in walls for rudimentary replays.

He's retiring, he says, because of his age, because he's about to complete the second of the two big events he'd looked forward to, and because it has, at times, been a seven-day-a-week job. However, he intends to do some project work for Sky. There is, after all, another Olympics in four years. "I can't imagine," he notes, "playing bowls every day of the week."

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CANBERRA

It was 1961. The Takapuna 10th grade rugby team, unbeaten those past three years in Auckland, toured Sydney to seek greater triumphs. A 14-year-old Kevin Cameron was billeted with his opposite number, Geoff Murphy. Murphy's sister Jan came home from a swim meet, hair dripping, and her mother introduced her to their Kiwi visitor with the words "Jan is going to be an Olympic swimmer".

"Our eyes met, and there was a little bit of chemistry," recalls Cameron. But soon he was flying home, and for the next six years, they were pen-pals: a period in which Jan Murphy won an Olympic silver medal, two Commonwealth silvers and a bronze. Then, retired from competitive swimming, she came to Dunedin to open the new Moana Pool, and seizing his opportunity, Cameron invited her to stay on and tour the country. Before she left for home, they were engaged.

But Jan Murphy's burgeoning coaching career and teaching studies and Cameron's television aspirations meant neither would cross the Tasman. They parted, not to see each other for two decades.

Murphy would marry Olympic swim coach Don Talbot, have a son (champion swimmer Scott) and coach in Canada and the US before returning to Australia.

Cameron married and had four children. Both, coincidentally, split from their spouses in 1989.

A year later, Murphy bumped into former swimmer Kevin Berry, now head of sport for the Australian channel ABC, who knew the tale and mentioned Cameron.

Berry, was, says Murphy, "our cupid" and the "timing was just right". They began corresponding again; Cameron says "the heart went pitter-patter" and he visited her in Canberra. The same year they were married in the Blue Mountains near Sydney.

The now Jan Cameron, of course, forged a second career in New Zealand as the national coach and then high-performance director for Swimming NZ. "New Zealand has been great for me, it has been a wonderful journey, these 21 years," she says. Now retired, she does some swimming commentaries for Sky.

"I can tell her what to do, for a change," says Cameron of his famously formidable wife.

"It would be fair to say we have been very blessed that it has all worked out for us how it did. It's a pretty neat story."

- Sunday Star Times

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