Bevan Hurley

Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

Mr Big - Paul Henry

Paul Henry: Is he the biggest broadcast talent we’ve ever exported? Or just the biggest ego?

Paul Henry was never far from controversy as co-host of TVNZ's 'Breakfast'. Photo / Doug Sherring
Paul Henry was never far from controversy as co-host of TVNZ's 'Breakfast'. Photo / Doug Sherring

Even before setting foot in Australia, Paul Henry's big mouth has been getting him into trouble. His boasts of a million dollar-plus salary ruffled a few feathers across the ditch, where well established breakfast TV stars earn a fraction of that amount.

Then came his remarks about taking a call from new boss Lachlan Murdoch because he came from a rich family. Classic self aggrandising Henry. Last week he revealed commercially sensitive details about the start date of his new Breakfast show on Network Ten.

Taken as a whole they have raised a few eyebrows in Aussie media circles and even come across as the views of a pompous, to-the-manor-born type-a big no-no in fair dinkum, egalitarian Australia.

Coffee, cornflakes and television: Breakfast in Australia is big business. The TV networks rake in $110 million worth of annual advertising revenues, with all but a few crumbs going to established heavyweights Sunrise on Channel 7, and Nine Network's Today.

Kiwi import Paul Henry - boasting shamelessly of a shock-jock curriculum vitae, a million-dollar-plus salary and personal phonecalls from the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch-confidently expects to turn the industry on its head when he steps into the Breakfast studio at Network Ten in the New Year. If he can call Scottish singer Susan Boyle "retarded", surely he can take on Australia's toughest stars of stage and screen.

Locals aren't so sure.

So is Paul Henry New Zealand's biggest- ever broadcast export or just this country's biggest ego?

Aussie media personality and motormouth Peter FitzSimons knows better than most the demands placed on breakfast television hosts - his wife Lisa Wilkinson has been a co-host on the Today show for four years.

"I have seen close up the amount of energy and time that is required. It is the most keenly fought TV battleground in Australia. They throw millions of dollars and huge resources into it," he says.

FitzSimons believes Henry will be cast as an agent provocateur to take on the established heavyweights, but says his style of manufactured controversy is tough to pull off in a different culture.

"The question will likely be asked as to why we are importing loud-mouth know-alls when we already have so many of our own - and I can say that with some authority, because I am one," FitzSimons says.

"The difference is, when I go to New Zealand I pull back on my non-rugby loud-mouth views because I am a guest in your fine country and, while you Kiwis might like to attack your politicians, et cetera, you'll be damned if you want to hear me, as an Australian, attack them. So I shut my mouth. It is not my place.

"How does he get around that? I dinkum don't know if he can, but we'll see."

FitzSimons says the big boys at Seven and Nine will look to stomp all over Network Ten's attempts to gain a foothold.

"The elephants will dance on this. It looks to me that right from the beginning it will be difficult for him but I have been wrong before, and wish him well."

Henry owns a palatial home in Albany and loves expensive cars and flash boats. He was romantically linked to several of his former TVNZ colleagues and had a relationship with businesswoman Diane Foreman in 2008.

When the couple split, Henry returned to his radio producer girlfriend Linzi Dryburgh, who he is still with today.

He had a glimpse of his new glamorous Sydney lifestyle last weekend when he popped across the Tasman.

He was taken to Ten's sumptuous studios in Sydney's Darling Harbour, a world away from RadioLive's poky Ponsonby bunker.

He met his new co-host Andrew Rochford, a qualified doctor, for the first time and they discussed who would be filling the third presenter's chair.

The following day Sarah Murdoch, wife of Network Ten boss Lachlan, announced she was leaving her presenting role at Australia's Next Top Model, sparking speculation that she would join Henry on Breakfast.

Murdoch, a former supermodel-turned- TV-star, would add much needed glamour to the show, says Australian publicity mogul Max Markson.

That is because, while those in the media business are becoming aware of Henry, Joe Public has no idea.

"He could walk down the street naked and not get arrested - no one has a clue who he is," says Markson.

The might of Ten's publicity machinery will kick into gear in the new year, Markson predicts, providing Henry with appearances across Ten's range of shows. He could well be a huge star in Australia - but he will have to earn it.

Markson's advice? Reel in as many big name interviews in his first week. "In the first week he should pull his biggest mates in. Peter Jackson, Sam Neill. Russell Crowe is a good get."

"If he really wants to pull the ratings then getting Sir Edmund Hillary on the show would be the way to do it," the publicity guru jokes.

And to justify his princely wage, Henry should be aiming to pull in 10 per cent of the ratings in his first year, then 20 per cent in the second year.

"This is TV, ratings build slowly over time. If he can pull some of his tricks out of the bag, then he will pull ratings," Markson adds.

After jetting back in from Sydney, Henry has had a busy week. He has been filming four episodes back-to-back of Would I Lie To You, as well as juggling his RadioLive commitments. He has a lot of work to complete, a lot of contracts to fulfil or tear up before his shift across the Tasman in the New Year.

He will stay on as Australian correspondent for RadioLive but his departure just months into a long-term contract leaves a gaping hole at a station that is already missing the suspended Michael Laws.

Privately, some at the top of MediaWorks feel they have been left high and dry by Henry - foremost among them the chief executive. "Sussan Turner bent over backwards to accommodate Henry on his terms," says one source.

Some were surprised that MediaWorks didn't use him in a morning time slot on television or radio, where he would have drawn tens of thousands of his loyal fans away from TVNZ.

Then, just before Henry signed with Network Ten, a rumour was put about that Henry was being lined up to replace Mark Sainsbury at Close Up.

"Lachlan Murdoch would have heard about that," the source said. "Henry could have been leveraging his salary opportunities."

Announcing the move across the ditch on 3News, Henry said that the job had come up as a result of his attempts to crack the US market earlier this year.

"Your name goes on a list that you never see," he said. "It's a lottery, I suppose."

He joked about calling Murdoch's private jet over to pick him up for a weekend trip. "That's a good family to be part of."

One of Henry's biggest fans is former TVNZ news boss Anthony Flannery, who will be his new boss at Network Ten.

Also joining the Breakfast show is former TVNZ producer Sarah Bristow, who has been close to Henry in recent years.

Eyebrows have been raised in the Aussie media by his candour about how much he says he'll be paid: more than NZ$1 million a year, he said. That places him well above Today's Karl Stefanovic, who reportedly earns about A$500,000 a year, and Sunrise's David Koch on A$400,000.

Henry is promising to go in "all guns blazing", but he won't be the only Kiwi ex-pat on breakfast TV. Former popstar and telly star Richard Wilkins is entertainment editor at Nine Network and a daily contributor to the top-rating morning show Today.

When he moved to Bondi Beach in the 1980s, Wilkins says he had difficulty even renting a television from a local shop. "My transition on to TV was not as instant or spectacular as Henry's."

With a daily audience of up to four million viewers, Wilkins welcomes the competition that Henry will bring and says it won't change anything that he or their show does. "Bring it on."

In a week when Henry interviewed the secretary of the Council of Trade Unions and new Labour leader David Shearer, Wilkins scored exclusive chats with George Clooney and Daniel Craig. No pressure, then.

Wilkins says Network Ten positions itself as the youth station. "So I guess they wanted someone to ruffle a few feathers and create a few headlines.

"Lachlan is a bright guy and he has media running through his veins. I am sure he will be encouraged to throw a little fuel on the fire. Live TV is a pretty dangerous beast. We have all put our feet into touch.

"But Henry's obviously a talented guy. I'm sure they will be pushing the heck out of him."

He may have been unwise to overstep the mark by revealing February 27 as the start date of the Breakfast show.

"There will be plenty of people in our programming department who will be taking a keen interest in that," says Wilkins.

He also questions the wisdom of revealing the salary. "It's a big sum of money. Why anyone would want to boast about it, I don't know.

"If you can get it you are probably worth it. Those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs that we enjoy especially in the frontline of TV probably get more credit than we deserve when things go right and get bagged more when things don't. But salary, with religion, is probably best kept quiet."

Australian politics are on a knife edge. The threat of a coup hangs over the prime minister. And Wilkins says heavy-hitting political interviews on breakfast TV can cause major ripples.

"If we have a senior political figure that can set the agenda for talkback radio throughout the day. That follows on to evening news and current affairs television."

The anti-Kiwi sentiment has died down in recent years, he says, and they really do quite like us over there. "When push comes to shove, we are brothers in arms. We have more similarities than differences and if you undid a couple of layers of skin there is a deep affection."

Markson is upbeat about Henry's chances. Be yourself, he advises. Have lots of fun, enjoy it.

"When he first goes to air they will all criticise him. The show will get panned. Then after a couple of weeks he will grab an audience who will love him.

"Then after about three months he will start rating - and then it will be how good the ratings are. You have to break people's habits."

Despite Australians' reputations as being thick-skinned, Henry will have to tread a fine line between making a stir and turning off viewers altogether.

Aussie shock-jock "Vile" Kyle Sandilands came under fire for using his morning radio show to abuse a female journalist who had dared to criticise him - but this week he topped the radio ratings survey.

"Sexist, racist, religious remarks, they all court controversy," says Markson. "Controversy always works. The advertisers will always come back. You need shock in television because otherwise it just becomes like wallpaper. You have to swear once in a while."

But Henry already knows that. He's no retard.

THE LIFE OF PAUL

Paul Henry was born in Auckland and moved to England when his parents split up. He grew up in a council house in Bristol, southwest England.

He started his broadcasting career with the BBC then attended drama school.

In 1978 he returned to New Zealand and worked for National Radio for two years. He then returned to the BBC.

From 1986 to 1990 Henry worked as a breakfast host on 2ZD Radio Wairarapa with a fictitious chook called Gungadin. He also worked with Radio Pacific.

His first role on television was the game show, Every Second Counts, which ran for two seasons from 1988.

He was later host of This Is Your Life and a back-up host for Close Up.

In 1999, contesting the conservative Wairarapa electorate for the National Party, he lost to transgender former prostitute Georgina Beyer.

His profile increased when he took over as the co-host of TVNZ's Breakfast in 2004, with Kay Gregory then Pippa Wetzell for nearly six years.

He was never far from controversy.

March 2009: ridiculed the facial hair of Greenpeace worker Stephanie Mills, commenting "that's a moustache on a lady".

August 2009: referred to homosexuals as "unnatural".

October 2009: interviewed psychic Deb Webber who told him she had seen toddler Aisling Symes in a ditch or a hole in West Auckland.

November 2009: described Scottish singer Susan Boyle, the winner of Britain's Got Talent, as "retarded".

Henry resigned from TVNZ in October last year after he caused a diplomatic furore by ridiculing the name of Indian diplomat Sheila Dikshit and questioning whether the-then Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand, was "even a New Zealander".

Earlier this year he released a memoir, What Was I Thinking, shortly before TV3 owner MediaWorks announced it had hired him to host a radio show and TV talkshow.

Henry has three daughters with former wife Rachael Hopes.

- Herald on Sunday

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