The greatest showman: Australian TV loses a legend
Brian Walsh, one of Australia’s longest-serving and influential television executives, has died, aged 68. In a storied career which spanned almost five decades, Walsh held senior posts at the Ten Network, Britain’s Sky Broadcasting, Sky TV in Asia and Australia’s Foxtel.
Walsh played an instrumental part in the early careers of stars such as Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. He also spearheaded the Simply The Best marketing campaign, featuring singer Tina Turner, that transformed the branding of rugby league in the 1990s.
Legendary Australian television executive Brian Walsh has died.Credit:Janie Barrett
Walsh – or Walshie, as he was known to his friends and colleagues – was one of Australian television’s genuine pioneers. He brought innovation, marketing, and an international perspective to the industry when it was only beginning to grasp those ideas.
He was also an old-fashioned showman, who sent moving trucks to Channel Seven in Sydney when Ten bought Neighbours, even though the show was filmed in Melbourne, and who had mastered the art of filling a room, whether it was a small theatrette, or a football stadium.
Brian Walsh at the launch of the Foxtel drama Love My Way in 2006.Credit:Janie Barrett
In the 1990s, when he launched his own company, The Promotions Department, he handled the marketing of the NSW rugby league, and was an instrumental part of bringing Tina Turner to Australia as part of the Simply The Best campaign.
But he was, as he often said, just a “starry-eyed kid from the suburbs”, who grew up with a passion for film and television, and got his start driving through Australia’s small towns, showing surf movies in local cinemas.
There was also another side of Brian. To his close friends, he was referred to as “BW”, a great friend, and a great mentor. His enthusiasm was intoxicating. After decades in senior positions, simply securing a magazine cover or newspaper story on a new TV show thrilled him.
Walsh began his career with the ABC, swerved into the production and distribution of surf movies at Palm Beach Pictures and then landed a gig as a radio promotions guy working for the Sydney radio station 2SM.
When he joined the Ten Network, Walsh began to create what would become an enduring perception of him: an old-school showman. He was behind the launch of the iconic Kennedy-Miller television dramas, The Dirtwater Dynasty, and two projects which starred a then-rising star named Nicole Kidman, Vietnam and Bangkok Hilton.
He was also instrumental in Ten’s decision to take on a show ditched by its rival Seven, Neighbours. Under Walsh’s watchful eye, the series was repackaged, added stars like Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Guy Pearce to its roster, and became a national institution for three decades.
When he was at Ten, Walsh also refined a keen passion for sport. He handled the publicity for two Summer Olympics, 1984 in Los Angeles and 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. At that time Ten was also broadcasting rugby league, a sport in which Walsh would rise to some prominence.
When Walsh left Ten to open his own company in 1989, his first client was the New South Wales Rugby League. “At the time the game was not in great shape, there were a lot of issues with on-field thuggery, if you will, and most importantly a lot of parents weren’t letting their kids play junior rugby league,” Walsh said.
“My job was to improve the image of the game, and so select a half-dozen first-grade players who we felt would project a positive image about rugby league. Wayne Pearce, Andrew Ettingshausen, Bradley Clyde and Laurie Daley all became part of the machine that promoted the league.”
It was an advertising agency that packaged American singer Tina Turner with the song What You See Is What You Get, but it was Turner’s agent, Australian talent manager Roger Davies, who later contacted Walsh and then-NRL boss John Quayle to suggest a song from one of Turner’s new albums for a new NRL campaign.
Davies posted them an audio cassette of Simply The Best. “As soon as we all heard it, we knew we’d found the song for the game,” Walsh said. “And that was the catalyst for what, I think, was the most impactful sports campaign in Australia.”
His career connected him to everyone from Kidman and the young stars of Neighbours, to Hugh Jackman, who he hired to co-host a fashion series in 1997, and people like iconic film critic Bill Collins, singer Olivia Newton-John and talk show legends like Mike Walsh and Michael Parkinson.
Federal Arts Minister Tony Burke said countless Australian stories had been told and careers forged because of Walsh’s vision.
Walsh was the second employee hired (after the CEO) at Foxtel. Later, he would hold the post of director of television, and more recently, he headed up the platform’s drama “originals” development and oversee titles like Wentworth, Deadline Gallipoli, The Kettering Incident and, most recently, Love Me, Colin from Accounts and The Twelve.
“This is a very difficult day for [us]. Australia’s creative community has lost a much-loved figure in Brian [and] for us, the loss is heavily felt,” Foxtel’s CEO Patrick Delany said. “Brian was a long-time mentor, a confidant, a colleague, and an unwavering friend to so many.
“Today, we are grieving Brian’s passing,” Delany said. “Our condolences go to his family and to those closest to him. We have lost an icon of Australian television that will never be replaced. Rest in peace, Brian.”
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