David Hill

1946 -    |    NSW    |    Television producer

Rupert Murdoch believes television producer David Hill changed the viewing experience of nearly all major sports on three continents. Hill helped Kerry Packer revolutionise the game of cricket with broadcast innovations for World Series Cricket in 1977 and then went to the US to produce six Super Bowls and the Academy Awards. Hill was a leading figure in the launch of Sky Television in the UK, the Fox Network, Fox Sports and Regional Sports Network. In the US, his on-air innovations included the use of constant score and time graphics, the glowing hockey puck and a first-down line superimposed on the gridiron field.

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David Hill

It was late February 1987, and the marathon that was the America's Cup yachting regatta off the coast of Fremantle was coming to an end. The elimination events had started in November 1986. Channel Nine had broadcast rights and the Wide World of Sports crew was getting weary. "When does this thing end?" was being asked more and more often. "When the fat lady sings," was the standard reply.

But, unknown to most of his staff, Nine’s executive producer David Hill was working on a grand finale. His creative mind must have being working overtime, because no sooner had American skipper Dennis Conner sailed Stars and Stripes to victory, than up on the screen came a very large lady, in full costume, Viking horns and all, singing a classic aria.

It was pretty much the liveliest on-screen action in four months. And it was David Hill at his best.

The big question afterwards, still unanswered today, was: would Hill have done that if Kerry Packer hadn't sold the Nine Network to Alan Bond just a week earlier? But David Hill had already shown he could handle Australia's richest man, and he was about to embark on a television career that would make him perhaps more powerful - though not richer - than KP himself.

If you believe a very senior cameraman who worked with “Hilly” on one of his earlier Channel Nine tasks, it's a career that may never have got off the ground.

The cameraman recalls that Hill had been assigned as producer of a one-hour documentary on soccer star Johnny Warren. Problem was, he says, it was "as boring as it gets... jeez it was boring".

David Hill’s talent must have overcome that little obstacle - he was handed the task of launching Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. After the shakiest of starts, WSC became a resounding success and, while Packer may have been the boss, David Hill was steering the ship, creating the on-air product.

As deputy news director at Channel Nine in Sydney in the 80's when Hill was running Wide World of Sports, it was my privilege to watch him in action up close and often at a variety of broadcast events. He was, without doubt, the master.

Ideas would be tossed up at production meetings - good suggestions and not-so-good ones considered, but when Hill made a decision, that was it. Everyone went for it 100%.

And that was certainly the case if the successful idea had been David's own! Daddles the duck was one of his ideas, and the pesky bird is still escorting batsmen from the ground after they've failed. No runs... out for a duck... and then being ridiculed all the way off the ground. The viewers loved it, and the unhappy batsmen learned to accept it.

Hill also proved he was well ahead of his time by introducing a female commentator and, back in the mid-80s, that was something of a no-no ... especially in Kerry Packer’s world. Legend has it that Packer rang Hill and asked: "Have you been in the cot with her yet? If you haven't, you're sillier than I thought". Or words to that effect.

The lady concerned was a well-known actress, and knew her cricket, but her appointment didn't last long. Times have changed.

Among many other innovations, David Hill's sports coverage continually kept viewers aware of the score, and the amount of time left to play. This ability to find ways of enhancing the on-air product and the enjoyment of fans would serve him well all around the world.

There was also Wide World of Sports - terrific viewing on a Saturday afternoon as Ian Chappell and the late Mike Gibson introduced sports we'd never seen before.

In 1988, David Hill decided he'd done all he could in Australia, and headed to London, switching allegiance to another demanding boss, Rupert Murdoch.

From then on, it's a matter of what he didn't achieve. Nothing, really. Murdoch saw in Hill a business talent that had been missed in Australia. So in England he played a major role in building and launching Sky Television, Fox Sports and Eurosports.

In 1993, Hill moved to Los Angeles to create Fox Sports there as well as the Regional Sports Network. He went on to serve as president of the Fox Network. That job, he says, was the one that made him the most proud – taking Fox from a distant fourth place to challenge and beat the three major networks.

Hill then became chairman of the National Geographic Channels, and later Executive Producer of an up-and-coming little show called American Idol. All of which produced a classic understatement from the man himself: "It's been an intensely satisfying creative period."

But there was more to come. Hill stepped away from Fox to set up his own production company which, despite all his highly-acclaimed imagination and creative flair, he called Hilly Productions. A good enough name, though, for him to be appointed executive producer of the Academy Awards - the Oscars - in 2015.

So the young bloke from Newcastle who started as a copy boy at the Sydney Daily Telegraph, got into TV sport at Channel Seven in Melbourne, totally revolutionised sports broadcasting in Australia at Channel Nine and repeated that achievement in the UK and the US had climbed all the way to the top of the television world.

How does he see it? "Standing in the control room at Channel Nine in Willoughby, it's the same vibe as doing a Super Bowl, or a World Series, or doing the Oscars. It's all in the planning and the execution." If only it were so simple.

Paul Fenn is a veteran television journalist and former Network Director of News at the Nine Network.


Courtesy of News Corp/Newspix.


David Hill with Prime Minister Gorton. Courtesy of Fox


Courtesy of Fox


Courtesy of Fox


Courtesy of Fox


Courtesy of Fox