1946 - 2011 | NSW | Producer & executive
Ian Carroll was one of the ABC’s most important innovators and backroom visionaries. He helped establish some of the ABC’s most successful television programs including Lateline and the 7.30 Report. When digital disruption hit the news industry in the late 20th century, the ABC responded better than most of the commercial media industry because of Carroll’s leadership in developing digital channels, iView, apps and a formidable website that increased the ABC’s audience.
Ian Carroll had the incessant curiosity that is a hallmark of great journalists. He applied it not just in the pursuit of the story, but in considering how that story best be told. He was full of ideas and pioneered them in programming. So much of what we appreciate today in news coverage was first envisaged and then executed by Ian Carroll throughout his three decades of leadership.
Like many fine television news executives, Ian was schooled in the disciplines of print journalism. His early experience as an industrial reporter at The Age honed his determination for uncovering the truth behind every story. He was a relentless questioner, searching for another perspective and a more complete understanding of what was happening and why.
When Ian applied that same questioning spirit to television news, he could see the potential of the medium like few others. He had the ability to corral executives and news teams to back him in what were at the time, bold optimistic experiments in storytelling.
Teaming up with Kerry O’Brien in 1990, Ian was the founding Executive Producer of Lateline. The use of satellite technology in television broadcasts was new, and Ian saw the immediate value to Australian audiences. In its early years, each edition of Lateline was devoted to exploring a single topic in depth - often the important issue of the day – by broadcasting the insights from experts across the world.
It was a mix of news, current affairs and analysis delivered in a format previously unseen in Australia. Ian understood the intelligence of the audience and their engagement with the stories that mattered. In the lead-up to the coup in Moscow, Ian backed the Lateline team to produce a three-part ‘Soviet Special’. The result was the first of many Walkley Awards for the program.
The Lateline achievement in a professional sense was all the more remarkable as it marked Ian’s coming home to the ABC, after what for many would have been a shattering career setback.
In 1985, Ian won support for a bold shake-up of how the ABC delivered television News and Current Affairs, with the merging of the two genres into a single hour-long program: The National. It generated both enormous interest and controversy. Traditional ABC viewers were challenged by the program’s twin-host format, its juxtaposition of news reporting and analysis, and the earlier timeslot of 6.30pm rather than the traditional 7pm. Audiences numbers softened, management support evaporated and the program vanished into ABC folklore. Ian wore the burden of the blame and left the public broadcaster for Channel 9.
The broad consensus among program makers now is that the The National was way ahead of its time in the way it challenged the staid conventions of broadcast news and utilised technological innovation. Ian Carroll had seen earlier and further, how the medium was changing.
Ian left his mark on every major ABC current affairs program of his era. He was an ambitious Executive Producer of Nationwide, 4 Corners and the 7.30 Report. He uncovered an unknown data analyst named Antony Green and with him, used vivid computer graphics and analysis to transform the way Australians experienced election night. He also helped run ABC Asia-Pacific and became chief executive of Australia Network, seeing off the first attempt by Sky News to win the service.
In an era where TV channels proliferate, it is hard to appreciate the energy and innovation required to create the ABC’s first digital TV channels in 2001. Ian was put in charge of the creation of ABC for Kids, and Fly – new services accessible in only a tiny percentage of homes at the time. The ABC had received no additional funding to support them and they were swept away in 2003 by budget constraints. The team Ian assembled and led, however, became pioneers in the ABC’s further digital work, establishing three digital multi-channels over the next seven years, including ABC News24.
Carroll was a passionate supporter (and at times a tough and fair-minded internal critic) of the public broadcaster. He instinctively understood the need of the ABC to inform, educate and entertain. He fought hard on matters of editorial principle and independence.
In 2007, Carrroll was appointed the Director of ABC Innovation, where he used all his experience to help reinvent the public broadcaster for the digital era. Under his leadership, the ABC developed iView, the nation’s pioneering on-line catch-up television service. He embraced the delivery of services through mobile devices and overhauled the many, disparate ABC websites developed across the organisation over the previous decade.
As was the case in so many of his roles, he assembled around him a young, dynamic team. He fired the questions, served as a guide and a mentor and understood better than anyone else where the future was taking us. As broadcaster Norman Swan remarked: “Most of us would be happy with one big idea implemented in our lifetimes. Ian Carroll had many.”
Just a few weeks before he died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, hundreds gathered at the ABC to pay tribute to his remarkable career. So many had been appointed by him, learned from him – and had answered his many questions. None there will forget it, particularly Ian’s warm and generous reflections on his professional experiences. He was honest and self-deprecating, wise with all he had learned along the way. He spoke of his passions: politics and news, media and technology. And he spoke of what was to him the most important passion of all, his great love for his family.
Mark Scott was Managing Director of the ABC from 2006 to 2016.
Ian Carroll in 1985. Courtesy of Fairfax
Ian Carroll in 1993. Courtesy of Fairfax
Ian Carroll in 2003. Courtesy of Fairfax.
'Farewell to one of Aunty’s great innovators', The Australian, 8 August 2011
'Ian Carroll: a life of carefully creative innovation', ABC Online, 21 August 2011