Michael Pell: “My start in television literally came from Sharyn Ghidella.”

EXCLUSIVE:

Michael Pell, who wrapped over 11 years as Executive Producer on Sunrise last week, still remembers who replied to his 1990s letter when, as a 12 year old, he wrote to network executives and on air talent hoping for a chance to learn about Television.

“Back then there was no internet. So it was typed out and faxed from my dad’s office,” he tells TV Tonight.

“A couple replied with ‘Thanks, but no thanks because we don’t give work experience to 12 year olds.’ But I remember, one person replied and her name was Sharyn Ghidella. She was actually presenting the early news on Nine at the time in Sydney.

“I wrote to her saying that I loved her presenting style, which I did and still do, and that I’d love to come and watch and learn. She wrote back saying, ‘What a lovely letter, give me a call, and we’ll make it happen.’

“I thought I could only dream of one day working on a breakfast TV show.”

“I went into work experience every year from the age of 12 until the age of 18. I remember her walking me through Channel Nine Willoughby and there was a corridor that used to look down on the Today studio show. I used gaze into it and think ‘Wow, that’s the big league!’ It was Steve (Liebmann) and Tracy (Grimshaw) hosting and I thought I could only dream of one day working on a breakfast TV show.”

Many years later after studying journalism at UTS, reporting for Prime7 Tamworth and SKY News and producing for Seven, he would ask her to read Weekend Sunrise news.

“I remember her saying to me at the time, ‘I always thought you’d be my boss one day, I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly!’ he recalls.

“But we’ve kept in touch. She’s a great friend. I always remember that my start in television literally came from Sharyn Ghidella.”

Pell’s interest from journalism to producing was driven by breaking news including the War in Iraq and 9/11 tragedy, but he credits his time in regional news as instilling his sense of storytelling.

“I was offered a job at Sunrise as a segment producer, and things kind of moved on from there. I was Supervising Producer of Weekend Sunrise in 2005 when I was 22,” he continues.

“I got a call from David Leckie and I think Peter Meakin”

“I had various different roles across Sunrise and Weekend Sunrise, until I got a call from David Leckie and I think Peter Meakin. I was on a beach in summer and they said, ‘We’d like to make you the the Executive Producer of The Morning Show and Weekend Sunrise.’

“That was in 2009. I remember being just 26 and being very shocked and honored that they would give me that privilege. I did everything I could to give the best product to the audience at that time. I loved those shows. The Morning Show was so much fun. Kylie & Larry were just pros.”

He exits 11 years of Sunrise winning ratings (2016 was a year of contention with Today and Sunrise both claiming victory). The role has entailed highs and lows, changes in presenters, media scrutiny, and a constant pressure to win.

“The amount of attention that it gets, compared to other areas of the industry, is probably disproportionate. And I guess the amount of pressure placed on people who are working in this genre – on camera and off- is also disproportionate.”

Morning TV is a target for clickbait and media stories both in Australia and internationally – from Karl Stefanovic’s marriage to Lisa Wilkinson’s salary, or even Morning Warsan entire fictional drama on Apple TV.

“I remember one scene in the first season, where Jennifer Aniston’s character is talking to the executive producer. She’s exhausted, she’s pulling her hair extensions out and says, ‘I don’t know. It’s your job. It’s your show, you fix it!’ And I thought ‘I had that conversation last week.’ Not in exactly those words, but those sorts of robust discussions happen all the time.,” Pell reveals.

“It can be a lightning rod, a mirror to what’s happening in the world”

“Look at Good Morning Britain, the Piers Morgan stuff, I think everywhere around the world it’s a reflection of what’s going on in society. It can be a lightning rod, a mirror to what’s happening in the world. Some of that’s good, and some of that’s bad. But it’s always going to be interesting.”

Pell has also been in news stories, be it for producing, ratings, casting decisions or references to his age -“wunderkind” is a tag media often add, despite him being 39 years old.

“I don’t know what that word means. I’ve never used it. It doesn’t bother me but I think it’s a cliche. I think it’s almost lazy writing. And to be called ‘self professed’ is a lie, because I’ve never used the word.”

If the public, or at least the media, is interested in the backstage dramas, it was never more evident than with his friendship with Samantha Armytage, who replaced Melissa Doyle from 2013 – 2021.

“Sam was very quickly a very famous person and I think she became a big clickbait target. I was sort of dragged into some of that, possibly just by circumstance. But also, I think people were genuinely fascinated by the relationship,” he concedes.

“I’ve known her for 20 years. She’s been a friend for a long time. I think she’s an exceptional talent. She did a great job on Sunrise – eight and a half years of amazing television, and then another six on Weekend Sunrise. She was really, really good on the show. She had a very warm, personable nature, happy to fight for the for the little guy. She championed many important causes.”

“We fought sometimes like cats and dogs”

Describing theirs as a brother-sister relationship he admits, “We fought sometimes like cats and dogs, always about the creative process.

“She did really well in a field that maybe she never really wanted to go into. In some ways she’s the anti-TV presenter. She doesn’t even really love the idea of ​​being in the limelight. She’s a country girl who likes a quiet life. But, this very busy life found her and she killed it.”

Iconic presenter David Koch he describes as a ‘Father, Son’ relationship “but I’m the father… often he is the naughty boy that gets pulled up by me.”

“We have great interviewers, but when it comes to a politician who needs to be held to account and grilled, he would do it with calm, with grace, poise, but he’s sharp as well. He’s one of the most trusted people on television and he’s been number one for two decades.”

“I did call her the Queen of Breakfast TV”

Long-running news presenter Natalie Barr took her rightful place as presenter in 2021.

“I’m really sad to be leaving Nat after only a year of her in the chair, because she’s done such a great job. The numbers show that the audience has not only accepted her, she’s excelled. She’s really come into her own. I did call her the Queen of Breakfast TV….we had a lot of great times together. And she’s only just getting started,” he suggests.

Amongst his highlights at Sunrise were the concerts, the world trips.

“Katy Perry was loyal to Sunrise from the start. She’d always come and do it every time she was in this country. We’ve had some of the world’s biggest stars but I reckon you can’t beat Katy Perry,” he insists.

“Traveling around the world was just a gimmick. Try something and see how it works, and then it became a thing that we did every two years.

“That’s when they really show their skills as journalists”

“For me, the shows that stand out the most, were the ones where we did rolling coverage and breaking news over many hours, many days, sometimes in corners of the world. In those situations, you become a public service. People need information, they crave it, particularly in situations like cyclones, or floods, or natural disasters, or even the case of terror attack.

“That’s when we saw the whole team on camera and off, at their best. We saw Kochie, Mel, Samantha, Natalie stand out in a way that always made me so proud. That’s when they really showed their skills as journalists and and hosts,” he explains.

“You could get any of them to describe a situation to you for hours on end, without a blink.”

In 2014 the show found itself on the front line when the adjacent Lindt Cafe siege led to the deaths of three people. A gunman took 10 hostages while the show was on air, across Martin Place Plaza.

Suddenly the news became us, when you don’t want it to be and things became very real. Not only are you having to worry about staying on air to broadcast important information to the public, you also have to worry about the safety of all your staff… worrying about where people will evacuate to, how you’re going to air the next morning when the whole place is locked down,” he reflects.

“After that we never really embraced the plaza again.”

“Chris Reason slept on the couch in my office, in order to keep reporting on the story. There were snipers outside my office. That just gets a little bit too real. So that is probably one of the worst times… and condolences to the families of those victims.

“After that we never really embraced the plaza again, like we used to. It had become a different beast.”

One infamous moment was a Sex & the City sketch with visiting guest Kristin Davis and three Sunrise Presenters in a parody that Pell fully accepts was not funny.

“We came up with it in a production meeting as a group decision. I’ll be honest, the three ladies, Sam, Nat, and Eddie weren’t really that keen to do it. So in some ways, they were hung out to dry for something that was a group of producers thinking something will be funny, but just fell flat.”

He laughs as he admits he couldn’t watch Sex and the City for years after, but has happily devoured sequel And Just Like That.

Worse would come in 2018 when a “hot topics” discussion of a newspaper story around Indigenous adoption led to protests and eventually a breach of the Television code by media watchdog ACMA.

What would he do differently if he had his time over?

“I think for a start, not put on the person who said those ridiculous comments …and she was never on again. But the thing that devastated me about that whole episode is that it gave an impression to people who this issue mattered to, that we didn’t care…. That’s what hurt me the most, because we would never want to be mean-spirited,” he says.

“The whole thing was regrettable”

“The whole thing was regrettable. But I think in the future, the idea of ​​a fairer representation of those sorts of issues and a bit more care towards how you report them, is something that everyone’s adopted.

“I think what we were trying to achieve was unachievable, and I think a topic of that complexity should never have been put on a 1 minute 59 second portion of a segment that goes for 4 and a half minutes. That’s where we really got into trouble, as well as the people we were talking to, on the issue.”

Pell reveals, “It’s something that kept me up at night and it probably is one of the biggest downsides of the past decade.”

As he leaves Sunrise for his new role developing programs for Seven as Senior Vice President, Entertainment Content, North America, the notoriously-competitive Pell believes all three breakfast shows on television are in good shape.

“I actually think we have really good people on camera and off. I think everyone does a really good job.

“So I think the winner in all that is actually the viewer.”

“I probably will miss the adrenaline”

Pell is looking forward to sleep ins. Yet while the pressure is off, so too is the thrill of the chase.

“I will miss being woken up at all hours with breaking news. I probably will miss the adrenaline. But I think I’ll also appreciate a sleep in because I haven’t had one for over a decade,” he continues.

“For me, I think Sunrise consolidated my skills, it also made me even more decisive, and it made me strong. You’ve got to be tough, but you’ve also got to have a heart. A lot of this job is about people…talking to people, managing people, understanding people, because without people there is no show. So I think that’s probably the biggest learning curve that I had.

“I’ve come out of it at the end a lot more knowledgeable than I was at the beginning. But otherwise, I’m probably the same.”

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