His friends and colleagues thought Russell Becker was nuts when he left the comfort of Channel 10 in Brisbane (where he was general manager) to become Australia’s first indie TV distrib.
At that time – 1965 – several U.S. majors had field offices in Australia, but no one could foresee that there was a business in selling indie product.
Besides, while Becker knew a lot about running TV channels (he joined Sydney’s ATN 7 as general sales manager when it launched in 1956, and soon after became station manager as well), what did he know about selling?
“There were no experts then,” recalls Becker, now chairman of R.A. Becker and Co., a diversified group spanning film and TV production and distribution.
Initially, his main aim was to help local producers place their shows with Australian channels, which bought programs autonomously in the era before true national networks were formed.
“I had been sitting on the other side of the desk, when producers came in with ideas written on scraps of paper. I believed that if producers presented projects with a bit more polish and a bit more thought, programmers would be more interested,” he says.
His first client was the producer of the Melbourne-based pop music series “Kommotion.” Becker sold the show to a Sydney station and was rewarded with A$45 ($34) a week in commission: “Enough to pay the groceries,” he says.
Widening his repertoire to include overseas product, Becker’s first breakthrough was selling the animated series “Marvel Super Heroes” from U.S. producer Steve Krantz to Bruce Gyngell at Channel 9.
In 1967, he began repping Four Star, the Hollywood company formed by Ida Lupino, Dick Powell, Charles Boyer and David Niven, which turned out series such as the Robert Taylor-starrer “The Detectives” and “Burke’s Law,” with Gene Barry.
In 1970, he landed his first major British client: prolific broadcaster/producer Granada. That relationship lasted until 1990, and yielded such gems as “Coronation Street,” “The Jewel and the Crown” and “Brideshead Revisited.”
For some years, Becker fielded the rights to major sporting events such as the Wimbledon tennis championships and U.S. Open Golf for Mark Mc Cormack’s Transworld Intl.
Other clients included Paragon Pictures, the National Film Board of Canada, and Devillier Donegan Enterprises.
Not forgetting his commitment to local producers, he took on series such as the Vincent Price-narrated “If These Walls Could Speak” from NLT Prods., the company owned by Jack Neary, Bobby Limb and Les Tinker.
Channel 10 asked him to help with international sales for some of its productions, including the soap “Number 96.”
In later years, Becker’s company sold product from Oz producers James Davern, Paul Barron and the South Australian Film Corp. to various territories.
In 1976, Becker was asked by longtime friend Paul Talbot to have the Becker group run Fremantle’s Australasian activities – an alliance that continues to this day.
“I thought about it for a whole millisecond and said, ‘Yes,’ “he recalls. “Paul said we should talk and I jumped on the next plane to New York.”
Becker supervised the production of Fremantle’s kids show “Romper Room” in Japan and Australia; it ran Down Under for 25 years, in Japan for 18 years, and in other territories as well.
Becker’s son Richard joined the firm in 1977, after studying law and working for the Federal Attorney-General. The best way for the junior Becker to learn the business, his dad decided, was to drive out to rural TV stations to sell Fremantle shows. When Richard pointed out that he didn’t know how to sell, his father’s advice was, “if you’re honest, you’ll be all right.”
By the early 1980s, Becker’s company began to produce gameshows under the Fremantle banner, tackling a market that had been dominated by Reg Grundy.
What followed was a slew of shows, including “Blockbuster,” and “Let’s Make a Deal The convulsions that racked the Australian broadcasting industry in the late 1980s had repercussions for the Beckers and other suppliers.
“We had to make some adjustments. It cost us, but we survived,” Russell Becker says.
“We’ve enjoyed superb relationships with the networks and the people in them. One of the wonderful things about this business is the capacity of the networks to look at new ideas.”
A few years ago, Russell Becker went into semi-retirement, handing the reins over to Richard as the group’s managing director. But the elder Becker still visits the office every day. He also led the company’s presence at this month’s Mipcom market while Richard attended to business in Sydney.