Bill McCarthy’s experience as a television presenter ranges across news bulletins and sports — plus a great many shows showcasing his long time love for both classical music and boats. Lesser known is that he has also worked extensively behind the scenes, as both a programme maker and in management.
Bluff-born and raised mostly in Dunedin, Bill McCarthy left school keen to get a job involving classical music. The obvious options were the local record shop, or radio. McCarthy won a cadetship to join state radio in Dunedin, starting on 13 January 1961.
Keen to read sports results, he auditioned to go on air, and within a year was presenting sports on local television. So began an extended period doing radio in the morning, and television at night. In the late 60s, a year at a local TV station near Sydney proved a concentrated learning experience. “You were expected to do something of everything from sweeping the studio floor to reading the news”.
Back in NZ, McCarthy didn’t begin working fulltime in television until 1973. The year before, he’d been chosen to commentate New Zealand’s first full live telecast of a test match, when the All Blacks faced the Wallabies.
By 1974 McCarthy was getting rave reviews from the NZ Herald (and others) for his “calm and always good humoured anchoring” of the Christchurch Commonwealth Games. With no such thing as paired presenters in those days, McCarthy worked 14 hour days. He won a Feltex Award for his presenting, plus another award voted for by the public. Later, while commentating on a 1976 tour by the All Blacks, South African journalists mistook him for legendary radio broadcaster Winston McCarthy.
The arrival of a second television channel in early 1975 saw a growing emphasis on camera talent, to help each channel stand out from the competition. McCarthy accepted “a fairly glamorous offer I couldn’t refuse” to become a Television One newsreader, after hearing sports coverage was about to be severely cut back. On 1 April 1975 he began a five year stint as one of TV One’s key newsreaders on the primetime 6.30 news, alternating week on week with Dougal Stevenson.
McCarthy had been chosen to bring a more relaxed style to news reading, at a time when Kiwi news bulletins still followed the sombre style of Philip Sherry and the late Bill Toft. An article published the second week McCarthy went on air argued he had “a significant say in how the news script is written for final presentation”, which had ruffled feathers for Television One journalists.
McCarthy was warned by Controller of Programmes Bill Munro it would take three years before he was accepted as a newsreader. Mail attacking his performance arrived within days. It took McCarthy a while to adjust to the more sombre style expected in news. Three years later, a poll saw him voted second most popular TV personality in the country, behind Selwyn Toogood. In this period he was called into his bosses office to be told quietly that he had won another Feltex award, but that it was being given to someone else, since the new second channel had won virtually nothing that year.
Rostered to read the news the week that the 1979 Mt Erebus disaster occured, McCarthy ended up staying up overnight, providing news updates. After two hours sleep he returned to work. In those less media saturated times “we were the source … We knew a tremendous number of people were listening very intently to everything we had to say, so we had to be very, very careful about the wording of everything.”
In the mid 70s, a short interview McCarthy did with concert pianist Rae de Lisle stretched to two hours, thanks to technical problems. The couple went on to marry.
In 1980 the primetime news was relocated to Auckland. McCarthy was not asked to head north, and Dougal Stevenson chose not to relocate. McCarthy returned to “a fairly menial job” at the sports desk, hosting 70-minute midweek show Sporting Life.
He then chose to go “back to television kindergarten” — completing a production course in producing, then becoming a trainee in the Entertainment Department. One of his first shows was as producer and presenter of ratings-topping revamp of Top Town. The long time classical music fan also spent time in the so-called Serious Music department, programming and presenting 130 episodes of music programme Opus, and producing 37 live concerts featuring the NZ Symphony Orchestra.
He also produced and directed three editions of the Mobil Song Quest, and performances from the NZ Festival of the Arts. In 1982, inspired by a longrunning BBC show, he launched a young musicians competition which ran biannually, playing primetime on Sundays.
In 1986 McCarthy moved into management: first as deputy head of sports, then filling in as head after Malcolm Kemp gave notice in May 1987. McCarthy was officially made head of sport the following November. It was a testing time to be in the job: TV3’s arrival was imminent. He is proudest in this period for completing testing negotiations for the rights to NZ rugby and Australian league. In 1989 he warned a journalist that thanks to increasing competition, the days were over where TVNZ Sport covered minor sports that didn’t rate.
As Herald legend Barry Shaw wrote, McCarthy never ducked a fight, and had “a forthright attitude (that) endeared him to even his fiercest critics”. A rare executive to front up over questions from sports fans, he once expressed his amazement that someone had put the blame on TVNZ for showing Eric Rush punching a player during a sevens game. TVNZ, he argued, provided sports coverage which “for the resources we have, surpasses anything else in the world, and often all we get is criticised”.
During this period McCarthy launched a number of programmes, including quiz show A Question of Sport. He was proud of the “coup” of getting cameras into the All Black changing rooms, just before a match in Japan, and for sneaking netball coverage into primetime while TVNZ head of programming Harold Anderson was off overseas. “(Anderson) took it rather well, and one of those tests outrated the NZ/Australia League test that year”.
In May 1989 McCarthy resigned from TVNZ and began a public relations job with Ian Fraser-led company Consultus. But broadcasting runs deep. Nine months later he began the next stage of his career, after setting up company McCarthy Communications. The company has gone on to make corporate videos, religious programmes and The Boat Show, which McCarthy sold to TVNZ, then presented for a decade. Boats have been an interest since childhood (time on Peter Blake’s round the world boat Ceramco remains a treasured memory; McCarthy is also the author of book Blokes and Boats).
In 2004 McCarthy began four years running cable channel The Arts Channel; he would go on to front art shows for the channel, and make and present a series of shows for international viewers, after the launch of America’s Nautical Channel. McCarthy has continued to show his diversity across varied cable channels, helming and often shooting shows involving classical music, fishing, and religion — plus the occasional sports-related gig.
Infofind - Radio New Zealand Library
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Judy Bradwell, ‘Bill can’t smile while he works!’ (Interview) - New Zealand Women’s Weekly, 23 October 1978, Page 16
Karl du Fresne, ‘Sport is Still Bill’s First Love’ (Interview) in TV People (Wellington: INL Print Limited, 1979)
Neil Harvey, ‘Telly sport boss hits back’ - Sunday News, 6 March 1988
Toni McRae, ‘Sky’s rugby man crews new TV1 boat series’ - Sunday Star, 20 May 1990
Clive Morris, 'A More Relaxed Approach' (Interview), in TV Personality Parade (Wellington: Television One/INL, 1976)
Bryan Nicolson, ‘'Star’ becomes boss’ - The Evening Post, 24 January 1989
Keith Quinn, A Lucky Man (Christchurch: Shoal Bay Press, 2000)
Joseph Romanos, ‘A rush to criticise not sporting’ (Interview), Dominion Sunday Times, 12 March 1989
Joseph Romanos, ‘McCarthy quits as TVNZ sports boss’ - Dominion Sunday Times, 21 May 1989
Barry Shaw, 'Head of sport quits TV' - The NZ Herald, 22 May 1989
Robin Turkel, ‘McCarthy Deserves a Games Gold Medal’ (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 31 January 1974
‘Host Comes Home For The ‘Sporting Life’ - The NZ Herald, 2 April 1980 ‘McCarthy Named to Head Sport’ - The NZ Herald, 23 November 1988 ‘McCarthy to cover tour for Sky’ - The NZ Herald, 11 July 1992
’50 Years of TV: Bill McCarthy’ (Video Interview) Breakfast. Broadcast 5 June 2010. Accessed 15 June 2014