Cleo Smith interview: Nine staff furious by more than $2 million fee paid by network for TV rights

Headshot of Shannon Hampton
Shannon HamptonThe West Australian
Cleo Smith with her mother Ellie Smith and stepfather Jake Giddon after her rescue. Inset: Nine CEO Mike Sneesby has outraged staff after paying $2 million for exclusive interview rights with the family.
Camera IconCleo Smith with her mother Ellie Smith and stepfather Jake Giddon after her rescue. Inset: Nine CEO Mike Sneesby has outraged staff after paying $2 million for exclusive interview rights with the family. Credit: The West Australian

Nine Network staff are reportedly furious after revelations that the network paid well over $2 million — an Australian record — for an exclusive interview with the parents of four-year-old Cleo Smith, with some horrified at the prospect the little girl will be quizzed on her ordeal on camera.

The deal reportedly includes a plan for interviews with Cleo’s mother Ellie Smith and stepfather Jake Gliddon to air on the networks’ news programs and flagship current affairs program 60 Minutes.

It is also rumoured Cleo will be asked to front the cameras, with the interviews to be spun off into print reports in Nine newspapers and a six-part special for Stan.

The possibility that Cleo would be asked about her horrific 18-day ordeal after allegedly being abducted from a tent at a remote campsite near Carnarvon and held captive by local man Terence Darrell Kelly has outraged many in the network, The Australian reports.

There are also staff concerns about the commercialisation of the family, with claims talent agent Max Markson could pocket at least $400,00 for organising the deal.

“What are the possible consequences of asking this young girl to talk about what happened to her, when we don’t know what she went through?” a journalist told the national broadsheet.

“And what are the optics of it, as far as the viewing public is concerned?”

Further angering Nine staff is the fact the network has recently suffered massive budget cuts. it is reported the Cleo deal amounts to about a quarter of 60 Minutes’ annual budget.

Seven West Media, owner of The West Australian, also bid for the deal.

It is understood SWM had concerns the size and commercialisation of the deal — including the commission for the talent agent — could have negative long-term impacts on the family.

Industry sources speculated to the Australian that Nine boss Mike Sneesby was determined not to be beaten by Seven this year, after losing last year’s ratings war by a thin margin.

It smacks of an inexperienced CEO who has got a rush of blood in his first bidding war.

“Nine was scared at the end of the year after they lost their No. 1 position — this seems a desperate attempt to regain the mantle … and it won’t work,” the source said.

“This is insane. This is dinosaur chequebook journalism, “ said one insider.

“It smacks of an inexperienced CEO who has got a rush of blood in his first bidding war.

“Shareholders will be screaming. Kerry Stokes is an astute judge — he knows what a story is worth — and, instinctively, knew it wasn’t worth this much.”

Bids for the exclusive interview started almost immediately after the little girl was found, with producers flocking to the remote town.

It is unclear when the interviews will run, with Mr Kelly yet to plead to charges against him. Publicly airing information yet to be put before a jury, if Mr Kelly elects to fight the allegations, could prejudice the case and be a contempt of court.

Mr Kelly is next due to appear in Carnarvon Magistrates Court on Monday.

The previous biggest payment for a television interview went to Brant Webb and Todd Russell, who survived the Beaconsfield mine disaster, with Nine paying them $1 million each.

Previously, 60 Minutes paid Lindy Chamberlain $250,000 for her 1985 interview where she spoke about being falsely accused of murdering her daughter Azaria.

Shortly after Cleo’s remarkable discovery, Mr Markson told The West Australian there could be “ongoing revenue streams” after a deal was struck, including on her birthday or to mark the anniversary of when police broke down Mr Kelly’s door and found her.

“There’d also be the opportunity to maybe do a TV show, but as in a TV movie or a mainstream movie,” he said at the time.

“When you look back at how big a story it has been for the last 18 days and the fact it’s a global story – not just Australian – you could genuinely do a movie and that would again generate revenue – and there may be a book in it as well probably.”

Mr Markson has been contacted for comment.

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