It’s a week since the Lindt Cafe siege took place opposite Channel Seven’s studios in Sydney’s Martin Place. marie claire is meeting with Sarah Stinson, the station’s executive producer of ratings favourites The Morning Show and The Daily Edition, and she admits the energy in the office has suffered.
“As journalists we’re taught not to let our emotions get involved,” says Stinson, recalling that it was The Morning Show hosts, Kylie Gillies and Larry Emdur, who broke the news to a shocked nation of the hostage situation unfolding across the plaza. “The journo in me kicked in and I thought, ‘We’ve got to follow this story.’” But as executive producer, Stinson is responsible for a team of up to 30, so she closed the set and moved the staff off site.
It’s that gut instinct, complemented by talent, tenacity and curiosity, that has seen her rise from an intern at Channel Nine to researcher on the Today show, then producer on A Current Affair. In 2005, she moved to Seven to become chief of staff on Today Tonight before landing the EP gig on The Morning Show in 2010, making her one of the most senior women in Australian television news.
“It’s the perfect industry for me to be in because I’m genuinely interested in the world and what happens. I’ve always been an observer,” declares Stinson, whose back- ground has seen her cover groundbreaking news stories, land exclusive interviews, and hide more cameras than she can remember.
A self-confessed “news junkie’’, Stinson turned a month of work experience at Nine into a year of learning. “I created jobs for myself. I just loved it and I was learning about the environment and the culture. I’d love how arguments would go on, then they’d make up – it was a blokey culture, but I can work with men and it was the best training because [now] nothing shocks me at all.”
Stinson’s first paying job was managing the autocue for late newsreader Ian Ross. That led to a role as production assistant/ junior editor at Today. “I was so bad at edit- ing. Terrible. But if I don’t know something I find out how to do it and I ask the right questions.” Taking the initiative, Stinson was able to expand her roles and she is now the only female TV executive with two daily life- style television shows under her guidance, and looks for that same drive in members of her own team. “I love it when people create opportunities to make the show better as long as they deliver on their actual position. No-one just does the minimum anymore. You’ve got to exceed expectations with everything you do.”
Stinson’s accomplishments impress in an industry that is very tough and highly scrutinised. “We’re constantly evolving because there are so many dif- ferent places we can take the program,” she explains. “We’ve always got side projects on the go within what we do.”
One of those projects was The Daily Edition. Although the afternoon lifestyle show was launched against the odds in 2013, when many programs were being axed, it has gone on to be a lucrative money-spinner for the Seven Network. But it isn’t something Stinson takes for granted. “We treat every day as if we’re the underdogs. I’m extremely competitive, but mostly with myself – so I’m always looking for ways to improve what we do and how we do it.”
Citing a “no bullshit” way of telling stories as the recipe that gets return viewers and advertisers, plus an eye for innovation, Stinson isn’t afraid of the competition raising the stakes.
“I want them to stay on air and I want them to improve because we need to be more competitive in Australian media. Complacency doesn’t help the industry evolve; a bit of healthy competition can only improve the quality of what we’re giving viewers.”
Stinson reveals she encourages a “Raise, Resolve, Move On” manifesto among her staff. “If you’ve got an issue, raise it, we’re going to fix it and move on. Office politics doesn’t have a life here.”
“You’ve got to exceed expectations with everything you do”
For many, the pressure of overseeing three and a half hours of live television a day would be too much, but Stinson takes it all in her savvy stride, although work days are exceptionally long. She has scanned the newspapers and read the headlines every morning by 6am in preparation for her first production call. And while technology means she isn’t tied to her desk all of the time, it’s not unusual for her to be troubleshooting and brainstorming ideas until well after midnight. Future talent development is another focus for Stinson. As well as her own team, she co-runs a mentoring group for young females working across television, radio, print and online, help- ing them with everything from career advice, to office politics, to making con- tacts within the industry.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle. There’s always pressure, but I don’t freak out because if something goes wrong, I’ll fix it. I’m 35 – it’s taken me a while, but I’ve worked out nothing in life goes to plan. And I use my instinct. If ratings are slightly down I’ll work out how to raise them – it’s a good kick in the arse.”
With longevity in the industry in mind, Stinson and her team will continue to prove their mettle with enterprising projects in line for 2015. “I like to think in terms of short-, medium- and long-term goals. I want to shake things up, bring in new talent ... there may be another show and I like that challenge. I’ll never become complacent; I’m too hard on myself. Who knows what the future holds? Right now, I am incredibly grateful to work in an industry I love, with people I adore.”