After months of speculation and rumours about ratings crises, allegations of racism and team in-fighting, Network Ten’s choice to pull the plug on Paul Henry’s beleaguered Breakfast show last week came as no surprise to most. But in an exclusive interview with New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, Kiwi favourite and soon-to-be-ex Australian Breakfast host Paul says he is delighted to be coming home.
He has surprising news about his future, and insists Breakfast wasn’t a failure – it simply lost the support it so badly neededfrom its own company. “At the end of the day, you have to ask, did we give it our best shot?” says Paul (52), cradling a glass of wine on the couch of the chic two-bedroom house he bought a year ago in the up-market Sydney suburb of Balmain.
“I took the job on the basis that the network knew it wouldn’t be easy – changing people’s TV habits is always difficult, especially at breakfast time – and while I never expected the show to jump to number one instantly, I was led to believe Network Ten understood this was a long-term commitment, and they’d give it the opportunity to succeed. “Instead, some of the management pulled the corporate rug out from under our feet.”
There’s no doubt the programme’s axing has come as a blow to Paul, but there are plenty of upsides – one of which is that he will be able to spend more time with his daughters, Lucy (24), Sophie (22) and Bella (20), as well as his beloved mum Olive (82). “I do need to make the most of my time with her,” says Paul.
Despite finally getting a passport after more than 20 years without one, Olive never made it to Australia to see her son. “She’s finally got a passport – and there’s not a mark on it!” he despairs. “I’ll never get her out of the country now!”
Paul has been touched by the amount of support he’s received from Kiwis who would love to see him back on our screens, but admits he was astonished by how quickly some people wrote off the Australian show.
“I was so surprised people called us a failure after only a few weeks,” he says. “It didn’t bother me that they thought that – it just really amazed me that some commentators would judge such a new concept so quickly. A new programme of any type will never be able to immediately rival an established one – anyone in the business should know that.”
Although the irrepressible Paul reckons he’s “way too old and cynical” to take the show’s demise too much to heart, he is deeply disappointed by what he perceives as a huge betrayal by the network he left New Zealand to work for.
“As a businessman, I know that it’s tough to launch a new show like this against two really strong breakfast shows. But after just a few months on air, it became clear that some of the decision-makers at Network Ten had lost their appetite for the programme,” he says.
“Instead of committing to getting the show right and working towards the long-term, which is what I had signed up for, their commitment lasted just a couple of months. Our competitors were going all-out to keep viewers – at one point one was giving away [Australian] $5,000 per hour to viewers – while our budgets were slashed. From there we were doomed. The irony is, we’re actually making great TV now – and there’s only two weeks left.”
The Paul talking to the Weekly is clearly disappointed, and somewhat angry – although he denies it – but in true Henry spirit he’s already thinking about his next move. Despite numerous rumours to the contrary, that move won’t be to the 7pm slot on TV One being vacated by Mark Sainsbury – the role that Paul admits for several years he would have “crawled over upturned bottle tops” for.
“TVNZ did offer me the job as a host on the 7pm slot that will replace Close Up, yes,” he says. “I was very flattered to be offered the job, and of course it’s something you have to consider. I recognise it’s a great opportunity – and certainly I am by far the best person to do it!
“But I have a contract with MediaWorks, which owns TV3, so to take the job with TVNZ would have been, I think, not just a direct breach of my contract, but fundamentally wrong.
“I still can’t quite believe I actually turned it down – I think we all know I’d be fabulously successful” – he still can’t resist a tongue-in-cheek moment – “but MediaWorks has supported me. I always knew I’d come back – I just didn’t think it would be this soon.”
Loyalty aside, it won’t come as a surprise to those who know Paul well that now he’s been offered the job he always wanted, it doesn’t have quite the same attraction any more.
“My life comes down to a series of moments rather than a career path, and often things just come down to timing,” he explains. “In 1999 I tried and failed to work with the National Party, and since then I’ve been offered a safe seat several times – but the right time passed. I just feel like the same thing has happened now.”
Paul has his critics – as he knows, with a controversial personality like his, he always will – but he is nothing if not loyal. His decision to stay at MediaWorks, despite being offered the job of his dreams at TVNZ, is great news for MediaWorks CEO Sussan Turner.
“We never liked losing Paul to Australia, so of course we are really happy to have him back,” she says. “Loyalty is part of our DNA at MediaWorks, and is something I value enormously.”
Although Paul has made his allegiance clear, don’t expect to see him back on our screens for a few months yet. “I finish the show on November 30, then I’m off on a road trip in Australia before coming home for Christmas with my girls in Auckland – as I always do – then New Year at my bach in Napier,” he says, immediately perking up at the thought.
“Early January I’m back off to the States for a little while – my Mustang has been sitting in its LA garage for months now, doing nothing, so I’ll give it a service, then clock up several thousand miles over January and February.” And then? “I don’t know,” he admits.
“There are some great opportunities out there, and I am really looking forward to coming back, but at the moment I want to take a bit of time off, then just enjoy hunkering back down in New Zealand.”
And despite the knocks, the past problems and the critics, he really does just want to come home. “Not so much to slow down, but to take time getting things sorted,” he says. And so it is that Paul will embark on the next phase of his chequered career; a little older, a little wiser but certainly with the same sense of humour that continues to polarise New Zealanders – and now Australians.
“The fact is, the older I get, the more I want to earn lots of money, and do absolutely nothing for it,” he deadpans, before agreeing wholeheartedly that he has already done pretty well in the finance department. But while the humour will never leave, Paul has learned a lesson.
“Since people started hearing about what was happening in Australia, I’ve been inundated with letters and messages from hundreds of people – there’s been a lovely groundswell of support from New Zealand that has really quite taken me aback,” he says.
“Even my hardened heart has been softened! Yes, it’s been a rocky road – but I honestly don’t have any regrets taking the job. “There’s a huge satisfaction in saying you gave it a go, irrespective of whether you succeed or fail.”