Wednesday, March 24, 2004

QUT, where old hacks go off to die – as heads of school

Today’s Oz Higher Ed supplement has an interesting snippet in its misleadingly-titled section, “Musical Chairs”. The title is inapt firstly because the regular column, which briefly notes senior academic appointments, carries very regular reports of appointments made from outside academia – in fact all three of today’s news-makers fit this bill (two outsiders going in as heads of school, and one as associate professor). The title is also misleading because it fails to report senior academic departures – many of which, of course, are not replaced, thus making the “Musical Chairs” perhaps apt in a dark and Freudian sense, but certainly not in the cosy-game-of swapping-jobs sense the Oz presumably intends.

But this isn’t to say that there aren’t cosy games being played in the upper echelons of Australian academia today. Previously knowing a bit about one of today’s new jobs-getters, Geoff Portmann, I was intrigued to read that QUT have just hired him as head of film and television. You can read Portmann’s CV here (Note that for the vast bulk of programs listed, in which he claims “Executive Producer” credit only, that this is essentially an honorary credit, reflecting the fact the Portmann held the role of Head of Comedy at ABC TV for many years or even decades – I am not sure in what year after joining the ABC in 1974 Portmann was bestowed with his title).

A credit noticeably unclaimed by Portmann, though, is his leading role in very nearly scuttling the hit comedy "Kath and Kim" in April 2001.

In true boomer style, somehow Portmann managed to ride out this fiasco, holding on to his position for another 18 months. Also in true boomer style, by the time he finally left Portmann had made sure that he was the last person to hold the moniker “Head of Comedy, ABC TV” – the “restructure” necessary to get him to go was so expensive that the ABC had to dip into money intended for today’s and tomorrow’s comedy developers to pay off a tired old hack.

With no Head of Comedy at ABC TV since late 2002, you can hardly say today that there’s been a noticeable drop-off since, but (i) Portmann’s departure alone would have sent the old Comedy Index soaring, and (ii) the jury’s still out on whether Oz comedy has a long-term future at the ABC*. There’s nothing quite like dragging the whole ship under with you when you go down, is there Geoff?

Anyway, now that QUT have got him, I hope that they’re stuck with him, and for another 30 years or so. The smarter film and television students will immediately discern the Eau-de-Sinking-Ship odour given out by Portmann’s arrival, and jump accordingly. Meaning that Geoff Portmann won’t be nobbling any brilliant careers this time around – just taking a taxpayer-funded institution for a ride. Nor, sadly, is this giving-a-shonk/hack-the red-carpet treatment exactly out of character for QUT recently.

* For example, ABC is not televising this years “Raw Comedy” national grand final, for the first time since the event’s inception a decade ago.

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