Rove Unlimited

Rove Unlimited, by Sally Jackson - 5th June 2003
(Credit: The Australian)

ROVE McManus is young and cute with a beautiful girlfriend and a brand new Gold Logie. He is adored by fans and doted on by executives at Network Ten, which airs his tonight show, Rove [Live]. Last week readers of a Sydney tabloid voted the 29-year-old their choice as the next governor-general.

But spend some time with him and there is no doubt about McManus's state of mind. Insecure.

Which is unexpected. But, as any averagely paranoid showbiz type will tell you, when you have hit the top what is there left to do but worry about slippery-sliding to the bottom again? Or, almost as bad, becoming just middling, like Tim Ferguson?

"You look at Rove and you can't imagine him being terrified by anything," comedian and writer Graham Blundell said recently, contrasting McManus with talk-show legend Graham Kennedy. But every performer is prey to doubt. And McManus's success this year has been enough to test even his preternaturally sprightly temperament.

He tries hard to stay upbeat about it all. "I thought my turn [to win the Gold Logie] was a couple of years away so to have got it so early is great," he says. But soon the doubts bleed through. "We just have to see what happens next year. The three categories we were up for this year we won, so repeating this performance will be nigh-on impossible, especially as [rival variety show hosts] Andrew and Shaun and Effie will also be in the light entertainment category. It will be interesting to see if we even crack a mention next year, let alone win. As long as I just get a nomination, I'll be able to keep my head up."

This year a golden boy, next year a nothing? It's hard to credit. But not for McManus. "You know, people enjoy what we do now and they're happy to say 'Hurray! Hurray! for Rove McManus', but I'm not naive enough to think they'll be saying it forever," he says. "It's a roller-coaster ride, you ebb and flow. You'll be popular for a while, then people go, 'We've had enough of you'."

And for a moment the most popular person on Australian television looks positively despondent.

Probably he shouldn't worry too much. Yes he's young and cute, but his career decisions indicate he is also clever. After praising him for his own ability, one industry source after another mentions McManus's talent for surrounding himself with good people. Typical is Stephen Tate, Ten's head of light of entertainment, who describes McManus as "a combination of an excellent comedian and a great judge of character with fantastic business acumen".

Many of McManus's people are gathered under one warehouse roof at Roving Enterprises, the Melbourne-based production company he formed in early 1999. He was all of 25-and-a-quarter at the time, but already knew the importance of control.

McManus learnt his craft doing club stand-up in his home town, Perth, refined it on Melbourne's community television Channel 31 and perfected it in the commercial crucibles of networks Nine and Ten.

It was while he was making a variety show, The Loft Live, for Channel 31 (alongside Corinne Grant and Peter Helliar, who remain core members of his inner circle) that McManus was talent-spotted by sharp-eyed Nine executives. One of them was Rory Callaghan, now at Granada Productions, who immediately recognised his potential. "Rove was born for TV," he says. Craig Campbell, then a producer at the network, agrees. "I knew he was the future of tonight shows," Campbell says. "He's warm, he's real, he's a natural performer."

In April 1999 McManus made a pilot for a late-night show called Rove. At about this time he also formed Roving, which had four employees: Grant, Helliar and writer Kynan Barker, who are all still with him, and comedian Dave Callan. Then, McManus says, Nine left them dangling for five months and gave funnyman Mick Molloy a show instead. "They signed Mick and said, 'Well, we don't need you guys any more'," he says. "Then, when Mick's show fell over, they came back."

Finally, Rove got to air in September that year. It won decent ratings for its 11pm slot, attracted a loyal following and went on to win a silver Logie for Most Popular Light Entertainment Program. But before the Logie had landed, Rove had ended, lasting only 10 weeks. McManus says talks with Nine "gradually fell apart" and that he isn't sure why. Although he hazards a guess: "They didn't know what they were doing."

This all occurred in early 2000, which in television years is so long ago it may as well be the Pleistocene era, and nobody who was involved, including McManus and Callaghan, is interested in talking about it now. But it's worth explaining in order to understand how Nine came to pass on such a hot property.

Other sources say that Nine's problem was not with Rove, or Rove, but Roving. Network executives had been battling with Daryl Somers and Ernie Carroll over the style and content of their Hey Hey It's Saturday, which was nearing its end. By the time McManus came along they were plain fed up with television personalities wielding creative control and wanted to keep everything in-house. But McManus feared they would try to make him into a game-show host. "The one thing I wanted was the ability to say no," he says.

"Just not to be made to do anything I didn't want to."

Into the breach stepped Ten executives John McAlpine and David Mott, who had no problems dealing with Roving. Renamed Rove [Live] the show was back on air, on Ten, in October 2000. McManus is now so much part of Ten it is hard to imagine it turning out any other way.

"His personality and the network's personality are closely aligned - they're both youthful, cheeky, self-deprecating and comedic," says Tate. "Ten has an excellent rapport with the 16-to-39 demographic and Rove sits incredibly well with them." And when he's older? "I certainly hope he is still with us . . . Rove doesn't offend an older audience, either." In industry parlance: "Rove skews broad."

The relationship is mutually beneficial. Rove [Live] is a reliable ratings winner that can pull an audience ranging from teens to their grans. And for Roving, hooking up with Ten has seen the business grow tenfold into a thriving production house employing some 50 people. On its slate so far are three television shows, Rove [Live], sketch comedy series skitHOUSE and AFL footy panel show After the Game, all made for Ten. Roving also produced last year's Australian Record Industry Awards ceremony for the network, with Rove hosting, and will do it again this year.

Ten has committed to Rove [Live] until at least the end of 2004 and last month renewed skitHOUSE for a second series, which will air later this year. Such contracts offer a security rare in the television business and McManus doesn't take it for granted, vividly remembering the early days of Rove [Live] when Ten would commit to only 13 episodes at a time. "We'd get to episode 12 and wonder if we should plan a goodbye for next week," he says.

Roving's sidelines are the online merchandising business at (offering logoed $15 coffee mugs, $20 hats, $35 T-shirts and CD compilations of music heard on the program) and a weekly radio show, Saturday Morning Rove, which is syndicated on the top-rating Austereo network and can be heard in the five mainland capitals plus Newcastle and on 23 regional stations.

It all adds up to a lucrative business. Industry sources estimate making Rove [Live] would cost at least $100,000 per show, which at 40 shows a year would value the deal at $4 million a year minimum. They guesstimate skitHOUSE, which runs for 30 minutes, would cost in the order of $150,000 per show. With two series of 13 episodes each, that deal would also be worth in the ballpark of $4 million a year. Then there are the "add-ons": the ARIAs, the Austereo fee, the merch and the low-budget After the Game.

All told, it's hard to see Roving turning over much less than $10 million a year. McManus may soon feel as at home on the cover of BRW as TV Week.

"I would feel like a fraud," he demurs. "I sometimes feel like a fraud on the cover of TV Week, as well. But I'm not a businessman. I've never done a course. I just make decisions based on what I like or what I don't like and it has proven to be successful." As for Roving's future, he agrees "film would be fun. But at the moment there's no plans for that." He adds, "Although, initially we didn't have any plans for anything, so you just never know."

McManus is the face and heart of Roving and, officially, its director, but it isn't a one-man show. "Rove has chosen some of the best management and production people in Australia," says Ten's Tate. His business partners are the former Nine producer Craig Campbell, now Roving's executive producer, and Kevin Whyte, also McManus's manager.

When McManus left Nine Campbell quit to go with him, a brave and savvy move. He oversees all Roving's projects and has many fans in the industry himself. "He's a very, very, very, very good producer," says one senior industry figure. Says McManus: "He's got an amazing mind for television."

Whyte, who runs Melbourne-based management agency Token Artists, does the books and negotiates the deals. "I have to be across the deal-making side, but most of the business decisions my business manager comes up with and runs by me," McManus says.

Illustrating how tight-knit the Roving world is, of the 16 personalities managed by Token Artists at least half are members of the McManus circle. Apart from Rove himself, the list includes Grant and Helliar, who appear on Rove [Live] and Saturday Morning Rove. Helliar also hosts After the Game. Others are radio presenters Greg Fleet and Wil Anderson and comedians Dave Hughes and Adam "Go You Big Red Fire Engine" Hills, all familiar Rove [Live] guests, and comedy group Tripod, which features on skitHOUSE. (Whyte was holidaying and unable to be contacted for this article.) Another key figure is McManus's publicist, Maria Farmer, whose other clients include Holly Valance, radio duo Merrick and Rosso (who are managed by Token Artists), Sass & Bide, Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths and Baz Luhrmann. And last but not least, and in his life first, is McManus's girlfriend, actor and singer Belinda Emmett, who he met at the Fox Studio! s opening party in late 1999.

While McManus is comfortable blending his personal and professional lives, he emphasises his projects are staffed on the basis of talent, not mateship. "Even if they are friends, that's not the reason they get the gig. They're just people who are incredibly talented," he says.

Obviously, though, the bonds among his circle run deep. "It's more than a working relationship," says Tate. "There are very genuine friendships there, as well."

Usually broadcast from Melbourne, this month Rove [Live] went to Sydney for four shows. On a rainswept Monday night the 180-strong audience files into Global Studios in the Epping hinterland and is prepped on the response to McManus's opening monologue. "If it seems like he thinks he's funny, laugh," says the warm-up guy.

We don't require much coaching. Everyone is ready to love Rove, and he handles the crowd like a star. But not a stuck-up star. Instead, he disarms with self-deprecation, joking that now we'll be able to tell our friends he is "shorter and more gay-looking" than expected.

The show follows a well-oiled formula. The topical opening routine is followed by ad-lib banter chased by some set-piece hijinks. A couple of star guests get a once-over lightly and plug their latest projects. And it's all rounded off with a song. The format is fast and fun and the viewers lap it up, in the studio and at home - that night's show draws almost 1.2 million viewers, making it one of the 50 most popular shows of the week.

McManus makes it look easy, but it isn't. His pre-show preparation is perfectionist and his on-air concentration ferocious. He's a pro. And while he may doubt his longevity in this industry, he's one of the few who does. As Callaghan says: "He's got a great face for TV, a great head for TV. And he's a fantastic bloke. He'll be around for a long time."


Official websites

The Australian

Rove Live


Rove takes gold - 19th April 2004