Sue Wells – The New Canterbury Tales

May 8, 2011

Susan Sells 301 #eqnz #christchurch

In June 1991, I was promotions manager at Sydenham Mall. I’d been there for just on a year, after Radio Avon was taken over by C93 and the radio job I loved disappeared overnight.

A friend of mine was offered a job at the soon to be launched CTV, reviewing videos. He declined, Press reporters being very busy people, and asked me if I’d be interested in auditioning for it. He warned me the pay was rubbish. I said I didn’t care. I’d do it for nothing, just to get a taste of working in telly.

I auditioned for a chap by the name of Larry Podmore. Got back to the mall management office and the phone rang. “Do you know anything about sports?” “Yes,” I replied, shaking my head vigorously.

And that’s how on June 17 1991, Wayne Smith (yes, the All Blacks’ Wayne Smith) and I ended up hosting DB Sport at 7pm, just a couple of hours after I opened the channel. I still have the jersey. It has a bit of paint on the sleeve, but it’s lovely and warm, if a little big. We went to air from TVNZ House in Gloucester Street (now demolished due to the earthquake).

About 6 weeks further in, it was apparent that the station wasn’t working. We had very little local content, and the format was derived from radio, with continuity announcers teasing the next show and back announcing what had obviously just screened.

It was also very expensive. Imported programming costs a fortune. The channel was struggling.

Joanna McMenamin, the founder of the station called me into her office on the top floor of the next door brick house (now demolished due to the earthquake). She explained a programme she’d seen when she was in the States. It was called an infomercial. (I’d never seen one.) She asked if I could sell things. Yes, I replied, but I don’t want to sell advertising.

Joanna threw me a matchbox. “Sell me that,” she said.

So I did.

In August 1991, “Susan Sells” (it rhymed with Wells) went to air. Guests paid $100 + GST cash on the night, for 3 minutes of live unedited airtime. I’d ring them up during the day, discuss what they wanted to promote, gossip, write the graphics, gossip, get my hair and makeup done, sort out wardrobe, gossip, create a little bit of mayhem, and then come 5pm we’d be away.

It never did resemble the show Joanna was trying to explain. Instead it became a showcase for Canterbury businesses, and the people who came in every night were the undisputed stars.

We had huge fun. The product range in the studio was extraordinary. The products were all set up live, off camera, and every now and again enormous crashes and bangs would cause raised eyebrows during someone else’s slot, or a wallaby from Willowbank would have a wee poo, or someone would play with a chainsaw and things would go a bit wrong. At the end there was a mad hurtle out of the studio so the news could proceed. Live local television, in the raw, unplugged. Awesome, with a capital “O”.

I did it for about 4 years, then had a break when my second baby was due. A couple of other “Susans” followed, and the show never stopped working.

The station did. It folded in 1997. George Balani, who was presenting a show, picked up the cudgels and the next CTV launched as CHTV on 4/11/97.

For the second time, I hosted “Susan Sells”. George asked me to come back and get the show on the road.

How could I refuse?

Jo Giles was my sales rep. She took it over hosting “Susan Sells” from me when I moved into doing the Current Affairs show, Canterbury Today.

Jo’s role became that of Donna Manning.

Both of them were lost on February 22, 2011, when the CTV building on Madras and Cashel fell to the ground during the earthquake.

There were various discussions after that about relaunching the station. Rob Cope-Williams shoulder tapped me. Could I help?

How could I refuse?

So today, Mother’s Day, Sunday May the 8th 2011, exactly 18 years to the day since we raised over $624,000 with our telethon, we have spent the day shooting the first week’s episodes of “Susan Sells” at CTV’s new premises at 540 Wairakei Road. It’s co-located with Mainland Press. An old warehouse room has been converted into a teeny tiny little studio.

The makeup room is also office space. There is no green room. There aren’t many lights, the deaf aids aren’t working yet, but we have a monitor and two cameras and foldback in the studio.

The staff is minimal and there’s a lot of volunteering, myself included. We have to rebuild this baby, and we will.

Forty clients passed through the set today. I have to say it was a hard day.

There were lots of tears. There was not a lot of smiling. The mood was sombre. The grief at the loss of Donna and Jo and all the rest of the CTV crew broke through a number of times. It was a hard day on set. It will get easier as the weeks go by. For today, getting people through the first batch of programmes was the goal – showcasing business is still the proposition, and it works like a charm.

It will work even better for the clients now because of the generosity of Maori Television. They’ve allowed CTV to use their Sky platform for a few hours a day. From tomorrow, “Susan Sells” will screen at 1pm weekdays on Maori TV Freeview and Sky, as well as screening four times on local CTV UHF44 and Youtube is coming too.

I’m not quite sure yet what time our regular filming slot will be. The CTV management have been very good in understanding that I will have to make my council commitments. We’ll either be shooting at sparrow o’clock, or perhaps locking off an afternoon, or perhaps doing both. It will sort itself out. It always does.

We will have good times. We will have fun. We will never forget or replace the people who were lost on February 22nd. None of us would want to. But like them all, we are broadcasters, and we have a job to do which is more necessary now than it ever was before. We will honour them going forward. We will not let them or their families, their friends, their loved ones down.

We have the eyes of the world on us now. The Japanese Channel HKNTV was with us today. I don’t know quite what they thought of our cobbled together gear, or our homespun programme, but what they will not have mistaken is how real the channel’s commitment to Canterbury is, nor how real is the region’s commitment to CTV.

This iteration, the station’s third, comes with its own new brand. We’ll all have to work hard to honour that together.

CTV – The Recovery Channel.

Back to the future


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