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Kenneth Frederick Watts (1919–1990)

by John Newsom

This article was published:

Kenneth Frederick Watts (1919-1990), television and film executive and pioneer of television current affairs, was born on 13 December 1919 in Perth, eldest of three children of South Australian-born Horace Frederick Watts, salesman (later company manager), and his wife Esme Annie, née White, from Victoria. A gifted pianist with delicately shaped hands, Ken played Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G Minor at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth at the age of 15. He was considered one of the State’s most promising pianists and was offered a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, but the birth of his brother in 1934 made this financially impossible for the family. Educated at Perth Modern School and the University of Western Australia (BA, 1940; Dip.Ed., 1941), Watts majored in French and English. Torn between a career in music or teaching, he worked briefly as a schoolteacher before joining the army in World War II.

On 9 October 1941 Watts was called up for full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces and posted to the 13th Field Ambulance. Commissioned as a lieutenant and seconded to the Australian Imperial Force in 1942, he was reassigned in 1944 to the 2/12th Field Ambulance with which he served in Borneo (May 1945-January 1946) as a bearer officer and quartermaster. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 8 May 1946 in Australia.

Returning to civilian life, Watts took on the role of musical director for the Perth Concert Artists and youth education assistant for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Perth. In 1949 he transferred to Melbourne as the ABC’s Victorian producer of youth and school broadcasts. After successfully managing the Olympic Broadcasting Centre in 1956, and the launch of ABC television, Watts was rewarded with an Imperial Relations Trust fellowship that enabled him to travel to England, Europe and North America. By the early 1960s he had been appointed federal director of education and soon after federal director of general programs.

Following a partial split of radio and television program management at the ABC in the mid-1960s, Watts was made federal director of television programs. Drawing on his experience in Victoria and in upper-level management—and from having observed the major changes in British Broadcasting Corporation television during the 1960s—he began to reshape ABC television. Foremost among his many innovations was ‘This Day Tonight’ (1967), Australia’s first daily current affairs programme. TDT introduced fresh new faces and provided hard-hitting interviews. Its frequently iconoclastic approach to timeworn issues sometimes stretched the boundaries of good taste.

Creative, encouraging towards young people, and occasionally ruthless, Watts genuinely cared about the quality and popularity of ABC programs. He stepped down from his position as controller of television programs at the ABC in 1975 to become founding chairman of the Australian Film Commission. In this role he oversaw a revitalisation of the Australian film industry and was responsible for funding such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Caddie (1976) and Breaker Morant (1980). In 1982 Watts became managing director of Adams Packer, the independent feature-film production company established by Kerry Packer and Phillip Adams. That year Watts also became founding chairman of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. He died of a cerebrovascular accident on 29 July 1990 at Prahran, Melbourne, and was cremated with Uniting Church forms.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983)
  • West Australian, 1 Nov 1934, p 14, 31 Oct 1935, p 23, 22 Aug 1949, p 15, 16 Apr 1975, p 12
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Aug 1990, p 8
  • B883, item WX33062 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

John Newsom, 'Watts, Kenneth Frederick (1919–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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