ABC 7:30 anchor Leigh Sales opens up about the formidable task of replacing Kerry O'Brien, the media's double standards, and her penchant for tinkling the ivories in the second profile from our Power Women series.
When Leigh Sales succeeded Kerry O'Brien as the host of 7:30 (formerly The 7:30 Report) in March 2011, she took on one of the most daunting roles in Australian media.
Coming from Lateline, she knew she had the necessary credentials, but stepping into the shoes of the man who had anchored the ABC's legendary and uncompromising primetime political affairs program for 15 years wasn't easy.
"Taking over as host was challenging," she recalls. "Viewers were very loyal to him and accustomed to his presence every night. I thought it would take a while for me to get the hang of that job and for viewers to accept me, and it did."
Now her fierce on-screen brand of intelligence is revered; she's famed for asking the tough questions and busting through spin. Her life mantra – "preparation and planning prevent piss poor performance" – seems to be working.
Her appearance – smart and professional – is never newsworthy. That's the way she believes it should be.
"The biggest roadblock for women in TV is the idea that we have to look youthful and be beautiful. There is unquestioningly a double standard. It's okay for a 55-year-old man to look 55, but a 55-year-old woman should look 45," she says.
When she's not interrogating the nation's leaders, Sales loves to bake. She's also a consummate pianist. But since having her first baby one year ago, her work/life balance is significantly more complex than it once was, leaving her less time to tinkle the ivories.
"I think I've touched the piano once since I had the baby," she confesses. "My husband keeps me sane because he takes more than his fair share of the home load."
A voracious love of reading set her on her path to journalism. Growing up in Queensland she was a "a very bookish kid" and, after devouring Enid Blyton's The Enchanted Wood while off school with measles, she knew storytelling was her future. "I was keen to write books and that solidified into a dream to be a journalist."
She started at Channel Nine answering phones, fielding complaints and listening to the police scanner. Soon after, she jumped on an advertised role for a junior reporter at the ABC and that led her to be the network's Washington correspondent. She filled that role until the age of 32 when she came home to host Lateline, which led to 7:30.
As for working in the boys' club that is media, Sales says all the men she's worked with have been wholly supportive and respectful – except for one. "I do remember a sleazy cameraman once giving me a bit of a feel when he clipped a microphone on me, but I let rip with a profanity-rich onslaught and it never happened again," she says.
The major challenge she sees for TV in the coming decade is the competition for eyeballs across screens. "My program doesn't just compete with what's on at 7:30pm across the other Australian networks, it competes with what you recorded on IQ last week and whatever film or TV show you download on iTunes," she says. "The opportunity is the flipside of that – the potential audience is much larger because it's not limited to whomever's sitting in Australia in front of their TV at 7:30pm."
And it's that uncertainty around the medium's future which has her questioning whether she'd encourage other young women to get into the industry.
"Even though I've loved my job and I hate to be negative, I would advise women to think twice before entering the industry," she says. "It's going through such a period of change. I fear things are going to get worse before they get better.
"I reckon if you were tossing up whether to be a journalist or a doctor, definitely be a doctor. But if you really, really want to be a journalist, well it's the best job in the world."
Don't miss our profile of Google's director of products and solutions, Karen Stocks out tomorrow.
Also published in this series: Power Women: Nicole Sheffield, MD NewsLifeMedia
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