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ACTF: Patricia Edgar reflects on a famous anniversary 

by: Patricia Edgar

Screen Hub
Tuesday 6 March, 2012

The ACTF was built in the teeth of opposition by an alliance of visionaries with great cunning and determination. Patricia Edgar, founding director of the ACTF, describes the history, and pays tribute to the activists behind the scenes. In this year of regulatory turmoil, there is much to learn from their story. 

The ACTF is unique in the world, and as founding director I have often been asked how it came to be. 

It has been said that the members of the Australian Education Council (AEC) decided one day to set up an ACTF. Nothing in political life happens so simply and the ACTF is no exception. This is a snapshot which looks back to the origins, remembers how and why the ACTF came to be and acknowledges the people responsible. 

Children's television in Australia had begun with promise in the late 1950's. Programming was driven by the industry's need to sell television sets and the marketers needed kids' programs in the schedule to pitch set sales to families. Some fine, live, studio-based children's programs were produced including the Magic Circle Club, Adventure Island and Mr Squiggle

Yet once television services penetrated most households - and Australians took to television with great relish very quickly - the stations dropped their children's programs and scheduled cheaper old American sitcom repeats after school. Locally produced children's programs were virtually non-existent by the late 60's.

Advocating for children to be provided with quality media has been the central preoccupation of my long career. When I turned 30 I took the first step down a path which led to the ACTF. I enrolled in a Film, Television and Communication Studies Master's degree at Stanford University in the USA. It was a turbulent time in America when the activist Abbie Hoffman popularized the view that you 'don't trust anyone over 30'. By then it was thought, ideals had been compromised by the system. I planned to be an exception. 

I returned from the United States in 1969 and set up a new Media Centre at Latrobe University. I spent rugged years establishing the first film and television theory and production courses in an Australian university and earnt a reputation as a fighter. 

From 1972 Gough Whitlam's Labor government, as part of its radical change program, began appointing women to posts they had not occupied before and to committees where they had not been represented. Broadcasting reform and public broadcasting were on the agenda for the first time. The Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) was feeling pressure to demonstrate it was not inert and it set up an Advisory Committee on Program Standards. I was invited to become a member and then elected to chair the committee. The terms of reference were broad ? 'to undertake a general view of the objectives towards which program standards should be directed'. 

Shortly after that appointment I was invited by the Whitlam government to become a member of the ABCB itself - the first woman to fill such a role. As both a member of the ABCB and Chair of the Advisory Committee I had access to information that would not normally have been available to a Committee and I was determined to do a thorough job. I had an excellent Committee to work with and a well informed Executive Officer in Ursula Callus.

The industry was livid when the recommendations in the Edgar Report were released publicly. Among other things the Report recommended a blueprint for the reform of children's broadcasting standards. This Committee devised the C classification, recommending a children's quota and pre-approval of programs before they went to air. 

The television industry was always crying wolf, saying the networks couldn't afford Australian programs. Knowing we would be lighting a fuse that would grab attention, we recommended the abolition of one television network in each capital city to increase the advertising pie to the other networks to pay the bills. Hal Todd of the 10 Network described me on air as, 'a doctor of clothes pegs who didn't know which end she was talking out of.'

Reform was short-lived. Whitlam was sacked and Malcolm Fraser sacked the ABCB. The new government set up an Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) and Kerry Packer designated Bruce Gyngell as the chair of the new authority. As his first task Gyngell chaired an enquiry into 'Self-regulation for broadcasters?' To his surprise 500 submissions argued for quality Australian children's programs. The model recommended by many submissions was that of the C classification described in the Edgar Report.

Bruce Gyngell was a very reasonable man and decided the networks should do their bit for children, despite being the one anointed by the industry to protect their interests. To the industry's chagrin the ABT enquiry adopted the blueprint for C classified programs and the Fraser government endorsed the recommendation. 

Then, unexpectedly, I was invited to become a member of the ABT's Children's Program Committee (CPC) where once again I was elected as Chair. So I was given another shot at reforming children's programming. The CPC comprised seven members; four from the public and three from the industry; it was assumed that if we could agree on anything it would not be too contentious. Gyngell had not counted on Frank Meaney and my partnership.

I first met Frank Meaney as a member of the ABCB's Advisory Committee. He was then an inspector of schools in New South Wales. He was a highly principled Catholic with a strong belief in hard work and due process. He loved to debate ideas then argue them through and was not easily moved from his well reasoned beliefs. Frank and I, who had both grown up in the bush, who were both trained teachers, who loved the cinema, forged a strong friendship through our shared commitment to the cause of children's television. I was well pleased to find he too was a member of Gyngell's CPC and he became my Deputy Chair. 

Our joint mission was to convert the industry members on the CPC; John Stapp, Rex Heading (the creator of Humphrey B Bear) and Bruce Harris, to the cause of children's programming. These men did become staunch advocates for the C classification and took a lot of flak from their industry over their support. Frank had a lot to do with gaining their confidence.

At first the CPC issued guidelines encouraging drama programs in the C category but no drama was produced: cheaper magazines were the staple. It became clear that a legally enforceable drama quota would be required and that the networks would have to be forced to comply on threat of losing their license to operate. 

Among public servants on the inside of the ABT there were very mixed views about the CPC. The Committee was served first by Rob Liersch and then Bob Axam as Executive Officers. They were immensely loyal to the CPC and to me as Chair. They could sniff out the bureaucratic efforts to undermine our quota plans. I had daily contact with Rob then Bob, helping them devise strategies to progress the quota: the Committee would have had no chance without their dedication. 

Gyngell's chairmanship was a volatile period and he was attacked from all directions about his management of the ABT. But he stood by the CPC and it was at some cost. 

The media loved it all: Four Corners, The Bulletin, The Sunday Program, the Financial Review, the broadsheets and the tabloids all made children's television front page and headline news. The industry finally turned on Gyngell, their poster boy, and the government refused him reappointment. 

His replacement was David Jones a cautious lawyer who set about toning things down. The CPC campaign for a drama quota was severely slowed as controversy continued.

The networks argued children did not like watching children on television and would not watch 'the castor oil television drama' these do-gooding Committee members wanted. Australian children, they said, would never be able to act convincingly. Few seemed to understand what a children's program was beyond pre-school level. The networks considered family programming such as The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie should qualify and opportunistic distributors were ransacking their shelves to find dated adventures and animations to qualify for the C quota. Lassie andSkippy re-emerged and CPC members had a hard time wading through old episodes ? as we were obliged to do - and holding the line. 

John Stapp and Rex Heading joined me for a weekend visit to David Jones to tell him the CPC was going on strike if he would not clarify the Program Standards and move the drama quota along. A strike would have meant programs were not classified and stations could not schedule them.

These experiences as Chair of the CPC convinced me that regulation by itself would never achieve the type of programming Australian children deserved. There would always be tension between the networks and the ABT as it sought to impose a policy for children's television requiring the development of programs that entertained but had a serious well-developed cultural purpose. This tension of course has never dissipated in 35 years.

My thinking was that our film industry had been revived and its subsidy was justified by the contribution films made to a cohesive national culture and identity. The argument for children's television was the same. Programs were unlikely to be profitable productions so commercial enterprises would continue to resist their production. It therefore was the responsibility of government to ensure the provision of cultural experiences as the glue that binds us together as a nation.

I was never an enemy of television. I knew the effects research inside out as my PhD studied children's perceptions of media violence. I believed television was an under-utilized resource for stimulating children's intellectual and emotional development. I believed Australia could produce children's television programs of quality, imbued with a unique Australian flavour that kids would not only watch and learn from but enjoy. We needed funding independent of the networks and we needed a legally enforceable quota to ensure programs went to air.

I began to campaign publicly for a Children's Television Foundation. It was an idea that had been mentioned in reports previously but no one had pursued the idea systematically. An Australian Children's Television Foundation was to be one element in an integrated policy package alongside Program Standards. This proposal got solid backing from many people.

Anne Gorman who was director of the International year of the Child in New South Wales contacted me. She was determined to get kids on the political agenda. We set up a Steering Committee and prepared to approach the Victorian and New South Wales governments for establishment grants for a Foundation.

Norman Lacy, the Liberal Minister for the Arts and Education in Victoria, read a lecture I had given for the Victorian State Film Centre about the Foundation proposal and called me. He was preparing for an international study trip and wanted to know who he should visit overseas to learn about recent initiatives in children's programming. By the time he returned he had drafted a discussion paper to put before the AEC outlining the role that Commonwealth and State governments should play in working together to establish a subsidized ACTF.

Anne Gorman and I acted as go-betweens for the Liberal Minister Lacy and Labor Education Minister Paul Landa so they could present a bipartisan case to the other states at the AEC. Together they prevailed and New South Wales was given carriage of a proposal to set up a Working Group including representatives from government, the television networks, the ABT and the children's television lobby. 

The task of putting the Group together fell to Frank Meaney then Head of the Community Relations Unit in the State Education Department. Frank and I stacked that Committee with individuals sympathetic to our cause. Rex Heading our CPC ally was asked to represent commercial television and John Morris the Managing Director of the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) represented South Australia. John was elected Chair and the Working Group was given three months to report on the feasibility of a Foundation.

I first met John Morris on a selection committee for the first intake into the Australian Film and Television School in 1972. We subsequently spent years together on the Board of the Film School and had become close friends. John taught me much about the film production industry. We were both very forthright, some would say abrasive, but we enjoyed that quality in one another. He did not suffer fools and nor did I. He was his own man but we shared a view on the kind of organization a Foundation should be. 

I knew John would manage the disparate Working Group because of his personality and knowledge of the industry. In the end he drafted the final report that went to the AEC.

That Working Group's recommendation on structure and status is the main reason the ACTF survives today. The Foundation was to be set up in all states and territories as a company limited by guarantee funded by government and private sources, but independent and able to act on a commercial basis.

The two ministers worked together once again to get the other states to endorse the proposal and set up a Steering Committee to create the Foundation. Norman Lacy phoned me. 'What do we do now?' he asked. I took leave from LaTrobe University to become the Task Force Director in Victoria for Lacy and Frank Meaney, as part of his role of the New South Wales Education Department became the Task Force Director reporting to Paul Landa. 

By now Frank and I had worked closely for five stormy years from the Advisory Committee in 1975 through the early years of the CPC. Over the next year together we endured countless meetings explaining the concept of the Foundation to Ministers, Government MPs, bureaucrats, people of influence and anyone who would listen. 

We were met with indifference, impatience and occasionally interest. Norman Lacy travelled Australia putting the case for a Foundation. Ken Watts who had been Head of the Australian Film Commission was invited to Chair the Steering Committee, Anne Gorman was a member as was John Morris, Phillip Adams and Sir James Cruthers (former managing director of TW7 Perth).

At the first meeting Philip Adams presented the now well recognized ACTF logo designed by Alex Stitt as a joint donation. The Foundation was ready to go as an innovator, an initiator and broker of production with the independent industry but we needed the funds. A Senate Committee endorsed the policy of subsidy and recommended the federal government support the ACTF financially.

These were tough economic times; the razor gang was at work in Canberra. There was strong opposition to the Foundation from some children's television advocates who feared loss of their turf and were doing quite a lot of damage politically against our cause. Barbara Biggins the South Australian activist was an exception. I visited Dame Beryl Beaurepaire the doyenne of the Liberal party of Australia to enlist her support. She was a grandmother and enthusiastic about a Foundation. Most importantly she was close to and willing to speak with Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser about financial support.

Fortuitously John Stapp ran the regional television station in Malcolm Fraser's electorate so John, Rex Heading and I requested a meeting with the PM. We waited. The PM was taken ill and Anne Gorman and I sent him flowers from the supporters of the Foundation. We finally got our meeting on December 2 1981. But the PM was non committal. 

It took almost 4 more months of persistent lobbying, then Malcolm Fraser not only agreed to fund the Foundation for three years but also to present a cheque for the Commonwealth contribution on 26th March in the Melbourne Treasury Gardens. Norman Lacy was to present a cheque from Victoria and in Adelaide a similar presentation was to be made to John Morris.

I decided to stage a birthday party with children representing the 4,202,046 children in Australia. The Prime Minister was invited to sit with the children to cut a cake bearing the ACTF logo. As he did so the seat collapsed and he fell to the ground surrounded by laughing children. The newspaper headline the following day read 'PM loses his seat'. The day coincided with a bid by Andrew Peacock for the Liberal leadership. A photo of the disaster hangs on my study wall and I have my head buried in my hands.

Eight days later, in the Victorian State election the Liberal government was defeated. Norman Lacy lost his seat; his political career was over. With his departure from politics the Foundation lost its sustaining political patronage and support: we entered an entirely new ball game.

There are many who deserve to be named in this tribute who can claim a role in the establishment of the ACTF. There was an undoubted value in the role played by the early lobbyists, notably Barbara Biggins, in getting children's television on the public agenda in the first place and by the Senate Standing Committee on Education and the Arts in keeping up the political pressure. 

But it would not have happened without the members of the Advisory Committee on Program Standards, the members of the Children's Program Committee and the excellent staff who served those Committees; Bruce Gyngell and his support for me and my colleagues on the CPC ; without Anne Gorman and her supporters; without Norman Lacy's dogged persistence and time-consuming work; without John Morris steering the idea through the AEC Working Group and mentoring me for years as Deputy Chair of ACTF; without Dame Beryl Beaurepaire and John Stapp persuading Malcolm Fraser to put in three years funding; without Frank Meaney and the strategic role he played inside the New South Wales Education Department; or without my own work in developing ideas and strategies, linking networks and being a hub for the interaction of all players. 

We all worked together extremely well. It was a complex process of lobbying and strategic planning and guiding a plan through to reality. And we had only just begun.

I had a strong, wise Board to support me. Ken Watts was an astute Chair who guided me through a serious fraud that could have brought down the fledgling Foundation. John Morris, Deputy Chair until he stepped down in 1990 to become CEO of the FFC watched my back always. Phillip Adams was full of ideas. Dame Beryl Beaurepaire and Quentin Bryce brought strong networks. Dame Margaret Guilfoyle replaced Beryl and John Morris was replaced by Garth Boomer an outstanding educator. Janet Holmes a Court and Hazel Hawke became members on the same day, December 1 1983. Both brought invaluable access to their husbands Robert Holmes a Court and Bob Hawke as well as their own profiles. Keith Moreman, the ABT member who travelled with the CPC and later joined the ACTF Board was a great moral support. 'Tell them ?Up 'em, Pat?, he would say to me. 'Tell them ?Up 'em?'. There were many others who made important contributions.

A more detailed history of the achievements of the ACTF and its problems is written in my memoir Bloodbath. A memoir of Australian Television but some highlights warrant mention here.

- The ACTF created a new genre of children's programming attracting the best and the brightest in the industry to work for children.

- For the first time we linked commercial television programs with educational materials - novels and teaching guides to encourage use in the classroom. The 'Winner' and 'Touch the Sun' novels, based on original screenplays, were in print for more than a decade.'

- Robert Holmes a Court underwrote our first series Winners and through his international company ITC distributed the series around the world. This introduced Australian drama to territories we could never have reached otherwise.

- Hazel Hawke set up and accompanied me to a meeting with Michael Duffy, then Minister for Communications, where we were given a very good hearing on the problems presented by industry threats to the ABT's Program Standards. The industry challenged the Standards in the Courts and Duffy introduced legislation to leave no doubt the industry must comply with the Standards and the quotas.

- A slew of awards followed the release of Winners and with Mario Andreacchio's Captain Johnno in the Touch the Sun series ACTF won a second Emmy for Australia. 

- Following lobbying in Canberra for a new definition of children's programs to qualify for FFC funding, Round the Twist introduced not only an iconic program but a new 13 part mini-series format that became the standard for the production industry and filled a demand worldwide. The BBC began investing in children's television in Australia with Round the Twist and continues investing today.

- ACTF programs attracted international attention and opened doors for independent producers who developed an industry. While the ACTF's focus was children, industry development was a by-product.

- The ACTF attracted investment and introduced International distributors who continue to support Australian Productions: Revcom, the BBC, France Animation, the US Disney Channel, Disney UK and the Discovery Channel were among them. 

- Garth Boomer persuaded all Directors of Curriculum to endorse Lift Off and produce curriculum materials to support the series: another first.

- In 1995 the ACTF hosted the first World Summit on Television for Children.

- Kahootz and Noah and Saskia demonstrated the potential in program development with convergence.

Change is coming to children's media production. It has been clear for years that the Standards no longer suit the current system and that new models for production and financing are required. 

Instead of initiating new policies for children's media we went back to the future with ABC3. This was an opportunity to introduce a new innovative service that could capitalize on digitization and convergence. But the old models have been reinforced; the ABC has a monopoly on children's financing and production and the commercial networks have a good case that they should no longer be expected to provide children's programs. Producers with new ideas have nowhere to take them as the ABC focuses on meeting its 50% Australian content target, requiring high volume cheap product.

For almost 40 years children's media has been a huge part of my life. I continue to Chair the World Summit on Media for Children Foundation and the next Summit will be hosted by the Asian Broadcasting Union (ABU) in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia in 2014. The ABU has an audience reach of 4 billion. In keeping with the challenges of the times the aims of the Summit are: 

? Promote the development, creation and provision of innovative, high-quality indigenous digital content for children across Asia
? Provide a forum for the exchange of information and perspectives on children and digital media in Asia
? Provide opportunities for creators, broadcasters and distributors of media for children in Asia to meet with specialists from around the world to collaborate, share ideas, and build new relationships
? Identify new opportunities for the creation and distribution of digital media content across Asia
? Explore innovation in digital media for children, and identify lessons learned which can inform future content creators, broadcasters and distributors
? Create a sustainable community of digital media creators and providers for children in Asia.

For those with a passion for children's media this will be the place to be in September 2014.

This tribute has enabled me to reflect on the people who gave Australia the ACTF and in so doing enriched the lives of Australian children.

Those who are no longer with us are Frank Meaney, John Morris, Garth Boomer, Bruce Gyngell, John Stapp, Rex Heading, Ken Watts and Keith Moreman. I miss them all. Frank Meaney told me before he died that the achievement he was most proud of in his life was the Children's Television Standards and the ACTF.

 

Patricia Edgar 
Patricia Edgar AM is an author, television producer, educator and industry campaigner, who was the founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, which she ran from 1982 until 2002.