Children's Media needs another Bruce Gyngell
Patricia Edgar, 2007
There was nobody quite like Bruce Gyngell, the first face we recall on Australian network television when Channel Nine launched on the 16th of September 1956, 50 years ago. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to television”, he said. Typically Bruce claimed the first face seen was the studio cat.
Gyngell was described variously throughout his career as a “TV maverick' 'the most distinguished television executive Australia ever had known' and 'a TV terrorist'. He was all of those things. As well he was seen as a traitor by the industry which spawned him when his Tribunal imposed new standards for children's television on the networks.
The first time Gyngell saw television, he was standing in Frank Packer's New York office flicking through the channels. 'This is me' he said. That he understood the medium and its audience was demonstrated throughout a brilliant career where he led the Nine Network to dominate the ratings and then (following a dispute with Sir Frank) did the same for the Seven Revolution.
But he did not understand the bureaucracy. The Fraser government with Kerry Packer's support appointed Gyngell to run the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal; a decision both would come to regret.
Gyngell's first task as Chairman was to undertake an inquiry into the concept of self regulation for broadcasters and to decide on the extent of regulation of Australian content, children's program and advertising standards. The industry was confident of the outcome. But Gyngell proved to be his own man, not an industry puppet. He listened as public interest groups came forward to argue the case for children's television and he decided the industry should produce and transmit quality children's programs.
I was a former member of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board - sacked (in 1976) when Malcolm Fraser came to power - who had gained a name as a forceful advocate for children's programming. Undeterred by my reputation Bruce invited me to join his Tribunal's Children's Program Committee to devise the regulations. I chaired the CPC for the next five years and during Gyngell's term had his full support for the introduction of children's program standards which are still in place today.
The industry could not believe their favourite son had betrayed them. The dispute between the CPC and the Tribunal, with the Federation of Children's Television Stations (FACTS) and the Networks, was acrimonious as we ventured into a regulatory experiment untried anywhere else in the world.
Through those Program Standards Australian children heard their voices, saw their stories set in their landscape, and an international industry was born with Australian children's drama becoming renowned and screened around the world.
It was a far-sighted policy and a case study of the way in which politics can be unpredictable when you mix a maverick like Bruce Gyngell with a bureaucracy, commercial interests and consumer groups. Bruce described the public hearings he chaired as 'a circus', with 'television groupies' gathering each time a licence was to be renewed. He provoked critics and admirers and in the process attracted attention, so the public knew more about broadcasting and the performance of the networks during his tenure than they had in the industry's 25 year history.
The networks and the government could not cope with the exposure and although Bruce put himself up for reappointment the government opted for a quieter time appointing David Jones, a partner in the legal firm of Ellison, Hewison and Whitehead as the Tribunal's next Chairman to settle the public license renewal process and contain the CPC with its ambitious plans for children.
Gyngell was appointed managing director of the new Independent and Multi-cultural Broadcasting Corporation later to become SBS and took his style and considerable understanding of the industry to that role. His like has not been seen again in broadcasting or media regulation.
The program standards Gyngell's ABT recommended in 1977, and implemented in June 1979 are now undergoing review by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) chaired by Chris Chapman. A lawyer and seasoned media executive with broad experience in broadcasting, on-line and telecommunications, Chapman has arrived relatively quietly on the regulatory scene as the inaugural Chair and CEO earlier this year (Feb 27). Word has it he is an innovator who believes communications have an important social role to play. Time will tell.
Although there have been substantial variations to the standards over 25 years there has been no review of the assumptions underlying children's programming policy. The objective of the standard is to ensure that children have access to a diversity of quality television programs made specifically for them. With the development of new media, children's interests are moving away from conventional formats and free to air television and there are significant social changes apparent in this shift.
The children's media debate is crying out for new champions and hopefully this review will uncover them for there is little discussion about the content of programs needed for children anymore. Public interest groups have narrowed their focus - to advertising and the old chestnut 'violence'- in the belief the task of ensuring program content is successfully accomplished. Producers - the beneficiaries of a system of regulation and subsidy - have not had to argue the case for the needs of children. Their time has now come as ACMA's role is not to preserve their interests; it is to ensure the needs of children will be served by the new media environment.
Children's media today does not simply mean television (although that should remain a significant area for new development, and the networks should not be permitted to abdicate their responsibilities). There are many new technology platforms. Children are both familiar with them and keen to explore every new possibility. They still use books, magazines and audiotapes but they engage with MP3 players, animation, computer games, SMS pagers and mobile phones. They are adept at multitasking not just using one device at a time.
Producers of children's programs are yet to embrace new technologies; their programs are often tired, lacking ideas, innovation and excitement for their audience, too often based around characters for their merchandise potential rather than ideas capable of stimulating and educating their audience.
ACMA should conduct a review which looks forward to the next decade. Media offer wonderful opportunities to educate and inspire. We should not give up on the idea of shaping the communication technology, of continuing to lead in the production of media for children as we have done for two decades in Australia. We can continue to create, together with children, stories that will bring the children around the world to an understanding of one another.
The times cry out for another Bruce Gyngell: Chris Chapman are you the man?