September 16, 2006
The Canberra Times

TV at 50: smalls steps for mankind, a way to go for the girls

When Bruce Gyngell uttered those words ”Good Evening and Welcome to Television”, 50 years ago today, it’s a good bet he was wearing his favourite pair of smalls at the time. Quite possibly they were a pale shade of pink.

The debonair and utterly charming ”Mister TV” was partial to pink. But as a young reporter back in the early ’90s, in the days when the great Bruce Gyngell returned from the UK to grace the corridors of Channel 9, what I recall most about him was his advice to women TV presenters – about their underwear.

”It should always be silk” he said, because that’s what makes a woman feel her best.”

On the occasion I was asked to accompany Mr Gyngell to a network sponsored fashion show, I didn’t have the heart to tell the wardrobe department I’d be wearing my own comfy version of cotton tails. And later at a Channel 9 luncheon hosted by the sartorial Mr Gyngell, the best I could come up with when told by my boss to ”wear something sexy”, was to raise the hemline of my skirt with the aid of gaffer tape.

But those were the grand old days. The days when the terrifying Kerry Packer thumped along the corridors of GTV 9 in Melbourne, where I worked, gesticulating at the celebrity photos that lined the corridor, bellowing something about why weren’t there more blondes on TV. Fortunately I was brunette and never crossed his path.

Fortunately too the world of television has moved on for Australian women.

Fifty years since its arrival in the Antipodes it is instructive to take a look at the evolution of women’s presence on the small screen. For fear of sounding mellow, I can’t bring myself to hand out plaudits, but I can say we’ve come a long way. And in a country still beset by patriarchy and a blokey culture, that’s really saying something.

When I was growing up in the happening ’70s, the only women of prominence on television had names like Ding Dong, Delvene, Abigail or Jeannie.

They were famed for being either a ding-bat, buxom or raucous. Back then women were side-kicks and eye candy. They were certainly never on the screen in their own right. And in the days when Eric Pearce was the voice of authority and daddy to us all, it was inconceivable to think of women fronting prime time news.

But over the past couple of decades the Australian TV scene has evolved to incorporate women as serious players and contributors.

In fact, our evolution has perhaps been even greater than that nation from where we take most of our television cues – the United States. Reading the American press over the past week, with its breathless accounts of news journalist Katie Couric’s first night as a ”lone prime time female anchor”, is a stark reminder of just how far we’ve come here in Australia.

That said, it would be disingenuous to suggest we’ve got the balance right, or the full range of womanhood represented on Australian television. We don’t.

Being a culture preoccupied with youth, young women far outweigh older women on the small screen. Although, thankfully, public broadcasting ditched that prejudice some time ago. Nevertheless, on the mass appeal commercial television networks, youth is perhaps now more important than gender. It seems the squeaky voices of perfumed young men, with powder on their nose, are increasingly taking the place of the wrinkled, old, but beautifully modulated authoritative tones of father figures such as the Brians, the Jims and, perhaps soon, the Ians. It’s no secret that when the 30-something Mark Ferguson was being groomed to replace the 60-something Jim Waley on Channel 9’s news in Sydney, topping the list of considerations was Ferguson’s appeal to women.

Naturally, it was the appeal of women to men that first got women on the box in prime time commercial news and current affairs roles in Australia. But ironically, it was the appeal of women to women that has dramatically increased our presence there.

Twenty years ago, when I began my career as a television journalist, I could count on less than one hand the number of women in senior presenting or reporting roles. Most were on the ABC. But during that year, 1986, a subtle, yet fundamental, shift occurred, thanks to Jana Wendt.

That was the year the boys-own team at 60 Minutes welcomed Jana to the ticking clock frame.

She was the first woman elevated to a prime time commercial position with celebrity status. Of course the ABC already had the exceptional Caroline Jones and Anne Deveson on Four Corners, along with tremendous roles models like Geraldine Doogue and Jane Singleton.

But back then the ABC’s audience penetration, and therefore influence on cultural norms, was not as pervasive as that of commercial TV.

Until the arrival of Jana, no commercial prime time program used a woman as the authority, the inquisitor and the agitator. No doubt it was her beauty that helped get her there, but Jana’s tenacious journalism and intellect roped in a wide audience of women viewers.

Here at last was a woman on pop TV mixing it with the blokes and being taken seriously. At last, a woman appealing to a mass audience while using her brains. Certainly the advent of Jana’s celebrity encouraged women to covet roles of seniority and authority on commercial television. But her effect went well beyond that. It helped television executives – all blokes – to gradually understand that the viewing audience, which is generally dominated by women, like to see strong women with something to say being heard and respected on television.

As for Jana’s recent falling out with Channel 9, despite suggestions to the contrary, I doubt it has anything to do with age, or indeed gender. I suspect it’s simply a matter of style.

Given today marks the 50th anniversary of television in Australia, it’s a day to pause and applaud women’s progress on the small screen. As for pointing out the trivialisation and demeaning representation of some women on TV, and the dreadful dearth of women television executives and female network owners, I’ll leave that discussion – for tomorrow!

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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