The Champions Series: A Salute to Dr. Patricia Edgar: The Dynamo From Down Under

Sometimes change happens by a slow natural progression, or by a sudden inexplicable phenomenon. In the case of Australian children's television, change came about because of the dogged determination of one woman: Dr. Patricia Edgar. The ech'es of Dr. Edgar's perseverance...
March 1, 1997

Sometimes change happens by a slow natural progression, or by a sudden inexplicable phenomenon. In the case of Australian children’s television, change came about because of the dogged determination of one woman: Dr. Patricia Edgar. The ech’es of Dr. Edgar’s perseverance can be heard in the works of all producers of Australian kids shows. And for every ego she has bruised or producer she has enraged, she’s inspired countless others to follow her lead. Her relentless drive to change the makeup of children’s TV in her native land has earned her international respect as one of the industry’s most important players.

* * *

Over the last two decades, the landscape of Australian children’s television programming has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis. What was once a haven for mindless sitcoms acquired abroad has been transformed into a model of entertaining and educational original TV fare for kids.

The catalyst behind this change has been Dr. Patricia Edgar.

‘Australia is now generally recognized as being one of the world leaders of children’s television drama,’ says John Morris, CEO of the Australian Film Finance Corporation. ‘The credit for that lies almost solely with Patricia Edgar.’

Whether as a lobbyist, crusader or producer, Edgar has prodded, fought, demanded-and usually succeeded-in forcing government officials and program producers to re-examine and refine children’s entertainment. Along the way, she has made as many enemies as allies, but friend and f’e alike admit that Edgar’s work has left a lasting and important imprint on the children’s television industry in Australia while setting an example for the rest of the world.

‘She’s a very dynamic dame,’ says Janet Holmes à Court, chairman of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF). ‘She has immense drive, energy and commitment to overcome any hurdles that come in her way.’

Edgar serves as director of the ACTF, a non-profit organization that she was instrumental in creating in 1982 with the mission to improve children’s programming. The ACTF has produced over 130 hours of shows, including such series as Round the Twist, Winners, Lift Off and Sky Trackers. ACTF programs have been sold to over 90 countries and have won more than 55 national and international awards.

More importantly, the ACTF has raised the bar for children’s entertainment in Australia. The result is that networks and production companies, often begrudgingly, have met the ACTF challenge to create quality programming of their own.

Patricia Edgar first came on the scene in the mid-’70s, a time when there was little original children’s programming in Australia. The mother and academic stepped into this void and lobbied the government for the establishment of minimum program standards that would force commercial networks to create acceptable shows. Her diligent crusade resulted in the ‘C Drama Quota,’ requiring commercial networks to air eight hours of high-quality, first-run Australian drama for kids per year. The quota is now 24 hours a year.

It was at this time that Edgar began acquiring a legion of loyalists as well as adversaries, particularly from commercial networks, which would rather have just acquired foreign product. ‘She is not universally liked or admired, but she is universally respected,’ longtime colleague Morris says. ‘She’s fiercely determined and can be quite ruthless to achieve what she sees as a worthwhile end. She d’esn’t shy away from a fight and quite likes them.’

Edgar described her dogged determination in an interview with The Australian newspaper. ‘There is no magic formula. I just don’t let up. If people say no, I find out why they are resisting and work to allay their fears. ‘Sometimes, you have to go around them and find another person in the organization and work on them. Sometimes, it’s a matter of waiting until one person g’es and another comes in.’

When the ACTF came into existence, Edgar made the unusual transition from lobbyist to program producer, backing up her arguments about the need for creating quality kids fare by producing it herself.

The example set by the foundation forced other companies to redouble their efforts to achieve productions of a similar quality. ‘The path she has forged, others have followed, and very successfully,’ says Morris.

‘Patricia is concerned about getting a good deal for the audience and maintaining high standards and quality,’ notes Anna Home, head of children’s programs at BBC Television.

The success of the ACTF earned Edgar a reputation on the international scene, and she has worked with governments of several countries that are trying to develop strategies to deal with the growing number of programming outlets directed towards kids. ‘She has had a worldwide impact by drawing attention to the fact that children deserve television that’s entertaining, but also stimulating and educational,’ says Holmes à Court.

Edgar’s concern for establishing global standards comes from a fear that a lack of international cooperation will result in a lower overall quality for children’s programs. To address this issue, Edgar was an instrumental figure in putting together the 1995 World Summit on Television and Children in Melbourne, which was attended by 637 delegates representing 71 countries.

The summit came about after senior children’s programming executives agreed that the issue of children’s television needed to be discussed on an international scale. ‘Patricia emerged from those meetings and picked up the ball and ran with it,’ says Home.

‘Hijacked’ is the term Edgar herself used, Holmes à Court recounts. ‘She is not phased by the fact that we Australians live a long way from anywhere. She has always believed that we could hold our own in the world.’

The summit resulted in the drafting of the Charter for Children’s Television, a declaration outlining a series of children’s viewing rights that production companies, networks and governmental bodies should keep in mind when creating or regulating kids TV. Agreements were made to hold a second World Summit in London in 1998. An Asian Summit was held in Manila in 1996 and an African Summit is scheduled for June in Mauritius.

While continuing to develop children’s TV drama, Edgar has expanded the scope of the foundation to develop multimedia projects. Additionally, she has played a vital role in forging international co-productions such as The Genie from Down Under with the BBC and the animated Li’l Elvis Jones and the Truckstoppers with France Animation and Ravensburger. The latter is ACTF’s most ambitious and expensive series ever.

‘One of the great things about Patricia is her combination of skills,’ Holmes à Court adds. ‘She has tremendous management skills. She also understands politics and how to get through that. But she also has a tremendous creative ability.’

Morris feels that the key to Edgar’s success is her absolute and almost single-minded belief in the need to produce quality children’s material. ‘She is probably the most determined woman-make that human being-I’ve ever encountered,’ he says. ‘I cannot think of anyone else in Australia who could have done what Patricia Edgar has done.’

Dr. Patricia Edgar’s Career at a Glance

- BA and BEd from the University of Melbourne

- MA from Stanford University

- PhD from La Trobe University

1970: appointed the first chairperson of the Centre for the Study of Educational Communication and Media

1979-84: named the first chairperson of the Children’s Program Committee, an advisory committee to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal

1980-81: Victorian Task Force director for the creation of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, where she now serves as the producer responsible for the foundation’s A$58-million production slate

March 1982-Present: named director of the newly incorporated foundation

1986: made a member of the General Division of the Order of Australia for services to children’s television and media

1988-89: associate member of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s Inquiry into Violence and Television

1988-95: deputy chairman of the Australian Film Finance Corporation

1992: received the Award of the Archbishop of Sydney Citation on World Communications Day

1994: awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Western Australia

The Dr. Edgar they know Š

- Sheryl Leach, Creator/Executive Producer of Barney and Barney & Friends, Lyrick Studios:

When we were taking Barney to Australia for the first time, I had made an appointment to see Dr. Edgar, and I was told it would last about 20 minutes. I was so grateful just to get that. She ended up giving us three hours, telling us about Australian programming, ratings, the Australian marketplace and her series. She gave us three hours of wit and wisdom and insight into the Australian TV market. By the end of the day, we were talking about doing a co-production using children from her Lift Off series and from the Barney & Friends series.

I applaud her efforts in children’s programming and I appreciate the time she gave us when we were starting out in Australia.

- Franklin Getchell, General Manager, TCC/Trouble/Bravo:

I first met Patricia at the third Children’s View Conference in Tokyo a few years ago. These conferences had gotten off to a rather rocky start, with their sponsor, NHK [of Japan], determined to demonstrate that co-productions could be generated and most of the participants extremely wary of committing to anything. Consequently, there was considerable tension around the table and there were significant defections from conference to conference.

At least until the third, when Patricia came for the first time and quickly hijacked the entire affair. She decided, at some point in the conference, that she wanted to move it to Melbourne. From that point on, the future venue of this fairly dry and, some might say, boring conference became a killing ground, a battle of wills, a gladiatorial contest. Suddenly, everyone wanted to host the next conference, and watching Patricia struggle to control the forces she had unleashed was a sight to behold. That conference ended with the future venue yet to be decided, but in the minds of most of us, there was no doubt whats’ever. I hope you all enjoyed the fourth Children’s View Conference in Melbourne.

-Athina Rikaki, Director, European Children’s Television Centre:

If you ever decide to take your straw hat and your swimming suit and ask Patricia if she would like to come along for a swim, brace yourself, because big things are going to happen on the way to the beach.

Imagine, you’re a small organization trying to promote children’s television issues and everyone is looking at you strangely. But suddenly, Patricia takes you by the hand, immediately understands what you are about and how difficult it is for someone like you, a non-profit organization, to break into the industry, throws her weight behind your cause and astonishingly doors start to fly open. One after the other.

We’ve spent two summers working with Patricia, but actually we did much more than just that. We drank beer, swam and became good friends. Patricia, although one of the industry’s most successful producers, knows exactly what it is like to start from scratch, to talk to networks and [government] ministers and producers who don’t understand you. She knows what a bumpy ride feels like, and beyond that, she also has the ability to look ahead and think in advance. And that makes her very special.

So the most unpredictable things can happen if you spend your summers with Patricia.

From all your friends at the European Children’s Television Centre, Patricia, we wish you all the best, and for this summer, our small sailboat has been stocked with ideas and is waiting for you at the pier for its new adventurous voyage.

- Audrey Cole, Vice President, Programming, Showcase Television:

As Showcase Television is Canada’s ‘window on the world of the best international drama,’ the Australian Children’s Television Foundation has been a great source of programming for us. Their catalogue reflects Dr. Edgar’s uncompromising passion to produce entertaining children’s and family programs with high production values and excellent creative work from Australia’s leading writers, directors and producers. Our message to Dr. Edgar: Do lots more . . . soon!

- Jeremy Swann, Director, The Genie From Down Under:

The day that Dr. Patricia Edgar got funding from Australian Telecom for the first Summit of Children’s Television, she was walking up Swanson Street in Melbourne with such a beam and such a spring in her step that a total stranger stopped her and said, ‘You know, ma’am, you look as though you’ve just won the jackpot.’ Patricia responded, ‘You know, sir, I think I have!’

- Jenifer Hooks, Executive Director, Film Victoria/Cinemedia:

As I sit writing this tribute, I’m looking at the Australian Children’s Television Foundation mouse pad with Winners, Round the Twist, The Greatest Tune on Earth and The Genie from Down Under on it. It’s a portfolio that would make any producer proud. Patricia Edgar accomplished this at the same time that she extended her national industry and advocacy role into the global arena.

Our paths have crossed many times. We’ve both fought hard. Sometimes for each other, sometimes alongside each other, sometimes with each other. But when Patricia formed the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, I joined the board. We worked on Kaboodle and other projects together. Now, as chief executive of Cinemedia, an institution devoted to screen content and culture, I am delighted to support the foundation and to collaborate on projects with Patricia and her team.

The foundation is meeting the challenges and opportunities of new media. It would have been impossible to imagine 20 years ago that there could be channels specifically devoted to children, that children might have choices in programs and programming times that suited their needs, not the needs of television executives and advertisers, that educators might finally admit the phenomenal presence of the screen in the lives of their students.

These are things Patricia Edgar has fought for and has brought to the consciousness of parents, teachers, bureaucrats, politicians, television and film producers-and children.

Australia is a nation that very often fails to honor its own achievers. That it is a North American publication providing this tribute to Dr. Patricia Edgar is therefore no surprise. It is a privilege and honor to add my tribute-personal and professional.

When the history of children’s television is written, her courage, fortitude and tenacity will be recorded. But it is the programs she has created, which have brought joy to children, immense satisfaction to their parents and educational opportunities to their teachers, that are the ultimate testament to her achievements.

- Anna Home, Head of Children’s Programs, BBC Television:

What do you say about a woman who has spent many working hours defending the cultural validity of a ‘how high can you pee’ competition? Patricia is a game-keeper turned poacher, that is, a regulator who became a producer. She has done a fantastic amount to raise standards and awareness of children’s television in Australia and around the world. The 1995 World Summit on Television and Children was a huge achievement and has started a movement that will continue in the U.K. in 1998 and hopefully well beyond.

Patricia is a doughty fighter and a fine politician, but she also enjoys life, and I have happy memories of socializing with Patricia in unlikely places, including a glacier in the Rockies, a toy museum in Manila and an extraordinary bordello-type hotel in Troyes.

Congratulations to Patricia. I hope she continues to carry on the fight into the future.

- Adrian Mills, Creative Head, Education and Children’s Programming, TVO:

I have to be honest. When I first met Patricia (or Dr. Edgar, as she was known to me then), she put the fear of God in me! We met at MIP, just after I’d become a broadcaster. I introduced myself, she peered down at me (she’s very tall, by the way) and I instantly became a quivering Freudian blob in the face of a woman who, let’s face it, had to fight for children’s programming in the largely male-dominated, adult-oriented business of television.

However, I have come to know, like and respect Patricia (as she is known now!) as one of the most compelling campaigners for and producers of children’s programming. Programming that respects children, and makes no assumptions about their willingness, or lack of it, to be challenged and stimulated while being entertained. The fact that Australia has an international reputation as a leading producer of children’s programming is largely due to Patricia, whose determination and formidable spirit paved the way for this to happen.

Patricia has achieved so many things over the course of her career that it is difficult to isolate one highlight. Was her crowning achievement, as many people think, the organization of the first World Summit on Television and Children? Probably. Was it her keynote speech at 1995′s Banff TV Festival, where she played her Canadian hosts beautifully by lampooning the endemic problems of the U.S.? Perhaps. No doubt this issue of KidScreen will be full of tributes to Patricia’s professional achievements, but I wanted to show a more personal side of her.

So, in my mind, the highlight occurred during a 1995 conference of children’s broadcasters in Australia, when, at the end of a particularly grueling day, Patricia got up on stage at a karaoke bar with Peter Moss, then-head of children’s programs at CBC, and sang ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street.’ Mostly in tune.

That’s what I call an achievement. Congratulations, Patricia!

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