1929 - 2000 | NSW, UK | Broadcaster
Bruce Gyngell was the first face and voice on Australian television in 1956 and a huge influence on the medium in Australia and Britain. Under his management, Channel Nine became the most successful network in the early years of television. In the 1970s he switched to Channel Seven and took the ratings crown away from Nine. He was a pioneer of modern breakfast television in the United Kingdom. After returning to Australia, Gyngell oversaw the establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and was the first chair of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal.
In 1978, Bruce Gyngell, then chair of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, appeared in a newspaper advertisement for American Express, which raised some eyebrows in Canberra. Gyngell was a distinct difference from the cautious and bureaucratic figures that preceded him in the regulator’s role. He was eloquent, charming, and never afraid to speak his mind, but not always politically adept. His flamboyance was expressed by his penchant for wearing pink, his public commitment to a fitness regime, macrobiotic diet and Zen Buddhism and unwillingness to see anything untoward about the chair of a statutory authority appearing in an advertisement for American Express.
Gyngell’s popular reputation in Australia rests largely on him being the first person to be seen on television when TCN9 in Sydney went to air on 16 September 1956, uttering the “Good evening and welcome to Television”. While Gyngell did appear on screen in the early days of Australian television, his real impact was as a successful and dynamic television executive in Australia and the UK, with a great flair for programming.
Bruce Gyngell was born in Melbourne in 1929, but was educated in Sydney, briefly studying medicine before finding a job at the ABC. He then joined Consolidated Press, run by Frank Packer. Gyngell knew the Packer family socially and also knew Packer would most likely be interested in getting a television broadcast licence. So he wrote to all the American networks, asking if they would provide him television training.
When the legendary Sylvester Weaver of NBC invited him to go to the US, Gyngell sought Packer’s permission to visit NBC and do a course at Columbia University. Packer agreed, but Gyngell had to take other executives with him - Michael Ramsden, a Daily Telegraph journalist who became the first director of news at TCN and Alec Baz, sales promotions manager for Consolidated Press, who became the first station manager. They attended the NBC summer vacation school in New York in 1955 then went on to spend three months working at WEWS Cleveland. Gyngell later returned to the US and spent eight months working at KGMB in Honolulu.
At 7pm on Sunday 16 September 1956, TCN-9 in Sydney became the first station to commence officially-sanctioned regular broadcasting. That Gyngell was the first face viewers saw was an accident caused by a technical mishap, which prevented the intended compere from appearing (What was preserved is a recreation of that opening shot over a year later).
When TCN went to air. Gyngell was the first program director for TCN, working closely with Ken G Hall, whom Packer had brought in as general manager, because of his flair as a showman. For Packer, his station was not a public service, but a place to entertain the public and sell as much advertising as he could. Between them Gyngell and Hall gave him what he wanted. TCN quickly became the most watched station in Sydney, turning a substantial profit as advertisers flocked to the new medium. Hall retired from TCN in 1966 and Gyngell became CEO.
Packer was not an easy man to work for, being notorious for his temper and unwillingness to spend money. This stinginess led Gyngell to give another television legend, Reg Grundy, a leg up in the business. He commissioned Grundy to package a quiz show compered by TCN personality Terry Dear, so that he could hide from Packer that he had given Dear a raise.
But Gyngell was also strong willed. Eventually he and Packer had a falling out from which there was no recovery. In the days before mobiles, Gyngell always had to leave a phone number where he could be contacted by Packer. In early 1969 he was dining at Pruniers, a luxury Sydney restaurant, when Packer rang to complain about the night's programming. Gyngell had had enough and resigned on the spot.
Gyngell’s resignation coincided with the decision of the Herald and Weekly Times and Fairfax to more formally organise their stations into a network to better coordinate sales and programming. Gyngell became the first managing director of the Seven Network. His “Seven Revolution” targeted the “dullness and apathy” which he claimed had settled over Australian television and promised viewers “stimulation, variety, entertainment and enlightenment”.
To supply that variety Gyngell looked to a new mix of Australian and overseas programming. From the early 1960s the commercial broadcasters had bought programming collectively, placing them in a pool from which the stations got programs by lot. That agreement broke down in 1969, initiating a bidding war between Gyngell and Clyde Packer, who had replaced him at TCN.
In 1972 Gyngell left Seven, moving to the UK where he worked as Lew Grade’s right hand man at ATV, a significant producer of television programming. ATV was making shows like The Persuaders, with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis, which sold well internationally.
Gyngell returned to Australia and in 1976 was appointed the first chair of the new Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body established by the Fraser government with power to issue licences and make program standards. Many saw Gyngell as an odd choice, not only because of his association with the industry he was to regulate.
At the ABT Gyngell resisted, surprisingly, the push from the networks for deregulation. He supervised the introduction of new standards for Australian content and children's television. The mistakes he made were in dealing with the complex rules around ownership of media interests, which actually required the kind of legal mind that was not Gyngell’s strength.
In 1979, Gyngell was announced as the new CEO of the Independent and Multicultural Broadcasting Service. It would incorporate the existing Special Broadcasting Service, which managed so-called ethnic radio, and also start a new multicultural television service.
Gyngell brought Alex Baz out of retirement to help him start the new service that aimed to be a bridge between the culture of Anglo Australia and that of both settled and recent immigrants. The international programming was shown in the original language with English sub-titles. Gyngell also insisted that it had to have a news service, bringing in seasoned journalists from the commercial channels and the ABC to run it.
Gyngell returned to the UK in 1983 after Kerry Packer bought into the struggling breakfast television service TV-am and appointed him CEO. The UK had not had breakfast television until TV-am and the BBC Breakfast Time started in that year. Some big names in UK television, such as David Frost, Michael Parkinson and Angela Rippon, had been associated with the start of TV-am but it soon became plain that Britons were in no mood for serious television with their corn flakes.
Gyngell introduced a lighter magazine style of television which he knew worked in the US and Australia, and which The Guardian described as “Snap, Crackle and Pap”. But for Gyngell TV-am needed to become “a place of eternal summer so that the lost, lonely people could turn on and feel warm and bright”.
He also pursued a relentless search for cost savings. Staff cuts led him into bruising conflict with broadcasting trade unions, including a 24 hour strike in 1987. However, like fellow Australian Rupert Murdoch, Gyngell eventually prevailed over the unions, leading Margaret Thatcher to describe him as her “favourite television executive”.
Despite Gyngell’s success in making TV-am one of the most profitable television services in the world, reforms introduced by Thatcher in 1990 were to bring that success undone. The allocation of ITV licences changed from a merit based selection to a blind auction. In 1991 TV-am was outbid by GMTV and lost the franchise. Its last broadcast was on 31 December 1992.
Gyngell returned to Australia where he became executive chair of Kerry Packer’s Nine Network for a few years, before returning to the UK to lead Yorkshire Television from 1995 to 1997. He continued to live in the UK, but returned to Australia frequently in a consulting role to Kerry Packer. In 2000 he was given a lifetime achievement fellowship by the Royal Television Society.
In May 2000 Gyngell was diagnosed with lung cancer, despite never having been a smoker, and died in September. He had married twice. In 1957 he married Ann Barr, an interior designer, with whom he had Briony, Skye (now a noted restaurateur and celebrity chef) and David, who followed his father into television. In 1986 he married Kathy Rowan, a TV-am producer, with whom he had two sons, Adam and Jamie.
Gyngell was a towering figure in both Australian and UK television, who accomplished much with a combination of charisma, ruthlessness, self-belief and an almost instinctive understanding of television. David Frost said of him: “He is a larger than life personality, which is what makes him a good leader.” About himself he said: “I remember once being asked about my failures. I couldn’t think of any.”
Nick Herd has been in the film and television industry since the 1970s and is an author who writes on Australian media history. He worked with Bruce Gyngell at SBS Television.
Bruce Gyngell on air in 1956. Courtesy of Fairfax
Bruce Gyngell in 1994. Courtesy of Fairfax
Television arrives in Australia 60 years ago, Helen Tully, National Film & Sound Archive website
Networking: A History of Commercial Television in Australia, Nick Herd, Currency House, 2012