Nigel Dick has devoted his working life to television. Not as a writer or an actor but as an executive, one who witnessed first-hand the birth and development of Australian TV.
“Bloody hard work,” Mr Dick says of his decades at the top of the country’s broadcasting industry, running the show at GTV9 and Southern Cross Communications. “But it was exciting. All the way through.”
But then, Mr Dick was never one for idleness.
At 83, a time when most Australians are well into their retirement, Mr Dick applied to do a doctorate through the University of Melbourne.
Unlike most history academics, Mr Dick had the unusual advantage of being an eyewitness to to the subject of his research.
“I was getting a bit bored with life and I thought, well, nobody has written a thesis on the history of television,” he says. “I thought it might be an interesting way to while away the hours.”
He decided to make the 1953-54 Royal Commission — and its aftermath — the subject of his thesis, arguing that the government’s granting of multiple commercial licences to relatively small markets stifled the quality and vitality of Australian television.
Mr Dick was in his mid-20s — and working in the advertising offices of Frank Packer’s media empire — in 1953, when the Federal Government appointed a Royal Commission to consider the introduction of commercial television into Australia.
He thinks that the government was persuaded to grant television licenses to competing media magnates, who wanted their own television interests represented across the country.
When multiple commercial television stations started in small markets such as Adelaide and Brisbane, Mr Dick argues, they had to compete for advertising revenue. Lack of access to funds made for poorer quality local programming.
“I probably didn’t speak up enough,” he says of his involvement as an executive. “The power of the media — the Packers, the Murdochs — has always been extraordinary.”
“The power of the media — the Packers, the Murdochs — has always been extraordinary.”
He believes Australia desperately needs a national broadcasting policy ensuring that free-to-air televsion serves the people — rather than media companies scrambling for a slice of the market.
“My thesis doesn’t really look at the future. It looks at the past,” he says. “But, in fact, the government seems to be still listening to the major players.”
Mr Dick says he felt like he was a part of history that needed examining.
“It’s a bit grand to say it, but there aren’t too many who were as senior as I was in the executive ranks of media who could write a thesis,” he says. “Simply because many are dead.”
He went on to run Mr Packer’s television stations in Melbourne and Sydney, taking frequent late-night phone calls from the man he still refers to as “Sir Frank”.
The decades that followed included stints as the chief executive of the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand, the executive chairman of Southern Cross Communications and president of the RACV. He was named a Member of the Order of Australia in 1994 and Victoria’s Senior Australian of the Year in 2010.
He was also instrumental in bringing Odyssey House, an international residential rehabilitation program, to Victoria and served as its chairman for 22 years.
Mr Dick’s primary supervisor, Fay Anderson, says the legendary broadcaster’s real-world experience — especially with media bigwigs like Frank Packer — made him a rare contributor to the academic world.
“He probably knows where all the bodies are hidden,” she jokes.
“Because he was an insider he knew exactly the genesis of free-to-air TV: the challenges, the players, the machinations, the political agendas.”
So why not a biography?
“I had the desire to publish and write a thesis as opposed to a book [as it] has the advantage of being academically supervised. You don’t get away with anything,” he says.
Ms Anderson, now an associate professor at Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism, says Mr Dick’s wealth of knowledge made it difficult to find a thesis examiner who could top his expertise.
“Other academics, they’ve all used Nigel,” she says. “He’s sort of the expert.”
Mr Dick completed his doctorate in December despite health challenges and occasional spurts of negativity.
“When I started it I felt very positive about it. When I realised how much work was involved I became less positive,” he says, laughing.
But he says he felt his work was “worthwhile”, especially considering the future of free-to-air television in an era when the whole industry is in flux.
“There has to be broadcasting policy that determines what the shape of television is going to be in the future,” he says. “It’s there for the people. It belongs to the people. . . That’s what broadcasting policy is about.”
Mr Dick will be 88 in March. He is already thinking about his next project — possibly a book.
“You’ve gotta keep your mind busy,” he says.