On 16 September 1956, Australian television began. Television in Australia began experimentally as early as 1929 in Melbourne with radio stations 3DB and 3UZ, and 2UE in Sydney, using the Radiovision system by Gilbert Miles and Donald McDonald, and later from other locations, such as Brisbane in 1934.
Mainstream television was launched on 16 September 1956 in Willoughby, New South Wales with Nine Network station TCN-9-Sydney. The new medium was introduced by advertising executive Bruce Gyngell with the words “Good evening, and welcome to television”, and has since seen the transition to colour and digital television.
Local programs, over the years, have included a broad range of comedy, sport, and in particular drama series, in addition to news and current affairs. The industry is regulated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, through various legislation, regulations, standards and codes of practice, which also regulates radio and in recent years has attempted to regulate the Internet.
In June 1948, the Australian Labor Government under Ben Chifley, opted to follow the British model, on the advice from the Postmaster-General’s Department. It decided to establish a government-controlled TV station in each capital city and called for tenders for the building of the six TV transmitters.
The Broadcasting Act 1948 specifically prohibited the granting of commercial TV licences, a decision that the Liberal-Country Party opposition criticised as “authoritarian and socialistic”. This policy was never put into practice, however, because the Labor government did not have the opportunity to establish the TV network before it was defeated in December 1949.
The incoming Robert Menzies-led Liberal-Country Party coalition, which was to hold power for the next 23 years, changed the industry structure by also permitting the establishment of American-style commercial stations.
The economic situation at the time that TV was established in Australia exerted a pivotal influence on the foundation and subsequent history of the industry. When the decision was made to go ahead with granting the first licences for broadcast TV in the early 1950s, Australia was in a recession, with severe shortages of labour and materials and an underdeveloped heavy industrial base, and in this context TV was seen as a drain away from more fundamental projects.
The Menzies government was concerned about the long-term viability of the new industry and worried that it might be called on to bail out struggling stations and networks if the economy deteriorated. Consequently, it decided to grant the initial commercial TV licences to established print media proprietors, with the expectation that these companies would, if necessary, be able to subsidize the new TV stations from their existing (and highly profitable) press operations.
Meanwhile, in 1949, the first large-scale public demonstrations of the medium took place when the Shell company sponsored a series of closed-circuit broadcasts in capital cities produced by Frank Cave. These broadcasts were elaborate, usually opened by a local politician, and featured many people appearing on camera – singing, playing instruments, and giving demonstrations of cooking, sport, and magic tricks.
Buoyed by the success of these tests, in March 1950, the Astor Radio Corporation embarked upon a tour of 200 regional towns with a mobile broadcast unit, giving a series of 45 minute demonstration programs, allowing local performers and members of the public to appear on camera.
In January 1953, in response to increasing pressure from the commercial lobby, the Menzies government amended the Broadcasting Act 1948 to allow for the granting of commercial licences, thus providing the legislative framework for a dual system of TV ownership.
This structure was directly modeled on the long-established two-tiered structure of Australian broadcast radio—one tier being the stations in a new national, government-funded TV network run by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), and the other tier being privately owned commercial stations that drew their income from advertising revenue.
Commercial TV licences were nominally overseen by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB), a government agency responsible for the regulation of broadcasting standards and practices, while technical standards (such as broadcast frequencies) were administered by the Postmaster-General’s Department.
The ABC, as an independent government authority, was not subject to the regulation of the ABCB and instead answered directly to the Postmaster-General and ultimately to the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs (a situation that provoked bitter complaints from commercial radio in the mid-1970s when the ABC established its controversial youth station Double Jay).
In 1954, the Menzies Government formally announced the introduction of the new two-tiered TV system—a government-funded service run by the ABC, and two commercial services in Sydney and Melbourne, with the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne being a major driving force behind the introduction of television to Australia.
TCN-9 Sydney began test transmissions on 16 September 1956, and officially commenced broadcasting on 27 October. HSV7 Melbourne became the first television station to broadcast to viewers in Melbourne on 4 November, soon followed by ABV-2 then GTV9 on 19 January 1957.
Sydney station ABN-2 also started broadcasting in November. All of these stations were operational in time for the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics opening ceremony, on 22 November 1956. ATN-7 started in December.
An interview with Mrs Edna Everage (a comic creation of performing artist Barry Humphries) was one of the programmes screened on HSV-7’s first day of programming in 1956. The character went on to great success in the United Kingdom and later, the United States.
Videotape technology was still in its infancy when Australian television was launched in 1956 and video recorders did not become widely available to Australian TV stations until the 1960s. For the first few years, the only available method for capturing TV programs was the kinescope process, in which a fixed movie camera filmed broadcasts screened on a specially adjusted TV monitor.
Similarly, the playback of pre-recorded programs to air was only possible at this stage through the telecine process, in which films or kinescoped TV recordings were played back on a movie screen which was monitored by a TV camera.
Because of these limitations, it was relatively difficult and expensive to record and distribute local programming, so the majority of locally produced content was broadcast live-to-air. Very little local programming from these first few years of Australian TV broadcasting was recorded and in the intervening years the majority of that material has since been lost or destroyed.
Even the footage of the ‘first’ Australian TV broadcast with Bruce Gyngell on Channel 9, Sydney (see image above) is a fabrication—according to Gerald Stone the kinescope film of the actual Sep. 1956 broadcast was lost and the footage that exists today is a considerably more polished re-enactment, made a year later.
Most programs in this early period were based on popular radio formats—musical variety and quiz formats were the most popular.