The first television channel to win the race to air in Australia was Sydney’s Channel Nine. A smiling announcer, Bruce Gyngell (pictured below), announced, “Ladies and gentlemen – welcome to television!”. The date was 16 September 1956.
That first broadcast came from a church hall in Surry Hills, Sydney. A makeshift control room had been rigged up on the stage behind a sheet of glass and the whole place had been sound-proofed.
Despite hours spent sanding them down, the wooden floorboards were so uneven that as the cameras rolled over them viewers at home got a shaky picture.
Channel Two opened in Melbourne on 18 November with a fantastic scoop – the Melbourne Olympic Games. But there were only two hand-held cameras covering the action and there were no known ways of recording what was being televised or transmitting it further than Melbourne.
Channel Seven’s ambitious opening in Sydney on 2 December was a two-hour variety show. Unknown to viewers, it was done in ankle-deep water. A deluge of rainwater had leaked into the unfinished studio and many of the stars had to perform without shoes and socks. The cameras stayed off their feet.
In those early days, enthusiasm was high, budgets were low and the box was a novelty.
The first family in a street to acquire one of the magic boxes became the most popular in the community. They would actually have house parties and invite their friends and neighbours over to watch TV.
In the suburbs, people would put their kids in their pyjamas, dressing gowns and slippers, take deckchairs up to the local electrical store, and sit outside watching TV as if they were at a drive-in.
It was nearly six years before national and commercial television had reached all Australia’s capital cities. Even then it didn’t reach Darwin and the Northern Territory until 1971, and it was 1972 before it reached Alice Springs.
In its first year, Channel Nine went to America to buy the hottest TV property around – I Love Lucy – which cost the channel $750 for two runs. Lucy ran for nearly 20 years and was always a top favourite.
On the home front, local productions included the first commercial one-hour live drama production, a play called Johnny Belinda on Channel Seven.
Nine scored a tremendous hit with a local production called In Melbourne Tonight and its sister show, Sydney Tonight. Its format of a star interview, variety and comedy was a fantastic success and it ran for 12 years before The Don Lane Show took over and scored a hit in much the same style.
The original compere of In Melbourne Tonight was a young man who kept the ratings topped up for the princely sum of £6 a night – Graham Kennedy (pictured at left) – who went on to become one of the highest-paid performers in Australia with Channel Ten’s Blankety Blanks in the 1970s.
Australia started making its own TV shows, particularly soap operas and cop shows. Hector Crawford was one of the pioneers of television in the country, beginning with a courtroom drama called Consider Your Verdict, based on real cases. It won an award in 1961 as the best Australian drama series – but it had no competitors, it was the only one!
Homicide was an extension of Consider Your Verdict, with the same criminal cases taken out of the courtroom. Surprisingly, it took a year for Crawfords to convince anyone to buy Homicide, but once viewers had seen it they wanted more, and Division 4 and Matlock Police appeared on the television scene.
Reg Grundy sold his first game show, Wheel of Fortune, to Channel Nine in Sydney in 1959 and by the early 60s he was packaging 40 hours of TV games and quiz shows every week. Not bad for a man who started out using his kitchen table as a desk . . .
Australia was one of the last countries to move to colour television.