MILESAGO - Media - Television

Australian Television 1964-75: an overview

The period from 1964 to 1975 were formative years for Australian TV, and like the music scene, the era was book-ended by several major changes in the industry and in society. Introduced in 1956, television soon became tremendously popular, and rapidly supplanted radio as the main family entertainment medium. Technological changes like the transistor and the miniaturisation of radio components played an important part in this shift, with portable and car-mounted radios now becoming available at low cost. This enabled radio to became a portable and personal medium, and in turn, TV took over radio's role as the centre of family entertainment in the home.

TV penetrated the Australian market quickly and widely -- as with the advent of domestic VCRs in the 1980s, Australia soon had one of the highest per-capita rates of TV ownership in the world. Like radio, television also provided a vital lifeline for Australians in rural and regional areas, and the ABC's national network played a central role in this.

"Welcome to television"
Structurally, the Australian TV industry was closely modelled on the two-tiered system already in place in radio. One tier consisted of the network of publicly-funded stations run by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, which was funded by government budget allocation and fees from TV licences; the other tier comprised the networks and individual stations owned by private operators, whose income came from selling advertising time. The enormous infrastructure costs involved in setting up a TV station automatically limited the participants to large corporations. Initially, licences were issued for only one ABC station and two commercial stations in each capital. This conservative approach was partly influenced by the recession of the mid-1950s --the Menzies government were anxious about starting such a high-risk industry during a difficult economic period, and were fearful of being called upon to bail out TV providers in the event of an industry collapse.

As with radio, the licences and content standards were administered by the conservative Broadcasting Control Board, which was appointed by the federal government and which reported to the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. Technical standards were overseen by the Postmaster General's Department (PMG).

For the first few years after its launch in 1956, TV was limited to one or two stations in the capital cities and regional centres. As the industry expanded into regional areas, the commercial stations began to aggregate and form networks. By the early Sixties, the basic structure was in place, with three major networks in each major city: the ABC, the Nine Network, and the Seven Network. When licences were first granted, the conservative Liberal-Country Party coalition was in power, so it was no surprise that the chosen licensees were companies already prominent the Australian media, and the pattern of cross-media ownership in Australia was established very early. Within a few years Nine was (and remains) controlled by the Packer family's PBL company, headquartered in Sydney. Seven was originally controlled by Melbourne's Herald & Weekly Times group (although it has since changed hands several times and is currently controlled by media baron Kerry Stokes).

Technically, TV was still in its infancy in the late 50s and early 60s. As TV historian Albert Moran puts it, from 1956-1964, Australian television was essentially "radio with pictures". Because of cost factors and the primitive nature of the new technology, almost all locally-made programs were broadcast live, which greatly limited the scope for presentation. Pre-recorded programs had to be made on film, which was reltively expensive. TV cameras were large, heavy, cumbersome, and by today's standards pretty crude, requiring enormous amounts of light to give a clear image.

Videotape was still at the experimental stage, and before 1962 the only reliable means for recording live TV in Australia was the telecine process, in which programs were filmed directly from a TV monitor as they went to air. The relative difficulty and expense of telecine meant that only a small proportion of programs were captured in this way, and the image quality was quite poor, because of the technical problems of filming TV screens. Regrettably, very little of what was filmed in this period has survived to the present.

TV broadcasting and programming in the 50s and early '60s local was very limited by today's standards. Transmission hours were comparatively very short, as can be seen from a TV guide for 7 December 1957 in Melbourne. GTV-9 came on air at came on air at 7:30am with IN MELBOURNE TODAY, then closed down from 10:30am until 6:00pm. The ABC began with a broadcast of athletics from 2-5pm, then closed for two hours until the 7pm news. HSV-7 came on air at 5:45pm. All three stations were off air by 11:35pm. (Indeed it was not until the 1980s that all four networks were broadcasting 24 hours per day).

In the early Sixties, the government began actively canvassing the idea of licencing a third commercial station in each city, a move that has been interpreted as a means of sidestepping growing dissatisfaction with the dominance of overseas programming and the paucity of local content. In 1965 the first of these new stations TEN-10, opened in Sydney with a gala variety special. Over the next couple of years more stations opened in other capitals and region centres, and gradually these new stations aggregated to form a third network, the 0-10 Network. But the existing players were already well entrenched, and for the first five years 0-10 lived a hand-to-mouth existence. By the turn of the decade some were predicting that Ten would fail, but its salvation came from an unexpected source. When Cash-Harmon's new serial NUMBER 96 premiered in March 1972 it captured the imagination of the viewers like few programs before or since, and for the next three years it was Australia's top-rating TV show. Its popularity attracted advertisers en masse, creating a huge new income stream for Ten, whose revenue exploded from a mere $1 million in 1971 to more than $10 million in 1972. However, the pattern of ratings dominance was already set, and since the mid-60s there has been little deviation from the current rankings, with Nine in first place, Seven second, Ten third and the ABC a distant fourth.

"TV: Make It Australian"
Local content was very limited in the early days of TV, although the ABC set a proud record by creating most of the original programs made in the first eight years of television. In keeping with its charter, the ABC produced or purchased many pioneering drama, arts, children's and educational programs. By June 1964, the ABC had produced 185 of the 212 plays (of which 48 were by Australian authors), all 31 operas, and 90 of the 95 ballets shown in that period, and innovative new programs like its famed current affairs flagship FOUR CORNERS.

Typically, the early locally-made programs on the commercial TV consisted of talk, sport, variety, religious affairs, news and game shows (which were usually simple adaptations of their radio counterparts). Before 1964 the commercials commissioned almost no locally produced comedy, drama or current affairs. There were several reasons for this. The most obvious was that there were effectively no local content regulations enforced upon TV networks. Equally limiting was the fact that drama and sitcoms were very expensive to make, compared to the relatively low cost of buying programs for the UK or the USA. The cost ratio for 'local vs overseas' programming was a crushing 10:1 and this advantage was augmented further by the fact that American networks and production houses were prepared to give the Australian networks very attractive package deals on programming, making it even harder for local producers to compete. Likewise, because of the economies of scale involved, Australian producers simply could not match the high production values of their American counterparts. Then, as now, all the commercial stations relied heavily on imported American and British shows, as a quick glance at a 1965 program will demonstrate. All four networks carried a major proportion of overseas programming, with American shows predominating.

It wasn't until videotape recording became widely available to TV stations and production houses in the early 60s that the situation began to change. The major breakthroughs in local production came in late 1964. The Melbourne production company Crawford Productions was already well established in producing radio programs. They were one of the lucky ones who were able to migrate to the new medium as radio drama and other traditional program formats died out. Their first venture into television in the early '60s was the courtroom drama CONSIDER YOUR VERDICT. In 1964 they piloted a TV adaptation of a popular radio police drama "D-24", and after initially being turned down by both commercial networks Crawfords managed to convince the HSV-7 to buy the new police show, HOMICIDE. Premiered in October 1964, the show was an instant success and HOMICIDE went on to become one the most popular series ever made in Australia. It was also important for other reasons: it was the first to use an integrated production schedule, combining filmed exteriors with videotaped interiors; exterior scenes were shot on clearly identifiable locations around Melbourne; stories were often based on actual police cases; and it was perhaps the first local TV dramas to employ naturalistic acting styles and distinctly Australian voices. Above all, it consistently outrated its overseas competitors, proving conclusively that there was a local market for locally made drama.

The second breakthrough in local production came from Sydney. In November 1964 audiences had their first taste of locally-produced topical satire thanks to the Seven Network's legendary THE MAVIS BRAMSTON SHOW. Developed from the famous revues at the Philip St Theatre in Sydney, it starred most of the cast of those shows, including Gordon Chater, Carole Raye, Maggie Dence, June Salter, Barry Creyton and Ron Frazer. MAVIS was a huge success with viewers, although it often incurred the wrath of sponsors and conservatives, and it was eventually cancelled in 1968.

But MAVIS and HOMICIDE demonstrated unequivocally that Australian-made shows could compete and succeed, and over the next few years local production in many genres took off with successful programs like MY NAME'S MCGOOLEY, WHAT'S YOURS?, YOU CAN'T SEE ROUND CORNERS, BELLBIRD, ADVENTURE ISLAND, HUNTER, DIVISION 4, and the internationally successful SKIPPY THE BUSH KANGAROO.

In parallel with the resurgent film industry, the 1970s were a boom period for local TV production. From the late 60s on, the ABC produced many important new programs including THE COMEDY GAME (which introduced Aunty Jack to the world). There were top drama series like DELTA, DYNASTY, CERTAIN WOMEN, RUSH, and BEN HALL; there were famous current affairs shows such as THIS DAY TONIGHT, CHEQUERBOARD and MONDAY CONFERENCE, the popular series THE INVENTORS and PEACH'S AUSTRALIA and of course the great programs of the ABC's classic era of TV comedy: THE AUNTY JACK SHOW, WOLLONGONG THE BRAVE, FLASH NICK FROM JINDIVIK and THE NORMAN GUNSTON SHOW.

On the commercial side, it was also a busy and creative period, with an explosion of new shows. By 1971, Crawfords were the industry leaders, and for a short but glorious period, they were in simultaneous production with three top-rating police series -- HOMICIDE on Seven, DIVISION 4 on Nine and MATLOCK POLICE on Ten. Indeed, their studios in Melbourne were dubbed "Hollywood on the Yarra". As well as the cop shows, there were the famous "sex and sin" soapies NUMBER 96 and THE BOX. Quiz king Reg Grundy moved into drama with CLASS of 74/75, ushering in the tradition of early evening soapies that endures to this day. The adventure series BARRIER REEF, SPYFORCE and BONEY set new standards for local production. Ten established another popular tradition with its daytime variety series THE MIKE WALSH SHOW, and of course there were the ever-popular staples, the game and quiz shows like THE PRICE IS RIGHT and THE GREAT TEMPTATION and the top-rating comedies THE PAUL HOGAN SHOW and LAST OF THE AUSTRALIANS.

Popular Music on Australian TV
Rock and pop music played a significant part in the history of TV in these years. The beginning of Australian TV coincides exactly with the birth of rock'n'roll in the US, and within a few years Australia had its own home-grown TV pop shows. Nine's pioneering pop show BANDSTAND, based on the American show of the same name, premiered in 1958 and continued throughout the Sixties, ending in the early 70s, although its relevance faded as the beat boom exploded in 1964-65.

The establishment of the 0-10 (TEN) Network in 1965 provided most major cities with a third commercial TV network. This greatly increased the diversity of programming, and its arrival was crucially important to the history of pop music in this period. Most of the major pop shows of the Sixties -- KOMMMOTION, UPTIGHT and the HAPPENING 70s series, were produced by or for the TEN network, although the Seven Network also played an important (if smaller) role with programs like THE JOHNNY O'KEEFE SHOW, THE GO!! SHOW and Billy Thorpe's IT'S ALL HAPPENING.

Partly because of the broad social obligations of its charter, the ABC tended to devote much of its resources to variety programs, whereas the commercial stations were free to target specific audience groups like the youth market. Much of the ABC's music programming featured middle-of-the-road fare, such as Eric Jupp's THE MAGIC OF MUSIC and the THE SATURDAY SHOW. Still, it played a small but important part in bringing popular music to the small screen, and it has to be remembered that for Australians in remote areas, the ABC was for many years their only access to television. ABC launched what is arguably Australia's first true rock'n'roll TV show, SIX O'CLOCK ROCK, hosted by the legendary Johnny O'Keefe, although sadly only fragments of the program remain.

For most of the Sixties ABC paid only fitful attention to popular music, and like Nine the frenzy of the mid-60s beat boom largely passed it by, although there were small contributions like DIG WE MUST, hosted by top beat duo Bobby & Laurie. But all that changed in 1969 with the introduction of a new pop magazine show, GTK, which stood for Get To Know. Although only ten minutes in length, it screened four nights a week and it set new standards for pop music TV -- it was a hip, streetwise, magazine-style program, and there was no host. Most importantly, every episode included a specially-recorded live performance by an Australian group, with a different group featured each week.

By 1973 pop music on TV was at a crossroads. The commercials had all but abandoned popular music on TV, BANDSTAND and the HAPPENING 70s series had been cancelled, and only GTK kept the flag flying, despite the fact that this was an extremely creative and fertile period for the local music scene. The combined failure of radio and TV to support much of this "second wave" is to be deplored, and it was a situation only partially rectified by the arrival of the pop-oriented COUNTDOWN at the end of 1974.