Although television broadcasting officially began in Australia in 1956, audiences were already well prepared for its arrival. Between 1885 and 1940, there were more than 12,000 mentions of the word ‘television’ in Australian newspapers. In 1938, the Brisbane Courier-Mail even carried a photograph of two Australian Test cricketers seated before a television set in their hotel room in London with the caption ‘Test Players Try Television’.
From the early 1950s, manufacturing companies such as Astor began staging demonstrations of television across urban and regional Australia. These often involved the live telecast of performances by local entertainers in makeshift studios located in public halls. Signals were sent to outside broadcast vans parked outside the venue and then transmitted to receivers strategically placed throughout the hall, where they were viewed by an enthusiastic local audience. On 25 April 1950, the Illawarra Mercury reported that Wollongong audiences had been ‘intrigued’ by the workings of television after one such event.
Television test broadcasts began in 1955, watched by many in public spaces such as bars, clubs and outside electrical stores. The cost of buying a television set at this time was very high—the equivalent of six to eight weeks’ pay for the average worker. By the end of 1956, it was estimated that only 1 per cent of Sydney residents and 5 per cent of Melbourne residents owned a television set.
On the evening of 16 September 1956, when announcer Bruce Gyngell announced ‘Good evening and welcome to television’ on TCN9 in Sydney (an event that the network subsequently ‘lost’ and later had to re-stage), there were only a select number of people able to witness this event in their own homes—and those lucky few were likely to have held a television viewing party involving neighbours and friends. According to the Australian Women’s Weekly on 26 September, Australians were ‘fascinated’ by the new medium and ‘scores’ of children were allowed to stay up late to witness the inaugural transmission. Within a year, this excitement had dissipated in the popular press and television was being promoted and understood in terms of its familiarity as a medium—at least in those locations where television had been available for the last 12 months.
The coming of television was, however, experienced differently in different parts of the country. While broadcast television officially began in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth in 1959, and in Hobart in 1960, the rollout to other centres was much slower, with Darwin only switching on in 1971. For viewers in regional areas of Australia, many memories of early television include tales about the difficulty of obtaining a reliable broadcast signal. As evidence of this dissatisfaction, every parliamentary session from the late 1950s to the late 1970s had to deal with the issue of inadequate television service to country areas.
By 1980, close to 90 per cent of all Australian homes had a television set, although the situation was clearly very different for Indigenous communities in the outback. Partly to address this problem, in 1985 the first AUSSAT domestic satellite was launched, enabling television broadcasts to be received in remote areas.
A significant change to the broadcast viewing experience in the 1980s was enabled by the introduction of the video recorder, which allowed viewers to ‘time-shift’ programs, thus freeing them from the scheduling practices of the networks. Australian audiences were early and enthusiastic adopters of this technology. Pay television, on the other hand, was slow to establish itself. Introduced in 1993, by 2012 only 28 per cent of households had subscribed to the Foxtel and Austar services offered. However, new technologies and social media allowed viewers to have greater interaction with reality television and other shows.
From 2010, the analogue broadcast signal was gradually switched off, and in December 2013, Sydney converted to a digital television signal, followed by Melbourne and remote central and eastern Australia. It was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that 23,000 homes in southern NSW and 28,000 homes in northern New South Wales had ‘not yet’ converted to digital receivers and were facing a ‘blank screen’. For some this may not have been a problem, given that watching television on a television set had declined across all age groups between 2012 and 2013 with young people far less likely to watch broadcast television except in the case of a ‘live’ event.
REFs: K. Darian-Smith and S. Turnbull (eds), Remembering Television (2012).
STEPHANIE HANSON and SUE TURNBULL