Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

“Good Evening and Welcome to Television”

These were the first words spoken on Australian television on TCN9 in Sydney by Bruce Gyngell at 7 p.m. on Sunday, 16 September 1956. Viewers had earlier heard the voice of a studio announcer before handing over to Gyngell, Australia's first broadcast with him formally dressed in a dinner suit.  

ATN7 commenced on Sunday, 2 December 1956, just after a massive thunderstorm swept through Sydney and brought power down across a number of suburbs — including Epping, where the new ATN studio was located.  Performers and musicians doing their afternoon rehearsal had to do so in front of car headlights being beamed into the studio and with rain leaking through the roof. With the bulky cameras of the day needing around 45 minutes to warm up, the ATN executives must have been glad they scheduled a "test pattern" for 7 p.m. with the first televised program at 7.30 - the power was restored around 6.30 leaving just 15 minutes before the official opening.  Ironically given the weather conditions, the opening feature was "A Shower Of Stars", a 75-minute variety special starring the ATN orchestra, two American entertainers and several local artists.

Radio station 3DB broadcaster Geoff Corke was the first person to be seen on Melbourne television in a test transmission by GTV9 on 27 September, followed by Melbourne's first "official" broadcast by HSV7 on 4 November, just 18 days before the Games opened. The A.B.C. commenced operations in Sydney the following day, its first broadcast "Beat The Clock", a quiz Show filmed at St. Peter's Hall by ABN2 with Bruce Webster, Bev Glenhill and Stuart Bennett.


Television : A Documentary

Experiments with television had begun in Australia  the late 1930s but stalled with the outbreak of the Second World War. The issue was re-ignited in 1949 when Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley announced his intentions to have his government implement a national television service under the auspices of the Australian Broadcasting Commission which had been established in 1932.

Chifley lost power to the Liberal-Country Party coalition in December, 1949, and the new Prime Minister Robert Menzies, uncertain as to the social impact of the new medium took a conservative approach and was lukewarm at best, allegedly at one point telling a visiting British Broadcasting Commission visitor "I hope this thing will not come to Australia during my term of office".

An Australian Broadcasting Act of 1942 passed during the first Ministry of Labor's John Curtin vested power in the Government to regulate both commercial broadcasting and to cover the national services delivered by the A.B.C. a legislative power previously invested in the Postmaster-General’s Department.  

The phenomena building across the world could not be ignored, however, and in January, 1953, Menzies announced that existing legislating that banned the licensing of commercial television stations would be repealed and called a Royal Commission to investigate the best methods of the medium's introduction.

Commentators expected appointees with experience of the national system of the United Kingdom and the commercial broadcasting used in the U.S., but the structure of the eventual six-person Commission caused many to suggest that it was little more than a stalling tactic ahead of an upcoming election.

The chairman appointed was Professor George (later Sir George) W. Paton,  a vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, the other members including a public accountant and members of the Grazier's Association of N.S.W. and the Countrywomen's Association of Western Australia.

The only representative with any contact with the emerging electronics industry was Robert G. Osborne, nominally chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, but essentially a lawyer and academic - there was no representative from the technical side of the electronics industry, the entertainment world or trade unions and no-one from the churches who were expected to present a comprehensive commentary on what the introduction of television may have on family life and society in general.

After meandering along for fifteen months, the Commission's report was released early in May, 1954, its conclusion little more than a suggestion that television "could start in two years" and in time for the Olympics. One executive from an electronics company suggested he was planning to spend £1,000,000 developing a new factory in East Oakleigh, and that the first sets were likely to cost £150 for a basic television, or £350 for a combination of television-radio and gramophone record player. (A check on newspaper advertisements suggest these estimates were a little on the low side prior to the Olympic Games, but probably accurate around six months later, with many retailers offering trade-in on radios, gramophones and even pianos).

Although the Commission had sat in Melbourne, the recommendation was that national television should commence in Sydney, then Melbourne and to other states "as soon as finance is available", (obviously referring to a national network); and that two commercial licences should be established in the two major cities.

In 1955, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board after a series of hearings issued the first four television licenses; to the disappointment of some concerned at the concentration of media power in existing radio and publishing companies, but perhaps predictably, were awarded to the major newspaper groups, Fairfax and Packer.

Pre-Games Publicity

The Federal Government placed at the disposal of the Olympic Organising Committee (O.O.C.) the Australian National Overseas Information Service complete with its editorial, photographic, art, film, transport and world distribution services — in effect, a ready-made a full-scale publicity organization.

In the two years preceding the Games, the Service's film division made six films showing the progress of preparations for televising in Britain, Europe and the United States.  Special versions were available for European television with international sound-tracks and several film reports were made in colour for general screening, and a 16-mm. colour film, " Melbourne, Southern City " was produced for non-theatrical or private audiences.

The Service also  produced a Cinemascope film, "Melbourne—Olympic City", which was screened in more than 8,000 cinemas throughout the world, including 4,000 in the United States.  This is believed the first film made in Australia using the technique used an anamorphic lens to create images with an aspect ratio almost twice as wide as the conventional movie and generally combined with a four-track stereophonic sound system.  The first screening of a Cinemascope movie, The Robe, was in Sydney in December, 1953.

Televising the Games

All three Melbourne stations – HSV7, ABV2 (which didn't broadcast  in Melbourne until 19 November, four days before the Games Opening Ceremony), and GTV9 (which was not officially opened until 19 January, 1957) eventually covered the Olympics.

The Official Report on the Games suggests that only around 5,000 sets had been sold in Melbourne,  but possibly 200,000 viewed the Opening Ceremony with friends or relatives, in hotels, at electronics stores, through shop-front windows, milk bars and service stations, and in halls set up by charities, although this required special permission if a nominal charge was made. In Sydney, several residential hotels advertised “TV lounges” to attract out-of-town visitors.

As the first Games ever to be directly televised, the local Olympic Organising Committee (O.O.C.). faced some unique problems, basically in deciding what was “news”, rights to which attracted no fee, and what was “entertainment”, which did - their ultimate resolution in conjunction with the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) likely to establish standards for Games in the future.

Another difficulty was that there was no way at the time to distribute images out of Melbourne other than as newsreels, copyright to which was lost as soon as it was shown, unless pre-arranged multiple usage had been negotiated.   

At a meeting in New York in July, 1956 between the I.O.C., mostly American newsreel interests and overseas representatives of the O.O.C., it was suggested that three minutes a day would be provided (as opposed to two in Helsinki), charges to be proportionate to the costs in erecting camera stands and pits, and shared between those institutions representing theatrical newsreels, television news, live television, a French feature-film unit, national requirements, and the documentary official film for the International Olympic Committee.

(The latter presented another problem - the I.O.C. demanded newsreel coverage of all finals to be incorporated into a feature film, which it was suggested would more than double the staff allocations).

The three-minutes per day proposal was supported by theatre newsreel interests who only required a short coverage usually screened several days after the events, but at a second meeting, U.S. television interests demanded nine minutes per day - three minutes for each of the regular morning, midday and evening news services. The reaction of the theatrical news services and film entrepreneurs was that they would not be interested in Olympic coverage if more than three minutes were shown on television as the viewer attraction would be greatly diminished by the exposure of the Games on television.

Melbourne's remoteness again came to the fore - direct telecasts of sporting events in America and Britain had always been classified as "live entertainment", but as the Melbourne Olympics were shown from film sometime after the event had taken place, were they "entertainment" or "news"?

The O.O.C. realized that any departure from three minutes per day may set a precedent for any future Games and other sports - but, at a later meeting in London, the newsreel interests and some of the television authorities refused to accept the O.O.C. views and decided not to participate in the coverage.

The Melbourne O.O.C. some three months before the Games adopted a daring strategy - effectively to produce its own coverage, a decision which involved a large-scale organization of local facilities and  cameramen. A Film Director was appointed and an independent sales organisation established to market the film coverage to help offset the heavy costs of production.

At the time, there was virtually nothing of a film industry in Australia with the exception of two newsreel companies, their staff representing more than 50 percent of those locals involved in producing films of the Games.

The O.O.C. decided to restrict production to a 16 mm. colour plus black-and-white coverage, enough to satisfy the requirements of the I.O.C., but later, a French film unit undertook to produce a feature-length film in wide-screen colour feature length film.

Although newsreel interests refused to reverse their stand-off attitude, the O.O.C. decided to produced six theatrical newsreels, the task ultimately undertaken by five New Zealanders, later assisted by four Americans, four Germans, one Dutch and one Indian photographer.

The newsreels were ultimately screened in Australia in independent theatres, and after conversion to 35 mm. for theatrical and television release in Britain, Germany, Japan, America, some Latin American countries, Australia, Singapore and other European outlets.

"… an opportunity of a lifetime".

Cr. Maurice Nathan (Chairman of the Olympic Civic Committee and later Lord Mayor of Melbourne, 1961-63) on arrival back from the United States in June, 1957 where he headed a Promote Victoria Mission suggested the major positive for Melbourne had been the hospitality extended to visitors, many of whom stayed in residents' homes, but that there was one tragedy continually reinforced on his visit - the absence of a full television coverage of the Games for the world public ...

"We missed out badly on that ... we completely lost the opportunity to show the world what a wonderful country this is and to present to them the full magnificence of the Games ... We completely fouled up the whole TV question, we did not think big enough.

"All we thought about was pounds, shillings and pence, and not about our prestige. It was an opportunity we will never have again in our lifetime".

Local television :


If there had been a Gold Medal at the Games for the most indecipherable acronym in history, this group would have been an unbackable favourite!

"The  Association for the Protection of Sporting Spectacles For Which No Protection is Already Afforded by Law" was formed in February, 1953 in the belief that unrestricted televising of sporting events in Australia would have a detrimental effect on sport.

No official statement was given after the meeting, but it later emerged that the APSSFWNPAAL (phew!) would ask the proposed Australian Broadcasting Control Board to include in any TV legislation protection for organisers of sporting meetings.

The Victoria Racing Club called the meeting; the other sporting bodies represented were the Australian National Football Council, Victorian Football League, Victorian Cricket Association, Trotting Control Board, Lawn Tennis Association, Victorian Amateur Swimming Association, Olympic Games Organising Committee, Stadiums Ltd., Victorian Rowing Association, Royal Agricultural Society, Melbourne Cricket Club, and the Phillip Island Auto Racing Co.

Rather than any of these august bodies, the issue of television rights first came to light in Australia in October, 1953 with a proposed world flyweight boxing match at the Sydney Sports Ground between the American “Pappy” Gualt and local world champion, Jimmy Carruthers. The U.S.-based Associated Television Company eventually bid 9999 for international rights to be spilt between the two contestants and the Sydney Police Boys' Club organisation which was promoting the bout.

World-wide, in January, 1954, the B.B.C. paid £1,500 for rights to broadcast the Football Association Cup at Wembley, an undisclosed amount for the Wimbledon tennis tournament, and then in November, 1955 for  exclusive rights to all Test matches to be played in England during the years 1956 to 1958 - although "exclusive" the “Beeb” suggested it was prepared to sublet some transmission to commercial television which had been legalised in September, 1955  (British sets required conversion by a licensed technician to be able to receive multi-channel telecasts).

By the time commercial telecasts commenced, the stations already had rights for four major British racecourses, boxing and several other sports

The Vancouver Experience

The 1954 Empire Games were held in Vancouver, and Games officials admitted they had made a serious mistake in selling Canada-wide rights to television without requiring a complete black-out of the Vancouver area. Officials were stunned when only 11,000 turned out for the Opening Ceremony, about one-third of the stadium capacity "and no expectation of improved sales over the next five days".

A senior official revealed that the Games Committee had sold the Canadian Broadcasting Corporatlon. a Government-owned outfit, full TV rights for the modest sum of £22,000. The Corporation in turn sold a United States television company the rights to broadcast of the "big mile" featuring three of the world's leading runners (John Landy, Australia; Roger Bannister, England and Murray Halberg, New Zealand) for £44,000.

Seats for that event were sold out, but that the Games showed a loss of over $100,000 (about £44,600) as a result of the poor attendance.

The question of local broadcasts was revived just prior to opening day - the three Melbourne stations had been opened a few days at best, and original arrangements were that the local stations could televise from any arena where seating had been sold out  (a condition placed for many years of the telecast of League Grand Finals, but never invoked, as there has hardly ever been a "Granny" that wasn't a "sell-out"!

Ditto Olympic events at the Main Stadium and television companies were extended the rights to televise "at will". for all practical purposes placing the final television rights in the hands of the Melbourne stations. (Given the limited number of sets in use, this involved only a nominal payments by the local television companies to the O.O.C.).

It was to be some years before a coaxial cable allowed a somewhat blurry exchange of direct broadcasts between Melbourne and Sydney, and during the Games, coverage was provided to Sydney by a 16 mm film airlifted each night for broadcast during late-night and following morning news services.

Welcome to television" - Bruce Gyngell in the first broadcast, 7 p.m., 16 September 1956, and below, Geoff Corke, Melbourne's first television personality.

From the main camera position, overlooking the finishing straight, cameras record track events for documentary and television films.  This and another in the scoreboard was permanently manned - another 15 around the ground were used depending on the event and the time of day.

Press seats in the Main Stadium. Seats were reserved in the stand on the second floor level for 800 accredited  journalists—511 of them with desks for telephones and typewriters and with ledges underneath.




Things we loved about early Oz television - licence fees and test patterns!  Or perhaps not!


And an International Film Success???

O.K. It was never going to win an Academy Award or the like, but the Olympics also saw a movie of which large sections were shot in Melbourne.

Wee Geordie was a lightweight story of a Scottish gamekeeper to a local laird (Alistair Sim) who takes up hammer-throwing with encouragement from his best friend (and unrequited love) Jean and is offered a place on the British team by the Olympics selection committee.  

Initially reluctant to accept as he does not particularly care to compete against others, Geordie (Bill Travers) finally comes to Melbourne - most of the local filming were background shots from the Games themselves, but there was one scene shot at "the Paris end" of Collins Street where after a motor accident,  a man is pinned underneath a car.

After several men working together are unable to lift the vehicle, Geordie steps in and manages to do it all by himself!

His feat is reported in local and international newspapers, and Georgie becomes famous, especially with Helga, a female Danish shot-putter, but trouble comes when he insists he will wear his late father's kilt in the opening ceremony, something he promised his mother he would do, demanding "no kilt, no performance!"

The head of the British team eventually relents, and Wee Geordie walks out last in the opening parade of British athletes in his kilt, but officialdom intervenes and instructions from home insist that he must not wear the uniform while competing.

Dispirited, Geordie fails with his first two throws, but inspired by memories of his true love Jean's support, he (of course) sets a new world record at his final attempt.

Jean hears on the radio how Helga rushes up, embraces and kisses Geordie in front of everyone in the stadium and is heartbroken.

On Geordie's return, only his mother meets him at the station, but they later meet the laird who suggests his actions have brought scandal to the glen. Surprise! Geordie then spots Jean fishing and after the almost mandatory scene where they fall in the stream and emerging soaking wet, they kiss and make up.

O.K.  as we suggested, it was never going to win an Academy Award, but it certainly attracted audiences of Melburnians who were perhaps starting to realise that they (and perhaps the rest of Australia) were actually part of the sophisticated international scene.  

It may. of course, helped that there was just an outside chance that their head may have popped up in a background shot somewhere in the scenes actually filmed in Melbourne!