The Day The World Shrank


Television was late to arrive in Australia. By the time Prime Minister Robert Menzies established a royal commission to investigate its introduction in 1953, television was already well established in Great Britain, the United States and many other countries.

The Chifley Labor government favoured a nationalised public broadcasting service and passed legislation in 1948 prohibiting the granting of commercial television licences, whereas the Liberal-Country Party coalition supported the involvement of commercial and public broadcasters.

The control, nature and purpose of television were extensively debated. Many who supported government-controlled broadcasting believed that television could enhance citizenship, and insisted that a public network would ensure a "delightful and fascinating instrument of entertainment and instruction".

On the other hand, those with established media interests and involvement in television-related manufacturing argued that unfettered private enterprise would best deliver the service Australia needed.

After several false starts in the early 1950s, whereby television’s possible drain on resources and high cost led to the deferment of plans, the government initiated a royal commission to advise on television policy in early 1953.

The first television licences went to consortiums dominated by newspaper interests, and while the dual system (one ABC and two commercial stations each in Sydney and Melbourne) ensured that commercial broadcasting would be balanced by a national network, it also delivered considerable power and profits to a narrow range of media proprietors.

At first, television was an eagerly awaited novelty item. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed: "It’s here, at last!" when broadcasts began in Sydney in September 1956, reporting: "Whole families made special car trips to the city to get their first view of television".

The first night’s broadcast was a mix of the new — American sitcoms I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best, and the old — a program of Australian music, Accent on Strings, and Katherine Dunham and her dancers, filmed at the Tivoli Theatre. Audiences were enthusiastic, with standing room only at many "TV parties".

Television was first experienced as a public spectacle, but of course it was destined to become part of domestic, private life, and within a decade television was firmly entrenched in many Australian homes. Television ownership grew steeply in the first 10 years of broadcasts — in Sydney, ownership grew from around 1 per cent of the population in 1956 to almost 90 per cent in 1965, while in Melbourne, it rose from 4 per cent in 1956 to a little more than 90 per cent in 1965, most of this growth taking place before 1960.

By 1957 all six stations were broadcasting in Sydney and Melbourne and television services had extended to Hobart, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. By 1961 television was extended to 33 country areas, and in 1963 the government allowed a third commercial licence in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Many rural and regional areas did not get television broadcasts until the mid-1960s: Broken Hill, for example, celebrated its first television reception in December 1965. Still, the rapid uptake of television is remarkable, considering the high cost of both television sets and the obligation to pay an annual licence fee (abolished in 1974).

Television was normalised as part of home and family life with considerable speed, working itself into people’s daily lives not only through programs but also through its physical presence in the home. Television became part of domestic life through its incorporation in domestic space, daily routines and family relationships. It was also fostered by the ready acceptance of radio, whose patterns of broadcasting it mimicked.

Around the time of the introduction of television there was a plethora of advice and information about how it might be placed in the home. Televisions were a major household expense, requiring a dedicated space, and magazines advised careful placement of the set, because "your television set is to educate and entertain in the home — not to dominate it". Woman’s Day even published diagrams suggesting the best place to locate the television.

Televisions were imagined as the new hearth, the electronic fireplace around which the family would gather at night. Women were encouraged to accept television as a permanent part of domestic life, and to exercise careful judgment over its place in their homes. For example, television should never be watched in a "theatre" style, with chairs in rows and lights dimmed, warned the Australian Women’s Weekly. It might be "just like the pictures", but "family intimacy is ‘killed’. Conversation is practically impossible".

Of most concern were the social changes television might bring. There was considerable anxiety that, unless handled in the right way, television would threaten family relationships and broader social interactions.

A self-confessed TV hater complained that "TV has bound the family together … Not that we see much of each other in the darkness … But they are all here. Even the children." When TV was such a novelty that only a few homes in every street possessed a set, communal viewing of TV was common, yet this brought its own problems: Woman’s Day worried that "suburban society is sadly in need of a little learner TV guide, because … the social subtleties are legion … the most familiar and corniest, of course, being the question, how to keep the neighbours and their children out of your living room."

In an era of unprecedented emphasis on the sanctity of the nuclear family, these intrusions into the family home needed to be managed and controlled, especially because television was seen as a way to keep families together. Television advertisements promised to deliver "what every woman wants […] her family happily at home!". A tutor in parent education told Woman’s Day readers: "If you can manage yourselves well and manage your family well, you can manage TV well … TV, like all family life, is what you make it."

Managing the television was especially important to preserve childhood innocence. A pamphlet produced by the Australian Television Rights Council detailed the results of a survey conducted by "Sydney citizens", who listed the numerous acts of violence viewers could see on television, claiming that "the maximum length of time during which any of the three Sydney TV stations refrained from showing an act of violence was two minutes." They asked: "Is it really necessary … that your children see this debasing and demoralising ‘entertainment’?"

Television was welcomed as a way to entertain children, yet there was also the fear that children would gain access to adult images and ideas through TV without their parents’ knowledge or consent.

Apart from requiring careful supervision, television also supposedly required new kinds of furniture, or even — possibly — new kinds of living. Because most televisions ended up in living rooms, there was considerable advice on TV cooking (dishes that were easy to eat with forks) and promotion of furniture with easy-to-clean vinyl covers.

Handyman magazines provided instructions on making TV trays, and women’s magazines offered patterns to "knit while you view". These new habits and technology all assisted in the assimilation of the television into Australian homes, but of course the other crucial element in the widespread adoption of television was the allure of its content and the ways it was scheduled.

Just as radio had stitched itself into listeners’ daily routines, so television programmers sought to insinuate television into daily life. If television was to succeed in capturing domestic time as well as domestic space, programmers had to ensure that it also could shape itself around women’s daily routines and meet family needs. Just like radio, television targeted female viewers with programs like Women’s World and House and Garden, their afternoon timeslots being designed to capture female viewers before their husbands returned home for an evening’s viewing. The segmented nature of these programs gave female viewers a variety of entertainment and advice with distinct entry and exit points that could be fitted into domestic work routines.

Television itself was a major consumer good, and televisions were expensive products. When television was introduced in 1956 the smallest black and white television set cost around £200 — a significant sum, considering that a well-paid worker might have earned around £1000 per year. Most were bought on hire purchase, which committed the buyer to a long series of small payments, and some sellers offered trade-ins on family pianos, or offered to "take old jewellery as a deposit".

Once the set was purchased, television provided a conduit between advertisers and consumers, taking over from radio as the dominant advertising medium and promoting a new consumerist lifestyle in its advertisements and programs. Yet Graham Kennedy, one of Australian television’s earliest stars, came to fame partly because of his irreverent attitude to the products his program was paid to endorse.

Critic Kerryn Goldsworthy argued that Kennedy’s subversion of advertising (making vomiting noises as he praised the virtues of blueberry yoghurt, for example) put him in a position of complicity with the housewives who were the primary audience for television advertising, who "knew perfectly well when the sponsors were taking them for idiots". Television played an important role in the shaping of a new postwar consumerism, more subtle and sophisticated in its understanding of human motivations and psychology.

While women were constructed as the managers of television in the home, television delivered mixed blessings for women. During the 1950s women were more isolated in their homes than ever before — work that might have previously been done collectively was now done alone, and childrearing took up more time and responsibility. While many thought television might mitigate women’s isolation, it played a crucial role in the privatisation of entertainment. However, many women failed to see the upside of staying at home for both work and leisure, as "I.D." wrote in the Women’s Mirror: "See films without moving out of the home! Is that good? Honestly, are any of us so sophisticated that we are immune to the thrill that comes from getting ready for the pictures?"

"The extra minutes sneaked under the shower, the touch of talcum, the dab of perfume behind the ear, the nicest ear-rings clipped into place. With TV, it is possible we will never dress up. […] we might well become a nation of pyjama-dwellers, wearing the same clothes around the clock, sitting in front of TV sets, our eyes growing out on stalks."

Indeed, cinemas promoted cinema-going for "Mr Stayput", asking female readers: "Has he made you a walled-in wife?" The flipside of women’s fears of isolation was that television was celebrated (and sometimes feared) for its ability to bring the world into the home. Families could experience great events in the comfort of their lounge rooms. Mrs LP Grey wrote to TV Times following the broadcast of President John F Kennedy’s inauguration: "It is really splendid to be able to watch on our own TV screens events of world wide significance and to feel that we are really sharing the occasion."

The world was simultaneously enlarged and contracted by television — it allowed Australians to see events of "world wide significance", but it also threatened — according to some viewers — to turn Australians "into a lot of Woolloomooloo Yanks".

This is an edited extract from Friday On Our Minds: Popular culture in Australia since 1945, by Michelle Arrow (UNSW Press).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.