I am seven years old.
From my bedroom in Grandpa’s cavernous bluestone house I can see the towering red and white transmitter of the Channel 9 studios, a brisk five minute walk away.
I am supposed to be asleep but downstairs I can hear Mum and Dad and Grandpa’s laughter mingled with the tinny sound of a guffawing studio audience as they watch Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton on our imposing wooden TV, as vast as a tea chest, set in pride of place in the corner of the good sitting room.
I can’t sleep. There’s a thrill to the knowledge that even as I secretly commune with Graham and Bert, so do our next door neighbours, Mr and Mrs Egan, and over the road Mrs Bates, and the whole of Creswick St, and all of Hawthorn, and indeed the whole city, the whole country. All of us are bound together in the pact of Graham’s winks and smirks and Bert’s innocent second fiddle dismay and pratfalls.
Strangely, the future can be found in the past. The most memorable moments of free to air analogue TV are in many ways the most memorable moments of life.
Magically even as the street and the city and the nation are joined in nightly reverie by this thing called television, over there, seven streets away, just beneath the transmitter in their studio, the real Graham and the real Bert, wearing their real Ral Merton shoes, Stamina Jetstar trousers and Glo Weave shirts and eating their real Colvan chips, are doing this for real. How can this be?
To me at seven this is an unarguable miracle.
As surely as the Easter Rabbit or Father Christmas, a miracle.
How can it be that a few blocks away a man laughs and jokes in front of a camera yet somehow, mystically his performance finds its way into the living rooms of a nation?
How can it be that a nation is unified in common laughter, sadness, amazement and anticipation by the magic of one small box?
To me 50 years on, still, this is an unarguable miracle.
Black and white has become high definition, the test pattern is now the overnight Today Show direct from the New York, Graham has become Big Brother and Bert remains Bert, but the miracle is no less a miracle.
At its best, television allows us to bear witness to the fall of greatness. Or the victory of ordinariness. Television seats us at the table of history.
Today, in an era of cable and YouTube, when the content of the world is downloadable at the press of a button, pundits pontificate over the future place of free to air television.
Strangely, the future can be found in the past. The most memorable moments of free to air analogue TV are in many ways the most memorable moments of life. The assasination of a president. The loss of a prime minister. A man journeying from the surface of this planet to step on a moon. The marriage of a prince. The death of a princess.
At its best, television allows us to bear witness to the fall of greatness. Or the victory of ordinariness. Television seats us at the table of history. Television gives us VIP access up close and personal.
Television is not brain surgery. Although tellingly, brain surgery is now television. We live in an age of technological mobility where, thanks to the nimble utility of the most advanced digital cameras and broadcasting gear, every surgeon at the RPA, every zoo keeper at Tooronga, every aspiring model, every would be footballer, everybody who thinks they’re anybody, is a reality show in waiting.
The mistake of today’s worst television programmer is to believe that because a television show can be made it should be made. Think Lara Bingle. Merely because everyone owns a camera does not mean everyone is a storyteller.
Story is the key.
The greatest moments in television of the past 50 years comprise a bizarre potpourri of triumphs and disasters, the individual and the global, the expected and the unforseen.
Each shares a common thread. Each is a story. Each a compelling, haunting, unforgettable, lyrical story.
The story of how a small nation defeated a great nation to end the longest winning streak in sporting history. The story of how man stared at the moon and decided to go there. The story of a prime minister who went for a swim and was never seen again.
This selection of the memorable moments of the analogue age of Australian free to air television is in a strange way a weird compendium of the days of my life. Younger people will have no idea about Graham Kennedy or crow calls. What a loss. An older generation will look blankly and shake their heads at the mention of John, Ashlee and Camilla’s turkey slap on Big Brother. Or even of Big Brother.
It matters not. These are great stories. Stories of human tragedy. Of rescue. Of despair Of loss. Of reunion. Of happy endings. Each a mesmerising story.
There will be a day when today’s flailing television programmer tires of the shiny ubiquitous toy of technology and remembers that technology is a servant, and storytelling the master, and stories will be told and free to air television will again come of age
The Channel 9 transmitter is long gone and Dad and Grandpa are with us no more, but the laughter still rings and in my minds eye I’m snuggled in my upstairs bedroom quivering in the warm joy of those beautiful shared moment of belonging.
And the stories, our shared stories, live on.
Steve Vizard’s 57 moments are below. He will highlight the 10 moments that made analogue TV incredible over the next 10 days.