NBN ~ The Monochrome Years

Filed under Featured ~ by Throsby on  4 Mar 1962

The grant of a commercial television licence is a privilege of great public importance, especially to the people in the area in which the station is established; and there seems little doubt for its most effective use a commercial television station should, as far as possible, be in the hands or under the control of those people operating through the medium of a representative and independent company.

~ Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB)

For six decades NBN Television’s news, programs, even commercials, strengthened the Hunter region’s community spirit.

It was not only our town, our region – it was our TV station.

Channel 3, NBN Television – or just “NBN” – was the gatherer and disseminator of all that mattered to us.

One could say that it ‘emanated’ the Hunter’s zeitgeist, that it formed a consensus experience and forged a collective identity more immediate and vibrant than its print and radio precursors.

NBN tightened the bonds of this relatively small commune, barely a half-million people clustered around a busy port, spread thinly along a coastline, scattered through a valley and along the forested ranges that encircled it.

NBN brought into sharp focus the hopes and fears of our neighbours, their fortunes and fates. It was social media before that double-edged sword exposed us so sharply to diversity and so harshly to a polarised tribalism.

But when it came to local conflict, Channel 3’s relatively gentle exposure to division yet allowed good terms with the opposition.

The nightly news never sought to divide, and to this day our local news resists the cheap controversies of metropolitan broadcasters that only accelerate their decline to irrelevance.

Memory Lane

This is a photo essay of the early days, the first 13 years of “black and white” (monochrome) operation before colour television began in 1975.

It’s a small but surely valuable collection of images from times long gone, when the excitement of television infected those dedicated to producing it, and its creative novelty enthralled those viewing it.

Of the pictured, many are aged and retired while others, sadly, work (or star) in that big studio in the sky. They helped create the Hunter’s recent history and deserve at least this small tribute.

Broadcast technology, in its twilight years, is being overrun by seemingly infinite sources of entertainment delivered seamlessly to smart devices that fill our homes and lives.

The concept of “a television station” is becoming as quaint, if not meaningless, as DVD, VHS, phonograph, and, well… cash.

Although the images that follow are a unique record, the narrative framing them is rather makeshift due a lack of intimate knowledge. Readers with personal accounts of events can add their perspective via Twitter to update this story.

However, several excellent websites broach NBN’s history from different angles.

An absorbing read is Allan Black’s first-hand account of the early days at NBN, including the original script for opening night. Allan’s story is a marvellous, down-to-Earth, amusing blow by blow of the early days, when a broad mix of people with diverse industry backgrounds struggled to meet an opening night deadline for a brand new TV station. And in the process, as it went live to air, they realised they were, in fact, a team.

Also see Andrew Bayley’s Australian television history covering all the stations, and Wikipedia’s abridged NBN story that illustrates the corporate shenanigans of which we were blissfully unaware.

Radio supplied many knowledgeable people to build NBN, so its history is integral to this story. Spero Davias has documented the History of Newcastle Radio Stations where those larger than life radio people held the local stage. He reaches back into the early days of last century when the fledgling industry grew out of the efforts of Hunter radio amateurs and progressive Novocastrian retailers.

A wider view is Bruce Carty’s Australian Radio History website, from which you can freely download his lifetime of experience and research as an eBook.

Of many photographers behind lenses, the only person known to credit for likely many of the high-quality prints herein is Des Barry – the station’s first stills photographer.

These pictures should finally satisfy that biding curiosity that everyone who watched NBN Television during its 60 wonderful years felt whenever they switched on the “idiot box” in the lounge room.

Most pictures are undated, but educated guesses apply, based on events and appearances. Were this a printed book more diligence would apply. But for an insignificant website album, we’ll just ‘wing it.’

Either way, enjoy the memories.

Concept art for the proposed NBN Newcastle television studio.
The Creation

It was 61 years ago, as I write, that the entity NBN was conceived.

Newcastle Broadcasting and Television Corporation (NBTC) was established in May of 1958 when television licences were offered to regional Australia. Half the company shares had to be owned by “locals.” Though a small city, it was quite self-sufficient in millionaires.

$1.5 million construction project began in November 1961, NBN Newcastle-Hunter River Newcastle Broadcasting & Television Ltd
Granted: 17 July 1961
Commenced: 4 March 1962

Station program would issue from a studio complex built on three acres of land in Mosbri Crescent, Newcastle.

The call-letters “NBN” derived from the company’s acronym NB(TC), with a trailing N representing New South Wales, as required by law. Unofficially, and to locals, it stood for Newcastle Broadcasting Network. Construction began immediately upon licence in November 1961, supervised by engineers from RCA (Radio Corporation of America).

The station would transmit on the VHF band (very high frequency) on a channel (number 3) that – to the eternal regret of so many technicians and engineers, but the delight and amusement of radio listeners – was right in the middle of the future FM radio band.

On Greater (Mount) Sugarloaf the transmitter site was prepared, comprising a transmitter building, a 142 meter tower (some documents say 138), and microwave links receiving program signals from the studio 22 kilometers to the east.

The Mosbri Crescent “studio” was two interconnected buildings. One, an actual studio with cameras, lights, and action, was a sound-insulated hangar-size space and the larger of the two.

The other rectangular building was a collection of departments, offices upstairs and operations on the ground floor. Over 70 separate operational compartments combined to produce the region’s entertainment.

They included administration, boardroom, sales, accounts, traffic, programming, promotions, commercial production, newsroom, news camera, art, film processing, film editing, telecine, videotape, presentation, master control, studio control rooms, dressing rooms, announcers booths, maintenance, props bay, aircon, lighting, and carpentry. And the gardener!

The Mosbri Crescent building in its first year or two. Landscaping is a handy guide to the passage of time. You might reasonably assume lavish grounds were for the picnicking pleasure of staff during their long and extravagant meal breaks.

First Contact

When NBN 3 was seen for the first time across the Newcastle region in 1962, we were already seasoned television viewers.

One day at Booragul in 1957, as a young cub scout doing his Bob-a-Job rounds for the Boolaroo troop, a kindly resident asked “Would you like to see a game of cricket being played inside a house?”

We young’uns rushed inside led by curiosity and followed by the amused householder to see ABN Channel 2 in Sydney broadcasting a game in brilliant black and white on a 19” Astor television set. I thought that Mum and Dad should buy one of these contraptions, and yesterday! It took nine long years to convince them.

Throughout Newcastle, Port Stephens, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, and some of the Hunter Valley, Sydney’s ATN 7, TCN 9, and ABN 2 were daily viewing.

Homes on the hills had steady reception most days, disrupted only by southerly changes or heavy rain. But on warm still nights when temperature inversions formed over the coast, TV reception from Sydney was picture-perfect for almost the entire Newcastle region.

And for those in the hollows with 10 or 20 meter masts and high-gain antennas, on those balmy nights a humble rabbit’s ears, even a wire coat hanger, would have sufficed.

So when NBN arrived, despite the fanfare and novelty… well, we’d seen it all before.

But what we hadn’t seen was a bursting forth of visual arts from local talent, film of community news and events, or the region’s intellectual capital adding its weight to our daily lives.

During the weeks leading up to opening night – 4th March 1962 – odd pictures appeared in those luckier homes when that clunky knob was rotated to number 3. Businesses that had displayed Sydney channels in their shop windows now showed what the curious were told was a “test pattern” or a “test card.”

Image by Bruce Langley, courtesy of daughter Pat Jones. It wasn’t until the thoughtful Pat Jones shared on Facebook, in July 2018, a photograph of NBN’s test pattern taken on the historic opening day, that answered what I had long wondered: which test card of so many did NBN use before launch date?

And at 6pm on that greatly anticipated night, the pattern gave way to real moving pictures from the heart of Newcastle itself.

The Postmaster-General C.W. Davidson officially opened Newcastle station, NBN3, during the station’s first program at 6.00pm on Sunday night, 4th March, 1962.

Murray Finlay then began his decades-long news reading career with our first local news bulletin at 6:30 pm.

Murray Finlay reads NBN 3’s first news bulletin live to air on opening night. The sandbags were to stop the desk rolling away. Stage components are usually constructed on castors or wheels.

The “iconic” picture (top, above) has travelled far and wide. It was reproduced in multiples for promotional work. Its travelling companion below is less often seen.

The news was followed by The Phil Silvers Show at 7pm, and NBN’s first movie, the 1937 movie Green Light, starring Errol Flynn.

The George Sanders Theatre series followed at 9pm, with the opening episode, The Man in the Elevator, followed by the first episode from the Halls of Ivy, then the first Mystery Theatre program, The Missing Head at 10pm.

Anglican Bishop James Housden gave the first evening meditation at 10.30pm, which marked the end of the first night of transmission for NBN.

Commercials on that first night included ads for Rothmans Cigarettes, Streets Ice Cream, Ampol, Commonwealth Bank, Shell, and W.D. and H.O. Wills, amongst other advertisers.

That first week, NBN set an Australian television record for most time spent on air in a week for a new station (56 hours).

In the lead-up to the launch, the station promised at least two movies a week (Thursdays at 8.30pm and Sundays at 7.30pm), as well as men’s interest programs each Saturday afternoon between 3pm and 4pm. Women were well covered with programs in the early afternoon, followed by children’s programming from 4.30pm to 6.30pm weekdays and more “adult” programming 30 minutes before closedown each night.

~ Wikpedia

Mt Sugarloaf and the Transmitter

Before getting lost among the generous supply of photographs of Mosbri Crescent’s ins and outs, something about the transmitter.

Program from the studio travelled 22 kilometers “line of sight” from microwave transmitters (“microwave links”) at the studio to microwave receivers at the transmitter site on Mount Sugarloaf.

Microwave links are identified by dish-shaped parabolic reflectors that direct the signal in a narrow beam, like a torch does with light.

This might be a good place to squeeze in a word about the studio side of those links. The image below is a rare photograph of equipment racks containing the microwave transmitters at the studio end.

A scanned photograph (print) of NBN’s studio microwave link equipment racks, circa 1975. This is also representative of the transmitter end.

For the record – as this might be the only such record – the center and right racks show the STLs (studio-transmitter link) at top of each. They were vacuum tube (“valve”) units and operated for over 20 years. They were almost certainly of RCA manufacture.

The rack second from left contains two links, a TVM6 and an FL4, for receiving remote broadcasts, mostly from the OB van. Top left a gauge shows nitrogen pressure in the waveguide/s feeding signal to the dish antennae, to prevent moisture ingress.

The area under the main RCA link (lower right) was a processing device and a sea of valves. Its functions I’ve forgotten.

What I haven’t forgotten is that one evening pictures off-air started to fade. Viewers wouldn’t greatly notice, but our studio receiver deliberately didn’t run automatic gain control (AGC) so it was pretty obvious.

I called the technician and watched to see how he would tackle this urgent (and to me complex) problem. It was an exercise in pragmatism. Out came a carton full of spare vacuum tubes and in they went, one after the other, till all were replaced

For a while after pictures never looked better off-air!

Back up on the hill and burning away in that mysterious bunker were two RCA TT-6AL transmitters, each generating 6 kilowatts of “RF” (radio-frequency) energy.

Photos from the hill are hard to come by. Staff photographers either didn’t know there was a transmitter, or were terrified of transmitter techs – probably the latter.

These poor-quality prints are better than nothing, and show a surviving RCA whose partner was torn out to make way for newer models. NBN subsequently deployed NEC and Thompson CSF transmitters.

Above ~ NBN’s surviving RCA TT-6AL transmitter.

Below reveals the amazing network of high-voltage radio-frequency coaxial ‘piping’ needed to handle mixing, filtering, tuning, and trapping the TX output before feeding the antenna array far above on the tower.

The old RCA battled on into the 80s as a standby transmitter.

Whenever a storm threatened Sugarloaf (every second day in summer) we’d fire up the diesel generator, and for good measure the RCA TT6AL also.

Sometimes when it went to air prematurely, its output level on our non-AGC receiver would show only 10% power on the oscilloscope as the power output tubes laboured to build emission from ageing filaments. As we described those agonising minutes, “the old thing is struggling to get up off its knees.”

But viewers mostly were oblivious as their TV sets made up the lost signal strength. Viewers farther afield, however, were busy slapping their TVs to improve the picture.

The television program signal arriving at the Sugarloaf microwave receivers was fed to those RCA transmitters that operated “in parallel” – which means they both shared the work, and if one failed the other hopefully kept working till it was fixed.

Transmitter output then travelled out of the building and up a huge coaxial cable to the radiating elements atop the tower – the straight section where the tower stops narrowing in the photograph.

Top of the tower is 498 meters above sea level. The entire structure weighs 137 tonnes and sits on a 225 tonne concrete base. The orange and white colours – though fashionable, because all the towers wear them – provide daylight visibility for aircraft.

NBN transmitter building circa 1970. The groundskeeper, one suspects, has already lost a mower or two down the slopes by thoughtless parking.

NBN used to announce at the end of the day’s programs – around midnight when they literally switched off and the staff went home – that they were transmitting with a vision carrier of 100 thousand watts and a sound carrier of 20 thousand watts. This was effective radiated power (ERP) courtesy of antenna design and was not the actual power output of the transmitters.

Radiated power was in a narrow horizontal band, and very little went up into space, where it would be wasted. Also due to antenna design, power was skewed towards population centres and not sent equally in all direction.

Very little radiated power was aimed at the ground either, and so West Wallsend residents whose view of the tower was skyward had trouble getting a good reception, despite it being effectively in their backyards.

Both this and geography account for maps that show “coverage area” – a familiar term to people who have called to complain of reception problems.

NBN’s transmitter coverage area circa 1975.

Coverage area, hence reception, was greatly affected by mountains, local trees, weather, and transmitter antenna tuning that sent the signal where most people lived. Except Sydney!

Equally – something viewers did not want to know – reception was affected by faults at the receiving end, and during half a century of reception complaints it was rare that a householder could be convinced that their weather-beaten bird-roost of an antenna and water-soaked, rat-chewed cabling might be the issue.

The Studio Equipment.

A note: Mosbri Crescent complex was referred to in its entirety by staff as “the studio” including, of course, the actual Studio A. You were, by now, probably wondering about that.

The Mosbri Crescent “studio” was, in 1962, two buildings. One, an office block upstairs and an operations and electronics center downstairs. The other, a large hangar-size structure. The famous Studio A where dreams were made, where news and entertainment were produced.

NBN Television studio Mosbri Crescent studio construction was concrete slab, steel frame, ribbed steel wall cladding, double-glazed aluminium windows, and corrugated asbestos roofing.

Almost the entire ground floor of the operations building was packed with equipment. Air conditioning plant, film processing, control rooms with vision switching and audio mixer desks, a “master control” where the pictures “to air” were processed, selected, and switched, and where “off air” (from the transmitter) was monitored.

There was film cutting and editing, videotape recording and playback, film-to-television “telecine chains,” “presentation” that switched programs to air according to a station log, generated by another department called Traffic that integrated commercials with program days in advance.

Rarely seen on public tours were rack upon rack of an incredible range of specialised electronics with disbelievable names, like sync pulse generator, time code, clamping amplifier or stab-amp (stabilising amplifier), routing switcher, distribution amplifier, and VITS (vertical interval test signal).

Sixty years ago broadcast television equipment was disproportionately expensive compared to similar electronics today.

Then the world market was smaller and TV broadcast stuff was huge and bulky and expensive to make. With little automation it was usually hand-constructed, often by engineers themselves. It required tedious tuning and rigorous testing before delivery. Television sets could be made by unskilled factory workers repetitiously soldering and assembling, but not specialist television broadcasting equipment.

Which is all to say that the brief shopping list below mentions only those large chunks of expensive capital plant, the big-ticket items. Turning them into a working television station required a complex array of additional smaller electronic items, rack after rack of them, and kilometers of wiring.

For each of these following items, imagine at the time of purchase but in today’s dollars that they cost from a half to several million dollars apiece. The initial 1962 shopping list was: three image orthicon cameras, one with a zoom lens; one vidicon camera; two telecine chains (to convert motion film to television program); one opaque scanner (for captions and graphics); an electronic special effects unit; a film processor (to develop motion camera film, not just stills); two videotape recorders; and two microwave links.

Add a fleet of vehicles, dozens of staff, sundries like pricey 16mm film cameras, endless consumables, fearful electricity bills…

RCA’s 50mm slide projector was used to project the slide at a television camera, in the same manner a projector at home projects onto a screen.

The image above shows (at right) part of a photograph from one of NBN’s information booklets titled “Your Guide to NBN Channel 3.” It is Presentation suite, in which an operator switches program sources to air. Visible through the window is a drum-shaped unit in the adjacent room. This confirms that NBN’s original equipment included the RCA slide scanner shown at left.

It therefore confirms that the above-listed “vidicon camera” was not a studio camera, but a bulky specially-designed unit fixed to the projector, which was, in the day, the only way to convert photographic film to electronic television signals.

Space and Expansion

NBN 3 took off like a rocket. It was irresistible to Novocastrians – well, to humans everywhere – and advertisers flocked to it, and the cash rolled in. It had to, as the place found itself on an endless rollercoaster of expansion and technical upgrades that simply never ceased.

So, the first discovery made by management and staff was probably on day two of transmission – that the hiring of one extra person above the initial crew created an immediate space problem!

What was a generous parking lot on the building’s eastern side was quickly consumed by extensions, especially during planning in the late 60s for the inevitable colour equipment that would need to work alongside existing black and white electronics. An operational nightmare, essentially needing to have two separate program paths and their separate equipment running at the same time for the switch-over to colour.

Rear (eastern side, looking south) of NBN Television studios in Mosbri Crescent Newcastle. Circa 1965. This shows the original buildings. Studio A just visible at top right, central complex center-right, its nearer end contained air-con plant and props bay. Garage at left.

That also meant a new colour film laboratory, quite an extravagance, but without which NBN’s nightly news would not greatly impress running black and white stories.

When an Outside Broadcast (OB) vehicle was bought, a garage was built out front in Mosbri. When the newsroom occupied that garage, having vacated the lower rear of the building, the OB truck displaced their news cars from the rear garage.

I can’t reconcile the front and rear OB garages’ timelines. The rear garage is missing from early aerial photographs

When the newsroom moved into a new south wing in the late 70s, maintenance techs took possession of that former front OB garage. They, too, were to vacate that precious vantage a decade later for, yes, telco racks for a fledgling Kooee/SPT.

And so it went.

Photographs of the Mosbri Crescent site reflect these changes, and since none of this collection was dated, one determines, like an archeologist, the probable year by shrubbery growth and building extensions!

Why is it that shape?

Intrepid Novocastrians who wandered curious up Mosbri Crescent to behold Newcastle’s newest eyesore – sitting like an architectural sore thumb in the middle of a razed 3 acre paddock – were, in all likelihood, both mightily impressed yet completely puzzled by the shape and appearance of this “TV studio,” as the building’s inhabitants called it.

The original layout of NBN’s Mosbri Crescent studio complex comprises the large box at left, Studio A, and the long box right, everything else – all the departments, including studio staging/props, aircon plant, engineering, Presentation, film processing, news room, sales, production, promotions, admin, accounts. It was busy in there. Reception is the extension at right.

The small box mid-front is a new OB garage, a strange location and a short-lived idea.

Mosbri Crescent was quite the wilderness back in the 1960s

That big box ugliness might have dominated the rapidly populating inner-city street, but the magic of the very idea of television quickly blinded both visitors and neighbours to the architectural transgression from which the magic of visual entertainment flowed.

Constructed like any huge shed in an industrial park, the steel frame was mounted on a vast concrete slab and then skinned with vertically profiled steel cladding.

Aerial view of newly built studio complex at 11-17 Mosbri Crescent, Newcastle. Landscaping has just begun, and a single vehicle is in the driveway! This must predate March 1962.

Broadcast studios require very low ambient background noise. The large box-like Studio A was fully exposed to the outside and needed a great amount of insulation in the walls and roof.

Broadcasting centres plan for low noise by a choice of location and an eye to future nearby developments. The generous 3 acres (1.2 hectares) of prime city real estate was to ensure airborne and impact noise would have to work hard to reach the sensitive microphones in the studios.

The trees and shrubs were a part of that strategy, and it also helped that they softened the boxy building’s look.

While a noise survey of the site might be undertaken to determine the quietest location to place the studio, the irony that the top of Mosbri Crescent was the focal point of a natural amphitheatre was probably not lost on the surveyor.

Below ~ A rare panorama – two combined photos taken from a crane (shadow lower right). The old logo still up and Arcadia Park is bare. But Mosbri seems fully populated. Date?

The ‘Studio’ Complex

To reiterate, the phrase “the studio” conjures up for most of us the idea of a recording or production studio, with lights, cameras, and microphones.

But the staff, rather than saying “NBN head office” or “NBN at Mosbri Crescent” or “the office/HQ/…,” the site in Newcastle was called simply “the studio.” Company operations, however, naturally referred to either Studio A in full, to be sure visitors and talent knew where they were required.

Just so you know. Now you’re an insider.

The first question all would ask, or at least wonder, is why there were no windows.

Rear (eastern side)of NBN Television studios in Mosbri Crescent viewed from the west. Circa 1970. No windows long the front… no noise please.

While some windows graced the building’s rear, and gave scenic inspiration to the general manager and board of directors, there was no need for outside views in operational areas. Even the general office – a large area on the first floor at the front, only had windows along the southern side.

Those windows nevertheless were double-glazed with adjustable blinds between the panes. All subsequent extensions in the late 1970s, when a new administration wing was added at the southern end, used similar sound-reducing windows.

Below, viewed from south west. The new OB garage is added to the front of the building, its roller door facing camera. Circa 1970.

Below: View from south east. A rare colour shot from that era ~ Circa 1970.

Here, by the way, is inside that famous foyer.

And this is how NBN’s studio complex greeted you during the first 15 years of operation. All very 1960s.

In the picture above to the right of the receptionist is a zoned security alarm system. Such extravagant measures were mandatory for broadcast facilities. Not so much for ‘terrorists’ but to more keep fanatics or pranksters from interrupting or, worse, commandeering a live transmission. For decades the station employed an on-site security guard.

Inside the Studio

There are four types of television studios: general purpose; theatre type; interview and announcers; and dubbing suites.

Studios A and B were general purpose, but A was large enough to be converted to a theatre with the construction of temporary audience seating.

Studio A dimensions were modest by metropolitan standards but still impressive upon entering. It was 21 by 15 meters, and 10 meters high with a volume of over 3,000 cubic meters.

Studio A was a really big space. Its reception entry at right became the entire complex’s foyer during the 1978 extensions that required demolishing the original foyer.

Above ~ Production in NBN Television’s studio A. This vantage shows just how big a 10 meter high room is.

Lights can be lowered to floor level by winches visible in the picture below. One of the “floor crew” wears overalls to protect his standard issue white shirt, black trousers, and tie – them were the days. If any paint gets on those suede shoes he’ll get an earful from his Mum. He’s painting the bevelled “ground row” that covers strip lighting and a multitude of sins. Sound insulation (on internal walls) is contained by wire mesh.

Below ~ The cyclorama (“cyc”) is not installed. Also, the wood is receiving its first coat of what looks like clear sealant before becoming “non-chromatic” grey like the floor and cyc. Almost certainly, the photo was taken during studio construction.

A cyclorama is a continuous background curving around corners to give the illusion of greater space or infinite distance. Lighting behind the ground row gives soft backlighting, and the “cyc” can be coloured by spot lights.

An entire (but small) orchestra fits easily into a corner of Studio A.

Ian Nash and Friends concert in 1975, the year colour launched but the show used the original RCA black & white cameras, one of their last big shows. Relatively small by metro standards, but NBN’s Studio A certainly packed them in and got the job done.

Control rooms on the second floor fronted the southern wall of the studio, where it joined the other building. They overlooked proceedings through soundproofed double glazed windows. Beside the vision switching room was a clients’ viewing room, an audio switching room, and an announcer’s booth.

The vision switcher shown below, while more than adequate at the time, is laughably simple by today’s standard. It comprised essentially three rows of buttons, a preview row plus A and B program rows whereby selected inputs – camera, graphic, film – were switched or faded to.

Meanwhile in the next room the audio operator selected the matching audio from microphones corresponding to cameras, telecine film, record turntables or tape, and, yes, the human announcer in his tiny booth doing live voice-overs.

Director Godfrey Philipp and assistant (“DA”)  in vision control for Studio A. That looks like a tiny RCA PTS-1 vision switcher. Nowadays such device would fill the room with options and effects.

Above, just visible through the windows and 10 meters down are floor operations. A row of monitors (top left) preview camera vision. Another also shows outgoing vision from the studio.

The window glasses are not parallel to prevent vibrations on one resonating the other.

Studio A‘s sliding door (below, at right) from the props bay was large enough for tall fully-constructed sets to be wheeled, and even trucks could enter (if they could manage the turn).

Studio A’s sliding door was a really big heavy door and I was always ready to run like the blazes should it make the wrong noise whilst being slid.

The very heavy sliding door was about 5 meters high and similarly wide, and about 10cm thick to block noise from the props bay.

The carpentry shop (for making studio sets) was in a mezzanine in the props bay, but the noise interfered with studio operations despite insulation so it was moved the rear garage.

Being a relatively small television complex, the larger exposed Studio A received noise on its external surface from all sources: vehicles, loud neighbours, storms, and passing aircraft.

The roofing material was corrugated asbestos, chosen to minimise noise from heavy rain and impede heat from the sun conducting to an interior already suffering heat load from studio lights.

A major challenge was designing air conditioning outlets of sufficient volume to counteract tens of kilowatts of heat from the lighting, and on scorching summer days the heating of the external metal walls and asbestos roofing – yet have an almost perfectly silent air flow. Circa 1965.

Interior walls were extensively insulated too, in addition to the ceiling, to reduce outside noise that would disturb, and possibly entirely disrupt, sensitive sound recording. Original architectural notes and engineer’s specifications for this studio would make interesting reading.

Studio B was a small internal room without configurable overhead lighting.

It grew out of the original operational space, and I’ve been unable to precisely establish if it existed from the start. A picture I recall – I think I recall! – showed Allan McGirvan operating a console in a control room that oversaw the space where Studio B was in later years. That console was referred to as ‘Presentation’ and later became Studio B’s control room.

Though rather cramped, its 40 square metre floor space was serviceable, however, and it served as a commercial production and news studio for several decades, and hosted Art Ryan’s Breakfast Club for its duration.

The roofing material was corrugated asbestos, chosen to minimise noise from heavy rain and impede heat from the sun conducting to an interior already suffering heat load from studio lights.

Interior walls were extensively insulated too, in addition to the ceiling, to reduce outside noise that would disturb, and possibly entirely disrupt, sensitive sound recording. I have yet to find construction details for this studio, but the architect’s notes would make interesting reading.

Studios weren’t simply big rooms. They were supported by a series of control rooms: vision control, audio control, camera controls, announcer sound booths, lighting control, talent makeup rooms, even clients’ viewing room.

Access was through air-gapped rooms with dual sound proof doors.

Before leaving the studio, some respect to generations of lighting technicians who had the privilege of working from a cramped and cluttered “cage” in the props bay. Though by century’s turn (when photographed) accoutrements of modern times added to the chaos, it’s highly doubtful any item dating from 1962 ever departed this hallowed space. In other words, this is how it always looked.

News and Sport

From day one – well, hour one – news was NBN Channel 3’s flagship.

Less than surprising, then, is the list of well-known people who sat behind the tiny regional television station’s news desk.

Personalities like Darryl Eastlake wended their successful way to the big smoke. Locals who stayed, like Noel Harrison, Murray Finlay, Des Hart, Neville Graham, Brian Newman, and Wal Morrison, entrenched as local celebrities.

Mike Leyland, NBN’s first news cameraman – or shall we say “news cinephotographer”?

News and sport delivered above their weight.

Over six decades, NBN News produced Good Morning News, Good Evening News, News Night, NBN Evening News, and NBN Late Edition News and the still running 6pm NBN News.

There were many specials and spinoffs, including royal visits, floods and fires, and notables such as The Cruel Sea, following the beaching of Pasha Bulka in 2007.

Neville Graham at the Studio A news desk circa 1965.  Everything was on wheels, including of course the cameras. That floor was dead flat, as you would guess from the miniscule clearance of the camera pedestals.

Des Hart, NBN’s inimitable weatherman (not to demean his eminent colleagues; as Des, in his humility, would have been the first to insist).

There are, without doubt, dozens of incidents shared with embarrassment by the staff. These are two.

Late news was set up with a fixed camera in Studio B and was unattended. The newsreader sat alone at the news desk and started reading on cue.

One night one of the floor crew and I (we should have known better) entered and were greeted by Murray Finlay’s booming “Good Evening.” Thinking he was just taking the mickey, we called back “Oh, howdy Muzza.” and “Yeah, gidday Fin!”

His response was to ignore us and start reading to the live camera the first story of the late night news. Oops! We tip-toed out and avoided eye contact for a week.

Unattended news bulletins had their risks but were a staffing necessity for early morning or late night bulletins. No degree of staffing could have avoided this incident…

I think it was early morning news from Studio B. One of the coolest NBN journos, David Allen, was rattling off the news headlines when the letter “e” fell off the carved wooden word “News” right behind him in frame. Everyone watching would have seen it happen.

It made quite a racket – it was a very big piece of wood.

Without flinching, and in his dulcet tone,  Dave finished calling the headlines, then added his own breaking story… “and the letter ‘e’ falls out of News!”

Above ~ Jim Sullivan’s Motorscope.
Below, Noel Harrison with a karate team demonstration.

Noel Harrison, NBN’s sports editor, in the door of the OB truck.
Program Production

One of the surprising aspects of NBN’s early decade is the amount of local production generated both within the studio and in the field.

Mike and Mal Leyland became household names, while Ian Hill and Art Ryan carved their names in program guides.

Then there was Greg Gomez Pead, seen below physically editing film by cutting and splicing, probably in the early 1970s. Around his feet the term “ended up on the cutting room floor” is clearly explained.

Greg’s gloves are to protect the film stock. His coat is for effect. And, yes, his face is familiar.

Romper Room was equal favourite with the station’s 6 o’clock news. NBN acquired the franchise from Fremantle International in 1967, and locally produced and broadcast the show for over three decades.

NBN’s Romper Room celebrates its 5th birthday. Perhaps in 1972?

The original hostess was Miss Anne, then Miss Lyn, Miss Pauline, and finally Miss Kim, who hosted the program until ‘political correctness’ overtook it. As legend goes, a favourite feature called ‘bounce-the-ball’ was deemed inappropriate because not all children could bounce a ball.

Romper Room went into the field quite often. These were diligently recorded by the staff stills photographer but rarely warranted an outside broadcast recording. There is such a large collection of pictures that a separate article is planned, just to display the entire album.

Below is a Winns event in the early 70s.

Romper Room at Winns Department Store circa 1973-ish.

Were you one of the Romper Room kids at Winns in the 70s? Let us know on Twitter.

At first the Miss was assisted by NBN’s station mascot Buttons the Cat, who underwent a number of incarnations as its costume aged.

Later, Buttons was retired, being replaced by Humphrey B. Bear (as NBN had gained the rights to the character through their purchase of Southern Television Corporation),

Is it a dog or a cross-dressing cat?

A Local suited character was then determined to be more suitable for a regional television station and the concept of Big Dog was created, the character and suit were created in Wyong on the NSW Central Coast and Big Dog came into being.

Above ~ Romper Room in Studio A. Before colour – the cameras are the original monochrome RCA TK-60s.

The NBN edition continued after the station became an affiliate of the Nine Network, with a new title, Big Dog and Friends in 1997, the title referring to the station’s mascot Big Dog, who appeared in the show as the sidekick of the hostess, Miss Kim (Kim Anthony).

This was renamed due to NBN’s rights with Claster Television for using the “Romper Room” name, songs and characters expiring in the end of 1996.

The last series of Romper Room to survive on Australian television was cancelled in 1999 after Kim Anthony retired from hosting the show.

Below ~ NBN’s four Romper Room Miss’s with director Reg Davis on the set in Studio A.

During that first decade there were dozens of local programs from the studio.

Jayes Travel Time started in 1962 and ran for 20 years. Telethons every four years were quite amazing events that cemented community spirit as no other television program could.

Bob Dyer’s BP Pick-a-Box became an instant favourite, though a national show. Locally, however, NBN’s first shows were Ken Eady’s Home At 3, Allan Lappan’s Tempo, Murray Finlay’s The Three Cheers Show, and Cyril Renwick’s Focus.

Neville Roberts can’t maintain composure as outrageous British actor and comic Frankie Howerd gets into stride.

Barry Humphries and The Bee Gees were early talent in the old studio, as wonderfully related by eye witness and original staffer, Allan Black.

Next is a potpourri of just a few of the many things that went down in that fabulous old studio – some well known, some forgettable, and not to overlook the endless advertorial shows or commercial production that paid the bills to let us enjoy “free-to-air” TV.

Above ~ 1970 schools choir in Studio A.

Lionel Doolan from Newcastle Technical College demonstrates how to convert electronic components to smoke. Or is that someone’s cigarette?

Above ~ were you there? Let us know via Twitter so this story can be updated.
Below ~ This charming string of photos tells a story. It says that kids can’t party on demand and would rather know how all this television stuff works. And the floor manager, director (wrangler, handler?) is trying to figure out why the talent won’t comply.

Below ~ Ian Nash and Friends in 1975. The cameras are still RCA black and white, although the colour equipment was commissioned by now.

Always great and all too rare to find paperwork! Those nagging “who, where, when” questions answered beyond doubt.

NBN attracted not only many of the region’s most enthusiastic and capable people to express their passion for television by working behind the scenes. It naturally placed before the viewers the most capable talent.

Of the many greats that faced the studio’s cameras across the years, Neville Roberts was legendary. Except I can’t find anything to say about him. Fortunately his frequent capture on celluloid says much and answers some questions. But a brief bio is deserved here, so if you can assist drop a line via Twitter.

A brief photo essay of one of the many Here Tonight episodes follows, and you can see it was a landmark NBN production with no expense spared, as they say.

These highlights are from 9th March 1971.

Little Pattie aka Thelma Thompson interviewed above and singing on set below.

Above ~ This is the “no expense spared” referred to, and for a station as relatively small as Newcastle’s NBN, quite impressive.

The extras patiently await instructions. That small mark on the floor is taped to mark the pre-lit hot spot for talent to know where to stand. 

Below ~ Neville interviews someone famous. Anyone?

Above ~ The band.
Below ~ And the host is also an entertainer.

Tours

Although there’s nothing special in these few photos (unless you recognise a younger self) their value lies in the early studio innards that are revealed.

The following shows a view rarely photographed from within Studio A, where its southern wall joins the other building. On the second floor through the windows at top left are the control rooms and booth with an access stair case at right offering direct access to the floor.

A 5 meter ladder at left is used by lighting techs to change blown lamps and sundry tasks. Center-left behind the guy standing at rear are double doors into Studio A’s public foyer, that opens to Mosbri Crescent.

The plastic chairs are rented.

The group of lads in these pictures are – judging by their safari suits, knee-high white socks, Bermuda shorts, and world-weary expressions – field television service techies having a Captain Cook at the studio during its preparation for colour. Or not.

Internal spaces were progressively torn apart and reworked on both floors over the decades.

The following photos could be anywhere, though I suspect it’s a future Studio B control room. The desk and equipment are for audio control. Studio A’s audio control was not this large, as I recall.

Foreground below is a Plessey CT80 audio cartridge player (left) and a Rola 7-inch reel to reel audio tape deck – cooled, not unusually, by a small desk fan!

That was no novelty. Back then the electronics were full of vacuum tubes (valves), thousands of them throughout the studio, each as hot as a small incandescent light bulb. There was always a handy giant pedestal fan to blow at any hot spots.

The group patiently waits while the photographer lights up their retinas with his sunlamp and fiddles camera exposure.

Below ~ Rola 77 tape machine at left. These Australian-made decks were ubiquitous industry workhorses throughout the 1960s, 70s, and well into the 80s. The audio mixer at center is an RCA BC-6.

Above ~ How the RCA BC-6 audio mixer looked to an excited operator back in the day, when it was installed in 1962. Image credit Reverb.com

Above ~ Program Manager John Kidd (at right) and visitors in audio control.

Below ~ John and entourage are on the ground floor in what would soon be refitted as a colour master control room – the nerve center where all sources converge before leaving the studio, bound for the transmitter.

The ground floor was riddled with trenches called cable ducts covered with removable steel plating.

I have a story (from a friend, a credible source) about an early technician (whom I also know but chose not to embarrass by seeking confirmation). He left a tap running in the Studio B sink. The drain hole was partially blocked and it inevitably overflowed.

Cable ducts were filled with water. They’re packed with a mix of cabling carrying all sorts of audio, video, and camera cables, many with quite high voltages. Apparently nothing stopped working but it took weeks to dry out the ducts.

He bore the title “The Harbourmaster” for a few years.”

And so to “Engineering”

You didn’t really think you’d escape a technical tour, surely?

Engineering was always a slightly grandiose term, like steam engine drivers called ‘engineers.’

But it was appropriate because while technical staffers rarely had engineering degrees, they were the best and brightest of can-do techie smarts you’ll ever find in one place.

While electronic and mechanical engineers and scientists in corporate research designed and built (not always very well) the vast array of intricate broadcast equipment, it was NBN’s technicians who kept this horrendously complex disparate collection of enigmatic, often poorly documented, and frequently delinquent gear working.

Continuously, daily, yearly, with many a-brush with catastrophe that you rarely saw on your TV at home.

Technician ‘Geoff’ testing one of NBN’s RCA TRT-1B videotape recorders. The station first aired with just one and the second arrived soon after.

Every new item of television equipment ever purchased in the history of the industry arrived fresh from the factory hiding a multitude of design and operational sins that drove many technicians to an early grave. Literally, in those days when heavy smoking and drinking were a social norm.

In the beginning there was a dedicated videotape technician, Keith Campbell. He was let go with about 80 others after about 18 months, and Chief Engineer Ken Greenhalgh returned to 2KO when the Lamb Family departed, so his job fell to Harry McPhee (NBN’s first Assistant Chief Engineer, then Chief).

Behind all of the corporate shenanigans Harry worked himself to death spending long hours on complex problems – particularly with transmitter issues, and the finicky TRT-1B RCA videotape recorders.

The issues referred to were to not only because equipment was vacuum-tube-based (and tubes wear out as light bulbs do ~ inevitably and randomly), or that it was complex and new and full of teething problems typical of new equipment, but particularly because it was retrograded obsolete monochrome broadcast equipment from America, where “color” had been operational for a decade.

Future Assistant Chief Engineer, Max Lewis, works on the tape transport of an RCA TRT-1B video recorder.

On top of it all, the U.S. used a different system to Australia, so the RCA engineers not only had to revive old designs, but convert them to a different engineering standard (525/60 vs 625/50).

NBN’s first videotape machine, the RCA TRT-1B “Television Tape” recorder. Circa 1963.

Some of my fondest memories… Forgetting to drain the condensed water from the head wheel compressor, and halfway through a playback, having water begin spitting out of the head… putting a new head on a machine, recording a 90-minute show, and finding the head completely worn out due to a piece of “green” tape… fixing the many, many, relays, by soldering a piece of copper braid across a broken hinge.
~ From VOldBoys

These monsters cost some serious money back in the sixties.

The TRT-1 occupied up to six equipment racks. The transport unit occupied three 84 inch racks, with the transport mounted vertically in the center rack. It weighed in at 1,450 pounds. Six power circuits were required to run the machine totalling 4.65 kW! Several of these beasts are still in existence, including one in a museum in Perth, Australia.
~ Tim Stoffel

The staff photographer in the day had a tough job. While studio lighting was complex and TV cameras more so, at least feedback was instant in the viewfinder. But a stills photographer had know his stuff (depth of field, film speed, exposure) because proof of decisions about exposure and focus were ultimately only in the developed negative – rather too late to adjust fine details.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to examine a photograph that appeared in the NBN booklet “Your Guide to NBN Channel 3” – the one whose original is just below.

This promotional photograph of new Ampex colour 2-inch tape machines (VR-2000) shows the original surviving RCA recorder at left.

From this we can see our photographer was forced to retreat into the corridor and photograph through the window. If you’ve ever tried that, you’ll know all about reflections. Placing the lens against the glass can reduce reflections but then not much distance from the subject is gained. The window sills are visible so he (or she) was standing well back.

His fixed lens just wasn’t wide enough.

A section of the image above was scanned at 3200 high-resolution to clearly reveal Dusty Springfield tending to the RCA recorder. In foreground is a Tektronix oscilloscope – probably a 545 or thereabouts model.

Above ~ A section of the previous photograph scanned at 3200 dpi shows a rarely seen angle of operations in 60’s VTR.
Outside Broadcasts (OBs)

Also known as “outside telecast” and “remote broadcast studio.”

A foreword before we begin. Studio technicians had their many problems to solve, but the real “thrill seekers” were OB technicians who had to drive a mobile studio sometimes hundreds of kilometers to a remote location, cable it up, fix the unexpected faults and failures with few backup systems and fewer resources, all on an impossibly tight deadline.

They had to carry heavy cameras weighing 50 or more kilograms to the top of some building, or scaffolding they built themselves, and then work in blazing heat or pouring rain with high-voltage but delicate equipment connected to hundreds of meters of thick cable.

Just saying. These guys were real heroes.

There’s little information but many pictures of NBN’s early days in the field, from which time none of the crew are known, and the story is a bit vague, too. A few facts have filtered across the decades, plus an amusing event or two.

Initially NBN had no outside broadcast (OB) department, nor a vehicle. One was acquired, I’m reliably informed, from Brisbane. Not so reliably, it was from either 7 or 9.

Quite likely this is the day NBN’s first Outside Broadcast (OB) van arrived. A garage would soon be added to the front of the building.

Below ~ Chief Engineer Harry McPhee (right) and Assistant Chief Rodney Prout with the OB truck and one of its TK-31 cameras.

The van came with a trailer of equipment, two RCA TK-31 black and white cameras, and at the time no recording equipment. Program from the vehicle had to reach the studio via microwave link.

NBN’s first solid state video tape recorder was an RCA machine that was colour capable and could edit. This unit could also be moved into the OB van and thus do away with mobile microwave units.

This rare colour print shows the van and its microwave transmitter – the box attached behind the dish antenna. And, yes, 3’s a crowd.

The old beast was a Ford V8 van with an American-built body 8 meters long, 2.6 meters wide, and almost 4 meters high.

Towards the end of its life, maintenance was a growing problem. On one sad occasion it was towed to the heavy vehicle motor registry at Carrington for inspection and re-registration. Never heard back what the inspector thought of that. But it was soon on the road again. Must have been awaiting a spare part from the U.S. !

OB vans are complete control rooms for vision and sound control and switching, with electronics racks and air conditioning. The only functional difference between it and the Mosbri Crescent studio is that the actual studio floor happens to be the real outside world.

For the first thirty years or so there was hardly an event of any significance that failed to attract a visit by NBN’s OB unit.

Following are some random collections that show what difficult work it was, requiring planning and a wide range of skills. While types of events obvious, dates and locations not so – except the dockyard ship launch.

However, these photographs generically represent most of the typical outside broadcasts.

Bathurst 500
In the long history of NBN’s OB team, there are few places in Australia they haven’t been. So Bathurst was just down the road.

Above ~ The cameras are brimming full of vacuum tubes, each with its own little red-hot heater. Hence the sunroof.
Below ~ Joining the other stations at Bathurst. A photograph of a print of a copy of a dub, but far better than no picture at all.

State Dockyard

Can you imagine the crowds they would attract today? The harbourside would be standing room only and 10 deep.

The team alights at the Newcastle State Dockyard to set up for the launching of the Australian Trader on 17th February 1969.

Below ~ Another of the many famous vessels launched at Newcastle.

Football

Rain and high-voltages, the perfect mix. We did OBs in the wet and, hey, even on occasions gave TCN9 a hand, as they seemed a little unsure what these OB things were all about :0)

Rodeos.. what can one say?

The following collection covers an event of the Australian Rodeo Championships.

While these negatives have no documentation, Gloucester is an informed veteran’s pick.

Do you recognise something? Tell us via Twitter.

Despite the poor quality – the film stock is disintegrating – these many pictures were included to give a feel for the event, because pictures indeed tell a story. And how often does one come across a 50-year old record of such an occasion?

Hello, the Bedford beat us again!

But, hey, we beat the crowd.

Below, at right ~ The loaded coil vertical antenna reminds us that NBN’s Engineering staff always had a strong amateur radio contingent, even in management ranks.

A wild guess, but is that a young “Russell” at left.

The cameraman atop the van got his full dose of IR and UV radiation, while the equipment was carefully protected.

Never much discussed, but think of the footwork needed to move and aim a large and heavy tripod-mounted camera whilst keeping one’s face clamped against the viewfinder mask to keep out the daylight.

Smaller vans (Bedford CA) were more versatile and excellent for commercial shoots or small one-camera events.

Above ~ Fortunately the sign on the van’s rear window clearly identifies the event. It reads “Get the highlights of the Australian Rodeo Championships .. … … NBN Channel 3”
Below ~ Arriving or leaving? The 44-gallon drum full of rubbish suggests the latter.

Well, that’s the short tour of NBN’s early days in outside broadcast. Just another day in the OB department. Now, on to the next job. G’day mate, fill ‘er up.

Good times…

The new T-shirts are here and I’m gonna wear mine everywhere.

Below ~ Promotional photograph of the colour news set. Murray Finlay at left, new colour camera at right.

This vibrant image was the destination of those early pioneering years, and well epitomises the change technology wrought on both the product and the people.

Despite familiarity with both modern technology and old-school equipment, it’s still hard to grasp that almost every operation seen in this album of memories has been replaced by technologies that, with rare exceptions, are computerised, that almost all the jobs shown in the preceding series of images are now computer keyboard operations, and that all the varied and arcane physical media shown have devolved to the ubiquitous computer file.

And in those heady days – as modern solid state electronics emerged from an electro-mechanical era of relays and vacuum tubes – flat screen TVs, mobile phones, even the idea of an Internet, were futuristic science fiction.

All things considered, despite television having a generally “bad press,” we can agree that NBN’s version of it made Newcastle and the Hunter region a better place.

Finis



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