Broadcasting fireworks on TV was a ratings success for the ABC as 2018 turned into 2019, with 1.95 million viewers. But 60 years ago, a New Year’s Eve in front of the TV was a very different experience.
I study historical television and popular culture to develop a small sense of shared experience with the people who watched those same broadcasts.
If you were one of the Australians who happened to have a TV set in 1959, what were you watching?
Television content varied from region to region, but looking at Melbourne’s TV Times listings can give us an interesting insight.
One key part of the evening’s viewing still resonates: international content far outweighed locally produced shows. But unlike the fare on streaming services today, the series Australians watched then weren’t exactly current.
In the afternoon, viewers could catch up with shows that had long ceased production. At 4:15 on Nine, you could watch Follow That Man, an early New York city detective series filmed from 1949 to 1954.
At 4:30pm on Seven was Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, a historical action series set in regional New York in the 1750s, which originally aired in 1957.
After the news, the schedules started to resemble prime-time US schedules, where Westerns were at a peak of popularity.
Australian variety shows
As midnight approached, Australian content began to air on all three TV stations in Melbourne.
Club Seven and In Melbourne Tonight were both variety shows. Club Seven aired from 1959 to 1961 on Thursday nights at 10pm, on a set replicating a nightclub. It was outlasted by In Melbourne Tonight, which aired for 13 years until 1970 and is still viewed as a high point for live Australian television.
On December 31, it reported In Melbourne Tonight would have two hosts: young Australian television staples Bert Newton and Graham Kennedy. The article spruiked, “One of the biggest lineups of artists ever assembled for I.M.T.”
A particular highlight would be Kennedy “featured in a vocal interpretation of 76 Trombones”, the signature song from the musical The Music Man, which was opening soon in Melbourne.
Despite Hayes’ cancelled holiday and Kennedy’s 76 Trombones, New Year’s Eve 1959 wasn’t (on television, at least) a party that carried on into the wee hours.
The ABC went off air at 12:05 and Seven at 12:30. Nine stuck around a bit longer, fitting in an episode of I Led 3 Lives (a drama about an FBI spy who infiltrated the Communist party), to outlast the rest, calling it a night at 12:50am.
Mind you, the following Thursday, the ABC’s close was scheduled for 10:55pm, Seven’s at 11, and Nine’s at 11:45.
Indeed the ABC wouldn’t start broadcasting through the night, every night, until 1993.
Lost pieces of Australian history
There’s very little of this Australian content left for us to rewatch. Many live broadcasts were not preserved at all and video was often wiped for re-use: television shows were seen as having limited commercial or historical value and junked.
Even those episodes from Australia’s TV history that have survived and have been catalogued in archives can be difficult to find and access.
It’s a shame that Australia’s television history isn’t more accessible. Pop culture, like television, can be used to gain an inkling of a society’s interests and lived experiences in a way that isn’t always possible through more formal documents. It can also show how people were marginalised or excluded in Australia’s pop culture landscape.
The cultural history of television is still largely defined by what’s not available.