The Mildura district in north west Victoria was the last in the state to receive television.
Like most other regional areas in the heavily populated eastern states, Mildura was to have two television stations — a national service from the ABC and a local commercial channel.
Plans to establish television in the region began as early as 1953, three years before television formally begun in Australia, when an initial application was made to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board for a commercial television broadcasting licence to service Mildura and the Sunraysia region — back then with a population of around 40,000. It wasn’t until over a decade later that the company, Sunraysia Television Limited, was successful in gaining a licence.
The company, with ties to Mildura’s Sunraysia Daily newspaper, established STV8 in Deakin Avenue at a cost of around £250,000. The cost for ABC to establish its local station was £531,000, including a transmitter at Yatpool and adding a network of microwave links from Swan Hill for the relay of the ABC program from Melbourne.
Both STV8 and ABC were to share transmission facilities at Yatpool.
Then the race was on as to who would be on the air first. In most regions it was the commercial station that was first to air, and this was meant to also be the case in Mildura. However a last minute delay in obtaining approval from the Australian Broadcasting Control Board saw STV8 have to postpone its official launch from its initial date of Saturday, 20 November 1965. The ABC station, ABMV4, therefore claimed the position of first TV station declared open in the region on Monday, 22 November 1965.
STV8 had managed to get its first test programs on the air by 20 November but, in a rare show of support to its opposition, opted not to screen any test films or programs on the Monday night so not to distract viewers from tuning in to the opening broadcast of ABMV4.
ABMV4’s opening day transmission kicked off at 3.55pm with children’s program Kindergarten Playtime. This was followed by direct telecast of the closing stages of the cricket match between Victoria and MCC from the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Children’s programs and serials then led in to a special Mildura-based edition of Gerald Lyon‘s People series at 6.30pm. Regional news followed at 6.55pm ahead of the national news from Melbourne at 7.00pm.
British drama series The Sullavan Brothers at 7.30pm was then followed by the official opening ceremony of ABMV4 — with the station declared open by the local member for Mallee, Winton Turnbull. The opening presentation also included speeches by James Darling, Chairman of the ABC, and Councillor A R Burr, Mayor of Mildura.
Programs later that evening included the BBC Comedy Playhouse and the documentary I, The Aboriginal — based on the award-winning book by former Mildura journalist Douglas Lockwood. The late national news was followed by a special 10-minute newsreel of events from Mildura before a half-hour broadcast of the Victorian Symphony Orchestra. The station closed transmission for the night at 10.50pm.
From the following day ABMV4 would follow the regular schedule of ABV2, Melbourne, with the only exception being the regional news at 6.55pm.
STV8 made its official debut on Saturday, 27 November at 6.00pm. The first program, The STV8 Story, featured the obligatory opening night speeches and included a filmed documentary on the development and construction of the new TV station. This was followed by American sitcoms McHale’s Navy and The Beverly Hillbillies. A Rolf Harris special was followed by crime drama Checkmate before the night’s feature film — the 1947 comedy The Egg And I.
From the following night STV8 settled into regular programming, usually around three to four hours each evening. Like most Australian commercial stations at the time, STV8’s early line-up was predominately American, with regular titles including Superman, Woody Woodpecker, The Phil Silvers Show, The Munsters, Wagon Train, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, The Jackie Gleason Show, Bachelor Father and Jane Wyman Theatre. Australian-made programming included variety show Bandstand and quiz show Pick A Box. Local production included a weekday children’s session, a late night Christian epilogue and a weekly magazine program, Sunday Spotlight. The station relayed the 7.00pm news from ABC but followed this with a 10-minute local news bulletin each weeknight at 7.20pm. The channel also aired a five-minute news and weather summary at the close of transmission each weeknight. The local news, presented by the station’s program manager Ted Vardon (pictured), was sourced from the newsroom of the Sunraysia Daily newspaper.
STV8 continued as Mildura’s sole commercial TV station, and its signal was known to be picked up from as far as the Riverland district in South Australia — a region that was not to get its own commercial station until 1976.
During the 1970s, STV8 formed an affiliation with BCV8 Bendigo and GLV10 (later GLV8) Gippsland. This partnership saw all three stations present a uniform program schedule, with each station continuing to produce their own local news programs.
The 1980s saw the three stations re-branded as Southern Cross TV8 and later the Southern Cross Network. By the end of the decade STV8’s parent company Sunraysia Television Limited had made a $95 million purchase of Perth television station STW9. The Perth station was required to be relinquished by businessman Alan Bond to comply with ownership restrictions. Bond in turn ended up buying STV8 from Sunraysia for $18 million, only to sell the station to ENT Limited, owner of VIC TV stations in Ballarat and Shepparton. STV8 thereby made the switch in affiliation from Southern Cross Network to VIC TV (now WIN) in January 1990.
Due to its small population and relative isolation from the rest of regional Victoria, Mildura was excluded from the government’s plan of aggregation of regional television, limiting local viewers to just STV8 and ABC while the rest of the state went on to have access to five channels. It was 1997 before a second commercial channel, Prime Television, was licenced to operate in Mildura — broadcasting as an affiliate of the Seven Network while WIN (STV8) screened programs from the Nine Network. The second national broadcaster SBS was expanded to the region also during the ‘90s.
The advent of digital television saw Mildura adopt a third commercial service, Ten Mildura, operated as a joint venture between Prime and WIN. Ten Mildura was broadcast exclusively in digital as an affiliate of the Ten Network. The station would go on to re-broadcast Ten’s additional channels One and Eleven, as Prime and WIN would also relay the multi-channels of their capital city partners.
Mildura made Australian TV history in 2010 as the first region in Australia to switch off analogue television. The analogue signals of ABC, Prime, WIN and SBS were switched off at 9.00am on 30 June.
The occasion of 50 years of television in Mildura is perhaps not being met with much celebration. Viewers will no doubt be enjoying the growing choice of viewing options but that has come at the expense of local services. The widespread shrinking of regional television production has had a significant impact in Mildura. WIN, which was providing the only proper TV news bulletin in the region, has just recently closed its Deakin Avenue newsroom which dated back to the opening of STV8.
Source: Sunraysia Daily, 16 November 1965. Sunraysia Daily, 22 November 1965. Sunraysia Daily, 23 November 1965. TV Times, 24 November 1965. The Canberra Times, 11 March 1989.