It was on 24 October 1980 — United Nations Day — that Bruce Gyngell (pictured above) announced, “Good evening, and welcome to multicultural television”, as he launched Channel 0/28. We now know it as SBS television.
But it was 40 years ago this week that SBS made its first television appearance. The new Special Broadcasting Service had taken effect from 1 January 1978 and given the responsibility of existing multicultural radio stations in Sydney and Melbourne. It was also charged with fulfilling Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser‘s 1977 election promise to set up a multicultural television service.
SBS made its television debut via 13 three-hour program blocks broadcast on ABC in Sydney and Melbourne on Sunday mornings. The first went to air on Sunday 29 April 1979 and programs aired weekly until 22 July.
SBS had outsourced the presentation and packaging of its first series of test transmissions to Australian Community TV Pty Ltd in a contract worth $90,000, with SBS spending $320,000 on sourcing foreign programming. The head of SBS television administration, Bill Watson, defended the awarding of the contract on the basis that the fledgling SBS did not have the necessary infrastructure, staffing or facilities to put together the programs. Australian Community TV was part of a consortium of production companies that had previous experience in producing television content for the Federal Government.
Executive producer of the series was Rowan Ayers, a former BBC executive who had recently been with the Nine Network. Ayers described the upcoming SBS programs as “not meant only for migrant groups. We hope that all Australians will find it interesting as well and will learn about the different ethnic groups in this country. We’ll have program material from places such as Korea and Thailand as well as Greece, Italy, Germany, Turkey, France — and just about everywhere else.”
Special Broadcasting Service Test Transmission. Broadcast via ABN2 Sydney/ABV2 Melbourne, Sunday 29 April 1979
Programming was very much of an experimental nature among the first test transmissions. Short programs or segments sourced overseas were interspersed with locally-made segments and features. A considerable amount of airtime in the opening weeks would be in English while the broadcaster determined the ongoing nature of its program mix.
The Sunday morning timeslot also restricted programming to a “G” rating classification, precluding the possibility of many feature films and drama series being included.
Ahead of the test program launch, SBS chairman Dr Grisha Sklovsky was expecting that the experimental nature of SBS television programs would attract criticism, but hoped that it would be constructive: “We will not do right by the extremist views. We must strike a balance which pleases the majority but also fits our pocket money.”
The first batch of test programs gathered a mixed response. The Age Green Guide gave it a positive review: “Whatever the preconceived ideas of what an ethnic television program should be like, the package presented by the Special Broadcasting Service proved easy on the eye, entertaining and educational despite obvious shortcomings of an opening edition… It served to demonstrate the potential of an ethnic television service pointing to the exciting, rich veins that can be tapped to provide viewing enrichment.”
In contrast, the Federal Opposition spokesperson on ethnic affairs, Dr Moss Cass, declared the opening three hour broadcast as “piecemeal and unco-ordinated”, and said that to say “hello” in different languages and feature a schedule predominantly in English did not justify the name “ethnic television”.
There was also criticism in Canberra, the nation’s capital, that the SBS programs were not going to be broadcast in Canberra, even though the relay of the signal from Sydney to Melbourne would pass through the city and that it has a considerable multicultural population. The Government defended its decision to only broadcast via ABC in Sydney and Melbourne on the basis that the two largest cities represented the largest multicultural populations. It was also established that a full-time multicultural service planned to commence in 1980 would initially only be committed to those cities. Any further roll-out of permanent multicultural television would depend on funding and planning of broadcast frequencies.
As at April 1979, it was already proposed that a permanent multicultural service would broadcast on Channel 28 in Sydney and Melbourne — utilising the newly-available UHF band. (It was later arranged that the new service would also be granted a temporary licence to simulcast on Channel 0 in both cities, while viewers became accustomed to accessing the UHF band)
A second round of test broadcasts for SBS was broadcast on ABC, again on Sunday mornings, from February to May 1980. The second series presented a more sophisticated schedule — and even a new name, “MTV2” — with certain programs and languages being given regular timeslots each week. There was a greater presence of titles from Italy, Greece and the former Yugoslavia, with programs in Spanish, Turkish, Maltese and Arabic also featured in set timeslots but less frequently. A BBC series, On We Go, presented lessons in English, and an Australian series, I’m An Australian Too, profiled the lives of young Australians of multicultural backgrounds.
Some of the foreign titles to appear in the second test transmission series went on to feature in the early stages of Channel 0/28’s permanent service when it commenced in October 1980.
The final instalment of “MTV2” included the program Song For Melbourne, featuring Greek twins, Melbourne-based singers Tassos and Christos Ioannides, performing songs based on their Greek heritage and their new home town. The program also featured other creative and well-known Greek identities living in Melbourne. Produced by Eric Fullilove (pictured), Song For Melbourne went on to win a Sammy Award for Best TV Documentary.
Source: TV Times, 21 April 1979. The Age, 26 April 1979, 3 May 1979, 7 February 1980, 1 May 1980. The Canberra Times, 10 April 1979, 1 May 1979, 17 May 1979, 18 October 1980.