DNTV2 Otago’s first television station will celebrate it’s 50 year anniversary this week.
The first magical night of television in Otago, half a century ago, has had an enduring and powerful legacy. Bruce Munro talks to those who did the seemingly impossible then and those who are continuing to make it happen today.
Staff at Otago’s first television station, DNTV2, could not ignore the growing public excitement in the weeks leading up to the region’s first television broadcast, 50 years ago this Tuesday.
They had seen the crowds standing outside the Chas Begg and Co store, in Princes St, Dunedin, transfixed by the black-and-white test pattern glowing on the television set displayed prominently in the shop window.
Then there were the television aerials springing up on roofs dotted throughout the city; the newspaper advertisements for televisions such as the Bell 21″ TV Consolette selling for 149.10 (equivalent to almost $6000 today); and all the questions fielded from anyone who discovered they were working in the wonderful new world of television.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm about doing something new and exciting,” Graeme Burrow, a DNTV2 senior maintenance technician, says.
“We knew the public wanted it.”
Technicians, cameramen and sound operators, directors, announcers, vision mixers, caption pullers … everyone had put in plenty of hours, making the most of sometimes less than ideal equipment and conditions, to ensure those watching the inaugural broadcast at 6.30pm, on Tuesday, July 31, 1962, would be treated to an almost faultless first television experience.
It was the seeding ground for an ethos of teamwork, innovation and excellence which is still bearing fruit today.
On that first evening, in the semi-lit studio at Garrison Hall, Dowling St, Dunedin, a floor manager stands next to a large Marconi Mk4 television camera facing an attractive young woman seated at a wooden desk under bright lights.
With his hand raised, the manager begins counting down.
“Five, four, three.”
He silently mouthes “two, one” and then his hand drops.
The young woman, Beverley Pollock, smiles into the camera.
She tells viewers they have been watching an animated children’s programme titled Crusader Rabbit and that she hopes they enjoy the next programme, Torchy, the Battery Boy.
Beyond her earshot, in the control room, director Roy Thomas is already telling the projectionist to “roll it”and the vision switcher and sound operator to “take it”.
DNTV2 is now five minutes into its first four hours of scheduled television programming.
Enthralled viewers in living rooms as far away as Oamaru and Gore are likely to remain rooted to their seats for the rest of the evening.
In the Garrison Hall studios, staff are scurrying to prepare and cue the next items – three minutes on inventor Thomas Edison, then eight minutes of news and weather, followed by a six-minute official opening of the new television station by New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) chairman Dr Frederick Llewellyn and Dunedin Mayor T.K.S. Sidey.
A few months previously, this space had been the NZBC record library.
But a wealth of work had gone in to converting it to the centre of operations for what was the last of New Zealand’s four fledgling regional television stations to go to air.
Television was “an outstanding advance in technology”, Mr Burrow, who spent 40 years in broadcasting, says.
Figuring out how to make it fly in Dunedin was a steep learning curve.
Mr Burrow, like virtually all early television technical and operation staff, came from a background in radio.
After being seconded to television by their NZBC bosses they studied manuals, helped install and operate broadcast studios in Auckland, and taught each other what they were learning about the equipment being delivered to Garrison Hall from the United Kingdom in large wooden crates.
Many of the items, mostly from telecommunications company Marconi, were “old stuff they had had in store”, Mr Burrow says.
Cameras were “state of the art” but the heart of the station – pieces such as picture monitors, amplifiers and the sync-generator (the master timer that drove everything in the studio) – had been sitting on warehouse shelves for some time before being sent to New Zealand.
It was all fashioned into a working television station during the four months leading up to the end of July.
Front-of-camera staff – continuity announcers and newsreaders – also came from radio, rostered to television for one night a week.
It was Dougal Stevenson’s inability as a continuity announcer when he started with DNTV2 in 1964 that led to his long and celebrated career as a national television newsreader.
“I wasn’t very good at it,” Mr Stevenson recalls.
“I found it difficult to smile warmly while reading the script.”
So when a news reader “broke down in a sweaty mess” before an on-air news bulletin, Mr Stevenson suggested to the floor manager that “perhaps my serious demeanour was better suited to reading the news”.
With the studio operational, the 30-odd staff spent the last four days before the first broadcast conducting endless dry-runs, according to Dave Howell, who was a sound operator on that first night.
“We practised and practised,” Mr Howell says.
“Learning how to co-ordinate it all precisely, until we could do it perfectly.”
And it almost was.
The word “southerly” was misspelt on the weatherboard.
And the all-important sync-generator showed momentary signs of instability and had to be quickly switched to a different timing source, Mr Burrow says.
“Some people sitting in their homes would have seen their screen roll once, that’s all.”
Key characteristics that enabled DNTV2 to “pull it off” so smoothly and professionally on opening night have endured.
They became defining traits of Dunedin television that shaped what it achieved during the ensuing years and became lodged in the DNA of its powerful, present-day offspring, Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ) and Taylormade.
Michael Stedman, now head of NHNZ, started working at Garrison Hall in 1964 as a film editor.
The station’s ability to “live on hand-me-downs … bred a culture of innovation”, Mr Stedman says.
“The culture was one of ‘anything is possible’ as well as a constant commitment to excellence.”
Under the guidance of the station’s first two managers, Alf Dick and Hal Weston, DNTV2 attracted and grew skilled practitioners who helped the station punch well above its weight.
Dunedin became known for high-end children’s programmes such as Play School and Spot On, popular high-volume programmes including Beauty and the Beast and University Challenge, and quality wildlife documentaries.
At one point it was producing more hours of local programming than Christchurch, Wellington or Auckland, Mr Stedman says.
“It was that foundation of content … which has ensured that Dunedin, while everywhere else is a vague remnant of what it was, has continued to flourish and stand tall,” he says.
NHNZ is a Dunedin-based global company that also has offices in Beijing and Washington DC.
It has won more than 300 international awards for its documentaries, which have been seen in 180 countries.
Onecompany of such stature is remarkable enough, but Dunedin has a second. One block away from the original DNTV2 building is Taylormade – an international award-winning computer animation and television production company founded by Ian Taylor.
Mr Taylor performed on a DNTV2 Christmas special in 1969 and later spent 12 years as a Dunedin television presenter and programme producer before launching out on his own in 1989.
Graham McArthur, now television facilities manager at Taylormade, started as a trainee technician with NZBC in 1971, then worked as a video-tape and film editor. He has been with Taylormade since 1991.
“Innovation and the pursuit of excellence were there in TV the day I started,” Mr McArthur says.
“They are also Dunedin traits.
“It is a city of innovators and can-doers who realise we have to produce as good a product as anywhere else in order to survive.
“There is a feeling we have to get it done, and that not getting it done is not an option.”
Which is exactly how the DNTV2 staff felt as they worked to bring the first night of broadcasting to a successful conclusion.
A 24-minute drama titled The man who finally died is followed by a three-minute late news and weather bulletin.
Just after 10.30pm the continuity announcer bids viewers a good night and God Save the Queen is played.
Perhaps for a second everyone is quiet.
“Then everyone in the studio started talking at once,” Mr Burrow says.
Adrenaline is flowing and there will be several parties to attend that night before anyone thinks of going to bed.
“There was very much a sense that we were part of something historic.
“For me it was the most exciting day and night in 40 years of broadcasting.”
Up to 200 former DNTV2 and Television New Zealand employees are expected to attend a reunion in Dunedin next weekend to mark 50 years of television in the region.
Source: Munro; Otago Daily Times