I watched the Brexit result unfold on TV this past couple of days, as reporters crossed live from locations across the U.K and Europe. These days, the live report from remote locations is common-place, a dreadfully over-used device that excites the newsroom staff much more than it does the audience.
But it’s not that long ago that live TV crosses were breathtakingly brand new. By coincidence, Brexit fell on the anniversary of the first live international TV broadcast in June 1967, an occasion celebrating, rather than retreating from, international relations.
That first broadcast was called Our World. It was the first ever live, international television program, on air in Australia early on the morning of June 26. It was largely the idea of the great UK TV producer, Aubrey Singer, and had strong support from the European Broadcasting Union. 14 countries contributed live segments, and the show was seen by more than 400 million people in 30 nations.
Our World is probably best remembered for the UK sequence, which showed The Beatles performing their new single All You Need Is Love for the first time. But it should be remembered for much more – it was a “space age” technical achievement at a time when TV was barely a decade old in Australia.
We could see real time TV from all over the world, at a time when few of us could afford to travel overseas. Soon we would see live TV pictures from the Apollo moon landings, from far away sports events. Our World proved international live TV was possible, and that audiences were excited by it.
It was a complex and expensive production, delivered through control rooms around the world via three geostationary communication satellites (Intelsat I, Intelsat II and ATS-1). Something like ten thousand people worked on the broadcast, using enough broadcast cable to circle the globe several times. Every minute of every segment had to be delivered live – no videotape or overlay vision was allowed. And there were political complexities too – no politicians or heads of state allowed, and the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc dominions withdrew just days before the broadcast.
In Australia, the epicentre of Our World was a space tracking station at Cooby Creek, near Toowoomba, in south-east Queensland. The incoming overseas program was fed from there into the domestic Australian Broadcasting Commission cable network and into our black and white TV sets. And when the time came, at 5.22am on June 26th, live links from around Australia were sent from Cooby Creek into the global broadcast.
Our World opened with the Vienna Boys Choir singing the theme song in 22 languages, followed by segments from Canada, the USA and Japan. The Australian sequence began with ABC reporter Brian King at a Melbourne tram depot, then Eric Hunter at the CSIRO plant growth laboratory in Canberra.
There was also a segment at the Parkes radio telescope, in central New South Wales, where reporter Kim Corcoran explained efforts to monitor what was then the most distant object known to us – Quasar 0237- 23. The remarkable Dr Peter Pockley was executive producer of the Australian segment, working out of the old ABC TV headquarters at Gore Hill in Sydney.
Our World was a huge leap forward for television. In an era when news took days to travel around the world, TV had showed us we could share our stories in pictures in real time.
I was an eight-year-old boy watching on a cold Antipodean winter morning as this apparently magical event unfolded. And I’ve never forgotten the feeling of being part of something bigger than the sum of its parts – it’s a feeling TV can still conjure. Not often, but when it tries. The better quality reporting of the Brexit result this past weekend, was such an occasion.
Read more about how Australia received and contributed to Our World, and about Australia’s space tracking stations here
And you can find videos from Our World – the Australian version here