From the Real World ~ NBN’s Outside Broadcast Vehicles

This is how Outside Broadcast crews were described in The Monochrome Years, and a good place to start this pictorial tribute:

…the real “thrill seekers” were OB technicians who had to drive a mobile studio sometimes hundreds of kilometers to a remote location, cable it up, fix the unexpected faults and failures with few backup systems and fewer resources, all on an impossibly tight deadline.

They carried heavy cameras weighing up to 50 kilograms to the top of some building, or scaffolding they built themselves, and then work in blazing heat or pouring rain with high-voltage but delicate equipment connected to hundreds of meters of heavy thick cable.

Those guys were real heroes.

 Arrival of NBN’s first Outside Broadcast (OB) van at Mosbri Crescent studios.

But this article is more about the vehicles.

Outside Broadcasts* were an imperative immediately after the first television station began operation. * Also known as "outside telecast,” "remote broadcast studio," “mobile unit,” or simply and most commonly “OB.” 

 OBs had been a routine for decades in radio stations. But other than for grand occasions, a radio “OB” comprised a microphone, a portable line amplifier, and access to the nearest telco twisted pair. Television OBs were to be, however, exponentially more complex and physically demanding.

Surprisingly, one of the very first TV remote broadcasts was incidental during the development of television itself. Those who wonder where TV Week’s Logie Awards got their strange name might wonder more to hear that a Scotsman whose middle name was “Logie” demonstrated in 1927 (with an electro-mechanical camera using a spinning disk system ) not merely one of the earliest television pictures, but sent it over 700km between Glasgow and London.

That, right there, was an OB.

NBN’s OB Trucks

Over six decades NBNTV had only two dedicated primary outside broadcast vans. A purpose-built Ford truck operated from (estimated dates) 1963 till 1987. It was replaced by an International (brand) van of local design which is believed still operational in 2019.

OB vans are complete but miniature TV studios, with cameras, tape machines, control rooms for vision and sound switching, and electronics racks and air conditioning.

The trucks didn’t only cover sporting events or grand occasions. They spent a great deal of time on major commercial shoots, or hired out to other networks when the job was too big for them alone. Numerous small vans used for commercial production doubled as a second unit at outside broadcasts, during which they were known as “OB2” and sometimes the name stuck.

The Ford

NBN’s first OB truck came second-hand from a Brisbane channel and struggled on for another 25 years. Despite decades of sterling service, near the end its primary function lay in reminding young folk, by its classic lines, stylistic grill, and flowing aesthetics, what it would have been like on location with, say, Judy Garland. 

It was a Ford P-series (350/400?) Step van with an American-built body 8 meters long, 2.6 meters wide, and almost 4 meters high. These Ford vans (and smaller 'vanettes') had an interesting lineage. This model was manufactures from around 1956 to at least 1962. Most survivors have a 6 cylinder engine, which we assume did this one - surprising for its size and weight.

Above ~ A rare colour photo of the Ford. Pity it’s painted in black and white!

They were the good times, those pioneering days, when the old Ford roamed up and down the coast and over the ranges on what were then atrocious roads, lugging bulky, heavy, first-generation technology to perform what even today would be a herculean task.

View from the cab. When Channel 3 opened in 1962, even the Pacific Highway to Sydney was little more than a two-lane winding pot-holed goat track. On occasions it was a straight goat track.

The origin of the Ford OB van is interesting to speculate. Apart from that a Brisbane station sold it to NBN3, there are the questions of Ford model and date of manufacture. Was it based on a 1955 Ford C-series “cab over engine” (COE), as our Yank cousins call “forward control” trucks? After much Googling, one was found labelled as a "1956 Ford P350 Stepside."

Above ~ An image search fails to (readily) find any Ford truck with this cab design.

Doors are not over the wheel arch, but behind it, where the doors would be in a C-series cab. The distinctive V-style grill appears only in C-series Fords of that year. If the grill is original, then the year of manufacture is most likely 1955  - unless there was a spare ‘55 grill lying around the chop shop. Finally, if the van is that old, is it second hand from the US? Did the Brisbane lads get tired of sneers from other teams resplendent in double-bogie single windscreen affairs and flog it to us?

Should all those assumptions about the date hold, the lumbering old Bertha turned in 30 years of hard work and earned a huge debt of gratitude from NBN’s beancounters.

Below ~ Chief Engineer Harry McPhee (right) and Assistant Chief Rodney Prout with the OB truck and one of its two TK-31 cameras.

The van came with a trailer for equipment, two RCA TK-31 black and white cameras, and at the time no recording equipment. Therefore, at first program from the vehicle had to reach the studio via microwave link for recording, or to be directly broadcast.

NBN's first solid state video tape recorder was an RCA machine that was colour capable and could edit. This unit could also be moved into the OB van and thus do away with mobile microwave units.

Inside we can see the two camera control units (CCU) at lower-right and space for a third. To their left is what resembles a “master monitor” for high-quality display with a waveform monitor (circular screen) just below it, used for camera alignment. Two TV screens (VDUs) top center - one previews a selected camera while the other (“to line” or “program”) shows what’s leaving the van. Either side are devices called “pulse formers,” generating part of synchronising pulse waveform, the backbone signal upon which all analogue television depends.

Below ~ Ford OB1 control room - inside view

Inside we can see the two camera control units (CCU) at lower-right and space for a third. To their left is what resembles a “master monitor” for high-quality display with a waveform monitor (circular screen) just below it, used for camera alignment. Of two TV screens (VDUs) top center, one previews a selected camera while the other (“to line” or “program”) shows what’s leaving the van. Either side are devices called “pulse formers” that generate part of synchronising pulse waveform, the backbone signal upon which all analogue television depends.

The 2019 television series Pennyworth contained a scene involving beautifully preserved British OB vehicles and cameras, with just the briefest shot of a van's inside. The reconstruction, right down to those atrocious chairs, the ageing audio operator's cardigan, and the grey dustcoat-clad technician, is revealing. This screen capture from the show is like a colour photograph straight from 1960

In the Field

And here’s where just a small portion of where work took place. Two separate articles will be albums of photos covering separately colour and pre-colour OBs.

Below ~ Gloucester Australian Rodeo Championships

Above ~ Bathurst’s Hardie-Ferodo 500 (miles!) in 1968.

Below (way below!) ~ Newcastle State Dockyard launching of Australian Trader in 1969.

Above ~ Merewether bowls tournament circa 1975-78 still in colour promotional mode. 

Below ~ Surfest at Newcastle Beach. What year? Almost every year.

Above ~ And at times just posing for promotional shots with its mate, OB2, and a tripod-mounted EMI 2005 camera.

Towards the end of its life, maintenance was a growing problem. On one sad occasion it was towed to the heavy vehicle motor registry at Carrington for inspection and re-registration. Never heard back what the inspector thought of that. But it was soon on the road again. Must have been awaiting a spare part from the U.S. !

Who knows the name of the chap with the Ford in the pictures below? Was he (as it seems) NBN’s first OB supervising technician? Where can I buy some vintage sleeve garters? And has he forgotten to open the choke?

Update: Well, one of NBN’s veteran news cameramen, Barry Nancarrow, has identified the lad behind wheel.

The gentleman driving the OB truck was not a technician but rather our company delivery man by the name of Norm Druitt. As well as driving the van he did daily pick up and deliveries of films to and from Newcastle station plus a myriad of other tasks that defy a job description.

Thank you, Baz.

Finally, here’s the old thing enjoying a welcome break.

The Odd Job Vans

NBN’s smaller vans were unsung and ignored by history. These little guys did all the running around, carting, delivering, and for much of the time either news-gathering or on commercial advertising shoots. Even the news vans did some heavy lifting for the OB team.

Just like directors’ assistants, floor crew, news runners, or office secretaries, the small vans did much of the work yet were destined to be forgotten by history. So here’s a small tribute and reminder of what was an integral part of getting stuff done.

Above ~ Mini “NBN3” having a word with Nine’s monster Inter. The helpful folk at Rediscovered Newcastle Facebook deduced this is No1 sportsground. The clincher was a surviving façade at 106 Parry Street.

Below ~ NBN’s Commer 2500 consorts with Nine’s “Outside Telecast” van that closely resembles an International 1957 S-series.


Above ~ Bedford CA vans were hard workers with excellent access... particularly as the sliding doors could remain open while driving (especially appreciated in those years by bakers and milkos). This is at Gloucester Rodeo.

Below ~ Is it a Toyata HiAce? Weren’t they always.

Above ~ The Commer sets up a microwave relay. Note the second microwave dish atop the water tower, facing the opposite direction.

Below ~ The News Mini is for the cine side of the operation, its camera visible on tripod next to TK television camera. Preparing for the evening launch of BP Enterprise at Newcastle’s State Dockyard circa 1968.

Above ~ Bedford CF aka OB2 at Williamtown RAAF Base in 1977 to greet HRH Elizabeth II. 

Below is in Brown Street circa 1980, most likely for a commercial shoot.

March 2009 ~ Support van for one80 with NBN’s digital post-production house branding that also adorned OB1 during its second life. Photos by Rob Short.

Typical of all small vans, they preferred to spend winter nights in the prop bay and hang out with mops, paint, and assorted studio lights - all sharing their fond memories. Mops were always daring the vans to park on the red line that marked where the massive fire door would slide, sparing nothing in its path.

The International Acco

When towing the tired old Ford to the RTA for re-registration became a little too much, the budget was set for replacement.

Techies learned, with mixed feelings, they would not receive a custom-designed articulated behemoth resembling Packer’s private yacht on 18 wheels, but a plain old cab and chassis onto which an equally plain but functional container-style box would be bolted. An empty one, for them to fit out in their spare time.

In the late 80s (anyone?) a shiny new International Acco 1850D cab-chassis was acquired. A custom shell constructed by local firm O'Neill's (alternate: AHVRA)was then bolted on.

And whatever misgivings might have circulated at the time, the Acco and O’Neill’s fabrication stood the test of time - 30 years of time.

Although the Acco saw action in all parts of the state, and much interstate, few photo chronologies were found to document its adventures. Were by now the crews so blasé about recording for posterity that doing so was just too passé? Had proliferation of cheap colour film cameras made recording so easy they forgot, and what was taken added only to personal collections? But it wasn’t the crew’s job anyway, and on location they would be far too busy. We can only hope there’s a yet unknown treasure trove of (now) historic pictures.

Above ~ OB1 promotional photo with a Ford Falon XF news wagon. Late 1980s. 

Below ~ OB1 and a HiAce van at Raymond Terrace.

It’s a little mysterious why official NBN photographs seemed to end with the demise of the Ford and so little is available to show of the current era. A two-fold explanation might be that the novelty of outside broadcasts was over. And that the stills photographer had his or her hands full with an exploding workload of advertising shoots with the commercial production team.

Two subsequent photo essays intend to show the full series of available images of OB recorded events. One for colour, the other before colour. This will include detailed records of commercial shoots that also reveal behind the scenes action and answer many technical and operational questions. If NBN staffers are forthcoming with names, facts, and anecdotes, there might be sufficient images to make a third, a tribute to the crews.

one80 digital post

The big white International pantechnicon bearing that familiar green and blue NBN logo travelled the country for 15 very profitable years.

Then, one day in 2003, its schedule cleared, the van underwent a make-over, inside and out. With new signage and paint and the original equipment stripped, it was maneuvered into Studio C for the next stage of its career.

Above ~ How big was NBN’s Studio C, dwarfing the huge truck? The original 1962 mobile boom microphone crane in left-foreground.

In those early days when the analogue system was king, start-up production houses like Harry Michaels’ “Zero One Zero” were à la mode, with monikers as enigmatic as their “post production” menus were baffling.

In accordance, the Acco was subtly emblazoned “one80” for its new parent company, one80digitalpost and a starring role as...

.. Australia’s first High Definition Outside Broadcast (vehicle). The OB can be run in any format including analogue, standard definition, high definition, or direct web streaming.

Above ~ Fitting out the monitor wall. 'Teabags' is a fixed input that shows the status of the hot water jug. 

Below ~ In 2003. Techs installing the trucks innards.

Below ~ View inside the operational truck.

Photos by Rob Short, April 2009. Below: NBN’s OB supervisor 'Barney' at the vehicle's rear with the equipment racks.

This is perhaps the final chapter in the vehicle’s career.

Though still probably operational, as NBN at Mosbri Crescent winds down, operations transfer to Sydney, and remnant departments (sales, news) move to new city premises, the future is now and uncertain.

One can see a need for continued commercial production in the Hunter and one80’s vehicle and team would, you would think, be poised to fill it. Or will it suffer (has it already?) the fate of one80’s profitable Sydney office that Nine shut down when it acquired NBN because that facility was competing with their own?


Updates are welcomed from NBN staffers and others about this material, and all the stories they can manage about outside broadcasts through the decades, that must be many and great reading. 

Anything relevant to this or other articles can be added in the comments below. Long articles can be added with their own page, with (or without, if you wish) attribution.

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