Monday, May 30, 2005

Good money

When Australian TV started in September 1956 the powers that be decided to devote a certain amount of spectrum to the new medium, divided into 10 channels, 1 to 10. Not, of course, that any single location had as many as 10 broadcast channels to choose from. Due to geographic distance it was possible for all 6 state capitals to have the same channels, 2, 7 and 9.

By 1963 there was pressure for a fourth license in each capital but, in order to accomodate that without interference between adjacent regions the powers decided to add a few new channels. But they wanted to achieve that without changing the existing channel numbering (and you thought backward compatibility only mattered with operating systems!).

So they came up with an odd scheme. They added Channel 0 below the existing Channel 1, added Channels 11 and 12 (and maybe 13 - I no longer remember) and a real oddball - channel 5A which fitted between Channels 5 and 6. Of course city vs country was involved; none of the capital city channels had to change but quite a few regional channels were forced to change to accomodate the new scheme.

Until about 1974 it was really easy to tell at a glance the age of a TV set simply by checking the channel lineup - if it had 5A it was manufactured after 1963. This mattered to me because I earned my living by repairing TV sets in the early 1970's. The technology of the time was still switch based; to change channels you'd rotate a large barrel carrying 14 or so 'biscuits' where each biscuit had a bunch of coils and capacitors tuned for the specific frequency needed for that channel. Would you believe that part of the standard maintenance for such a tuner involved the liberal application of a grease intended for the axle bearings of a car onto the contacts?

There was an enormous change in the way TV sets were designed and manufactured during the second half of the 1970's. The need for repairs dropped precipitously over those 5 years as reliability went up and the price came down. I used to make a good living visiting the same customers once or twice a year, dropping in a new 6CM5 Line Output valve or a new 6BV6 Audio Output valve, along with the occasional 'curly' one which usually involved the cathode bypass capacitor on the Vertical Output valve. The move to Solid State (transistorised), once they'd worked out the kinks, killed the business and I decided it was time I found a more lucrative way of making a living.

But along the way and as the last gasp of my working in the industry, in December 1979 Channel 0 in Melbourne (the fourth license) decided to migrate to Channel 10. Or maybe the government made them make the move - I no longer remember. What I do remember is an advertisement on Channel 0 asking for experienced TV techs who could man a hotline to assist in the migration. I applied and was accepted.

Thus began about 50 days of non-stop 12 hour a day shifts, 7 days a week. If you're in the software biz you're already yawning - that's nothing! Well, it was new to me at the time! But it paid well; $112 a day after tax - good money for 1980!

The job involved answering the phone, ascertaining the brand and model of TV set and then telling the caller how to twiddle the various knobs to get good reception on the new frequency. For some very early models it was impossible without a visit from a tech to make some modifications. I can't remember if Channel 10 paid for those mods or if the caller was expected to pick up the bill. For most of the rest it was a long and patient process of walking the caller through a set of steps. Sometimes they'd have a model I'd never heard of and then it was a frantic series of whispers along the row of we techs to find someone who was familiar with it. I'll never forget the sight of 50 TV techs on the phone, each of us doing, in pantomime, the actions our callers needed to do.

We had slow times of course; it was in those slow times that I started reading the Sherlock Holmes stories. Good stuff!

As time progressed the volume of calls fell off and our numbers dwindled. Each day we'd finish with the anxious look at the coordinator; was I wanted tomorrow? I was one of the last let go which was just as well; I had no other job to go to.

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