Switching Signals 

31 Mar 2006 0 tbs.pm/2098 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

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Imagine turning on ITV at 6.00pm to watch ITV News and finding instead the Channel 5 news – complete with its newsreaders, personalities, set and theme music, and still a Sky News production – in its place. Or the next day turning on Channel Five at 5.00pm to watch their news and finding instead the ITV News, sets, themes and personalities presenting five news. Confused ? So you should be, and so too would advertisers! But something rather like that happened twenty years ago in Australia…

Dateline Adelaide, South Australia, December 27 1987. The temperature: 40 degrees plus – very, very hot. Adelaide, the State Capital of South Australia with a state population of 2 million people, had a sluggish economy and the state’s labour government of the day was doing all it could to lift the economy, and the state, out of the doldrums.

The leading commercial TV station, Southern Television, owned by the Lamb family and operator of the Channel Nine franchise in Adelaide, bought its shows from Kerry Packer’s Nine Network and continued to grow in strength as it dominated the competition, with good ratings and respectable income.

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The other two commercial networks, Channels Ten and Seven, also had fairly good revenue and ratings, but there was a problem. Perth’s Channel 7 owned the Ten licence in Adelaide, while the local Channel Seven station in Adelaide was owned by the great Rupert Murdoch, who had interests elsewhere. Seven Adelaide’s offical call signal was ADS 7, whilst Channel Ten’s official call signal was SAS10. The problem for the Perth owners of Channel Ten Adelaide was that their group belonged to the Seven Network, and the network would often not talk to them regarding plans for the future because it was technically going to an opposition network.

The solution proposed was simple, but dramatic – swap call signs!

A bemused full bench of the Australian Broadcasting Authority sat and heard the application to literally switch signals and call signs. The proposal had merit: local production was OK, but TV network decisions resulted in Adelaide not being part of the plans and discussion. But the three commercial networks in Adelaide had always made quality children’s programmes, especially pre-school shows, for the networks. What would happen to them? And what about the network that has an exclusive news story? Currently it was feasible that Channel 7 around the country could have an exclusive story break around the network – but would be shown on Channel Ten in South Australia!

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The Australian Broadcasting Authority saw no reason not to grant the applications, so on that very hot day in Adelaide at 6.00am ADS 7 became ADS 10, and SAS 10 became SAS 7 – changing both call signs and network affiliations. It was the first time this had ever happened.

So what would the viewers make of the changes? In a word: confusion. It was the weekend when the historic change took place, but by the Monday the Seven Nightly News anchors were presenting Ten’s Eyewitness News, and vice-versa. Viewers and advertisers were left bewildered. And the dominating Nine Network was laughing all the way to the bank.

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Some television shows were simply sold. The popular game show Wheel of Fortune had been recorded in ADS-7′s studios since July 1981: after the changeover it became a coup for incoming SAS-7, and a major loss for the departing ADS – especially as it was a networked show at the time. The children’s programmes, locally produced for the networks, were sold by the departing station to the incoming, but it was the local presenters and personalities who caused the most confusion. Meanwhile, the 10 building was now sporting a seven logo on the outside and the old 10 building was now the new Channel Seven state headquarters – a nightmare for Australia Post. Of course, within a few weeks it all settled down, like an incoming ITV franchise, and each network could now include little old Adelaide in its network plans.

To our knowledge, nothing like this has ever happened before, anywhere in the world – and perhaps it’ll never happen again. It was the late 80s when stockmarket millionaires owned TV stations and sold them just as quickly. Rupert Murdoch was to sell his Adelaide TV station not long after the change to concentrate on bigger fish – but then, that’s another story.

James Barrington

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