Switching Signals 

31 March 2006 tbs.pm/2098

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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.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Shawn Colley 7 April 2015 at 1:13 pm

This actually happened a few more times than you might expect. Notably, in Miami, Florida.

Once upon a time (okay, 1988), Taft Broacasting owned WCIX-TV 6 in Miami. They decided to sell their independents and Fox affiliates to new owners. CBS wanted to buy the station (since it wanted an owned-and-operated station in Miami, and failed to purchase its then-current affiliate, WTVJ 4). It eventually was able to purchase WCIX, and NBC bought WTVJ, but their contracts for network affilations didn’t expire at the same time (since NBC’s old affiliate, WSVN 7 decided to join the new Fox network), so NBC wound up having to run WTVJ as a CBS affiliate for over a year. Talk about awkward!

CBS then went to NBC and they talked about swapping signals. This was fine, except for WCIX having its transmitter much farther south than the other Miami stations. So….. in 1995, CBS approached NBC and made a deal with them: swap frequencies and call-signs with NBC’s owned-and-operated station, WTVJ 4. As a result, WCIX became WFOR, and WTVJ slid up the dial from 4 to 6.

This also happened in Philadelphia, with WCAU 10 and KYW 3 trading affiliations in the same timeframe, also thanks to the Fox network looking for a stronger station to affiliate with (in Philadelphia’s case, former Taft station WTXF 25).

There were part of the 1994 Broadcast Realigment in the United States, which is on Wikipedia.

There was also an insanely-confusing affiation swap that involved nearly ALL television stations in Vancouver back in 2001, and I’ll explain THAT below:

In Vancouver, there were the following private/commercial broadcasters:

Vancouver had several stations of its own, as well as a few from neighbouring cities (Victoria, on the island; and Bellingham, USA). They were CHEK-TV 6 Victoria and CHAN-TV 8 (which shared the CTV affiliation); CKVU 10 (which aired Global programming); KVOS 12 Bellingham, which was an independent that targeted the city by airing advertisements and shows its viewers liked; CIVT 32, a four-year-old independent station owned by the CTV network; and two new stations that signed on just a few weeks after the whole mess: CIVI 53 Victoria, and CHNU 66 Fraser.

The origin of this “musical chairs” of broadcasting stemmed from CHAN-TV getting annoyed at CTV’s percieved toronto-centric attitude, and how its station, CFTO 9 had dominated the network. CHAN had long wanted to produce a nightly national newscast, but the network kept brushing them off. This hurt them, especially since they were so well-respected otherwise in the industry, that Ted Turner modelled CNN off of CHAN’s news division! What made things even worse was that CTV began shuffling its programming around to try to boost its second station, CIVT, which launched in 1997. It would keep re-labelling shows as “network” and “non-network” to give CIVT an advantage. While in most areas, CTV already owned the station (and thus this distinction would be meaningless), it kept screwing things up with CHAN. So, as soon as CHAN’s network agreement was up, they stormed out of the network, taking their massive repeater network with them, when Global bought their owner, Western International Communications. This was perfect for CHAN, but a bit of a headache for CKVU, the station Global had owned for several years prior. So, it was immediately put up for sale, and later purchased by a Toronto broacaster (after a few months as an independent) and made into “Citytv Vancouver”, beginning that network’s expansion across the country.

When Global purchased CHAN, it also purchased CHEK. Both stations lost their CTV affiliations, and CHEK became the west-coast hub for the new “CH” network of smaller stations owned by Global.

It was an open secret from almost the day that CIVT launched that it would become the new CTV affiliate for Vancouver as soon as the opportunity arose, from how CTV made its old affiliate (CHAN) compete with it for network programming. CTV got its wish and flipped it to CTV, though it lost the huge transmitter network that CHAN had in the process, and now is limited to Vancouver, Victoria, Bellingham, and Fraser, while CHAN still serves 97% of the province.

KVOS was an independent station that also happened to air some CBS network shows for Bellingham, Blaine, and all the other little towns in between Vancouver and Seattle. By 1982 they had lost the CBS affiliation and joined Citytv, airing that network for the much larger city of Vancouver. When CKVU flipped, it reverted to being an independent, but still with respectable ratings.

Victoria would gain a second station, when CIVI launched a month after the affiliation shuffle. It would be part of the smaller NewNet stations that served smaller towns and cities before being bought by CTV and renamed CTV Two.

Finally, CHNU launched a few days after the affiliation shuffle, and remains a “family-friendly” religious broacaster, airing some religious programming, but a lot of older syndicated sitcoms that the owners think don’t offend anyone (and does well in the raitings for it).

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