These days there is little joy to be found in scanning overnight television — the hours between midnight and 6.00am where home shopping and paid programming dominates the commercial networks and channels like ABC2 and ABC3 close down for the night.
But it could be said that there was possibly a ‘golden age’ for overnight TV, the period from when networks made the first move to a 24 hour, 7 day transmission until such time as pay TV changed many programming habits and home shopping became the networks’ program of choice during those small hours. That era in the 1980s and early 1990s when the occasional gem would glimmer among the graveyard shift.
The Nine Network was first to fully embrace 24/7 transmission, first in Sydney and Melbourne in 1976 then Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth in the early 1980s. For years Nine filled the mid-dawn shift with all sorts of movie titles going as far back as the 1930s. Some were obscure and many would cure insomnia, but the occasional highlight or classic could be found and some would present early roles in the careers of contemporary actors. Then there were attempts to keep viewers awake through the movies with the after midnight ‘spruikers’, people like Hal Todd and Issi Dye who would present live ads years before anyone had heard the words “Here’s Moira!”.
News junkies could get a late night fix with News Overnight, the Seven Network‘s collection of news and current affairs programs picked up off the satellite from the American NBC and CNN networks. The flagship for the nightly seven-hour news marathon was NBC’s Today, kicking off in Australia at midnight. Today (hosted in the 1980s by Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel, pictured) continues to be broadcast by Seven but the now four-hour show is cut down to one hour on Seven at 4.00am with a two-hour edition on 7mate at 9.00am. The Ten Network adopted a similar concept to News Overnight in the early 1990s during the time of the first Gulf War, by relaying CNN’s program overnight.
But the midnight-to-dawn timeslot wasn’t called the graveyard shift for nothing. Many Australian soaps and dramas would find themselves in this timeslot to play to the die-hard fans in re-runs many years after their demise. The Young Doctors, The Sullivans, Return To Eden, Cop Shop, Paradise Beach, GP and Prisoner were among those to find themselves being re-run in this timeslot. In more recent years regional network WIN bucked the current trend for home shopping by mining the Crawfords archive for its 3.00am timeslot — featuring classic titles including Homicide, Matlock Police, Division 4, Carson’s Law, Skyways and even the ill-fated Holiday Island.
Music fans could find some joy in overnight television. Nightmoves had been a long-running program on Friday nights for Seven and then Mondays on Ten. Network Ten also launched an all-night music video show, creatively titled Music Video, on Friday and Saturday nights in 1984. A few years later ABC made its radical move into all-night television with Rage, also on Friday and Saturday nights. By this stage Music Video had gone but Ten had followed this up with Night Shift, broadcasting seven nights/mornings a week. Meanwhile, Nine had launched a local version of MTV with Richard Wilkins on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights which would continue for another six years. These days Rage continues as the lone option for overnight music television on free-to-air.
The huge time differences between Australia and America, the United Kingdom and Europe meant that major international sporting events would often infiltrate overnight TV, such as cricket from Lords, tennis from Wimbledon, Formula 1 or the World Cup. Much of it would be (and continues to be) broadcast to bleary-eyed Australians in the middle of the night.
And remember shows like Dads, Duet, Throb and 227? No? Australian commercial networks were forever being lumbered with dud sitcoms that had failed in the States but were included in studio output deals. The programs couldn’t be played in prime time here, because they were either so bad or so short-lived in their home market, but many would go on to pad out the mid-dawn shift. Some of these shows may have even found a few late night fans here, though it’s not likely.
Are there any other highlights, or possible lowlights, of that era of watching overnight TV? Any particular shows or movies that caught the attention of insomniacs or shift workers? The archive of Classic TV Guides might jog some memories of some frustrating nights or very early mornings of watching TV.
Or are there any glimmering examples of fascinating overnight TV in 2014? Please leave a comment below.