The launch of SES8 — South Australia’s first regional commercial station and now part of the WIN network — took place 50 years ago today, 25 March 1966. But the station’s debut was meant to happen much earlier.
The channel had originally planned to launch in November 1965 but an accident during construction of the transmission tower on Mount Burr six weeks earlier saw the 150 metre (500 foot) high mast collapse.
The incident was lucky to have had no serious casualties as workmen were at the site when the collapse happened, though none were on the tower at the time. Only one worker was reported to have injured an ankle while running from the tower. The roof of the transmission station and two nearby cars were damaged by the snapped guy ropes as the tower collapsed into a pile of twisted steel.
The mast was to serve both SES8 and ABC‘s planned local channel ABGS1. ABC launched its channel in December 1965 via a temporary transmitter while the permanent mast at Mount Burr was being restored.
SES8 eventually made its first transmissions on Monday, 21 March 1966 and was officially opened on the following Friday night, 25 March 1966. The first program was Tonight’s The Night — a 25-minute special including the official opening speeches and introductions to the station’s personalities. The new channel was declared officially open by Dr Jim Forbes, the local federal member and the Minister for Health.
The opening program was followed by the station’s first news bulletin — five minutes of news headlines. The special Peter Paul And Mary In Australia, recorded in concert at Melbourne’s Festival Hall, was followed by the 1958 movie The Big Country, starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston and Carroll Baker. SES8 signed off from its first night with a two-minute epilogue.
In its early days SES8 broadcast for around five hours each night — featuring a mix of locally-produced and largely imported programming. Local production from the Mt Gambier studios included Children’s Time, a half-hour weekday program hosted by Andrew Noblet (pictured), an 18-year-old cadet journalist from Adelaide, in front of a studio audience. Early news coverage comprised a nightly half-hour bulletin and a ten-minute update at the close of transmission each night. SES8’s first newsreader was Lewis Hobba, a local chartered accountant who had also been a newsreader for local ABC radio. George Kay, well known in the district as a footballer and cricketer and as a radio commentator, presented the sports reports.
The South East South Australian branch of the Christian Television Association presented a weekly religion program, aimed at all denominations, every Sunday afternoon at 5.30pm.
American programming included Combat, Lone Ranger, Rawhide, Disneyland, The Patty Duke Show, Perry Mason, Danger Man, My Three Sons, The Phil Silvers Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Virginian and Bonanza. Australian programming in the early days didn’t really extend much beyond Bandstand, quiz show Pick A Box and game show It Could Be You.
The station launched with a total staff of 24… and boasted six women on the payroll. Keith Bailhache, formerly of GTV9 in Melbourne, was the first general manager. Another ex-GTV9 manager, Des Ford, was SES8’s first program manager, who set out the new channel’s early program objectives: “We want to build a local image by not only covering local newsworthy events but by giving viewers programs they like. In other words, a program may be considered old by city standards, but if SES8 viewers want to see it, we’ll screen it. Don’t get the idea, however, that we’ve bought up old material — a lot of our programs are new — but we’re going after popular-appeal shows. And we’ll try and dodge the heavy violence. We want family viewing.”
With its transmission mast close to the Victorian border, SES8 had a coverage area extending across to Victorian towns including Portland and Hamilton. Broadcasting across two timezones, SES8’s first logo was a number ‘8’ made up of two clock faces — one showing South Australian time and the other Eastern Standard Time.
Only a year after its inception, SES8 launched its own daytime show, Wednesday Woman. The program was initially hosted by Catherine Watson and later Graham Gilbertson, who went on to become SES8’s managing director. But the show’s longest serving presenter was Margaret Watkins (pictured), who hosted over 2000 episodes before retiring in 1987. The program, which became Woman’s World, continued to run for several more years — making it one of the longest running daytime programs on Australian television.
SES8 didn’t take long to become a successful operation. Within its first two years it had expanded its production portfolio to include a weekly opinion program, a student debate series and replacing Children’s Time with the longer Fun Fair. Sports commentator George Kay hosted a Sunday afternoon sports review. South East Telecasters, the station’s parent company, took only two years to record its first annual profit — $33,585 in the 1967/68 financial year.
By the end of the 20th century SES8 and Riverland station RTS5A had been bought out by regional network WIN. The two South Australian stations were re-badged WIN and were soon to expand their program offering to a secondary channel in their respective regions. WIN Ten was launched in 2004 as an affiliate to the Ten Network, with the heritage SES8/RTS5A stations focusing largely on Nine Network programming.
When WIN was having difficult negotiations with Nine over its program supply agreement in 2007 it made the decision to switch SES8/RTS5A to a Seven Network relay, essentially chopping any Nine programming off the schedule. Viewers in the region were to be denied access to Nine’s content until WIN had launched a Nine Network relay on its digital signal to complement WIN Ten and the main channel’s Seven output.
With the commercial TV monopoly in the Mount Gambier and Riverland regions, WIN in South Australia now provides local transmission of ten channels, including most of the channels from all three metropolitan networks. But all this choice to a small regional market came at a price — local content was deemed too expensive and after a series of cutbacks WIN finally pulled the plug on local news services from SES and RTS in 2013.
Source: Canberra Times, 5 October 1965. The Age, 5 October 1965. The Age, 22 March 1966. TV Times, 6 April 1966. Canberra Times, 24 October 1968. TV Radio Extra, 18 July 1987.