In this guest post, Jason ‘Jabba’ Davis reflects on the launch of Channel [V] in Australia 22 years ago, the evolution of subscription TV and his thoughts on today’s announcement of the channel’s closure.
In that prehistoric era before the internet, before mobile phones, before ‘ice’ meant anything other than a helpful addition to cool a beverage, subscription TV was born in Australia. And I was there. Possibly by mistake.
It was late in 1994 and having applied unsuccessfully to be a security guard for IBM (where my mother worked), a co-worker at The Reasonably Good Café where I had some casual shifts washing dishes, mentioned his flatmate was having trouble finding a fourth talking head for a soon-to-be launched 24/7 music channel, to be called Red, on Galaxy Pay TV – “with No Ads!”
I fluked that fourth spot in my audition by answering honestly when asked why I wanted this job – “because I’m about to be evicted for not paying my rent”– and, thanks in large part to a woman named Julie Bennett, who became my scriptwriter/producer/buddy, I landed a contract commencing March 1st 1995, where for the princely sum of $750 per week I went on to be (quite briefly) the face of youth culture in Australia.
But first came the hate mail.
Well, it wasn’t technically mail, more like printed reports from the Galaxy call centre where viewers were complaining in their dozens about “this idiot who knows nothing about metal” introducing Nordic Black Metal videos with poor pronunciation: “And now here’s the new one from Thyrfing, hang ten guys…”
Filmed entirely on a blue screen at the Global Television Centre (their capitals, not mine) at North Ryde under the keen direction of Paul Fenech (yes, that Paul Fenech) I learned how to be a TV presenter.
“Show me the dancing eyes!” he’d cry. “Perfect!” One more!” he’d inevitably say, until I’d read my autocue 30 times to introduce a Madonna video.
Because that’s what “Red – The Music Channel” was – a burgeoning youth station with no commercials and access to the music video catalogue of three record companies, playing wall-to-wall music videos, with about every third or fourth one introduced by myself, Toni Pearen, Leah Purcell, or “Andy, from Horsehead” (who left shortly after launch to pursue his music career and was never heard from again).
It was not an original format but it was a successful one and playing music videos all day every day became the backbone of the channel, with occasional band interviews, with questions written not by Googling anything but by pouring over the press releases in the office filing cabinets or subscribing to fanzines.
In the early days of the station being on air, we couldn’t even get the Pay TV service connected to the office, so nobody working for Red knew what it looked like.
After a couple of years, media deals brokered in boardrooms meant it was time to say “Goodbye Galaxy” and “Hello Foxtel”, (and “Oh sorry Optus Vision, didn’t notice you there…”) Red – The Music Channel (always a mouthful) became Channel [V].
[V] for videos I guess, (no idea what the brackets were for), and the original presenters made way for a shiny new bunch of misfits including Maynard, Nathan Harvey, Leah McLeod, Mike Kerry and later Andrew G, Paula McGrath, Andrew Mercado, James Mathison and Yumi Stynes.
Slowly the channel’s parameters drifted towards the middle.
After the first year of being compulsorily ad-free, we started to take on any and all brands keen to influence a fickle and notoriously hard-to-reach youth market, all the while maintaining an edgy playlist and credible affiliations.
We covered the Big Day Out continuously throughout it’s heyday, similarly going behind the scenes at every respectable music festival from Homebake and Livid, to Splendour in the Grass, and also enjoyed a high profile affiliation with the Aria Awards – which actually used to draw an audience of a million plus on FTA TV (come back Rove!), and let us cover the red carpet and back stage.
Since the news came through Wednesday morning about the end of [V], the Facebook feed of Channel [V] luminaries past & present, (I guess all ‘past’, come Saturday), I’m reminded of all the brands we spruiked across the years.
From breakfast cereals to soft drink to technology, lollies and cars, Channel [V] somehow managed to bridge the divide between being commercial and being real in a really successful and unique way.
Despite our audience numbers being in the low thousands, there was significance in brand [V], and when we took our jam to the masses they turned out in their throngs to join in the fun.
The brainchild of a media maverick, Mr Barry Chapman, (who famously put a jumbo under the Sydney Harbour Bridge – an elephant on a barge, to launch Rock of the 80s 2SM,) the Channel [V] Music Bus is my most treasured experience from my decade as a VJ. A VJ? Seriously? What a useless feather in one’s LinkedIn cap.
Partnering with surf/leisurewear behemoth Billabong, we jumped onboard a luxury coach with a convoy of stages, sound systems, skaters, surfers and snowboarders up and down the east coast from Cairns and Mareeba to the tip of Tasmania, putting on free mini music festivals and extreme sports performances broadcast live across the country, day after day, for weeks on end.
It was the closest I ever came to being in a band and touring the land.
I’ll cherish the hours meeting our far-flung fans and “signing til midnight” the assorted merchandise – the highlight of which has to be the ‘Andrew G-String’. A pair of knickers emblazoned with the good man’s face that the rest of us urged his legion of teenage, and not so teenage fans to “wear inside out”.
Those days of taking our show on the road could not last, as advertisers became wise to the reality of our small TV audiences and the dawn of a new age of technology put music (and eventually pretty much every conceivable kind of content), firstly at our fingertips, and then in our pockets, leaving a 24-hour music channel ultimately redundant.
In the in-demand universe we now inhabit, who amongst us would wait in turn for our favourite song and pay for the privilege?
The internet has brought us so many positive things but it has also helped to dismantle bricks and mortar retail business.
Right now it is cutting a swathe through the media landscape and what the future of broadcasting may be is anyone’s guess.
From this Saturday, that landscape will be missing one small piece of uniquely Australian youth culture. A small piece I am proud to be a part of.
Much love to all the Channel [V] fans out there and all the amazing people who made it what it was.
“It’s All About The Music”!
Jason ‘Jabba’ Davis is a broadcaster, performer and writer based in Sydney.