TV

Channel Ten Was the Home of the Mid-2000s Australian Dream

Saying goodbye to the network that raised a generation on 'Simpsons' re-runs, 'Big Brother,' and 'Rove Live.'
16 June 2017, 7:18am
Screenshot via YouTube

Channel Ten is just about dead. It's a voiceless ghost staggering around Australia's rapidly shifting media landscape—done in by vagary, programming, and mismanagement. The 2011 decision to shift its alternative youth programming to the digital network, 11, and refocus on news and a current affairs has widely been recognised as a disastrous mistake by shareholders, critics, and viewers alike. Drowning in $200 million in debt, the company has had to call in the administrators.

It's strange for me, at 26, to watch the slow demise of the TV network that shaped my youth. From Cheez TV and 6 PM Simpsons, to late night news with Sandra Sully and Big Brother Up Late, Ten was the channel that brought Australian television into the 21st century.
In my hometown of Perth, Channel Ten—called New Ten in the 90s—famously had this 30 second animation of "Kenny Kidna" (an echidna) who frantically quasi-rapped his pre-bed routine, counting us up with an iconic (in Perth) "Teeeeeennnnn" as he hopped into bed, hinting that we do the same.

We never did. When Kenny hit that "Ten" you knew things were about to get good. Good as in Hercules and Xena were about to hit one another with foam swords and homo-eroticism.

Channel Ten was a window into the slick modernity and trendiness that, before then, seemed inaccessible in Perth. I've written before about how Cheez TV raised a generation of Australian odd-bods, but I feel their bizzarro shtick was especially compounded by Perth's uniquely stifling conservatism. In the land of Julie Bishop and Midland Brick, two guys barraging you with two hours of anime and dick jokes is a deeply subversive act.

But from its early days, Ten was the network that dared to be different. Its 1972 soap Number 96 was the first show in the world to feature an openly gay recurring character. In the 90s, it typified the decade's focus group mode of counterculture. The network styled itself as a PlayStation in a room full of Ataris (don't @ me). I still only know the Violent Femmes "Blister in the Sun" because of Ten's 1999 ad campaign. The Good News Week theme alone rang out like a mad call to arms—a feeling quickly stifled by the smirk of Paul McDermott.

Ten was the Gen-Y network: the home of Twin Peaks, Seinfeld, and Melrose Place. And of course, vitally, Ten gave Australia the Simpsons. When some communications wonk writes the great media sociology text-book of this country, a critical chunk is going to be dedicated to the importance of 6 PM Simpsons. How its daily reruns shaped contemporary Australian culture and discourse. A generation was raised sitting on oversized couches, watching a show that rewired our brains faster than our Ritalin. Wednesdays were the stuff of dreams—6 PM rerun, an hour wait, and a new episode at 7:30 PM.

The network was also the home of "event television." MasterChef, Biggest Loser, Dicko fatshaming Paulini on Australian Idol. I vividly remember the hype around the final episode of Seinfeld, as if it was a cataclysmic end to a never-to-be-seen-again renaissance (it was). My extended family huddled around the TV to watch the two part finale, Ten's garish graphics gently reminding us just who it was that delivered such precious gifts.

Nestled between the Simpsons and Seinfeld was Neighbours. Ten's Neighbours promos for mega events like Dee's death (spoiler, sorry) and Susan's amnesia were treated with the hysterical solemnity of unfolding natural disasters. The show launched the careers of noughties future has-beens Holly Valance and Delta Goodrem, who was hilariously nominated for a Gold Logie for "Most Popular Personality on Australian Television" in 2004.

Ten ran on cultural capital. It was to Australian TV what bleached tips were to gelled spikes. Its aesthetic was "MTV by way of Sydney University PR wankers." It's hard to describe this to anyone under 20 years old but, in the early 2000s, Rove McManus was considered very cool (kind of). The feeling was, Hey, here's Australia with its own live late night show, we've fucking made it!

Rove's "What The!?" segment—and similarly derivative bits—were genuinely exciting because Australia was offering up nothing else like it. Rove's nanna lived two doors down from my nana. He was a Perth boy who used to produce a show for $50 a week on Perth's community TV network, Access 31, and now there he was interviewing Will Smith on Channel Ten? Huge, mate.

Rove's golden age was also the golden age of reality TV. Ten was like the Italian mafia trafficking cocaine from Columbia to Manhattan in how it brought reality programming to Australia's shores. Australian Big Brother so captured the attention of punters that we totally forgot to give a shit about the Tampa tragedy.

Sara-Marie, the "bum-dancing" bunny ear wearing legend of the show's first season, was (of course) a Perth girl. Big Brother gave us some golden Aussie moments, namely Merlin Luck gaffer taping his gob shut and Gretel Killeen's subsequent fury. And who could forget Prime Minister John Howard having to publicly condemn turkey slapping in an official speech. Fun fact: the turkey slapperwas from Perth too.

Of course all that was rubbish compared to Russell Coight's All Aussie Adventures, which gave us the greatest dance scene in history.

Ten spread Americanised teen angst like HPV. Dawson's Creek and later the OC were guiding posts for middle class white kids dreaming of Americana-style teenage rebellion and dry humping. Saturday mornings were spent watching Video Hits—three hours of music corporations trying to sell you on bucket hats, three quarter denims, and goatees. You could later wash this down with the Sapphic wickedness of Charmed. Ten sold you the Motorola Razr and the Crazy Frog ringtone: It's Thursday night line up was one long cipher for "awkward handjob under the duvet." Ultimately, abandoning the handjob demographic was its downfall.

Staple shows like The Project exemplify Ten's internal confusion of who or what it's core demographic now is. Do we want the academic pontification of Waleed Aly, or the ham-headed buffoonery of Peter Helliar? Australia has long since drifted back to the old mates and comforting ockerisms of Seven and Nine. The only time I catch any Ten is when I walk in on mum and the neighbourhood nonnas watching the Bold and the Beautiful.

Still, the network is an indelible part of my cultural memory. I watched 9/11 live on Ten. I remember thinking they were repeating True Lies again. It was the first network to go back to normal programming. And now, as the night draws in on Ten, all I hear is the squeaky falsetto of Kenny Kidna: "Sun's going down in ten seconds… one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, teee-eee-eeen."

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