Thames is here… and ITV falls off air

Reaction to the new schedules seemed to show an embarrassing loss of confidence by viewers in the new regime at ITV. Apparently, millions were switching back to the familiar and reliable outpourings of BBC1 and even BBC2.

Then came the technicians’ strike. Disenchanted staff, suddenly transplanted from one county to another, or even from one part of London to another, were demanding compensation, displacement money, new agreements, new safeguards, new conditions. Men doing exactly the same jobs in the same studios were claiming redundancy payments. Men transported from Manchester to Leeds wanted money for new houses, legal fees, removal costs, and ‘displacement’ compensation. Who, after all, wanted to give up Manchester United for Leeds United?

ITV was crippled and the BBC scooped up the audience, as certified by JICTAR, basely backfiring on its new supporters. Advertisers switched away from the uncertainties of television and returned to the comparative reliability of the press. As if this was not enough for the programme contractors the Government decided to increase the levy on television advertising. Like everyone else, ministers and their civil servants had read The Times, Financial Times and Daily Telegraph, gloating on the financial bonuses Lord Hill was supposed to have handed out with bouquets to consortia, companies and a few Midas-minded individuals. In view of these predictions the Treasury moved in. Meanwhile, those of us who had laboured in these vineyards for twelve years without any capital gains at all glowered with some envy at the newcomers who were to amass fortunes simply by entering the industry.

Roy Jenkins in 1977

In July 1969, within a year of the inauguration of the new chapter of ITV, the government levy on television advertising revenue was increased by the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins, scalping another £3,000,000 [£52 million now allowing for inflation] out of the revenue.

Once again Independent Television was in a struggle for survival. In its first year Thames could show a profit of only £759,000 [£13 million], a poor return on its £7,000,000 [£121 million] capital employed on a six-year contract. Yet the warriors who had been through such experiences before were accustomed to the switchback career of the industry and when they were plunging down to the Big Dipper’s depths they knew how to hold on to their seats. To Granada and ATV it had become a way of life, and Thames had sprung from sturdy stock. Yorkshire, too, was no newcomer, for the staff had been recruited mostly from ABC and Rediffusion, and the Managing Director, Ward Thomas, had reared a small company, Grampian Television. His task at Leeds had not been easy because although Yorkshire’s brand new studios had managed to open on time their transmitting mast on the wilds of Emley Moor had been blown down in a gale, causing a £250,000 [£4½ million] loss of revenue.

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It was now that London Weekend Television found themselves in a game where professionalism was all; not only in the art of television but professionalism in the business of television. They were in a do-it-yourself industry, where you not only had to conceive programmes, but you also had to produce them yourself, sometimes having to argue with staff and technicians about the conditions of making the programmes. It was an industry, too, where your future depended upon the customers’ support and without the viewer-customers you would not attract the advertisers, and without advertisers you would have no income.

A television programme company is an exceptional animal. It has to be a dynamic (but not explosive) band of artists, engineers and salesmen sharing a single aim: to produce a public service of imaginative quality. The advertising salesman must be sympathetic to the creative man’s ambitions; and the engineer to his foibles. The creative man has to meet the engineers half-way and he must have also sufficient business acumen to appreciate that without ammunition from him the salesman will not be able to raise the money for his own livelihood and, sometimes, his indulgences.

London Weekend Television was like an international football side of brilliant individuals but untrained as a team. When their confidential application was finally published in a pamphlet, The Open Secret, the prospectus was revealed to be a scintillating piece of authorship but lacking in practicability. LWT’s programmes and planning did not appeal enough to the public, the advertisers, or the other companies. As the week-end ratings subsided Granada, ATV and Yorkshire were unwilling to let their most effective programmes be slotted into the week-end schedules, and struggled to keep them within the security of the successful weekday schedule. There were also unfortunate press statements ones like Michael Peacock’s: ‘The trouble is that ITV believes that people stop thinking at weekends,’ and the epitaph spoken by the programme controller Cyril Bennett in a moment of truth when introducing LWT’s 1969/1970 plans: ‘The first duty of a commercial station is to survive’.

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Michael Peacock took on a mammoth job; with loyal and better support he might have survived. He had to start from scratch, in studios which were less than up-to-date and with studio star disgruntled at the loss of employers who had kept them happy. There was no real and united production team at the top, only a collection of talented individualists who did not have the experience or the patience to weather the inevitably frustrating early years. There were sensational resignations and at last Michael Peacock was fired by his board two years after winning the contract. Several of his supporters who had been signatories to the original application resigned in sympathy with him.

After two years of headlines and front-page publicity, from the euphoria of the successful application and the promises of irresistible week-end programmes, to uninhibited full-page advertisements boosting its own talent, LWT appointed its new chairman and Chief Executive, John Freeman, and finally settled down into the new pattern of ITV.

With the limelight focussed on its competitor, Thames Television went quietly and unspectacularly about its job of welding together the choice ingredients of two companies with much solid achievement behind them. Out of the disappointments and disarray, a group with rare experience and proven ability was taking shape within Thames, which was to remain almost unchanged for six years. One of my earliest moves was to take thirty programme people, the most creative in the new departments, away to Brighton for a couple of days, to get to know each other and to exchange ideas, and to air publicly the more constructive critical comments overheard in the local pubs and in our Thames club.

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