Off with the show
All of ITV had been affected by the wave of local strikes and unscheduled union meetings that disrupted the first day of the new contracts, Tuesday 30 July 1968 – the first day of Thames.
Hour long stoppages had taken off the likes of Southern’s Day By Day and Ulster’s early evening output; every company had felt the loss of transmission halfway through of Cooper King-size!.
By Wednesday 31, things were beginning to look grim for ITV management. Viewers in the north and in Scotland had their programmes, but the technicians refused to run the commercials – losing the companies thousands of pounds.
By Thursday 1 August, programming disruptions were rife on the network. But Friday 2 would be the crunch day.
Thames managed to get through their programming for the day – which amounted to very little outside of term time anyway – with few incidents; they then prepared to hand over, for the first time in ITV history, to another company live on air.
The announcer said goodbye; the Thames skyline ident was run backward, giving the disconcerting feeling that the city was drowning; a click and a rolling picture; and up came London Weekend from Rediffusion’s old studios in Wembley.
London Weekend made their formal Authority announcement and prepared to welcome viewers to a new style of company with a new style of programming. The announcer drew breath to run his spiel; the lights, pictures and sound all promptly went off.
The technicians at London Weekend had walked out.
The rest of the network struggled to know what to do – the ACTT technicians were all liable to walk out if other companies “broke” the strike in London by continuing in their own area.
Some programmes did go out – often recorded versions of planned-live productions, in-the-can films and the occasional live item like Frost on Sunday which ran one hour 40 minutes late in a reduced form on a partially constructed set.
All of this led to the companies realising they were paying technicians to not air programmes and not to do their jobs. They responded with the management version of a strike: they locked the technicians out and took themselves off air.
By Monday 5, the situation nationally was:
- YTV: “some locked out, some sacked”
- Granada: “partly on strike, partly locked out”
- London Weekend: “locked out”
- ATV: “sacked but still sitting in” [the sit-in ended after 5 hours]
- Southern: “locked out”
- Tyne Tees: “on strike in support of those [previously] fired”
- Westward: “locked out”
- Scottish: “locked out”
- Grampian: “locked out”
- Thames: “on strike in support of sacked shop steward”
- Source: Daily Express 5 August 1968
The problem for the new companies in particular and all the companies in general was the lack of money coming into the system whilst the strikes and lock-outs continued.
For Thames, this was a potentially ruinous start after so much trouble just to get on air. Worse, covering the most competitive advertising market in the UK meant that they could watch as agency after agency cancelled even long term bookings and campaigns and switched budgets to print and the cinemas.
That was enough to make Thames management act. Together with ATV’s technician management in the transmission centre in Foley Street – who weren’t unionised and therefore weren’t “scabs” for working – Thames set on a plan to recreate ITV and bring in some money.
With ITA agreement, they opened the transmitters, then using ex-ABC announcers and props from the former ABC continuity department at Teddington, began a service.
By collecting the video and film items which each new entrant had stockpiled for launch day, linking it with an ABC continuity service (branded simply “Independent Television”) and running the tapes out from ATV Foley Street, a new Emergency National Service was soon on air.
This service was evidently run by rusty technicians and management and had all the hallmarks of being put together in a hurry. But at least the Thames sales force could get out and start shifting advertising. The adverts themselves were seen nationally, with an apology if the products were not available in a specific area. The money made was shared out across each company. ITV was back in business.
The small amount of money coming in, plus the running of recorded items gave ITV management new confidence.
Many of the regional companies simply closed, laying off their workers as there was no work to do.
This put the wind up the other 7 main unions – especially when Thames announced that the emergency service could run easily for six months (in fact, it’s likely that after about 6 weeks the stocks would have been used up – as would the ITA’s patience).
After a fortnight, the strikes and lock-outs ended with both sides claiming victory – sacked workers were rehired, but the 30% pay rises didn’t happen.
Thames was left to start broadcasting again, although this time much more from scratch than three weeks before – the stockpile of recorded material was drained; many companies took time to get production going again; live material showed signs of the strain of a fortnight’s lay-off.
The advertisers had to be wooed back quickly, so Thames began a rigorous discounting and special offers programme, tempting the advertisers back but suppressing its own turnover (and helping to cause a financial crisis and near-collapse of its main rival as it sucked the money out of London Weekend).
The viewers had now had three months of schedule disruption on ITV in general – the dregs of the last days of the old contracts, the new-look schedules in the first week, then the strikes – and took themselves off to the BBC, where all was well.
The result was a further fall in turnover as advertisers held back to see if ITV could recover – ITV could, but not with out the advertisers’ money to fund the new programming that would bring in the viewers.
All in all, the winter of 1968/9 was going to be a tough time for ITV – and as the company “at the top of the tree”, Thames stood to suffer worse than any of them.