Thames gets ready, the ratings fall and LWT starts to go to pieces
A lucky draw for us in the sweepstake was the Rediffusion investment in The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten, which was nearing completion when the ABC-Rediffusion merger was announced.
Lord Mountbatten was born in the first year of the century and had taken part in the pageant of history, with a seat in the Royal Box. Always attracted by the visual arts and a pioneer in the use of the motion picture for the training and entertainment of the Royal Navy, he had turned down all the offers to publish his written autobiography. It was typical of Mountbatten to choose the most up-to-date of all media, television, as his means of personal communication. His agreement with Rediffusion was that he would make himself available, together with his rare collection of diaries, letters, photographs, films and memories, to record his life on camera. In return he would possess the overseas rights of the resulting programmes, for the benefit of his Broadlands estate. Rediffusion assigned to him their distinguished documentary producer, Peter Morley, and for three years these two men worked together, with increasing understanding. Lord Mountbatten has admitted the early attempts to interview him on film were disappointing, but inexorably he mastered the technique and became an accomplished professional broadcaster.
I believe the original concept was a series of twenty-six half-hour programmes, although no networking arrangement with the other companies had been negotiated. During lengthy screening sessions Brian Tesler and I reviewed the results with Peter Morley; in ‘rough cut’ we looked at hours of library material, mostly in black and white, with new material filmed in colour of Lord Mountbatten returning to his scenes of glory.
Our decision was to make this the show piece for Thames. We took the bold course and decided to make twelve one-hour episodes, transmitted at the peak time of nine o’clock, though we had no illusion that any of the other stations would be likely to follow our example.
All this we explained to Lord Mountbatten and his film producer son-in-law Lord Brabourne, a joint ally valuable to both of us. I remember how Lord Mountbatten came down to our riverside Teddington studios to get to know us better. After luncheon aboard our ‘retired’ boat, the m.v. Iris, a survivor of Dunkirk, we went on a tour of the premises. On the nearby car park the Drama Department were recording a section of Frontier, where a firing squad in British Army uniforms was lined up to execute an Indian spy. As we were walking towards them the production halted and out of habit Lord Mountbatten ‘inspected’ the shooting squad. They must have looked a motley lot, actors in uniforms hired from Berman’s. There was only one real soldier around, a regimental sergeant major seconded from Aldershot to act as military adviser and obviously enjoying a few leisurely days at Teddington supervising an Equity squad and drilling them for the sequence. His embarrassment can be imagined when the raggle-taggle of actors suddenly found themselves being inspected by the Supremo himself! The RSM’s face was red as Lord Mountbatten gave him a curt nod. Inside, a prison play was in production. Lord Mountbatten was impressed with the dress rehearsal of a scene where the prisoner was taken from the condemned cell to face the Governor in his office. The reproduction was accurate, as Lord Mountbatten knew from his recent survey of prisons and subsequent report to the Government on the subject. He smilingly congratulated me afterwards on the excellent organisation of having troops on parade and a prison play laid on for him!
This was a pleasant interlude away from the attrition which had broken out in the ITCA headquarters where the new “Big Five’ were now meeting to plan the first season’s programmes of the new phase of ITV. Interesting new characters had arrived upon the familiar scene, as the principals turned up with their adherents. The infiltration of the new had begun.
One familiar face was missing. Rediffusion’s former protagonist, John McMillan, had been submerged in the blending of ABC and Rediffusion. Cecil Bernstein, Lew Grade and I had agreed that John McMillan’s knowledge and experience should not disappear from ITV, and we lost no time in creating for him a new job in the industry, as Director of Sport. Such an appointment was not welcomed by the incoming London Weekend Television who were now to be responsible for Saturday sport and wanted to take over ABC’s World of Sport.
At the programme planning meetings the old guard was much in evidence; Cecil Bernstein, with another Granada pioneer, Denis Forman; Lew Grade, with his latest number two, Robin Gill, a pressurising young man with ambitions to succeed even Lew Grade himself; Brian Tesler and I, who had now moved up the ladder from the week-ends and provinces to London. The new companies were represented by Yorkshire’s Ward Thomas and Donald Baverstock, and London Weekend’s buoyant team of Michael Peacock and Tom Margerison, both eager to teach new tricks to old masters.
The situation was clearly defined. In the assessment of the Authority, four companies had equal strength and opportunity, with practically the same potential advertisement revenue and the same potential profit, £3,000,000. Yorkshire came fifth in size and revenue, but with their fair share of networked programming guaranteed by the Authority.
Lew Grade had been swayed by Robin Gill’s financial calculations to concentrate on the Midlands contract, but now he was without his foothold in London and was one more regional contractor. As a former tenant of the London Weekend preserve he was also smarting under the deprecatory comments Michael Peacock continued to make to the press about ATV’s shortcomings, and his promises of more uplifting programmes at week-ends. Surrounded by his shining knights from the BBC, he believed implicitly in what London Weekend’s colourful application for the franchise had set forth. Now he was determined to prove his words and to revitalise the week-end’s television.
Granada had been little disturbed by the changes, except that they now faced the problem of contributing from Lancashire their quota of Saturday and Sunday programmes on a reduced income. Yorkshire had its own task of starting off with new staff and without any programmes in reserve. They would have to originate fewer programmes than the other four, but correspondingly they had to network more than anyone else and therefore their ratings depended upon whatever new programmes were available for them. The programme output of Granada, ATV and Thames was predictable, but after the shouting had died down would LWT be capable of supplying an effective Saturday-Sunday output?
Even when the interchange of programmes was agreed payments would still have to be arranged between the five companies; a new system had to be devised. An immediate issue was that if LWT were to be given absolute control of Saturday afternoon sport why was the budget for World of Sport so suddenly inflated? What percentage of Midland, Lancashire and Yorkshire sports contributions would be included in the reconstructed programme?
Peacock and Tom Margerison faced up to this with apparent equanimity but when they returned to their office in Burlington Street there must have been some puzzled consultations with their colleagues. BBC-trained executives were used to competing in a gentlemanly way for allocations of the overall budget and once the figures were settled they simply ordered programmes from the appropriate departments. They had merely to ask for fifty hours of drama, sixty hours from Light Entertainment, and so on, then await the detailed proposals. ITV programme controllers had to go back to their studios and then make their own programmes. At LWT there was little understanding of the intricacies of ITV programme finance and the proper division of costs. Nor was the scheduling, planned with the other four major companies, the final stage; there still remained the ten regional companies to be convinced of the workability of the schedules.
The final judgement, though, would come from the public, and there was a wide difference between the time-honoured BBC policy of giving the public what was good for them, and the ITV attitude of trying to offer the public what they would like to view. If the public did not respond to whatever was new and revolutionary in the LWT week-end schedule then the advertisers, an ultra-conservative group, would probably sit back and wait until the required audience was assembled, just as they had done in the early and desperate days of ITV.
It was in this uneasy and uncertain mood that ITV was relaunched in its new career in August 1967. Many tried and favourite programmes had been thrown out of the new schedule. Unknown and unresearched programmes were being tendered by three new companies; a percentage of failure was inevitable. Unfortunately, too, a new method of audience research was being introduced. TAM Rating (Television Audience Measurement) was another of the casualties of the era of change, to be replaced by Audits of Great Britain’s new system (“son of Tam’ some called it). The new means of audience appraisal had the backing of the Joint Industry Committee for Television Advertising Research (JICTAR) and therefore was financed collectively by advertisers, agencies and the programme companies. It was an improved system but two years would go by before its new standards of measurement would be understood and accepted.
Meanwhile, according to the first JICTAR figures the audience for ITV had shrunk alarmingly, almost overnight.