Howard Thomas looks back over 1977 at Thames
THIS IS A REVIEW of the calendar year 1977, together with a glance at these early months of 1978. In writing it I had to ask myself what were the most significant events of the year, and I found myself choosing between two. The first was the publication of the massive, detailed report of Lord Annan’s committee of inquiry into the future of broadcasting. The second was the award to Thames of its third Italia Prize in two years. The very different nature of those two important events reflects the position in which British broadcasting now finds itself.
Here is Thames, a vigorous young company, producing programmes which continue to win worldwide acclaim, able to carry proudly back to Britain for a second year the most coveted award in the whole of international broadcasting. Here is Thames earning £3m annually in foreign currency for Britain, by exporting its programmes to more than a hundred countries overseas. Yet simultaneously and paradoxically here is Thames, in common with the rest of Independent Television and the BBC, under yet another scrutiny and with yet more uncertainty about its future. It is a situation which puzzles our broadcasting colleagues throughout the world. When I go to countries like Australia, where British programmes are regarded as the excellence to which their own productions must aspire, the idea of these continuing enquiries into television is regarded as a British eccentricity. Unfortunately, it is not so amusing for the people who work in broadcasting.
What is especially difficult for us in ITV is the double standard which is so often applied by those who write about, talk about, or take part in committees about us. For our part we are prepared to admit frankly that when ITV began 22 years ago, commercial necessity produced a service that was engrossed with ratings and seeking to maintain its existence. But that was very long ago. ITV has now achieved a public service of high quality, rivalling anything that broadcasting can offer in Britain or elsewhere in the world – and limited only by expansion into an additional channel. It is no accident that ITV companies have become increasingly attractive to some of the finest talents in the BBC: men and women who would not join an inferior service however rich the rewards.
Nevertheless there are still people reluctant to acknowledge how ITV has developed, from its beginnings as the brash newcomer of 1956. The BBC, for example, still refers to its monopoly of public service broadcasting’. A respected critic, writing in the Sunday Times, suggested that a BBC play about welfare state bureaucracy ‘would have had no chance’ of being screened ‘on the commercial networks’. There remains a kind of snobbism behind such blinkered attitudes.
THE ANNAN COMMITTEE mostly managed to avoid this trap, but then made some surprising conclusions. Having recognised that ITV now offers programmes quite as good as, and in some cases superior to, the BBC; having acknowledged that ‘it is difficult to make comparisons when the BBC has two channels’ and that ‘ITV output cannot be expected to have the range which BBC can provide on two channels’; and having argued for the inauguration of a fourth channel as ‘a challenge to broadcasters’ and ‘a nursery for new forms and new methods of presenting ideas’ the Committee then promptly rejected the proposal that it should be run by the ITV companies. They claimed there would then be a risk of giving the public more of what they already had, and intensified competition between ITV and BBC.
This is out of touch with reality. The best way to make a fourth channel thrive, in a world where the viewer increasingly expects free choice of what he watches, is to dovetail it with ITV’s current service. A fourth channel having to compete against BBC’s two and ITV’s one would be fighting a losing battle, which all the taxpayer subsidy in the world could not win. The result would be an elitist service for a tiny minority of viewers, subsidised at enormous public cost. Yet one of the main areas in which ITV producers can fairly claim to have established unequalled experience and success is in popularising minority subjects. That experience, coupled with complementary – not competitive – scheduling between ITVl and ITV2, is the key to providing a new and exciting service on the fourth channel.
AS TO THE ASSERTION that ITV2 would provide ‘more of the same’, there are scores of ITV programme makers who are clamouring for the chance to prove this judgement of Annan wrong, once the straitjacket of a single channel has been removed. But if we were to assume that the staff and managements of ITV companies would want to produce on ITV2 a service identical to ITV1, the machinery of the Independent Broadcasting Authority is there to prevent such a duplication. We at Thames (and most of our colleagues in ITV) would expect to provide an ITV2 service which is obliged by statute and by IBA control to fulfil requirements not yet met by ITV or BBC. One of those, for which we put forward the original proposals in 1971, is the acquisition of programmes from independent producers for showing at peak time. We would welcome these additional freelances, though I suspect that they are neither so numerous nor so devoid of opportunity as the critics of BBC and ITV suggest. The fact remains, however, that the ITV companies are already equipped to provide a service which will meet the philosophical demands of the Annan Committee and also win a sizeable audience. Alternatives to ITV2 can do the first, but not the second.
The Annan Committee reported almost a year ago. As I write, the Home Office is about to produce the results of its deliberations on that report. So once again broadcasters have halted to await their future. We wait also to hear when and how the new IBA contracts are to be advertised and awarded. At Thames we await with confidence the confirmation that our record will ensure the continuation of our contract in the future. But we wait. And while we wait, we have to go on working.
Elsewhere in this Review you can see what ‘going on working’ means. In 1977 it meant producing 300 hours of programmes for our region and a further 700 for the ITV network. It meant raising a bountiful revenue from our advertisers, establishing new records. It meant selling more programmes overseas than any ITV company has ever done before.
Those achievements are made possible by what I believe to be the most professional staff in British television. But those bare facts could imply that Thames in 1977 was identical in all respects to Thames in 1976, ploughing the same familiar furrow. Far from it.
IN 1977 we introduced Thames At 6 – a daily regional programme which replaced the former Today and brought Andrew Gardner from ITN to be its chief presenter. Already the new programme has been praised for its impact, and this is only the first stage of impressive developments in television journalism covering local news and current affairs.
In 1977 we introduced Time For Business, a weekly 45-minute programme for the London region, not only a forum for the world of business, manufacturing and the city, but emphasising to the general public the importance of business and its contribution to their life style. Presented by the unique popularising talent of Eamonn Andrews, the programme is ITV’s first in the field. It arose directly from the consultation between business and union leaders and ITV companies, promoted by the Independent Broadcasting Authority.
In 1977 our outstandingly successful Light Entertainment Department produced another string of entirely new hits. There were the situation comedies The Upchat Line and Miss Jones & Son; the sparkling variety shows Night Out At The London Casino; and a range of superbly spectacular productions, including the highly acclaimed Tommy Steele And A Show, now chosen to represent ITV at this year’s Golden Rose of Montreux.
In 1977, the year in which the Annan Committee put into ITV’s mouth the words ‘If the public prefers series, why produce one-off dramas?’, Thames’ Drama Department in fact transmitted in peak time two seven-part series and fourteen ‘one-off dramas’, or plays.
DETAILS OF THESE and other innovations are in the Managing Director’s accompanying report of the year’s programmes, together with information about other imaginative projects. But it is not only in our programmes that new developments are to be found.
In 1977 our Technical and Engineering Department, in addition to its many other technological developments, launched a new Outside Broadcast unit of its own design, which packs into a single vehicle the resources of a vast studio.
In 1977 our Sales Department launched Enterprise, its own entirely new computerised airtime sales system, which provides a faster, more comprehensive service to advertisers and also increases the efficiency of our internal operation.
In 1977, with London Looks Forward, Thames created and financed an unprecedented investigation and debate about London’s future, on which the Duke of Edinburgh commented: ‘This is the first time a television company has become so deeply involved in the organisation of a project of such great public interest. It must also be the first time that a television company has managed to establish what might be described as two-way communication with the public.’
Those are considerable achievements, but it is inevitable that hundreds of other successes go unrecorded in a formal Chairman’s statement. The award of the OBE to our brilliant Controller of Light Entertainment Philip Jones and other honours to our staff – and the programme awards, both to complete production teams and to individuals like cameraman Nick Downie (Royal Television Society News Feature Award) and designers Alex Clarke and Rod Stratfold (RTS Design Award for Rock Follies) bring pleasure and pride to all of us. In the same way, the achievements of week-by-week programmes like Help!, Money-Go-Round and Magpie (which has now raised more than half a million pounds for children’s charities), go largely unsung although they remain a crucial part of our service to the public, especially to the underprivileged. These are not the routine achievements of some shapeless thing called a company, but the creation of dedicated, imaginative people; for people are the main ingredient of a television programme company.
DURING THE YEAR we have made several changes in our structure and management, building a younger team to move Thames forward. This energetic group is now led by Mr Bryan Cowgill, the outstanding BBC programme maker and channel controller, who joined us as Managing Director in October. He took over from Mr George A. Cooper who had reached his retirement age after contributing so much to ITV as well as to our company. The first Sales Director both for ABC Television and for Thames Television, Mr Cooper succeeded me as Managing Director in 1974. His knowledge and advice continue to be available to us on a consultancy basis.
AFTER TEN SUCCESSFUL YEARS, changes in the Board were inevitable. One of our earliest directors, Mr Humphrey Tilling, formerly Company Secretary of EMI Limited, and a member of its Board, also came to retirement age. The wise and polished contributions of Mr Tilling will he missed at our Board meetings, but we shall continue to enjoy hearing his scintillating after-dinner speeches at our social events. In his place, we are fortunate to have another EMI director, Mr John M. Kuipers, particularly because of Mr Kuipers experience of electronics and his recent supervision of EMI’s interests in Australia and the Far East. Retirement age was also the reason for the resignation of one of our two independent directors, Lord Wolfenden, and we were sorry to lose his guidance on educational programmes, dating back to his pioneer work on the Schools Advisory Committee in 1957, when Rediffusion Television introduced the first television programmes for schools. Succeeding him as another non-executive independent director we are fortunate to have the services and experience of the distinguished film and television producer, Lord Brabourne.
The collaboration between Bryan Cowgill and our Director of Programmes, Jeremy Isaacs, is already producing new ideas, new programmes and new ways of extending our public service. At the time of Mr Cowgill’s appointment, the Board also made other changes to the senior management. Ian Scott became Director of Administration and Finance, with Jim Shaw continuing as Director of Sales and Marketing. A new senior management team was formed to work alongside the four executive Board members: Muir Sutherland, Managing Director of Thames Television International; Bob Godfrey, technical and Engineering Director; John Hambley, Planning and Development Director; and John O’Keefe, Industrial Relations Director, with Ben Marr continuing as Company Secretary.
All the promotions involved in these moves, and those immediately resulting from them, are internal appointments from among our existing management. At the same time, we have begun to make structural changes to our departmental system where we think them necessary. Current Affairs and Documentaries have now been split, for example, into two different departments under Mike Wooller and Peter Pagnamenta. Further changes will follow, including the establishment of the ambitious Regional News Unit about which the Managing Director writes elsewhere.
NEW POLICIES ARE EMERGING at Thames, for example, in relation to sport and to filmed programmes. When Rediffusion Television, the pioneer London weekday contractor, was merged by the Authority with ABC Television, the weekend contractor for the North and Midlands, then dominating the Saturday/Sunday afternoon audiences, LWT took over ABC’s World of Sport with outstanding success; but no longer can ITV sport be concentrated into the weekend. With such international sports specialists as Bryan Cowgill, Managing Director of Thames, and Paul Fox, Managing Director of Yorkshire, recruited into the Independent Network, there should now be vigorous competition with the BBC on weekday sports coverage and commentaries.
In terms of filmed programmes, and with all the studios of Thames Television now overflowing with both live and videotaped programmes, this company must turn increasingly to the medium of film to augment its programme output. The international success of Sweeney!, in the cinema as well as on television, has proved that British drama series of the highest quality can be filmed entirely on location, and therefore Thames’ subsidiary film company, Euston Films, will extend its production.
Benefiting by all the expertise which has been gained by this company over its busy seven years, Thames Television will now take the further step of making a series of full-length feature films for television. It is hoped to revive and refurbish the reputation of British feature films at their very best, except that these films will not be produced for the cinema, hut for today’s greater audience television.
To the makers of our past and future programmes, and to every member of the staff of Thames Television, I express thanks for a highly successful year, and look forward to another period of exciting progress.
About the author
Howard Thomas (1909-1986) was an advertising copyrighter, a producer at the BBC, the head of Pathé and the founding Managing Director of ABC Weekend TV and its successor Thames Television.