Thames hits its stride… just as advertising revenues go into free fall in the 1970s
It took three years for the re-jigged ITV to settle down, and for ABC and Rediffusion to become fully integrated into Thames. Halfway through the new contract the companies were still struggling to make sufficient profit to justify the more ambitious and large-scale programmes the Authority was urging, to meet intensified BBC competition. Our collective campaign with the Treasury met with success and the advertisement levy was halved. Within a few days of the announcement my Board had agreed to as spend £500,000 [£6.7million now allowing for inflation] on a history of World War II. We had made the first step towards an era of Independent Television programmes which would reach a world-wide audience and break through the American barriers.
For years the formidable task of recording on television for posterity the history of World War II had bedazzled and yet daunted both BBC and ITV. The Corporation must have spent thousands of pounds on research, and bulky reports were piling an on executive desks. So was the cost, and therefore the BBC kept postponing a decision on such a mammoth undertaking.
At Thames, Jeremy Isaacs, the Controller of Features and Current Affairs programmes, had been nursing the possibilities of the subject for some time and had assessed the cost (including a special team researching for three years and assembling archive films) at £500,000. This proposal had the support of the Director of Programmes, Brian Tesler, and when we discussed at the Board meeting how best to deploy the uplift in our net revenue income I put forward The World at War. Inflation, higher salaries, travel, and particularly higher exchange rates to buy foreign film material soon made Isaacs’ budget out-of-date. By the time the twenty-six programmes were completed almost £1,000,000 [£12.5million] had been spent. The cost was eventually recovered because the series was transmitted in most countries throughout the world; but the importance of the series was that it was ITV’s ultimate challenge to the BBC in their domination of high quality documentary and current affairs programmes. The World at War proved that ITV was at least equal to the BBC’s highest standards, and, more salient, the ITV mass audience could be riveted to their receivers week after week by serious documentary programmes at the peak hour of nine o’clock.
My fears that the appeal of such an historic series would be largely to a middle-aged audience, for nostalgic reasons, mere disproved by research which established that the younger audience was equally fascinated. The success of the series owed much to the decision that it should be produced by a team of young people re-discovering 1939-45, with the years of strife seen through their eyes, rather than by older men remembering.
As the ITV contracts were extended, inflation forced costs to soar and advertisers to cut down their expenditure. From the peak results in 1973-4 the following years brought descending profits, reflecting the all-too-familiar switchback of ITV fortunes. By now the Government had accepted our arguments that levy should be taken on profits and not on revenue, but the swingeing two-thirds of net profits before tax was greater than the industry could bear without reducing expenditure on programmes. Once again the companies went knocking at the doors of the Treasury and the Home Office, pleading to be allowed to retain a higher proportion of their profits so that they could invest the necessary millions in important long-term projects.
Money counted in millions needs to flow through the veins of both BBC and ITV if big and bold concepts are to be brought to fruition. For Churchill’s centenary year only a wealthy company like Thames could have afforded to embark on such a spectacular drama series as Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill with Lee Remick as its star. Two years later, when profits were halved by reduced advertisement revenue, not even Thames could have afforded such a lavish programme. Again, the gamble of, for example, a 1977 Avengers-type of series would have cost £2,500,000 [£17million] for twenty-six one-hour episodes, a dangerous allocation of dwindling profits which few would contemplate.
The Independent Companies’ problem today is to find space for expansion, to employ fully the talents which have been generated to establish Britain as the standard bearer of quality television programme production. The solution lies in a second channel for ITV, promised long ago by previous Governments but still being sought against opposition by educationists, propagandists and political adversaries.
The film industry has waned, the press is shrinking in size and importance, and only the television programme industry seems capable of expansion and earning increasing overseas income. Ten years after the Labour Party had opposed the ending of BBC monopoly by the innovation of Independent Television, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, made a public statement declaring ITV to be ‘part of our social system and part of our national way of life’. A decade later the time has come to clear the for Independent Television to break out of its confines and to press forward, to become not only a national institution but a world force.
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.