ABC’s Howard Thomas is told of his company’s fate by Lord Hill in 1967
The companies expected 1967 to be a year of change – but they had no idea that the effect of the contracts shuffle would be to halt the progress of commercial television for a couple of years. The addition of three new contractors had direct effects not only on the three areas concerned, but the whole industry was to be shaken by the resulting Union upheavals and strikes, loss of audience and consequent loss of revenue.
When the new franchises were advertised at the end of 1966 the general assessment was that the new company, Yorkshire, was being introduced to dilute the power and profitability of the four major companies, and perhaps to make life more difficult for them; thereafter, change for the sake of change would bring in two or perhaps three new regional contractors.
The real problem facing us at ABC Television was how to find a new area to replace our ‘lost week-end’ as Peter Black of the Daily Mail called it. The company’s reputation stood high with the Authority, but it would now be homeless. London was our objective. Like the other companies, we thought that the Authority would be content with simply weakening Rediffusion by lopping off the Friday evening. We at ABC therefore decided to apply for the London two-and-a-half day week-end contract, and, as second choice, the seven-day Midlands contract. The boards of directors of all the companies had studied their potential revenue and costs figures before reaching decisions. There was little difficulty in convincing our own Board that although the extra evening’s programme in London would be costly, the resulting revenue for the week-end would provide a profit at least equalling ABC’s current £3,000,000 [£55,000,000 today, allowing for inflation] and perhaps more if we worked hard enough at it.
The Authority had been doing its own arithmetic. It was on the assessments of their canny Director of Finance, Tony Curbishley, that the Authority had divided the five contracts as evenly and as fairly as they could. Curbishley, who had access to all the details of every company’s finances, had worked out the potential revenue of each area, deducted the running costs, and he calculated that the net profit on each of the four major companies would be £3,000,000, with smaller Yorkshire below this level. It was Curbishley who had been responsible for re-dividing London’s revenue and he calculated that the total income would be evenly split if the London week-end contract began at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. on Fridays. According to his figures both of the London companies should show a profit of £3,000,000. This confirmed the figures we had worked out and presented to our own Board. The fact that London Weekend failed to achieve such profits in the early years reflected their early difficulties and miscalculations.
And perhaps now was the opportunity for new blood to be infused? It soon began to leak out that certain BBC executives were being nominated by would-be new contractors and were, in fact, appearing at the Authority’s Brompton Road hearings alongside the new applicants. Then, ominously, Michael Peacock resigned from his job as Controller of BBC1 to join Aidan Crawley’s London Weekend Television consortium. Whilst other BBC executives were known to have allowed their names to go forward, to be revealed only to the Authority, we decided that some sort of assurance must have been given to Peacock before he would venture from security into the unknown. It was discovered that he had been nominated as Managing Director of the proposed company, and other BBC names began to emerge: Humphrey Burton (music and opera), Doreen Stephens (head of BBC children’s programmes), Frank Muir (supervisor of comedy shows) and also John Freeman and David Frost. Such expertise and renown would be almost irresistible to Lord Hill.
By this time there was confusion and suspicion in the ITV boardrooms and on the third floor at the BBC. For everyone concerned, the final pronouncement by Lord Hill could not come too soon. The Authority reached its final decisions on the new contractors at their meeting towards the end of May and it was decided that the Chairman would make the announcement two days later, on a Sunday, to avoid Stock Exchange reactions.
On the fateful Sunday morning the Chairmen of the three London contenders returned with their cohorts to Brompton Road for their final interviews with Lord Hill and Sir Robert Fraser. Thus it was that London Weekend was awarded the programme contract it had sought, while John Spencer Wills, Chairman of Rediffusion Television, was told by Lord Hill of the Authority’s decision – which was to merge Rediffusion with ABC Television and to award the London weekday contract to the new joint company. There would be an equal sharing of profits but fifty-one per cent of the voting shares and the control of the new company would go to ABC, who would provide the managing director and the controller of programmes. Lord Hill described John Spencer Wills’ reaction as ‘deeply shocked, if not flabbergasted, but courteous throughout’.
Next it was ABC Television’s turn and I went with my Chairman, Sir Philip Warter and the deputy-chairman Robert Clark. We were given the same formula, with the addition that Lord Hill and Sir Robert Fraser congratulated me on my appointment as Managing Director of the new London company. It was only on the day after the meeting with Lord Hill and Bob Fraser that I began to realise fully the enormity of the task upon which I had been so suddenly embarked. My first thought was for the staff; nearly three thousand men and women employed by both companies were now reading in their newspapers that something had happened to their jobs. To operate the new company (and what should we call it?) for four-and-a-half days in London would need fewer staff than Rediffusion employed and more than had worked for ABC. There would be jobs for little more than half of the total payroll of the merged companies. Lord Hill had already tried to quell rising apprehension among the ITV workers by a promise that there would be a job for everyone – somewhere.
It was important too to retain the most valuable programme executives and I had to make rapid decisions as to who should be in control of the six programme departments, bearing in mind the equal division between the two original companies and the knowledge that some people had committed themselves already to new contractors.
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.