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The first country to enjoy a regular television service was the UK, whose British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) started transmissions to a few Londoners from Alexandra Palace in 19361. This fact was so great a source of pride for most Britons, even if they couldn't receive the signal (few could), that the service was restarted after the Second World War in 1946, at the cost of a significant delay in post-war restructuring. The BBC provided a number of rather staid shows in the early days, earning it the nickname of 'Auntie Beeb', and, as time wore on, the feeling grew that airwaves not used by the BBC could be used to offer an alternative service, giving the BBC the oxygen of competition. This is the story of that alternative.

Creating Competition

The 1950s government of Harold Macmillan, having seen the success of commercially-funded television abroad, saw a potential method for creating the alternative. Private television companies, broadcasting under licence, would have to compete for advertisers, which would lead to good programmes, as nobody would pay to advertise during something nobody watched. The decision was made early on - not only would these companies compete with the BBC, they would also compete with one another. A format for avoiding monopoly was easy - geographical division. The new channel would be a federation of regional stations with some networked programmes. This could be achieved very simply by the allocation of transmitters, but would lead merely to local monopolies. A further division was needed. The question was: how to do it? Three alternative methods were considered:

  • Parallel Division - This was perhaps the most obvious method and the most desirable. Simply, two different companies would simultaneously broadcast to the same area - the most direct competition possible. But it fell foul of a practical difficulty. There was not enough room on the airwaves of the VHF format then used for it to be possible. People in overlap areas would get channels interfering with each other, and some areas could not be served at all. Unfortunately, it had to be ruled out.

  • Horizontal Division - This format would have several different companies in the same daily timeslots, so that the week's listings would form a sort of day/company matrix. But it did not lend itself very well to competition, as one would be showing daytime shows for housewives, another children's after-school television, another family primetime TV, and perhaps a fourth adult TV for when the kids were in bed. Each of these would attract different advertisers, so the competition would be more implied than real.

  • Vertical Division - Two days of one company, followed by two days of another, two of a third, and so on. There was no trouble here for competition, but unfortunately the days of the week are a prime number, seven. This would mean the companies broadcasting on different days each week, which might prevent one from hogging the lucrative weekend, but would cause appalling confusion for the viewers, with programmes being thrown around the schedules. People would keep missing them, and that might put advertisers off. Another no go.

So, none of the formats considered worked. Eventually, in the 1954 Television Act, the government decided on a version of vertical division for what were deemed the three major regions - London, the English Midlands and Northern England - which would receive coverage first. Each would be divided into a weekday and a weekend contract, so that one would be on longer than the other, but have fewer daily viewers. Four companies would hold the contract, some holding two of them to even things up further. This created a further level of competition, as the companies produced programmes to be shown across the network, in the hope that others would buy them. Later, 'minor' regions would be set up across the rest of the country. The contracts for these would be seven-day, but the companies would only contribute a tiny amount to the network, though the majors would still have to compete to sell their products to them. All the companies would also have to produce regional programmes2. All this was overseen by the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which would oversee all proposed output to see if it met the established criteria. This body could allocate contracts at regular reviews, about once a decade, and hand contracts over to different companies.

In The Beginning

The three major regions were London, the English Midlands, and the North of England3.

Associated-Rediffusion4 was first to launch on a London weekday contract in 1955. It competed with ATV (Associated Television), the weekend company, who also held the Midlands weekday contract. They actually held the latter alone until 1956, when ABC Weekend Television5 launched in both the Midlands and the North. Granada, the weekday Northern contractor, launched at the same time6. The companies adopted different styles. Rediffusion was formal, often called 'The BBC with adverts', whereas ATV was a very informal, entertainment-based station, giving Londoners a jarring division. Granada was the most regionalist in its outlook. The ITA liked ABC's mixture best, being something of all three.

Next, the stations for the minor regions were set up. Scottish Television was set up first in 1957 to serve the central lowlands of Scotland. It was followed in 1956 by Southern, 'The Station That Serves The South', by Tyne Tees (named after two local rivers), for the far North East of England, and by TWW (Television Wales and West), which, largely due to an accident of geography, served South Wales and part of West England. Anglia launched in 1959, serving East England, along with Ulster, for Northern Ireland. The famous galleon of Westward, for South West England, was first seen in 1961, the same year that Border began transmissions to Cumbria and the Scottish borders (and later the Isle of Man). Scottish expected to benefit from the extension to the Northern Highlands of Scotland, but, due to their dull output, the ITA instead created a new region and gave the contract to a company called Grampian, whose signal can sometimes be picked up in Berwick-upon-Tweed. The map was completed in 19627 with Teledu Cymru, also known as WWN (Wales West and North), for the Welsh speaking parts of Wales, and with Channel, serving the tiny region of the Channel Islands.

Too Small

The powers of the Postmaster-General in deciding the broadcasting rights of each company were extensive, and in the case of Teledu Cymru, very harsh. WWN had to provide unnetworkable Welsh-language programmes to a small number of viewers, and could not infringe on areas that received TWW or Granada. This did not attract advertisers, so it could not afford to make the shows in its remit, while buying others in. In 1964, Teledu Cymru went bankrupt. TWW went to the ITA and offered to take over the service, provided the restrictions Teledu Cymru had suffered were relieved. This was accepted, and Teledu Cymru, the only ITV company to go bankrupt, continued to have its name used in its old regions.

The Revolution of 1968

The regular round of contract renewals had never seen any changes made to the ITV network, and, by the 1968 round, most had come to see themselves as permanent. Lord Hill, the new head of the ITA, realised that this belief threatened competition, and made for bad television. He also believed that the competition that had gone before had worked against regional programming, which he viewed as the essence of ITV. His first contract round in charge would mean major changes.

With regard to the majors, Hill saw the North region as too big, and decided to split it down the Pennines. Granada would now only serve the North West, albeit for the whole week, and a new company was given the contract for the east of the old region. Its name was exactly the same as that of the region it served, Yorkshire. Yorkshire TV also ran all week, and both new regions were to be considered majors. The weekend contract for the Midlands would also be abolished, with ATV broadcasting all week. ABC, Hill's favourite company, would be rewarded with London weekends, now starting on Friday evenings as a slap on the wrist for the arrogant Rediffusion, London (as A-R were known at the time). The weekday/weekend split was retained in London because it was felt that a single London contractor would have too much power over the network.

The popular broadcaster David Frost ruined this. His London Television Consortium put in such a good bid that, by his own rules, Hill could not refuse it. Frost's LTC gained London weekends instead. So what about ABC? The solution was, in retrospect, a mean thing to do, but Rediffusion and was given a 'this or nothing' order - set up a new company with ABC, who would own 51% of the new business, or ABC would get London weekdays outright. Rediffusion had to agree. After a large wrangle over names, Frost's no-nonsense consortium decided to take the name London Weekend, while the new weekday company became Thames. London Weekend followed lowbrow, cheerful, ATV with worthy arts programmes nobody watched. It forced itself to become more fun, became LWT, and settled in.

As for the minors, Hill was determined to show that they too were not permanent. One would have to lose its contract. Scottish was the obvious choice, given its cheap output, but it met with no serious competitors. Meanwhile, Lord Harlech's consortium, bidding for Wales and the West, put in a quite stunning bid. TWW were horrified when they learned that they had lost their contract - they had been a good, if not spectacular, contractor, and had stepped in when WWN folded. So hurt was their owner, Lord Derby, a friend of Hill's8, that he stopped broadcasting months before the contract ran out. The ITA was forced to run a temporary Independent Television Service for Wales and the West (ITSWW), from March to May 1968, before Harlech was ready to take over.

Technical Crisis

While all this had been going on, technicians around the country had been growing restless. Their contracts were due to run out in 1968 as well, and neither the incumbents or the new companies had reached any new deals with them. ITV went off air as strikes were called across the network. The ITA called on the remaining staff to set up a national Independent Television Strike Service, which regularly found itself having to apologise for advertising products that were not available in certain regions. This is in fact the first known national on-screen use of the name 'Independent Television'. For a few weeks, ITV viewers experienced a truly national ITV service, until an agreement was reached, the technicians returned to work, and normality, or rather the new version of it, returned.

The Quiet Seventies

A time of stability followed. The 1970s were a quiet time in which ITV companies carried on much as before, apart from Harlech's pioneering split, in 1970, into HTV West and HTV Wales/Cymru. This 'sub-regions' approach would become more common in future times, though never to the same extent. HTV almost treated the two areas as separate contracts. Another new development of the 1970s was the development of a secondary television service. It was discovered that messages could be sent in the top lines of a TV signal, usually unseen, to put a form of text - teletext - on screen. The BBC used this to create Ceefax, and it was obvious to the ITA that a rival form was needed. As it was, a group from ITV were working on just such a service, and, with the ITA's blessing, started transmissions around 19749. Thus was Oracle born. It was never strictly a part of ITV, but was a part of 'Channel 3', as ITV were often known after the launch of BBC2, and was accessed through the local ITV channel.

One other event in the 1970s was to foreshadow later events in ITV's history. By 1970, Tyne Tees was in financial dire straits. It did not want to follow WWN, and turned to its neighbour to the south for help. Yorkshire knew that it would also benefit from joint ownership with Tyne Tees, and together, they pleaded exceptional circumstances to the ITA. The end result was that, in 1974, the two set up Trident, a new holding company, which was mostly controlled by Yorkshire. Effectively, Yorkshire had taken over Tyne Tees. Though the two would later be forced apart in the early 1980 contract round, the idea of companies buying each other would later take over ITV.

Portable Offices, Bras and a Grey Rat

As has been said, the 1970s were generally a quiet time in which the ITV companies more or less went about business as usual. By the end of the decade, and the contract renewal round that went with it10, this had become, in some cases, too much of the usual. The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA, as the ITA had been renamed) allowed ATV to keep the Midlands, but with two conditions - firstly, it create sub-regions, and secondly, it change its name to something more local. It emerged from this as Central. That was the only happy change of the time.

Westward, a hugely popular station, was in a desperate situation by the late 1970s. Its London-based ownership was constantly feuding with its Plymouth-based management, to the detriment of the company. It also faced the one thing no company would want at such a time - a strong challenger. The contract went to TSW (Television South West), which planned, as all new ITV companies do, to revolutionise television in its region. Westward promptly collapsed, and was bought out by TSW, which therefore had the staff and studios three months before it was due to start its contract. This had the effect that TSW, using the Westward name until the correct handover time (New Year 1981), learned how to please the South West, and changed next to nothing, happily keeping the beloved rabbit Gus Honeybun. The galleon, however, did go, in favour of TSW's own logo, which can only be described as a pile of bras.

Westward may have had problems, but Southern did not. Nonetheless, they lost their contract as well, to TVS (Televsion South). Southern was, to say the least, bitter at the decision, complaining 'We didn't do anything'. Quite right. That's why they lost the contract - they were still a 1950s company, albeit now in colour. Actually, there were plenty of ITV companies stuck in the past. Southern had just had the bad luck to come up against a particularly promising and dynamic challenger, who promised a new South-Eastern sub-region. Southern went out without dignity, their last show attacking the IBA, and ridiculing the fact that at the time they were based in temporary office cabins in Southern's Southampton studio car park.

At the same time, the IBA turned its attention to the early mornings. The existing companies were not interested in the 6am-9.30am timeslot, with only a handful of brief experiments. Nonetheless, the BBC was planning a Breakfast TV service, and the IBA wanted it to have ITV competition. The solution - a completely new contract for a company to broadcast nationally at breakfast time. TV-am was chosen for this, and set out with a current affairs based service. Unfortunately, it was beaten by the BBC's Breakfast Time service to be the first breakfast TV provider, and found itself facing a far more laid-back show than it expected. Bankruptcy loomed, and TV-am went very lightweight in the form of the magazine-format weekday show Good Morning Britain, winning over an audience, including a huge number of children, and making a tidy profit in the end, all thanks to Roland Rat11.

A Failed Experiment

Things quietened down once more. Anglia retired their famous knight logo and replaced him with an 'A' shaped flag, but generally, the network returned to normal. There was, however, in 1989, an early experiment at what, in the late 1990s, would take over ITV - the generic look. A logo for ITV itself was created, in capitals and with an inverted triangle built into the 'V'. This logo would appear before networked programmes, with part of the logo of the local contractor shown in the triangle. Grampian loved it - it suited their Saltire logo perfectly. Others also used it, but some refused, usually on the grounds that what remained of their logo wasn't worth keeping. TVS, for example, was given a wavy 'S' that was part of the logo of their parent company, not that of the channel. They refused outright. Some who did use it abandoned it, until only Grampian remained with it.

ITV Gets 'Thatchered'

By the late 1980s, Britain had changed. The Thatcher revolution had privatised and deregulated a huge amount of British industry, and, in 1989, the government decided to change ITV as well. The aim was to deregulate, and turn the companies more into proper capitalist businesses. The end result was the Broadcasting Act of 1990. Its first move was to pull the teeth out of the regulator. The IBA became the ITC. No longer would it approve a company's output before broadcast, or intervene at all, except in special cases when viewers had specifically complained. The decision-making process regarding what would be networked also changed. Instead of the various companies bartering between themselves, a centralised system, consisting of a board known as 'ITV Network Centre' that simply dictated what would be networked, was introduced. The contracts became franchises. The important thing in each franchise round now was how much of its yearly profits the company had bid to give to the treasury, provided it was deemed viable. Programme quality was relegated to a poor secondary status, though, in fairness, it saved Granada. No incumbent could go on its past record any more. Future plans were all that mattered. Most oddly of all, perhaps, the franchise auction involved sealed bids. No company would know how much its rivals were bidding, if there were any. Central got away with bidding a tiny £2000, because no-one else bid at all.

The resulting auction ruined five companies.

The Revolution of 1991

Thames, perhaps the biggest of all the ITV companies, provider of both heavyweight documentaries and lightweight entertainment, had a great past. To the Independent Television Commission, this meant nothing. Their bid was not the biggest for London Weekdays, and Carlton Broadcasting were awarded the franchise instead. Quite how Carlton passed the remaining quality-programming threshold is a mystery, but pass it they did. They promised a new kind of television for London, which they achieved. It had never been so downmarket before. Unusually, for an ex-ITV company, Thames still exists as an independent production company. Some of its still impressive output now even appears on the BBC12.

Quite why TSW overbid in the way it did remains a complete mystery. The small South West region has never been the most lucrative. Still, overbid it did, and the franchise was instead given to Westcountry TV. TSW's in-vision continuity13, the last in the network in Great Britain, appeared for the last time on New Years Eve, 1991, to thank the viewers and wish Westcountry all the best - somewhat hypocritically, given the huge legal challenge they had mounted, which threw all of Westcountry's plans into disarray. Big Ben bonged strangely, and a giant 'W' appeared on the screen. In-vision continuity had, children's programmes aside, left the network in Great Britain for good. (It remains in Northern Ireland, though it is doubtful that this will be for long). Overly slick, Westcountry lacked charm, and never really won the affections of the South West.

Now, the franchise auction had been in favour of adventurous, money-seeking companies, of which TV-am, which Thatcher adored, was a prime example. Therefore, TV-am was safe, right? It thought so itself, and was proved wrong when the franchise was given instead to a consortium called Sunrise, which had bid four times the amount they had. Thatcher herself wrote to TV-am to apologise14. Unfortunately for Sunrise, they were immediately challenged in the courts by Sky TV, whose own breakfast service was called Sunrise. The new terrestrial broadcaster gave in and changed its name to GMTV (Good Morning Television). GMTV wanted to take ITV breakfast a bit more upmarket, and might have succeeded, but for the almost simultaneous launch of Channel Four's manic The Big Breakfast. Within months, GMTV was a total TV-am clone, even down to the beige sofa.

Poor Oracle. They had fought a brave battle against the original draft of the Broadcasting Act, which had threatened to do away with independent ITV teletext altogether. Would a system where the local franchisee provided the service instead be preferable? No, said Oracle, and the readers agreed. National Text was made a franchise like any other. It went to auction, and was won by a company confusingly called Teletext. Oracle had fought and won a hard fight, only for an admittedly very good challenger to take the spoils anyway.

TVS stand out along among the losers of 1990, because they would in all likelihood have lost out under the old rules anyway. They had fulfilled their ambitious promise and gone over-ambitious, buying up the American MTM, and turning South and South East television into a mere arm of their empire as TVS Television15. Then the economy took a downturn, and TVS discovered it had massively overreached itself. This explains its monstrous bid of over £50 million - a sure sign of desperation. The ITC recognised this, and gave the franchise to Meridian Broadcasting instead. By selling their studios and library, TVS managed to stay solvent long enough to see out its contract, then went bankrupt the next day. Meridian ran things a bit like a 1990s Southern, and stood out among the successful non-text challengers as the only one to keep the same logo between bidding and winning16.

The End of the Regions?

A further Broadcasting Act was passed in the mid-1990s freeing the companies to buy each other. It seemed a good idea, and Yorkshire promptly demonstrated that maybe it wasn't. The first acquisition under the new rules was, for the second time, that of Tyne Tees by Yorkshire, who dreamed of a new look network - Channel 3. Each region's name would have the formula 'Channel 3', and then the name of the region. Thus, in 1997, Tyne Tees became Channel 3 North East, and Yorkshire became, er, Yorkshire. Apparently the new formula didn't suit the region that invented it. It didn't suit the North Easterners, either. After much public outcry, and Yorkshire itself being bought by Granada, the name of Tyne Tees was restored.

Despite this setback, takeovers gathered pace. Companies bought each other up, only to be bought up themselves. At the time of writing, only five remain. Granada now owns Border, Tyne Tees, Yorkshire, Anglia, LWT and Meridian. Carlton owns Westcountry, Central and HTV. Scottish owns Grampian. The only remaining independents are little Channel, which belongs to a separate group, and the totally independent UTV (as Ulster is now known).

This led to a revival of the generic look idea. A new ITV, or rather 'itv', logo was created in lower case with the motto 'itv - television from the heart of life', showing hearts to reflect this. In the Granada empire, all regions were given the same format for their on-screen identities, consisting of their own logo in a small box (too small for Tyne Tees and Meridian), followed by their own name in big letters, with 'itv' below and spinning hearts in the background (though LWT bent the rules as far as it could, using a video wall as the background). Channel adopted the hearts as well, but not the itv. Carlton went furthest, using spinning stars instead of hearts, and obliterating the names of Central and Westcountry altogether, as of 1999. Apparently, people were confused by seeing Carlton programmes on a differently-named station, which is odd, because it never confused anybody in the past. That was the whole point of ITV in the old days. Oddly, not only did Carlton spare HTV, presumably because of its Welsh viewers, but HTV adopted a Granada style 'hearts' look. In Scotland, the only difference between the two companies came to be the name on screen - both had a box of shapes above the name, in the middle of a little film. UTV kept its own, totally separate identity.

The hearts look failed to catch on, and ITV1 (as the terrestrial channel was renamed after the launch of the digital channel ITV2) found its ratings in decline. In 2002, a third generic look was unveiled, throughout both the Granada and Carlton empires. This was far more radical than the hearts, with films of ITV celebrities and only the name of 'itv1' on screen. The regional names only featured before regional programmes. Also, the identities of HTV and the London companies disappeared completely, with their regions now ITV1 Wales, ITV1 West of England, and ITV1 London. LWT went out in a nostalgic blaze of glory, using all its old on-screen identities in its last weekend. From then on, all continuity announcements, including the few remaining regional ones, were made from London. Channel went along with this, but UTV and the Scotland companies kept their own continuity and their on-screen names, though they did adopt the celebrity idents.

Will all this lead to a single, unified itv1? Perhaps. A further change suggested at the time of writing is that only the itv1 logo would appear before networked programmes, though only the regional logo would appear on other shows. This is pushing the generic look as far as the law will allow - many say that Carlton and Granada bosses would merge their companies and do away with regional names altogether if they could. Now, the draft for another new broadcasting act looks set to do away with the rule that has existed since the launch of ITV, expressly forbidding its single ownership.

There may, however, be other concerns about a single ITV - Carlton and Granada have an embarrassing joint business record. Together, they created ON Digital, a service whereby viewers could receive digital television without needing to get a satellite dish. Potentially, this was a good idea, but they offered an awkward mélange of channels, which were often their own efforts, and had little about them that was special. In addition, they suffered from a large number of avoidable technical problems. Most people who wanted digital bought Sky, if they didn't already have it. Finally, ON Digital, desperately renamed ITV Digital, bought up the rights to screen lower-division club football, not noticing that anyone who cared enough about such games would already be at the grounds watching them there. ITV Digital went bankrupt and crashed out of the market17. At the same time, itv1's audience share fell, not just to the new Sky channels, but also to old BBC1, which managed to outdo itv1 in the ratings on a regular basis, a previously unheard-of event. This is due, in part, to ITV's refusal, until very late in the day, to allow itself to also broadcast on Sky. The digital misadventure also meant that the main channel became short of money to spend on programming, which helped the fall of the terrestrial viewing figures, and in fact led to the celebrity rebrand, so as to strengthen ITV1 as a brand. Some say consolidation will make the channel a strong player in a multi-channel world, others that it is throwing away its unique nature. The future for the channel in the digital age is now quite impossible to predict.

Further Reading

1This is apart from a few low-definition propaganda broadcasts in Nazi Germany.2Which meant that the local culture of a major got spread across the network, but that of a minor didn't. Good for Cockneys, bad for Geordies. And all Welsh and Scots.3Actually Lancashire and Yorkshire, but not Tyne and Wear.4Named after the French word for Broadcasting.5The 'A' in 'ABC' stands for 'Associated'. What was it about that word?6Notice that these names had nothing whatever to do with the region they served. Only Granada managed to relate its name to its region, displaying on screen the words 'Granada - From the North'. Today many British people think of Northern England when they hear the word 'Granada' - but this was not the case at the time of launch.7 Well, sort of completed. Many booster transmitters would be needed to reach certain areas, a project that went on well into the 1990s.8At any rate up until that moment.9Given their test transmissions, it is arguable as to precisely when ITV teletext started.10Along with a further 1979 technicians strike, which this time took ITV completely off air for a while.11Cockney rodent superstar, very fond of caviar and chips, and who regularly called balding newsreader Gordon Honeycomb 'Mr Beeswax'.12And now a more cynical view of these events. The Broadcasting Act ordered sealed bids with the sole intention of robbing Thames of its franchise because it had embarrassed the Thatcher government with the documentary Death on the Rock. Certainly no ITV company has attempted that sort of investigative journalism since. So much for setting the companies free.13That is, having the continuity announcer on screen, rather than a disembodied voice behind the station logo. It costs more because you need a camera, sound equipment, make-up, costumes and a set, but is more personal and friendly.14An embarrassing consequence of this was that Thatcher's own daughter, Carol - who was a presenter for the company - publicly lambasted her mother for the decision that had cost her her job.15Television South Television. That sounds a little silly, doesn't it?16In Meridian's case, a strange sun/moon/face type thing. Carlton ditched its formal looking name for the 'Little T' look we see regularly. Westcountry's huge 'W' started out as quite a small one on part of a compass. And we all know about Sunrise...17The only real success of ITV Digital was the knitted monkey that advertised it. He stands with Gus and Roland in the pantheon of great ITV puppets.

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