Following the sad news about Sir Christopher Chataway, we republish this 2005 interview with him remembering ITN's opening night
Comment and Opinion
30 Second Guide
TV-am was ITV's breakfast contractor from the effective beginning of breakfast television in Britain in early 1983 until the end of 1992. There had been breakfast transmissions before: Open University programmes had regularly been shown on both BBC channels, and there was a brief 1977 experiment by Yorkshire and Tyne Tees. in 1980, BBC Scotland had attempted a 'Radiovision' experiment of basically putting cameras in the 'Good Morning Scotland' radio studio, albeit with still visual images to illustrate some of what was being talked about. Starting on Tuesday 1st February 1983, 15 days after the launch of the BBC's Breakfast Time, TV-am initially offered an upmarket service based around serious news values and fronted by its "Famous Five" presenters - David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Anna Ford, Angela Rippon and Robert Kee. Frost would stay until near the end, and Parkinson would at least remain for a few years, but the other three would rapidly depart as the company lurched from crisis to crisis, with the more populist Breakfast Time gaining many more viewers. It also suffered (as did early Channel 4) from a dispute with the actors' union Equity, whose members were not initially allowed to appear in adverts shown during TV-am because they objected to being paid less than they would receive for other ITV showings.
Soon, Greg Dyke was parachuted in and pushed TV-am rapidly downmarket, famously introducing the character of Roland Rat, but this much more populist style proved to be a ratings success, rapidly turning the company's commercial fortunes around. Its "chat show" weekday format was replaced at weekends by a variety of programmes, mostly aimed at children, and its success would soon lead the BBC to develop a more upmarket Breakfast Time, which would eventually be renamed BBC Breakfast News. Presenters included Nick Owen, Anne Diamond, future Sky Sports presenter Richard Keys, newscaster Gordon Honeycombe (formerly of ITN) and weather forecaster Wincey Willis.
It greatly improved its news service, which was always separate from that of ITN,after being threatened with the removal of its franchise because of its poor coverage of the Brighton bomb at the Conservative Party conference in October 1984 - TV-am's airtime was strictly separate from that of the rest of ITV, and ITN could never, even for a story of that magnitude, take over during its broadcasting time.
TV-am's approach by the mid-80s resembled a sort of televised Daily Mail - it seemed to delight in gawping at pictures of Princess Diana in that paper and others of its ilk - and as such it was much admired by leading figures in the Conservative government. It was the setting for the last major industrial dispute at a television company in late 1987 and early 1988: after technicians had staged a one-day walkout, Australian-born managing director Bruce Gyngell locked them out for some months, and decided to prove that it could be done without them, using TV-am as a model for a new de-unionised British TV company, with management and other staff initially doing the technical work.
After a memorable emergency service a regular service was restored, but most of the previous technical staff were made redundant.
The new slimmed-down structure was incarnated in the 1990 Broadcasting Act as the model that the whole of ITV should follow. In a moment of great irony it was the new style of appointing ITV franchises which, much to Margaret Thatcher's chagrin brought about TV-am's demise. At its end, the company wound down its operations, closing its news service, with the relatively new Sky News providing its bulletins, and showing repeats in place of new children's programmes at weekends. The company's successor, GMTV("Good Morning Television") very briefly promised to go more upmarket, but soon became effectively a clone of its predecessor. TV-am's studios in Camden, North London, were taken over by MTV Europe.
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