End Game 

11 January 2001 tbs.pm/3359

Having emerged with praise from the 1964 contract round, ABC had reason to be confident as their licence reached expiration.

But the new pattern of franchises advertised in 1966 by Lord Hill of Luton’s ITA to begin in the latter part of 1968 had a hurdle in them – the end of the weekday/weekend split except in London. Of all the companies who would be affected by this change, ABC was the one who would feel it most. Quite simply, its regions would cease to exist.

Howard Thomas and the board of ABC began to scout around for a new region. There was an obvious one: London weekends, the only area to keep the old split, now with the addition of the Friday evening.

The ITA required that the existing companies submitted a list showing, in order of preference, which regions they were interested in. Some were predictable, with Rediffusion choosing London weekdays or southern England. Some were knowing, like ATV ignoring London weekends in favour of a first choice of the Midlands seven days. Some were blindingly obvious – where else could Granada go?

And then there was ABC. First choice: London weekends, followed by Midlands seven-day against ATV and the new Yorkshire region. Patently, London weekends would be the reward, an example of good things coming to those who wait.

At the BBC, there were several employees who felt that the Corporation had lost its way. Proper programmes for the intelligentsia were disappearing under the onslaught of popular programming. BBC-2 was a ghetto, BBC-1 was a no-go area.

But ITV was rolling in money. London was swinging, and Rediffusion and ATV were swinging with it. All this money and no effort required. The viewers would watch anything put in front of them (they must do – have you see the Palladium show?) so why not ballet, Pinter and opera? Since these executives were crying out for more culture, it was obvious that the public were, too. And there was all that money available for the taking – ATV was making millions for two days.

David Frost, Michael Peacock and the former Editor in Chief of ITN, Aidan Crawley MP, put a consortium together, poaching BBC and Rediffusion staff, plus cultural icons from throughout the capital. Highbrow arts, highbrow drama, everything that ITV was missing.

ABC must have sniggered at this consortium at first. They knew that the weekends were a hard-fought time, that people did indeed want arts programming, but were prepared to get up early or stay up late for it. The money did not pour in, but had to be carefully harvested.

But Hill, it turns out, was easily impressed by a few famous names and some ambitious plans. ITV was successful but stale, and he planned to change this. But then he was stuck. How could the brilliantly-polished LTC – the Frost Consortium as it was inaccurately labelled in the media – and ABC be accommodated together in the new system?

LTC was clear – London weekends or nothing. ABC could slot into Yorkshire, but the creation of that new region was predicated on the idea that a local company of local talent backed with local money should step in. ABC could displace the much-loathed ATV in the Midlands. But then Hill would have to find a home for ATV – politically it was impossible to remove entirely a company with such a good export arm when the government of the day was crying out for foreign currency.

Like a cork in a sink full of water, one of the companies would bob to the top again, displaced. ATV had to be kept. Yorkshire wasn’t available to a ‘London company’. London weekends were spoken for. Granada was untouchable. Where next? What to do?

The ITA under Hill had been unhappy with Rediffusion. There was nothing major wrong with them, per se. They were a fine company with fine programmes and a fine reputation. But that was all – they had no flair, no unique selling point, that the ITA could see. And they were arrogant, strutting through ITA interviews as if the regulator didn’t matter. They didn’t listen – weren’t interested in listening – as they patently knew better than the ITA how to produce a solid television service.

The idea of replacing them must have been attractive to Hill. No more trouble, no more arrogance. But the London weekday contractor was the mainstay of the the network, the anchor of the system. Any company that replaced Rediffusion would need extremely deep pockets to build a service as solid as Rediffusion’s existing one. Londoners would immediately see a mistake had been made if a lesser company appeared. And Londoners included the politicians who ran the country and ‘owned’ the ITA.

ABC did not have the resources to immediately begin producing the schools programmes and current affairs that Rediffusion supplied to a grateful network. So Rediffusion was safe. But there was a precedent available. When the system was first formed, the ITA had been happy to merge different bidders, to change shareholdings and interests. A new franchise round, where all applicants, even those previously established, were to be under new contracts left Hill with a free hand.

What if a displaced company were to takeover the London weekday contract from Rediffusion, but keep the schools programmes and current affairs and back catalogue of the removed company. What if Rediffusion could be offered a price – a carrot – for agreeing?

John Benson on ABC's last weekend in front of new Thames background

What if ABC were to take the London weekdays contract, but be allowed to pick and choose the staff, talent and programming of its predecessor? If ABC was running Rediffusion’s service, a solid company would be created – but one with a renewed flair for daring and original programming.

ABC and Rediffusion were jointly offered Rediffusion’s contract, with Rediffusion given half the profits and 49% of the company. This sweetened a bitter pill for Rediffusion, but it was a slap in the face to Britain’s first commercial broadcaster.

Still, with 49% of the new station, they would have a large say in the direction it was to take, wouldn’t they?

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