1 Aug 2001 0 comments. tbs.pm/1931
“If promise is never to be preferred to performance, then every television company will go on for ever.”
Those were the words with which ITA chairman Lord Hill demolished the complaints of TWW chairman Lord Derby after the awarding of the contract for Wales and West to the Harlech consortium.
With each company effectively having a monopoly in its region, incumbents would inevitably have to be dismissed or, at least, forcibly restructured, if new blood was to be allowed into the ITV system. The alternative, as envisaged by Lord Derby, would have been for the original contractors to remain in place in perpetuity, unless and until they fell short of the regulator’s standards.
Lord Hill also wrote that, “however adequate its programmes, a company always lives with the risk that it will encounter a better competitor” but this highlights one of the flaws of the contract/franchise system: it’s not until the replacement company takes to the air that it can be judged to be better than its predecessor, and by then it’s too late to reverse this decision.
In practice this has lead to well-loved stations being cast aside on the basis of promises made by challengers, while other companies have survived since the 1950s because of weak or non-existent competition which challenged them in the once-every-decade-or-so contract round.
However, a system of allowing new companies into the system while retaining those existing ones who fulfilled their contractual obligations was perhaps possible right from the start of commercial television had the ITA exercised the right to offer a series of overlapping contracts as the 1954 Television Act allowed.
Of the original VHF regions, probably the one which would have benefited most from having overlapping stations was south Wales. Allocating St. Hilary channel 7 to the marginal Teledu Cymru service from the outset might have enabled WWN to avoid going bust as well as providing Wales with the ITV station which by logical, if not technical, considerations it deserved.
However, this instance aside, the most obvious regions to have offered second contracts in would have been the three major regions carved out during 1955-56.
Various options would have been open to the ITA, many of which could have resulted in a greatly fragmented schedule with wide variations across the country, something which would have been detrimental to commercial television as a whole faced with a largely networked schedule from the BBC.
One way of avoiding this would have been the replacement of the existing contracts in London, the Midlands and the North with four ‘network’ contracts, split over two channels, with the existing Big Four, possibly in conjunction with local backers, the most likely applicants. Apart from maintaining a largely unified schedule in many areas, this would also have reduced the likelihood of diluting profits too much when the effects of launching second channels were still unknown.
Adopting the post-1968 London weekday/weekend split, and offering completely new contracts in these regions, it’s possible to imagine Granada and Rediffusion as the weekday operators, with ABC and ATV taking over at the weekend. Some sharing of facilities and local news operations between the two companies sharing each channel (in a similar way to Carlton and LWT’s ownership of LNN) would have reduced unnecessary duplication of resources whilst still providing competition within each region.
Having a second ITA channel in the main regions would naturally affect the regional contractors and their relationship with the ‘network’ companies, although this may well have depended on the nature of the companies themselves.
The likes of Anglia, with some network aspirations of their own, might have entered into affiliation agreements with one or more of the Big Four – taking all or most of the network schedule in order to get an outlet for their own programmes. Other companies could have chosen to remain independent, picking and choosing programming from the larger companies to form their own schedules.
Awarding non-exclusive contracts could have enabled the replacement of the once-a-decade contract round with rolling contracts similar to the current ITV ones. Where a station did retain a monopoly, the traditional contract round would probably have provided the least worst option, but in general, anyone wishing to gain access to the commercial television sector could have done so by convincing the ITA of the viability of a new station, taking over an existing one or by setting themselves up as a production company and selling their programmes directly to either individual stations or an entire network.
As VHF gave way to UHF, further regions could be awarded second stations if the applicants could prove their viability, and these applicants need not be limited to green field challengers. In fact, one of the advantages of non-exclusive contracts would be that well-performing smaller companies would have the opportunity to expand, either into adjacent or non-adjacent areas. So, for example, Grampian would not have been limited to just the north of Scotland, and Westward could have been able to apply for a frequency on the Mendip transmitter. This could have allowed them to become large enough to remain as independent stations, rather than being ultimately swallowed up by their larger neighbours.
And because competing stations’ coverage areas wouldn’t necessarily coincide, some of the anomalies of the UHF transmitter system could have been addressed earlier as viewers watching the Belmont transmitter might have had the choice between a Yorkshire-based service from one station but an East Midlands or East Anglian service from another. Other transmitters with problematic coverage, such as Bilsdale could also have been utilised in a similar fashion, providing viewers with a choice of local as well as network programming.
The launch of these stations would also have had a knock-on effect on the existing stations. The most likely outcome would have been for the two stations sharing a transmitter to affiliate to one or more of the mini-networks. However, the nature of these affiliations could have varied from one region to another – one station could have affiliated to Rediffusion and ABC, while another could have affiliated to Granada and ABC. It would also have been possible for one company to have owned stations with differing affiliation agreements, although when these agreements came up for renewals, it’s likely that station owners would have affiliated with one weekday and/or one weekend network operator.
Whilst overlapping stations would effectively have given many viewers the sub-regional opt-outs which were launched during the 1980s far earlier, other issues would naturally have arisen requiring regulatory action. Concern over the power exerted by the four network operators could perhaps have seen them forced to divest themselves of some or all of their stations, merging the network and programme ownership roles whilst keeping station ownership in other hands, in a similar way to the US where these roles were often kept separate.
However, freed from station ownership limitations, the networks would have been able to expand out of their previous weekday/weekend slots, helped by the launch of additional stations where these were both financially viable and technically possible. Although, whether effectively doubling choice in this way would have worked is perhaps doubtful, so perhaps the two smallest networks could have combined in order to compete with their larger rivals. The number of networks wouldn’t necessarily have been fixed though, and through a combination of agreeing deals with existing stations supplemented by cable and low-powered RSL-type transmitters, new networks could have been launched in a similar way to the way in which the three US networks have been augmented by Fox, The WB and UPN.
With the advent of Digital Terrestrial Television, any lack of space in the spectrum would not be an issue and all parts of the UK could have a mix of full- and part-time networks distributed terrestrially. The number of networks and local opt-outs could provide the platform with a much-needed selling point, strengthening its position as a complement to satellite and cable.
Whilst those believing that viewers are “confused” by too many different on-screen identities would no doubt be horrified at the thought of production companies, stations and networks all promoting themselves, this doesn’t seem to have hampered the US where production, distribution, station and network logos can all be seen on-screen.
Given that the majority of losing bidders in the 1990 franchise round failed the ITC’s quality threshold rather than merely being outbid, awarding non-exclusive contracts could have seen most, if not all, of those wishing to gain access to the commercial television sector to have done so, whether as producers or broadcasters.
The disruption of the franchise round and the replacement of existing stations on the basis of promises made by others would be eliminated, and stations would have succeeded or otherwise on their own merits, not through the intervention of the regulator.
In addition, viewers would also have had a greater choice of national and local programming far earlier than otherwise. But since this choice for viewers means competition for the stations themselves and the chances of one broadcaster dominating almost every primetime slot far less, perhaps it’s not surprising that the original ITV contractors told the ITA that they preferred to keep their regional monopolies than introduce competition into the system.