Deregulation 

1 Jan 2002 0 tbs.pm/1739 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

Something big happens in the UK broadcasting arena every ten to 15 years. The regulator of the day, whether it be the ITA, the IBA or the ITC, decides to upset viewers and TV stations alike. They take a station with a solid backbone and perfectly good record and dismiss it. Well, it’s not quite like that, but the end result is the same – someone is going to ITV heaven.

Those over 40 will remember these TV carve ups, and remember fondly ATV, Southern, Westward, Thames, Rediffusion and, of course, ABC. And each time a station goes to the graveyard, the regulator of the day can only thank them for their past service and move on swiftly to look forward to the incoming franchisees, quickly brushing the dust under the mat, so to speak.

ATV was an entertainment station that the regulator simply wanted to go upmarket and service Birmingham a little more than it had so far. However forcing that upon them led to the removal of ATV entirely – leading to viewers being punished and the network never being the same again. This was certainly the case when ABC and Rediffusion were gone for good. ITV started to haemorrhage slowly from that moment on. A system was set in place by the regulator that seemed designed to make ITV die a slow, agonising death.

Southern was classed as a station stuck in a sixties time warp, but what a time warp, with “How”, “Freewheelers”, “Bright’s Boffins” and “Country Boy” which, along with other programmes, made one of the strongest contributions to children’s programming on the network. Its arts and cultural programming often out-classed the BBC and its entertainment offerings such as “Churchill – The Wilderness Years” made a strong addition to the network. The fact was, most ITV stations actually were stuck in a time warp in the late 60s and early seventies. Southern, whether stuck in a time warp or not, at least tried to move on. The Southampton based station wanted a bigger slice of the pie and seemed to want to break into the inner circle of serious network programme makers, the Big Five (at the time ATV, Thames, London Weekend, Granada and Yorkshire).

Gary Terzza

For those viewers that can remember Westward’s replacement TSW, it was not as successful as its predecessor was. When ATV died, Central hardly breathed new life into the midlands or the network, and when Southern was buried, TVS was to die a ten year or so death with all its glamorous promises cremated with it. Each was a case of the regulator of the day making gross errors of judgement.

As for the strongest network contributor of all, and one with the finest record, Thames Television’s demise was cruel, but the ITC cannot be blamed for this. Rather, the government of the day and its promises to carve ITV up into a thousand pieces has to take the blame. Carlton and its programming are not a patch on the predecessor contractor.

So why do the regulators get it wrong all the time? Next to Thames, the strongest commitment to network entertainment would be London Weekend Television, so was this a success story for the ITA? Hardly. London Weekend was a disaster from the start, with its highbrow promises to the regulator turning out to be the opposite of what the viewers – and advertisers – wanted on a weekend. It may now be one success story the regulator can claim, but in fact it was only Rupert Murdoch stepping in with his slightly downmarket style, management and certainly money that made LWT a success.

Nowhere else in the world do you have a regulator that carves up stations, cancels franchises and has split weekday/weekend franchise. It’s a bizarre system at best, supposedly to breath new life into the network every ten years or so, but as history will reflect, the new life that comes into the network and all its promises with it, is to die a slow death. Today’s ITV is not as successful as its past, the golden years of the late sixties and early seventies. The BBC walks away unscathed and ITV becomes weaker.

Some advice for future regulators and governments – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And bring back ATV – all is forgiven.

     

James Barrington

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