Goodbye Britain 

1 January 2002

Back in 1954, the original Television Act – killed in spirit by that bug-bear of British television, the 1990 Broadcasting Act – hypothesised that commercial television could not only have the quality of licence-funded programming, but even surpass the output from the BBC. Capitalist broadcasting could bring innovation where previously there had been the dead hand of a monopoly.

New programming ideas, new presentation standards, even new personalities could be spring forth from a public service commercial network. In practice the competition between the BBC’s and the ITA’s services meant that they were both forced to be innovative. New ideas came from the duopoly in an effort to out do each other, and the best ideas would be adopted by both, helping to ensure that Britain had “the least worst” television in the world.

Therefore, when the IBA announced a new franchise – to cover the morning ‘off period’ where few companies had ever dared to make a stand and none had succeeded – the BBC moved fast to produce a rival. The two services, BBC Breakfast Time and TV-am went head to head in the midst of the fiercest recession in the UK since the Great Depression.

Needless to say, the BBC service seemed to win the battle. As TV-am found itself without advertisers but with more debt than it could handle, the scene seemed set – Breakfast Time would be left on its own, and the IBA would have its first bankrupt station since little Wales (West and North) Television in 1964.

The original big five: Robert Key, Angela Rippon, David Frost, Anna Ford, Michael Parkinson

So TV-am took an obvious path. It plunged down market, at a pace and with a naked intent that surprised both the viewers and the media hacks waiting to pick through the rubble of Eggcup House. The BBC was left standing, unable to get as low as TV-am, losing viewers to the determinedly populist opposition. Breakfast Time died, reborn as BBC Breakfast News as the BBC retreated back to what it knew best.

TV-am had won the hearts and minds of the morning television viewer, and the morning television advertiser, with a mixture of bright graphics, fluffy human-interest stories and bingo. When Bruce Gyngell arrived on the scene, he took the station upmarket slightly, jettisoning the baggage of his predecessor – ironically, the now-Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke.

The populist mix of chat, star interviews, soft stories, soap gossip and, most importantly perhaps, the trouncing of the BBC, had given TV-am a fan who sat regally above the rest of the viewing population – a housewife from Grantham who controlled, ultimately, the fate of quality British television along with the rest of British life, and who was intent on changing both. The woman was Mrs Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, and she was TV-am’s greatest supporter.

The much remarked-upon irony, that it was she who caused the station’s demise, is now a cliché that broadcasting historians have been commenting on since the fateful day that the new regulator’s fax arrived at Camden Lock, and will continue to do so for many more years.

Bruce Gyngell had tried to retain his station’s franchise by playing fair. He bid what the franchise was worth. He promised only what he felt they could deliver. He even employed feng shui techniques in the station’s offices in an effort to attract luck. But the new system was against TV-am for many reasons. The new system, above all, was not fair and playing fair would not work.

Gyngell called a press conference after the announcement. At the conference he produced a hand-written letter from a former Prime Minister. In it, the politician expressed regret for setting in process a chain of events that was designed to replace ITV with stations like TV-am but had in fact replaced TV-am with a station that aspired to be more like BBC Breakfast News.

Never before had this woman apologised for one of her policies. She did so for TV-am, but only after she had lost the power to stop what she had started two years before.

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