Major Merger 

1 June 2002 tbs.pm/1819

The unfortunate Broadcasting Act of 1990 weakened ITV’s remit so far as to allow single players into a federal service, previously run by 15 self-funding operators.

As soon as the biggest stations began to buy their smaller rivals, the press and media alike were imagining a single ITV player emerging, able to take on the likes of the mighty NBC, CBS and ABC. This company would produce international shows and comedies like “Friends” and “Melrose Place” and take on the world. The reality is, however, that ITV continues to haemorrhage viewers and produce cheaper, downmarket productions

Let’s take a step backward. We have two major players left now at ITV in Granada and Carlton, and are we producing international hits? Well there’s “Shafted”, and, er, I rest my case. The fact is, when ITV was fifteen independently run stations it survived on the competition they had amongst themselves

It is well known the rivalry between Howard Thomas of ABC, Lew Grade of ATV and the Bernsteins at Granada helped create award winning international shows from each station.

But look at the present, with two players controlling ITV in England and you find they have cut costs, closed studios in regions and even introduced generic presentation and voiceovers for all their regions. The programmes have become weaker and cheaper, and the mighty advertising pound’s value has dropped dramatically. So how could a single player take on NBC et al? The fact is they never will in the current environment of buying stations and working towards a single ITV.

With all due respects to the artists involved, I can’t see “Blind Date” becoming a great British export. Every station in the western world has their own version of ITV’s modern hits. And overseas stations do them well, if not better. The Australian “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” is just as good as the British version.

Time to go back nearly 30 years, when British TV had more than its fair share of industrial disputes and little old Anglia TV came to the rescue, suddenly dominating the schedules with “Sale Of The Century”, “Survival” and even one-off plays like “Lloyd George Knew My Father”.

All were rating winners that night, all were Anglia productions and all made the top ten. After being engrossed in that very ‘Survival’ documentary, I sat down to watch the one-hour play “Lloyd George Knew My Father”. I was twelve and didn’t know what it was about, but I sat glued to – and entertained by – the play. Why would a 12-year-old bother? Because one-hour plays were always entertaining. A lot of effort went into these plays to ensure this.

Today my kids will wait for “The Simpsons” and “Melrose Place”, and will stay in to watch certain shows, like the UK did for ITV’s one-off plays. “Armchair Theatre” was always entertainment of the finest kind, as was BBC-1’s “Play Of The Week”. Viewers wouldn’t know what the play was about beforehand, but you would sit and watch for 10 minutes or so, and by then you knew if you were about to be captured by it.

Today’s viewers seem not to have those ten minutes to waste, and certainly the patience to wait has been eliminated. This is why “Play of the Week” and “Armchair Theatre” are now dead and buried in the archives – sad really, because whilst television trends have changed, so too has quality.

When revenue picks up, ITV will produce award-winning shows again, but quality will continue to drop for sure. ITV has not produced an award winning comedy in Britain for years now and Variety is all but dead. Reality TV is starting to take over more and more, and Coronation Street will never break into the American market, despite periodic press releases from Granada. So why bother trying to be an international player against these odds? Simply, it is greed.

What made ITV special in the past was production of the highest. It was make or break on a programme for each TV company, so a lot of effort went into shows. This was due to the internal competition in ITV, and competition breathes competition.

How will a single player breathe competition? The fact is, it won’t, if the mighty ITV Digital (ironically jointly owned by Carlton and Granada) was anything to go by. Perhaps a return to a Knight at home with Anglia, or a new Bernstein, Grade or Thomas, willing to compete against another contender may produce those exports Britain was once famous for.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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James Barrington Contact More by me

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