Who killed the continuity announcers? 

24 May 2004 0 tbs.pm/2029 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

Mike Auld does the detective work to solve a mystery.

I have a theory that in-vision continuity on ITV was killed by an unholy alliance of BBC, Channel 4 and Victoria Wood (discuss). But now, in a further moment of insanity, I shall cite the implementation of night time broadcasting by LWT (gasp!) and Channel 4 for the death of live, spoken continuity.

A Complete History of UK Night Time Television (abridged)

Twenty-four hour television has been commonplace in the USA for almost as long as television sets have been on sale.

However, in western Europe, broadcasting has been more closely regulated. Much as the hours when the sale of alcohol in licensed premises was restricted, the Postmaster General placed restrictions on the ITV franchise companies which began to operate in the UK from 1955.

With a mistrust of anything commercial, a public service remit was cited, with fears that the licence fee-funded BBC would be disadvantaged. It was not until the now-renamed Minister of Post and Telecommunications under the 1970-1974 Conservative government allowed the restrictions on the number of weekly broadcast hours to be lifted, and a daytime schedule began to roll out across the network in 1973.

A year later the Conservatives were out of favour and out of power, and it was not until the next Conservative government came to power in 1979 that commercial television interests were in favour again.

Towards the end of that first term, in 1983, breakfast television hit the UK screens to a sceptical, sleepy public, and a couple of months earlier, the second commercial channel that was 20 years in the planning, Channel 4, also came on air.

The new channel made great claims to be different, and that meant starting up later and closing down later than their ITV colleagues. Whilst some ITV regions were still adopting the pre-restriction closedown practices by shutting up shop on around or before midnight, C4 would carry on (predominantly at weekends) beyond 2 or 3am.

With ITV inserting the ads into C4 slots, it was necessary for those ITV companies to employ engineering staff even after the main ITV company had closed down, so why not mount a service of our own they cried? So, ITV broadcast hours started creeping later and later.

The Innovators

The introduction of through the night television by ITV was heavily influenced by the IBA’s impatience with franchise holders at establishing a full, regular breakfast service across the network.

Short experiments in breakfast TV had been piloted by Yorkshire TV in 1977, but a regular service did not evolve as a result. Four years later, and 8 years following the introduction of daytime, the IBA decided to award the morning hours to a new, national franchise; in effect, at once cutting the “potential” hours that the regional franchise holder could broadcast by almost 22 hours a week.

In 1987, with Chinese whispers of an IBA threat to do the same thing with the overnight zone, accelerated the motivation of ITV to keep 12am to 6am to themselves. Once again, Yorkshire were first, and begun a cheap service of pop music videos through the night. Also that year, C4 began to develop overnight broadcasting by stealth. A new programming strand “Night Time” was developed, with the introduction of many new ideas which still exist to this day on different networks, like a sports discussion show, a Ruby Wax talk show, and an open-ended discussion programme entitled “After Dark”.

To link these programmes together, the out-of-vision continuity announcer was dropped for the night, and a wonderfully haunting melody composed by Dave Vorhaus, some clean simple graphics, and an on-screen textual synopsis introduced each programme.

IV or OOV, that is the question.

Through the night television rapidly spread throughout the ITV Network, and for a time it seemed that it was making in-vision continuity fashionable again.

In-vision links had fallen out of favour on peak-time ITV following Victoria Wood’s merciless satire of the genre on her award-winning “As Seen on TV”, which broadcast on BBC2 in early 1985 and late 1986.

The opposite trend was developing with children’s programming, and in January 1983 ITV successfully launched Children’s ITV, the success of which led BBC to drop out-of-vision and employ Philip Schofield to link Children’s BBC in September 1985.

It was perhaps the success of the personality-led children’s continuity, and a widely-held belief that (at least at weekends) the watchers of late night TV would be the much sought young that many ITV regions allowed the last bastion of in-vision to be on the late-night slots.

TVS would also employ the radio-friendly Graham Rogers to link programmes overnight, and Thames employed a host of faces in vision in a moderately lit studio. However, daytime and peak announcing in both regions were now strictly OOV.

The Villains

LWT, not wishing to be left behind, should be strictly be included under the “Innovators” section, but as will become clear, they are the villains in this piece.

Having had success with Network 7 on C4 (albeit under the collaborative production title of Sunday productions), they commissioned Night Network, which played out on the aforementioned TVS, LWT and Anglia, and not as the title suggests the whole ITV network, though no doubt this was the ultimate ambition.

It was effectively a 2-3 hour programme on tape, with presenters linking features and programmes and rock concerts in a CBBC style. With no programs to link, no continuity is employed, and so London viewers were treated to the LWT blinds.

A battleground was now starting to develop as Granada’s Night Time with (predominantly Charles Foster in tow) mounted full continuity (with oddly precise programme menu timings), and a mixture of programmes including the lamentable “Quiz Night” and “The Hitman and Her”.

Not surprisingly, the regions in the North picked up the service. Meanwhile, Yorkshire started “James Whale Radio Show” which was simulcast by Radio Aire (hence the radio in the title), but began to be picked up across the network also.

With more and more programmes competing for fewer and fewer timeslots, a 2-3 hour timeslot for NN was becoming less and less justifiable. And instead of closedown following NN, a true 24-hour (or strictly speaking, 20hr 35 minute) service had now evolved.

Night Network had now become a programme in the schedule, instead of a service in its own right. And those blinds were played rather too many times and without a friendly word to say what’s what.

Battleground

The success of Night Network was also its downfall. The once innovative rapid, fragmented graphical style was starting to wear a little thin, as it was now permeating into many strands of programming and advertising.

In 1989 however, Night Network did get a coveted network slot, but became fragmented into a “For London Only” section strand for the first hour, and the remaining 2 hours fully networked (albeit at different times).

The North v South battle meant that Granada would show Night Network at about 4am, (with 2 hours of Hit Man), whilst LWT would screen Hit Man and Her in that slot, with Night Network pride of place.

Eventually, Night Network would be dropped in a year of corporate identity for ITV, and a unified image was created. The overnight programming would be branded as IT\* Night Time, run by Thames in weekdays and by LWT at weekends.

The Thames/LWT service was relayed to the South and West regions, and Yorkshire and Tyne-Tees, Scotland, Border and Ulster taking the Granada feed. Central, typically an innovator themselves, also decided to do their own thing.

The dropping of Night Network seemed to catch out LWT, and it is here that the seeds of today’s problems, and the worrying trend of continuity neglect develop. Whilst Thames in weeknights employ live announcers (though now OOV), LWT play the same corporate “Night Time” programme menu style, but again without any voiceover.

That this is visible across more than one region is risible, given the attempts to present a cohesive style falls at the first hurdle. Even when Carlton take over in 1993, for all their faults there is still a similar, friendly voice through the small hours, whilst LWT ditch “Night Time” altogether in favour of the short lived “3 Nights” (again without any friendly voice).

Worrying Trends

When in mid 90s, fully networked (apart from SMG) corporate continuity is given a makeover (with the psychedelic slow-motion dancing colours on dark or white background), Carlton still do it live.

Again LWT refuse to employ live announcers, and instead pre-record a fixed set of fixed-length announcements, voiced by Steve Priestly (the chap who voiced the never-popular “Movies, Games and Videos” programme), whose voice can now be heard (in more moderate tones) in many ITV1 trailers.

However, week in, week out, day in, day out, the same voice saying the exactly the same words in the same tone and pitch of voice, frankly, gets a bit irritating. Again it is embarrassing to think that this was more or less fully networked continuity.

It is ironic that a company so proud of their presentation heritage has hastened the downfall of live continuity, and that as one of the casualties of ITV1 network announcing, it has meant (at last) a properly staffed live overnight continuity service at weekends.

Much as I cherish the memories and the professionalism of LWT presentation, I do think that their overnight service has let them down and for quite some time too. It has also set some worrying trends for the future, namely the impersonal ITV1 regional announcements, the announcements into BBC regional news programmes, and the recent decision by the BBC to trim the network presentation payroll, and to pre-record some network announcements (particularly late at night!). Thank you, LWT – and good night.

        

Mike Auld

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