Why ITV Matters 2 

1 January 2006 tbs.pm/3487

The conclusion of a personal overview of fifty years of independent television, by ITV’s former Director of Programmes.

ITV’s early decades were marked by extraordinary profits, relatively indulgent regulation, and artistic freedom for programme-makers left to get on with it,as long as the cash kept coming in. As Brian Tesler told the RTS recently,looking back on his defection from a hidebound BBC to Lew Grade’s freewheeling ATV, “there were no budgets. For creative people it was paradise”. This happy state of affairs went on so long, everyone thought it would last forever.As a fully integrated broadcasting and production business with cast-iron network programme guarantees, real costs were never an issue for ITV. A quirk of tax law that encouraged companies to plough profits back into programmes was the icing on the cake. When ‘the Levy’ finally petered out in 1990, coinciding with the franchise auction and the end of the prevailing production culture,that particular paradise was lost.

The cracks had, in fact, already started to show before the watershed of the1990 Act. As time and competition eroded ITV’s commercial monopoly, the in-built tensions of the federal system made for an increasingly dysfunctional network.London, the split between two competing companies, and the strain this put on the rest of the network, was always the biggest bugbear. LWT had to make their money in only two and a half days on-air, so they were constantly at odds with everyone else. Commercially hard-nosed and instinctively entertainment-led,they were intolerant of the ‘indulgences’ as they saw them of less commercially attractive offerings from Granada or Yorkshire – seven-day companies who could afford to take risks with meandering dramas and untried talent.

This was the source of the great North-South, Granada-LWT, weekday-weekend divide and the cause of table-banging rows at weekly ITV Controllers meetings.It dictated the schedule, and meant that Granada’s epic dramas of the 1980s- Brideshead and Jewel in the Crown – classic Sunday night viewing, had to play on Mondays and Tuesdays because LWT wouldn’t have them at the weekend. Conversely, LWT programmes could never play in the week because this was the weekday company’s territory. As Central’s former Controller, Andy Allan later observed, ‘we were a close-knit group of bitter enemies’.

But here’s a funny thing. Out of this gritty stand-off grew the pearl of a creative compromise and a new kind of television drama: the two-part mini-series. To settle the weekend/weekday rows, blockbuster four-hour dramas, starting with Lynda la Plante’s Prime Suspect, were created to play over Sunday and Monday nights. These divvied up the revenue spoils, creating a new long-form genre and a slot that would deliver ITV both ratings and critical kudos for the next ten years.

However much we at Granada resented London and the problems they caused us, privately we couldn’t but admire their achievements. Despite their commercial credentials, LWT played a public service blinder throughout the 80s with a raft of exceptional factual and regional programmes, and they saw the potential of the new Channel 4 as buyer and training ground for their up-and-coming programme-making talent. Shows like Network 7 and the work of its fine London Minorities Unit helped forge Channel 4’s distinctive character and they had a major influence on production styles and subject matter across British television for years to come. In retrospect, I think Granada misjudged Channel 4 and missed a trick in its single-minded fixation on ITV’s internal wrangles.

On the other side of the London split, Thames- despite the worst industrial relations in the network – was responsible for some of television’s fine stand most popular programmes. Euston Films took film drama and crime series into exciting new territory. The Naked Civil Servant, World at War, Death on the Rock are landmarks that changed television and changed the way we look at the world.

Some unhappy legacies of the London split are still with us. The whole News at Ten saga grew out of Carlton’s need to grab back the 16 to 34 audience after a steady migration of this valuable demographic to the weekends. The road-block of News at Ten had to be moved out of peak if this was ever going to happen. Even now that London is united in common ownership at last, the saga continues in an uneasy compromise.

What then of the more neglected recent history of ITV, the past 15 years? Perhaps, as Mao said, it’s too early to tell. It’s certainly true that the 1990 Act was a turning point in ITV’s fortunes but, paradoxically, the 90s were a rich period for ITV programmes at a time when the BBC was going through a lean patch financially and creatively. Cracker, Prime Suspect, Band of Gold confronted the seamy side of human nature and left the competition open-mouthed. With Who Bombed Birmingham, Hillsborough, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, the drama-doc came of age. And Sharpe, Morse, Soldier Soldier and Darling Buds all raised the bar for popular quality drama. As ITV emerged from the old protectionist system with many of the same people who’d grown up with commission guarantees, there was – in the spirit of old, bolshie ITV – a new spurt of creative energy. A determination to try and square that troublesome circle of commercial success and creative integrity.

By the time I joined the Network Centre in 1997, things were more difficult commercially, but there was still much to be optimistic about. We benefited from the war of attrition from which ITV plc was finally to emerge. The companies were far too busy with their own corporate agendas to interfere in the schedule or second-guess commissioning decisions. Yes, I looked after the bankers that ITV must have to keep its mass audience, but I also knew that texture, variety and surprise were essential to keep the channel fresh and attractive to the widest audience and the best talent. Critics and commentators tend to judge ITV harshly, seeing only the high-profile glitz and not the underlying richness that has always been part of the schedule.This has been true throughout the history of ITV but particularly in the late’90s when Millionaire was in the papers every day.

In his history of British television drama, Lez Cooke takes me to task for disingenuity in my 2001 MacTaggart Lecture when I railed against the industry’s obsession with ratings. Hadn’t I been responsible for that obsession, at the expense of quality programming, whilst presiding over a ‘failing’ ITV? I plead guilty, to the extent that my job was to run a commercially successful schedule in a declining market and that’s what I did. That’s the job, or there is no ITV. All I can say in my defence is: The Forsyte Saga, Bloody Sunday, Oliver Twist, Dr. Zhivago, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Lucky Jim, Bob and Rose, The Russian Bride, Nicholas Nickleby, The Second Coming, Cor Blimey, Othello, TheJury, Sons and Lovers, At Home with the Braithwaites, Henry VIII… And list some of the writers I had the privilege of giving a mass platform to: Alan Bleasdale, Andrew Davies, Paula Milne, Tony Marchant, Paul Abbott, Kay Mellor, Russell T Davies, Jonathan Harvey, Terry Johnson, Sally Wainwright… You get my point.

I hope when future television histories are written, ITV will get more credit (and less prejudice) than it’s had in the past. So that it’s not always a surprise when ITV produces something extraordinary and worthwhile, and not always predictable when it doesn’t.

Which brings us to the present. Despite the convulsions in the marketplace since 1990, I believe the residual legacy of the ‘old ITV is still evident, not only in the current output, but in the content and culture of British television as a whole. And it is an almost wholly positive one.

  • Despite the breakdown of the old vertically integrated, producer-led system, production is a flourishing, creative and- vitally important – UK-based business.
  • Britain remains a powerhouse of drama and entertainment production and keeps the best talent working here. ITV is a vital funder, supporter and innovator of these genres.
  • There are three strong and distinctive news providers, with ITN celebrating its 50th birthday in combative mood, and
  • Creative competition between the BBC and commercial broadcasters is still very much in evidence.

Perhaps ITV’s most influential legacy is also its most double-edged. The foibles,experiences and aspirations of ordinary people are now central to programmes across all genres and all channels in a way that would have horrified Lord Reith of Stonehaven and delighted Lord Grade of Elstree. In that sense, all television is ‘People’s Television now.

In this 50th anniversary year, there’s been much talk of ITV’s ‘sad decline: its ceding of regional power to London, its lack of creative vision and its faltering grip on the mass audience. Inevitably, comparisons are made with a past packed with towering personalities, resonating titles and handsome profits. The present looks less confident; the future uncertain.

Now we agonise about how to protect this thing called commercial public service broadcasting, and wonder whether profit and public value can continue to co-exist in productive partnership without the special privileges and protections of a carefully controlled market.

I believe they can, but now it’s up to ITV rather than the regulators to decide whether Britain’s first commercial network will be a warehouse for the fast moving consumer goods of the moment, or a disseminator of items of originality and lasting value.

It’s early days for ITV plc. It is learning through the pain of declining share that it must take risks to succeed, even in the most competitive environment.As the US networks have discovered, breakout hits come from the unlikeliest places and the darkest corners. The temptation is to conservative commissioning,but risk-taking pays dividends when competition is fierce. Audiences are increasingly sophisticated: ITV will find hits if it keeps trying new things, not just replicating past successes.

Without the protective arm of regulation, it’s inevitable that the range of what we see on mainstream commercial channels will narrow. There may never be another Bloody Sunday, but ITV has the talent and resources to produce excellent work from a new generation of programme-makers with new ideas and different points of reference.

Perhaps we shouldn’t get too hung up about ITV’s part in the post-digital revolution. Once, it carried the entire burden of commercial public service – and took the entire profits too. Now there are hundreds of commercial channels the challenge of creating public value can be spread. The important thing -the thing that the original architects of Independent Television realised -is that the BBC has competition. Whether it comes from ITV1, Channel 4, Discovery, The History Channel or services on platforms not yet thought of, doesn’t really matter.

I believe ITV can still be a player in the public value stakes. But we’re now way past the point where this can be institutionalised through regulation or legislation. It has to be a commercial and creative decision. And one for ITV’s masters alone.

My emotional and professional attachment to ITV is still powerful, but I’mn ot sentimental about ‘saving it. As Britain’s first commercial broadcast service, as a worthy creative counterpoint to the BBC, and as the benchmark for many of our ideas of what makes good, great and worthwhile television,it has already done its job. In its own brash, dysfunctional and uniquely magnificent way, it has confounded its critics. The future is open. That spark of ‘‘vital vulgarity’ ITA Chairman Sir Kenneth Clark identified as an essential component of the new service is, after 50 years, still alive. ITV may yet continue to surprise us.

Back to Part 1

David Liddiment started his career at Granada, where he became Executive Producer of Coronation Street and nurtured a new generation of TV dramatists including Paul Abbott, Kay Mellor and Russell T Davies. In 1997 he was appointed Director of Programmes at ITV, where he brought Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Pop Idol to the screen, as well as presiding over a rich period of original drama. He was a governor of West Yorkshire Playhouse (1993-2003), where he directed the world premier of Kay Mellor’s A Passionate Woman. He is currently Creative Director of the independent producer All3Media, Producer of Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic Theatre Company, and a regular columnist for the Guardian.

This article is based on David Liddiment’s opening address to the ITV50 Conference held at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford on October 22, 2005. Special thanks to the author for making the article available to Transdiffusion for publication, and to Sue Elliott for her invaluable assistance.

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