Backbone 

22 September 2015 tbs.pm/7511

When the structure of the new Independent Television (ITV) system had been decided by the politicians, Post Office civil servants and members of the newly formed Independent Television Authority (ITA) in 1954, the real work began in creating the actual studios, links and physical infrastructure that a complete television service would require. The appointment of a brace of independent programme companies and a geographical spread of production centres made the system, from the outset, a very different animal to that of the BBC Television Service, which, though having some limited regional output, was essentially a centralised system.

The limited start-up capital of the investors in this new private enterprise broadcasting system meant that having their own private national infrastructure would have been beyond the budgets available and the skills and knowledge base that would be needed – electronics experts and souped-up telephone engineers in truth – and would be hard to recruit from scratch. Contracts for providing programmes were typically awarded 6 to 14 months in advance of potential service launch dates; building a unique, wholly-owned network infrastructure would have been impossible in the time available anyway.

Thus began, out of sheer necessity, the relationship between Independent Television and the British General Post Office (GPO), which had run the telephone system since nationalisation in 1912. The GPO would need to provide a complete and highly efficient national routing network for ITV’s internal input and customer-bound output. The Post Office had been involved in broadcasting infrastructure for many years, providing dedicated sound and vision lines for the BBC for regional services and to manage the inter-hub communications needs of the Corporation. What was to come next, however, was of a completely different order. Rather than a highly centralised broadcaster, sending signals from a main programming provider to a splay of transmitters, with the odd regional opt-out for local material (BBCtv regions were still rather under-developed in the early fifties), the new commercial television system, with over a dozen programme makers planned, was to function as a programme exchange, with some degree of market principle and bartering over schedules and content as standard.

Unlike the BBC, which would in the main only require one ongoing circuit from London to each region (programmes for national use being fed inwards from the regions being almost unknown in the early fifties), the new ITV system would have to be built to allow for smaller regional companies “affiliating” to larger ones and paying to rebroadcast the larger companies output in part.

It was not clear how all this would develop at first, as the working relationships between the commercial entities that formed Independent Television would grow and change over time and the arrangements for programme exchange would need to be built with flexibility and duplication in mind. The initial London only service of ITV was to some extent the phoney war and “networking” (as it would become known) only really began in earnest once the production centres in Birmingham and Manchester were up and running.

Instructions to ITA transmitter staff in the event of a loss of transmissions. First job: call the Post Office.

Instructions to ITA transmitter staff in the event of a loss of transmissions. First job: call the Post Office.

A whole internal economy would need to be constructed within the system, with cost-sharing of programme production and sale prices when one company provided programme material to be placed into the output of another. It was not initially clear how much, if any, networking would exist in a developed ITV, but a cost sharing imperative soon concentrated minds and internal competition began to take more of a back seat than perhaps the original legislators had had in mind. In the longer run, the new internal programme market settled down into a degree of barter and exchange and to prevent a too-complicated price structure for the resale of transmission material, the companies soon developed cost sharing strategies to prevent too much of a cash cost money go round. An example of this would have been the agreement between the two weekend contractors (ATV London and ABC Weekend) to pay the production costs of programmes shared between themselves in the ratio of one third from the London contractor and two thirds from the North & Midland weekend contractor, on the basis that a rough assessment of the region-by-region weight of television homes with the new ITV had a population distribution in those proportions.

Such systems only developed over time however, and in the early years, cash payment was the main medium of exchange between the companies. Once networking spread to the smaller regions, an affiliation system developed whereby the smaller operators aligned their peak time schedules with one of the big boys and paid cash accordingly. Over time two pricing systems effectively developed side by side, one for the smaller companies buying material and one for exchanges between the larger regions where each paid a percentage of production costs.

Before any of this could come to fruition however, a basic infrastructure was required so that the physical programme exchanges could even take place. The ready-made cable ducts, microwave links and engineering expertise of Post Office Telephones were now under the spotlight. The GPO was the only contracting organisation with the experience needed and their existing infrastructure provided the speediest starting point. The Post Office would effectively take that experience which it had gained in a thirty year relationship with the BBC and redeploy its facilities to provide a federated, regional programme exchange medium for the new Independent Television system. This could not be done overnight. While bundled telephone circuits – providing better sound quality when several were used used simultaneously – had been the mainstay of their early pre-war provision to the BBC for the 1930 new regional radio broadcasting scheme, the new television medium required a dedicated coaxial cable network and switching hubs with full vision capability – something an order of magnitude beyond the facilities of normal trunk telephone exchanges. Bundled phone lines alone would not cut the mustard here.

A later generation of switching comes to an end: TV-am didn’t use the existing ITV switching system and automating the change took a long time. Even when automated, the pulling of the plugs at 05:59:59 and 09:24:59 was clear to see.

The slow spread of the ITV network into the regions, over the seven years from 1955, is often put down to the cost to the Independent Television Authority of building ever more transmitters. Money had been provided for the initial masts but much of the later expansion the regional output required was spun out of the transmitter rental income that the early contractors paid to the Authority. While it is true that this “chain of finance” had some effect in restraining the speed with which regional ITV developed, not to mention the building of regional studio centres by the contractors, another much overlooked constraining factor was the need for cable laying and microwave hub building – by the Post Office – to provide the necessary links. The companies and the ITA certainly couldn’t do it alone. The ITA later did developed some networking infrastructure of its own – with inter-transmitter links – but even then the Post Office cable network continued to play a foundational role, especially in direct links between studio centres as well as being able to reach the farther flung parts of the UK. Costs would continue to play a critical role.

532187271_f66708984b_oThe GPO Television Service would certainly not be providing these services for nothing and the ongoing costs of line rentals and lines usage for inter-company needs would be a continuing imposition on company budgets. Broadly speaking, the ITA met the GPO costs to the transmitters and the links thereto, paid for from company rental income – more ITA-owned infrastructure was developed in later years – but the companies themselves would be expected to at least part meet the costs of programme exchange links between regional hubs. Once the era of video recording arrived (after 1958) demands for cables would increase, as live programming became no longer the norm and different regions could show the same programmes at differing times (as already happened with productions on film). This would lead to companies taping others’ output for local use later and this in turn fed a need for multiple links between studio centres, rather than the basic lines in and out with which the system had started. The GPO got even busier, the line costs got even higher, and thoughts (eventually) turned to the creation of more ITV in-house facilities for networking. The Post Office never really faded from the network provision arrangements however, as for certain purposes, their facilities on an hourly charge basis remained cheaper than those which the companies or ITA could provide themselves.

In a pre-microchip era, much of this activity was all very physical. Large manual switches being thrown, startlingly large jack plugs being inserted into equally startling large holes, on amazingly big switchboards, in special rooms within the larger regional telephone exchanges that the GPO maintained as call distribution hubs in the bigger cities. Indeed, the graphic above, from an August 1956 edition of the enthusiasts’ Practical Television magazine has a very Freudian misprint in the Birmingham Television Control panel, where the location is described as “Television House”. This is the new era tempting the author of the graphic into an assumption. In fact the text of the article reveals that the location was in fact “TELEPHONE House, Birmingham” which was, as in all the major cities, the standard GPO formulation for their principle incoming hub for trunk (intercity) phone cables, where the signals were further redistributed outwards to the brace of local telephone exchanges for onward conveyance to actual subscribers, ending with the telephone in your hall ringing.

Post Office television control was situated at Museum telephone exchange near Tottenham Court Road (the building that much later became the base, quite literally, of the Post Office Tower) and at that location, in special segregated accommodation adjacent to the telephone exchange, a team of Post Office switching engineers met the scheduled requirements, hour by hour and minute by minute, of the original “Big 4” ITV programme companies. Multiple lines to the North and Midlands (and later Scotland, Wales and the English regions) were provided and duplicate capacity allowed (for example) for Granada TV in Manchester to take Associated-Rediffusion output, while (say) the Scottish company might prefer to relay a programme from ATV. Lines between the major companies were duplicated in both directions, and shows that originated in the provinces could easily be seen in London and the South. This required careful timings, liaison with the transmission control of the various companies concerned and an advance system of line bookings to ensure that the Post Office had the required line capacity and facilities to hand as and when they were needed. It is no coincidence that many early London TV and radio studios and offices, including Television House, ATV’s Foley Street hub, Broadcasting House and Bush House, were in that part of London, stretching from the Euston Road down to the Aldwych and from Marylebone to Holborn, all within the reach of single run cable ducts from Museum exchange.

It is notable that, in the first decade of ITV, lines to the smaller companies were provided outward from London as one-way only, traffic in the inward direction being rare, except for news film by courier. On the rare occasions in the early sixties that companies like Westward or Anglia made a network contribution, this was often pre-taped and fed into the network by bigger companies, from London, on their behalf.

In the early days, pre-automation, when a regional continuity announcer might mention “handing viewers over to London for the latest national and international news from the newsroom of ITN…”, it could well indicate that at Post Office Television control, somewhere in the bowels of Museum exchange, a specialist operator-engineer was quite literally pulling a heavy jack plug out of a physical switchboard while his colleague was inserting another. In later, more automated days (which did not really arrive until the coming of colour in 1969) some of the romance may well have been lost from the process, but the switching became smoother and even later, pre-programmed. It was a massive operation with duplicate control exchanges in Telephone House, Birmingham, and Telephone House, Manchester, and in an era before computer power, the forms of telemetry and electronics used though main frame and very large not to mention heavily manned, seemed to work reliably and well. The switching between studio inputs and the Television control, changing regularly as networked programmes required, was a more complex and malleable operation than the basic lines or links to the transmitters themselves. With links to (and for) the BBC as well, this Post Office operation in the first fifteen years of ITV was the most sophisticated piece of modernity operated by any of the utilities, save perhaps atomic power control and 25kV distribution in the electricity generating industry.

When the ITV companies in the late eighties decided to drop regional idents before networked programmes, an awareness of some of this federal regionalism on the part of the viewer was lost but for those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties, it was self evident that ITV was a joint effort of many companies working in alliance. For the enquiring viewer and certainly to the curious child, it added a layer of mystique and dynamism to the way these television programmes reached your living room.

In later days, the Post Office's contribution would be marginalised to just "cable and microwave links"

In later days, the Post Office’s contribution would be marginalised to just “cable and microwave links”

You Say

1 response to this article

Kevin Tennent 26 October 2015 at 2:10 pm

Really interesting post. The ability of the nationalised utilities to create new capabilities on a shoestring is something now forgotten.

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