ITV3: reaching for the Sky

By Ian Beaumont

So, at 9pm on Monday 1st November 2004, ITV3 finally launched, to no fanfare at all.

For most of the day, a single slide showing the ITV3 ident had been broadcast with the words "TONIGHT 9PM" at the bottom. Then at 8pm, with just one hour to go, a countdown timer appeared, ticking down the seconds to the launch. The timer ticked all the way down to 0 in absolute silence, before going straight into an ident, and into the first programme. Very simple, no flair, no pizzazz, no fanfare. In a way, this was the very opposite to the whole creation of the channel in the first place.

It was back on May 1st 2003 that the idea of an ITV Gold channel was first mooted by Charles Allen, then Chairman of Granada, as part of his vision for the single ITV plc that was to come from the merger of Carlton and Granada. Although the plans were denied by an ITV press office spokesperson, it soon became obvious that something was in development. By November 2003, Granada and BSkyB, co-owners of Granada Sky Broadcasting, which ran the golden oldies channel Plus, formerly Granada Plus, were in discussions over the rights to certain classic shows that were being shown on Plus.

There was already much discussion about the future of the 'GSkyB' channels, Plus and Men & Motors, in the various internet forums, and whilst the official word that Plus would not be closing was going down well, there were continued suspicions about the future of the channels as a whole. After all, ITV and Sky had been quite reluctant bedfellows, though this was mainly down to Carlton's influence rather than Granada's - but both Granada and Scottish TV had been partners with Sky in channel ventures, some of which had been less than successful.

Later in November, the Independent newspaper revealed that ITV3 and ITV Kids were amongst the channels that were being planned for launch after the merger. But it wasn't until April 2004 that we had confirmation that a launch was actually going to happen. At that time it emerged that a September date had been pencilled in, as long as discussions with Sky were successfully concluded. However, those negotiations initially came to nothing, leading to the August 4th announcement of ITV3 as a ‘Free-To-Air' channel, meaning it was very likely to get added to Freeview as well as being on Satellite and Cable.

It would later be announced that ITV3 would initially launch on Freeview channel 34 and on Cable, but due to the fact that Sky Digital was needing to be upgraded to handle the needs of the ever-growing platform, the channel wouldn't be launching on Sky until sometime later. I had my doubts over this: it looked like nothing more than a smokescreen. After all, ITV had already purchased 3 transponders to launch ITV1 and ITV2 in 2001 on Sky Digital, and there was still available space on those transponders.

Then in September, there was a scramble for more transponder space, with NTL Broadcast, Channel 4 and ITV all purchasing extra bandwidth. This led me to believe that an ITV3 launch might happen on satellite sooner rather than later, and that maybe, while Sky might very well be needing to upgrade their platform, the issues dividing ITV and Sky were more likely to be to do with money, EPG positioning and GSkyB rather than platform technical issues.

Behind the scenes, negotiations continued with Sky while the buildup to launch began. During the early part of October, the ITV News Channel began disappearing from individual DTT transmitters, while on others, work was beginning to make changes to the Digital 3 and 4 Multiplex, Mux 2. Eventually by mid-month, all except London seemed to have lost the ITV News Channel, which had been replaced by an MHEG slide stating that the channel was undergoing engineering work and would return on Freeview channel 41 in early 2005.

In mid to late October 2004, test transmissions for ITV3 appeared on one of the transponders that ITV had purchased. Naturally, this got the forums excited about the possibility of the channel launching on Sky Digital. However, there was no sign of a deal. Then ITV3 began tests on Freeview channel 34. Nonetheless, debates continued, and the possibility of ITV3 not launching on the EPG, but being available via the "Add Channels" feature was now being discussed.

And so, we come to the launch day itself - Monday 1st November 2004. It started quietly, with everything appearing as though we were on course for a launch that would take place without Sky Digital. Behind the scenes though, discussions were frantic. Sky didn't want to give Freeview any kind of edge, as they continue growing their platform at an incredible rate, and ITV wanted the 7-million-plus viewers that Sky offered - but they also wanted ITV3 to be higher up the EPG than it would otherwise have been.

It was 3pm in the afternoon when the deal was finally agreed and signed. With only 6 hours to go to ITV3's launch, things had to move quickly in order for Sky viewers to watch the launch. Although the station was already transmitting on Sky, there were still a lot of things that remained to be done.

The deal went as follows. In order to get the better EPG position ITV sought for ITV3 and ITV2, ITV had agreed to buy Sky's 49.5% stake in Granada Sky Broadcasting for £10 million. This meant that ITV plc now completely owned Plus on 118 and Men and Motors on 136. ITV plc decided to close Plus and move ITV2 into Plus's old EPG position. ITV3 would then be put in next to it on 119. Meanwhile, Plus was continuing on as normal, even putting out a regular highlights email at 3.50pm. It seems they were completely unaware, at that point, of what was about to happen.

The first sign that something was happening was at 4.30pm, when in the middle of an ad break, Plus suddenly cut to a GSkyB slide and then disappeared. The plug had well and truly been pulled. Then the ITV3 feed on Astra changed from being labelled as Encrypted - despite being an FTA feed - to being labelled as Free To Air. At around 5.15pm, the channel suddenly appeared on 119, with ITV2 moving across from 175 to 118 at around the same time.

So, there you have it. The story of ITV3 from the initial seed of an idea, to the final traumatic hours of Plus and the surprisingly quick turnaround to get ITV3 on Sky. The deal to get it on Sky was literally a 'midnight-hour' deal. But in a sense, it was exactly the same for ITV1 and ITV2's arrivals onto the Sky Digital platform. You didn't quite know what was happening until it did happen. Hopefully, when the next ITV channel arrives on Sky, the negotiations will not go down so close to the wire.

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Article ©2004 Ian Beaumont

Compilation ©2004 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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