All Change

By Colm O'Rourke

Stylised Meridian logo

In retrospect, few people could have predicted how crucial and reversing a date 16th October 1991 would be for British television.

That day saw the announcement of the new ITV regional franchisees from 1993 onwards. Few people could have predicted the bitter consequences and recriminations, but it was known by all that a major change in television broadcasting was to come, including this young Irish 10-year-old.

I followed the media coverage of the 1991 franchise rounds intently, chasing newspaper articles, TV news reports and special documentaries on the various challenges across the country.

By that stage, my fledgling interest in TV presentation was developing. I could recite all the ITV companies, their broadcast regions, their studio bases and their major productions as if it was a litany.

I had already built up a collective memory of TV presentation styles; being old enough to remember when pre-programme idents were used before a company's programme; images such as Thames' mirrored London skyline, Anglia's gallant silver knight on horseback, the Central moon, and most memorably, the shiny metal revolving stick that represented my native ITV region, Ulster Television.

1991 was my first experience of a potential change in the ITV network structure; I hadn't been born when the last franchise victors were announced in December 1980; and I was just three months old, ignorant of the concept of television, when the original companies of ATV (I'd heard of them before, but why did they make the same shows as Central?), Southern and Westward changed to the more familiar names of Central, TVS and TSW.

But why did they want to change the ITV companies in control anyway? It seemed a ludicrous idea to me at the time. Why change what's not broken? I didn't know then that the year before the Government introduced a new Broadcasting Act that made future franchise rounds more competitive, creating forecasts on what the ITV companies would make and how much it would all cost and could they do it and remain profitable? All I figured out about who'd win was whoever paid most for their area.

The application date for bids closed that May, amid a flurry of men in suits delivering seemingly endless amount of white boxes to the ITC's offices, who I guessed had taken over from that IBA-thing you don't hear about anymore. Soon after came a period of speculation about the results, expected in the autumn.

But it was just speculation, wasn't it? Surely what the papers are saying about Thames looking dodgy to hold on to their licence didn't have any truth in it?

Then once news on application bids became public came worry about the current companies bidding too low; LWT, Granada (Not Granada? Isn't "Coronation Street" enough to spare Granada?), and Ulster were noted to be sailing close to the wind; or too high in the case of TVS (£56m? A bit steep but they are strong on the network) and TSW (£15.7m for the South West? And all they gave us was "That's My Dog"!). I just bypassed the rumour mill until the official announcement was made.

Soon that day came, 16th October, and I waited coming home from school to find out on the 5:40 News how the results turned out. It turned out the press speculation was right.

Thames Television had lost their franchise, which despite being forecast came as a shock, being essentially the hub of the ITV network. They lost out to a group called Carlton.

Carlton? That's a name that hardly evokes any sense of regional spirit! I was less impressed when in the run up to the new franchise I learnt of Carlton's forthcoming programme and operation plans. They aren't making any of their own programmes?

A series called "The Good Sex Guide"? I hoped and prayed the ITC would have a change of heart and give Thames a reprieve, but to no avail. While Carlton has gone on to seek control of the ITV network and cleanse its prey of a separate identity, the Thames name still clings on to its presence on the ITV network.

Elsewhere, TVS, who I later learnt were in financial difficulties, went too, which was a shame as they had made good entertainment and children's programmes, but thankfully Scottish soon picked up the baton.

The South would get Meridian, at least a half decent sounding name even if they didn't live up to TVS's network capabilities in the end. TSW too paid too much for their plot of land and were superseded by the similarly quiet Westcountry, who too soon fell victims to the Carlton pound. TV-am lost out too, which to me meant no more "Wac-A-Day", to the Sunrise consortium, but isn't that the name of Sky News' breakfast programme?

Someone else must have realised too, as they became GMTV by the time they went on air on New Year's Day 1993.

On the stroke of midnight that Friday morning, I was playing Sonic the Hedgehog with my cousins. As Ulster were successful in maintaining their franchise (it was even the top story on the local BBC news!) I needn't tune in to bid a fond farewell to the old and embrace and anticipate the new era of local broadcasting.

I did spare a thought for viewers in London, the South and the South West, for who knows, maybe they may be a bit emotional at this moment of transition, and I did catch some glimpses of the new station's birth on the following day's news bulletins.

The next predicted franchise application is not due until 2008, but if the looming threat of total ITV consolidation becomes a reality, we may never see another contention for ITV franchises again.

What was my first experience in the shift of power among Britain's third terrestrial network could well turn out to be the last.

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1990s

Halcyon Days

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Article ©2001 Colm O'Rourke

Compilation ©2001 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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