The Way To Do It 

11 January 2001 tbs.pm/3355

When the Associated British Picture Corporation finally agreed to the ITA’s request to step in and cover for the failed Kemsley-Winnick consortium and provide weekend programmes for the North and Midlands, they became the first and only ITV company to receive a contract without having been an applicant.

ABPC

Though initially reluctant to join the industry because of threats to the company’s cinema interests, the principle of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” eventually prevailed and the question of the company’s television image came to the fore.

From the word go, it was a difficult remit. For the purposes of financial viability, the North had in effect been stuck on to the Midlands to make a non-London weekend contract possible.

Virtually from the outset it was decided that Associated-British (as they were initially known) would present themselves as a national company with a cosmopolitan style and that concessions to regionalism would be modest.

This was not unacceptable to the ITA as there was a naive believe in British broadcasting, replicated even by the BBC, that regionalism was a Monday to Friday thing. With a good local news bulletin at tea time on Friday, the ITA felt it fair to leave the subject until Monday.

It was not until 1968 that the ITA developed its later obsession with regionality in roots and funding.

ABC’s specific problem was this: how to imprint themselves on the viewers of their region while living perpetually in the shadow of their five-day competitors. The answer, it was quickly realised, was branding. Good branding, strong branding, and plenty of it.

After a brief censure by the ITA in the mid-fifties for an indistinct presence with continuity frequently homogenised with joint presentation for the north and midlands, from 1958 ABC poured money into branding on a pro-rata scale never seen before or since. It was the proud boast of Sir Philip Warter, chairman of Associated British Picture Corporation that his television subsidiary spent more money promoting itself over two days than Granada customarily spent in five.

It is true that there was a legendary meanness in Bernstein’s Granada when it came to the no-frills approach. But ABC saw its chance to offer contrast, and imagery followed as if there was no tomorrow.

The curious thing about ABC’s policy of differentiation was that it was followed through with careful regard to the ethos of their regional competitors at ATV Midlands and Granada. So balanced was ABC’s choice of opposing image that a curious anomaly developed whereby ABC North and ABC Midlands were pulled in opposite directions. Granada, with a five-day trans-Pennine contract, exuded a dour, Northern ethos. With Sidney Bernstein, MD of Granada, keen on a no-frills approach, ABC were required to provide the frills for ITV in the north.

From Monday to Friday, a slightly ‘respectable’ almost-BBC tone had been adopted. ABC were driven willingly into the arms of cosmopolitanism. From the time they opened on a Saturday to the moment they closed on a Sunday, what you were in fact getting was a weekend holiday out of the north.

This did not mean that ABC was slavish in presenting a London image – the ethos was not ‘we bring London to you’ but ‘we bring Britain to you’. Nor was the northern scene ignored; with regular outside broadcasts of northern sporting events and variety from seaside resorts, ABC suggested that the north could be cosmopolitan too.

ABC trailer caption

The midlands presented a different set of challenges. Rather than facing Granada’s more serious image, and responding with a lightness of touch, ABC found themselves sitting opposite Sir Lew Grade, whose lightness of touch was legendary. Big money, big pulling power and a wealthy region still dominated by heavy industry. True, ATV Midlands was more heavyweight than the showbiz-crazed ATV London, but the constant undertone of vaudeville was, for the Grade empire, a given.

Like political parties reacting to each other, ABC Midlands was pushed to the serious end of the scale. While ABPC had tacitly endorsed the dynamic, light-hearted ethos for the northern operation, a sub-BBC seriousness underpinned their midlands image. It has been suggested that this is what made ABC a company of such strength. They were operating on two fronts at opposite ends of the scale and became master practitioners of both. Given that the stated policy of ABPC was for ABC presentation to be as it turned out in the midlands, it is interesting to note how far away the northern style was allowed to drift because of the gravitational effects of Granada.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Kif Bowden-Smith Contact More by me

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