1990 and all that 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1694

I’ve been downstairs watching videos and I came across an old video from the early 90s with old clips of what Channel 4 and ITV once looked like.

It made me sad to think how bad ITV has become in the past ten years; from an almost respectable broadcaster to a trashy lowest-common-denominator money grabber with bad management and a terrible structure, all thanks to the terrible 1990 Broadcasting Act.

That led me to thinking about Channel 4. Channel 4 has done quite well. It still lives up reasonably well to its public service commitments. It produces quite intelligent documentary, current affairs and arts programmes, relishes and indulges in the alternative and at the same time is responsible for some of the best entertainment on our screens. So how come Channel 4 has done so much better and ITV has fallen so badly?

Well the Channel 4 Television Corporation is, of course, a non profit-making organisation, yet at the same time is fully paid for and supported by the commercial sector. It is a brilliant example of how commercial TV can work well when run in the correct manner and along side the public service. So why did they not keep the same system for ITV, which was also once a “commercially funded public service”?

Instead of changing the way ITV worked in the 1990 Act, the government could have gone one step further and created the Channel 3 Broadcasting Corporation.

Like Channel 4 became, Channel 3 Broadcasting would be separate from the soon to be defunct IBA and a sister/affiliate service to Channel 4 Broadcasting. Instead of the IBA/ITC renewing the franchise agreements for its companies, this new Corporation would assume immediate control of broadcasting from them as well as the responsibilities of the ITV network centre.

As of the first of January 1993 all of ITV would become Channel 3 and be run by the Channel 3 Broadcasting Corporation. All the advertising revenue would go to this organisation. However none of it would be passed on to shareholders, and with the exception of the costs of running the company, it would all go back into commissioning new programmes. The original ITV companies would no longer run ITV, yet they would still play a huge part in making the programmes, even the regional programmes, and get huge chunks of the advertising revenue indirectly via the Channel 3 Corporation from fees in exchange for programmes produced.

As a public service broadcaster, the Channel 3 Corporation would see that strong regional broadcasting commitments were taken care of. As with all other areas of its public service output, it would have nothing to loose by doing this as it wouldn’t have any shareholders to pander to and the people making the regional output wouldn’t have anything to worry about either as they would be confident that Channel 3 will be paying their fee when everything’s finished.

Things like regional news would continue as usual under new contracts by the original franchise holders so Londoners would still get Thames News, southerners TVS news and so on. At a later date if Channel 3 thought somebody else could do a better job or the company no longer wanted to make regional news, they could give the contract to somebody else. Mersey TV could take over from Granada to produce regional news in the Northwest. Whatever happened, the Channel 3 Corporation would ensure that the viewer got the best deal possible. If need be sub regions could be commissioned separately too, so Central South News could be made by somebody separate to Central East.

The new structure would mean there would be no incentive for the mergers and takeovers that we actually saw under the Act. Companies like Thames would still be able to produce for the network as equally as companies like Carlton. Every commercial producer would be given a fair and even chance. There would therefore be no need for somebody like Carlton to take over Central. We’d be left with a rich supply of ITV production companies, meaning a huge selection of choice to commission from and a wide variety of different programme ideas to be presented to Channel 3.

In its initial days most of the programming would come from the original ITV companies as it did before, The morning breakfast programming still commissioned from TV-am (this would be instead of making TV-am a franchise holder) and Coronation Street still produced by Granada. Over time companies could diversify and change their form. TV-am would have the freedom to go into other things, Granada could start making regional programmes in London if it wanted, LWT would no longer be a weekend TV station and so on.

The Corporation could establish regional offices that oversaw the interests of each region when it came to commissioning. They could also require that amounts of output be produced locally meaning that the change did not mean huge job losses as companies rushed to set up London offices.

In the short term the running of continuity and technical side of regional opt-outs could be done under the Channel 3 name and brand by the former ITV franchise holders who still have the necessary facilities. Like Channel 4, Channel 3 Corporation would not need any production facilities other than a few for continuity announcements and making trailers based in London. All they’d need is an administration office in each sub-region. Every other task, including regional opt-outs, could be commissioned from other companies, initially the old ITV franchise holders. This wouldn’t be very expensive as the opt-outs would only need occur when a regional programme is being shown, otherwise a national feed could be used. This means Channel 3 would be run more like BBC-1.

Advertising could be run on a basis similar to the ‘LEMNUS’ approach Channel 4 took, except with the inclusion of Wales as an advertising region. (LWEMNUS?)

This new set-up could even mean that the sister service, Channel 4, could start carrying some of Channel 3’s regional programmes as it would have access to an instant regional opt-out service it never had.

The two corporations would work side by side and share ideas and facilities. Channel 3 would be responsible for the more mainstream entertainment side of things and Channel 4 more in depth and alternative programming. With the two more closely linked, successful drama and entertainment on Channel 4 would move to Channel 3 in the same way BBC-2 and BBC-1 have the similar crossover but Channel 4 wouldn’t be a ghetto for the serious and alternative stuff either. As a not for profit organisation there would be no incentive for Channel 3 to commission cheap and trashy talk shows and game shows and there would not be the dumbed down Pop Idol-led output there is today. Channel 3 News would also be serious and inspiring, rather than the embarrassment it is today. It would be just like Channel 4 News reduced to half an hour on ITV1.

With a strong Channel 3 and 4 working together like this, the BBC would be forced to follow a more serious and less dumbed-down approach to broadcasting. The only side effect is that all regional idents and continuity would have been scrapped overnight and we’d have woken up on New Year’s Day 1993 to see everything replaced with a nationwide Channel 3 name. Still, if this is what it would have cost for better programmes then that is a sufficient price to pay – and the regional ITVs would probably have brought back pre-programme idents so as to continue to make their mark once all the franchises had all been lost.

And best of all, the private production companies would be able to do exactly what they wanted without us suffering at all. The small regional companies like TSW and Channel would continue happily producing regional and perhaps occasionally national output for the Channel 3 Corporation. No more would they have to worry about each cash crisis, as they would be having a guaranteed wage for their programmes direct from Channel 3 guarded by contract for the foreseeable future. As long as they could make their regional output well, they’d be safe – and they could still have the opportunity to grow and diversify.

Larger companies like Central could get out of regional commitments if they wished and become a serious programme maker. Carlton would get its true opportunity to be a bigshot in ITV without having to push out Thames and also have its content filtered by Channel 3 for quality control. Thames would still be with us as it was then, and so would so many of those who are now part of Granada.

Takeovers and sales would still happen but probably in better ways. For example ITN or somebody might want to buy out Central’s regional news outfit from them to take over their provision of local news. BSkyB could even start making programmes for Channel 3 if they were good enough.

So, to sum up, everybody would have been happy. All the free-marketeers out there would have got a lot leveller a playing field, Carlton would have got what it wanted and Thames would still be with us. But best of all our nation’s flagship commercial TV channel would be run by a not for profit organisation on the basis of quality and public service, which is how it should be.

This would probably have been so successful that by the time Channel 5 was launched it would be launched in the same way as 3 and 4 – an extension of the two services providing space to extend and repeat what is already being made. Is this be what the Tories should have done in 1990?

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