Crisis weekend television 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1740

London Weekend Television was born from ideals. From the inception of ITV in 1955, the weekends in London had been a place for unchallenging entertainment, with ATV’s Palladium show dominating a period of television for the masses.

Down the road at the BBC, senior managers and respected stars looked at ITV with horror as they continued to produce worthy, artistic television. Then Sir Hugh Carleton Green, arguably the best director-general the BBC has ever had, appeared at the helm.

Suddenly, the BBC was home to popular entertainment and quality drama, and BBC-1, along with BBC radio and BBC-2, entered a golden age. But the worthiest, most Reithian programmes were forgotten or marginalised. Those managers and stars who most embraced the mantra of Reith – Educate and Inform – were left without an outlet for their notions of highbrow culture.

When brought together by David Frost, it was obvious that these people knew together more about public service television than any other group. They picked up some more people – notably Rediffusion’s much respected Cyril Bennett – this time with knowledge of high-quality output on ITV, and decided on a plan to revolutionise television and turn ITV into BBC-3.

The plan was simple. ATV was vulnerable at weekends in London. The station was not expecting to win and planned to regroup around its midlands weekday empire. Rediffusion on weekdays was solid as ever, despite the loss of Bennett and others to Frost’s consortium.

So the consortium, officially named the London Television Consortium, applied for London weekends. The ITA was very impressed. They too had looked at ATV’s populist output and had decided that it was time to drift upmarket. But the LTC was offering more than just a drift upmarket. This was a major re-pegging of weekend television, switching from light entertainment enjoyed by the masses to heavy arts programming.

It is interesting that no alarm bells began to ring at the ITA or even in the LTC at this point. But the LTC were working from a false premise, and the ITA wanted the premise to be true.

The theory ran something like this: there is a finite amount of advertising space and a seller’s market. Therefore, any programme with advertising slots available will attract advertising revenue. Additionally, since the members of the LTC and the ITA were desperate for more heavyweight programming, the masses must be as well. The existing programming is undemanding and that’s why viewers don’t turn off. By going upmarket, those same viewers will stay tuned to ITV as they have done for 14 years, but now get better programming.

For this theory to fail, there would need to be much stronger competition from the weekday contractor, a downturn in advertising revenue and both the ITA and the LTC would have to have misread the nation’s viewing habits entirely – a massive combination errors, so unlikely to happen.

The LTC won the contract and displaced ATV at weekends, as well as gaining the Friday evening from the weekday contractor. So far, all according to plan. But then the goalposts began to move.

Firstly, the weekday competition was not to be from heavyweight and reliable old Rediffusion, as the LTC had expected. When Lord Hill announced the award of a contract to LTC, he also announced that ABC and Rediffusion would together form the weekday contractor, and ABC would have the upper hand. This was worrying on two counts.

Firstly, ABC was distinctly more populist than Rediffusion. The company was willing to pump money into quality writing and filmmaking – money that the LTC wouldn’t have immediately. Secondly, Rediffusion’s sales force was dismissed and ABC’s sales force decamped to London. Now this was very bad. ABC’s salesmen were famously pushy and good at their jobs. In the north and the midlands, ABC had been very good at sucking money out of Granada and ATV’s hands and into the weekends. No doubt the sales force in London would now do the opposite – suction money from the weekends into a revitalised weekday schedule.

The test would come in the few weeks before launch, when both sales teams went head to head. Needless to say, the Thames sales force immediately started taking 40% more revenue than the LWT sales force – that 40% being suctioned directly from the weekend contractor with LWT making less than ATV with more minutes to sell than the old contractor.

The ultimate test of whether LWT’s plans would work happened later than expected. As the station came on the air for the first time, its technicians walked out. Soon after, the whole of ITV would go dark and an emergency service would appear – run by ABC using ATV’s facilities, a major slapin the face to the new company.

When the lights came back on, LWT’s new schedules went on show. Arts programming like Aquarius in peak time was followed by documentaries, plays and dramatisations of gritty novels.

The viewers, used to years of popular drama and variety but hungry for arts and crying out for plays didn’t materialise. They watched BBC-1 instead. The ITA and LWT’s founders had misread the market – and badly. Soon LWT found itself having trouble getting programmes networked. Granada, ATV and most of the minors started looking for other material for Friday and Saturday nights. Granada, liberated to operate on the weekend for the first time, quickly moved to fill the gap, offering comedy and popular drama – not things it had previously been noted for. The network took these instead.

LWT was now denied the revenue that came from selling their programmes to the network. Whilst all the programming was purchased, most was at a knockdown price and relegated to Sunday mornings and late night viewing during the week. Thames began to churn out a string of popular programming building upon both ABC and Rediffusion’s backgrounds – and even managing to beat LWT at is own game by finding ample audiences for heavyweight programmes like ‘This Week’.

LWT was now caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock was the need for money – only to be made by plunging back down market – and the hard place was supplied by the ITA – demanding that all promises made must be kept.

But LWT had no choice. They went downmarket, introducing comedy and popular drama. But this was against the ideals of the original founder executives, who leaked the original promises to the press, causing much embarrassment for the ITA and a sudden drop in the share price. As time passed, the executives and the board – the talent and the money – began to reach greater and greater heights of infighting. Something would have to give.

On 9 September 1969, little more than a year since broadcasts began, the board tried to fire Managing Director Michael Peacock, one of the founders originally from the BBC. The 13 senior founding executives, including Cyril Bennett, Jimmy Hill and Frank Muir all signed a letter threatening a mass resignation if Peacock was sacked.

The board hesitated. With a storming gale of condemnation from the press, a worried ITA and the great riches expected not having appeared, now the board was stuck. Peacock himself was sure that all that was needed was time. If the viewers were given time to understand the new schedules, they would flock back to LWT.

The financiers on the board didn’t feel they had time. They were propping up an organisation that was bloated and unpopular with viewers. On 18 September, the board acted and fired Peacock. They then sat nervously over the weekend waiting to see if the senior executives would call their bluff.

It was half-called. Of the 13 who threatened to go, 6 actually went. None of this did anything for the moral of the company. Wildcat strikes by unhappy staff members were coupled with a slow trickle away of the remaining senior executives – and sometimes their replacements too – over the next year. By 1971, the company was having severe financial and industrial problems, caught in a whirlpool of its own making. A saviour appeared, offering half a million pounds in cash to the company in return for a seat on the board. Within a very short period of time, this knight in shining armour had engineered a coup, had Peacock’s replacement as managing director, Tom Margerison, fired and taken the job for himself. His name was to become familiar to all involved in television over the next 30 years – Rupert Murdoch.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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