Earthquake ’81 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1732

There was a large earthquake in ITV at Christmas time in 1981. A franchise round had produced three changes, including the sudden deaths of Westward and Southern. Both names would disappear on cue on December 31, never to be seen again. But in the midlands, one of only two remaining original companies was to go.

ATV had been a fixed point in the ITV firmament since 1955. Their mix of cheap entertainment and variety, though criticised, could not be faulted for popularity. Their close association with ITC provided hundreds of hours of quality action and adventure. Their forays into soap opera were either popular and era-defining (Emergency Ward 10) or popular and dreck (Crossroads). They proudly wore the badge of the Queen’s Award for Export, bringing valuable foreign currency into a frequently near-bankrupt Britain.

The IBA, though, had always disliked ATV. Of the original ‘Big 4’, Rediffusion was prepared to make popular quizzes to fund less popular documentaries. Granada introduced a gritty northern realism into everything it touched. ABC produced drama programmes of a quality unseen anywhere else in the world. But ATV was seen, rightly or wrongly, to produce cheap entertainment for the masses – no more, no less. And worse, the IBA was now on a regionalism kick that had begun in the mid-sixties and reached full cry by 1980.

This regionalism-mania left the IBA scouting about for companies named for themselves rather than their region. By 1980, this once-common practice was only to be seen at HTV, Granada and ATV. HTV had two good excuses – no more specific name would do for their weird dual region, and the ‘H’ actually stood for a town in Wales. Granada had achieved the distinction of having its region renamed in the popular mind after the company. ATV had no such excuses.

New blood occasionally needs to be transfused into any organisation, lest it become stale and start to repeat past triumphs or mistakes from habit. Replacing Westward’s management with that of TSW and the entire company of Southern with TVS was one way of doing this. But it was time to bring new blood into a major company.

These was last done in 1968, when ABC had been given the carcass of Rediffusion to pick-over and take the juiciest morsels for the new Thames. But that was merely moving the constituent parts of the network around. This time, something absolutely startling would happen.

On 31 December 1981, a major change was to happen to ATV Network. Firstly, Associated Communications Corporation, ATV’s parent company, was forced to reduce its holding in ATV to a minority 40% and the board broadened to include the new – local – shareholders who would fill the gap. Secondly, the company would be renamed to something more telling of the midlands. And thirdly, a dream of Shirley Williams was to be made to come true.

Mrs Williams had long argued that ‘the Birmingham station’ was being just that – the station for Birmingham. She pointed to Leicester, Nottingham and Derby, towns with a combined population greater than England’s second city but not served by their own station. She argued that East Midlands Television was long overdue.

The IBA were horrified. Their fingers had been so badly burnt over the collapse of little WWN in 1964 that they were loath to take a major region and turn it into two large minors – the integrity of the system as a whole had to be protected. But next door at HTV were signs that another idea, originally thrust upon them almost by accident, could work. Dual regions were the way to go – one company, with the resources and local monopoly required to support an ITV station, but two distinct areas to be served separately for news, sport and local interest programming.

So the third part of the reformation of ATV was to be a dual mandate, to force the company to serve both halves of its area fully. With a new name, new money and new studios it was a fresh addition to ITV. With ATV’s back catalogue, experience and talent, it was a continuation of a solid service dating from 1955.

On 31 December 1981, Michael Prince turned out the lights and locked the doors for the last time… but he was back the following morning for the first day of a new beginning.

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