Never Mind The Quality 

1 January 2002

One of the notable co-incidences about television nowadays is that there is little correlation between the number of channels and the quality of programming. For all the dross viewers are subjected to, there has never been a greater choice of outlets for anyone wanting to get a programme on air.

On Sky Digital, there are dozens of broadcasters competing with each other for advertising revenue, offering hundreds of channels between them. And yet, in a reader survey recently published by the Radio Times, the list of all-time top-100 programmes is dominated by those made when there were only two or three channels available. Why?

In his MacTaggart Lecture, given at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 1989, Rupert Murdoch said that wherever it is possible, competition provides better results than monopoly or duopoly.

To some extent, he had a point. It took the arrival of ITV in the 1950s – and Hugh Carleton Green – to force the BBC to take television seriously. However, the irony is that Murdoch, in extolling the virtues of competition and the market economy, was talking about television, which bucks the trend if ever any sector did.

What existed before the rise of cable and satellite was not true competition? The licence fee, as ever, funded the BBC, while ITV had a monopoly on broadcast advertising. While they would often schedule competitively against each other, it was not a life-and-death fight for the same revenue stream.

A drop in viewing figures would affect the price of ITV’s advertising slots, but was unlikely to cause clients to desert to the competition. Such competition did not exist. So long as ITV paid sufficient lip service to populism to keep the advertisers happy, it could get away with a mix that included documentaries and the arts.

It was ignoring populism altogether that put companies in danger, as the early London Weekend demonstrated in 1968, and TV-am proved in 1982.

Largely as a result of the profits ITV started making in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Government imposed a levy on ITV’s profits. This tax, on the companies’ revenue stream, was tweaked and adjusted until, at one time, over eighty percent of their profits was handed over to the Treasury.

As a result, the companies preferred to spend their money rather than declare it as taxable profits. This also allowed them the luxury of letting costs go where they liked, as any economies achieved by the bean counters would benefit the tax system far more than their own bottom line. With no incentive for financial rigour, cost spiralled and staffing levels multiplied.

Union demands were usually met with little protest, and some suspected there were plenty of business lunches and dinners, overseas conferences and well-funded expense accounts. ITV led a charmed life, envious bosses of other large companies thought.

The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) had powers over the ITV companies verging on the draconian. It was, in law, the broadcaster and accountable as such. The Authority reserved the right to approve the schedules. It required a proportion of certain types of programming, including news, current affairs, and documentaries. Southern Television contributed coverage of opera from Glyndebourne to the network. It is telling that a Thames trailer for a performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” should, to a 21st century audience, be remarkable. How many operas are now shown on ITV?

In an era of (mainly) peaceful co-existence with the BBC, ITV could quite happily accommodate such strictures imposed by its regulator. This confluence of factors: strong regulation; the public service ethos and sense of duty found in a generation that had either fought the 1939-1945 war, or knew first-hand accounts from those who had; and a tax regime that encouraged ITV to plough revenue back into programming rather than hand it over to the Inland Revenue, all contributed to the quality of programming that emerged.

It was not, however, the “golden age” selective memories are likely to recall. For all the achievements that have stood the test of time, from the word go ITV had its fair share of dross. It had to, to rack up viewing figures.

But with, to start off, two channels in existence, the usual habit was for households to put the television on one of them and leave well alone for the night. As likely as not, that channel was ITV.

So long as the schedule had some popular entertainment, viewers would not switch over at the first sign of a lurch up-market. There was nothing to switch over to. Only the BBC, which, if anything, kept its brow a notch or two above its rival.

There was certainly no Sky One, or Bravo, or the multitude of other channels that were yet to put in an appearance. Channel 4 did nothing in this regard, either. ITV was required to bankroll Channel 4, the quid pro quo being that it could sell the latter’s advertising and keep the proceeds.

Once again, the status quo remained. Of what were now four channels, the BBC had two, funded from the licence fee, and ITV controlled the sale of airtime on the other two. Again, there was little commercial imperative for ITV to squeeze every last drop possible out of the schedules.

And this is the key to why ITV was able to produce such good, as opposed to populist, programming for so long. To a large part, it was forced to by the IBA, but this regulatory regime was sustainable in the era in which it operated.

Had not the Broadcasting Act 1990 swept away the IBA, its high-handed regulatory system would have become increasingly untenable in the face of genuine competition from broadcasters enticing ITV’s audiences to cable and satellite.

In the event, the Independent Television Commission (ITC), which took over from the IBA in 1991, ran a far laxer regulatory framework. This let ITV, perforce, get used to operating more under the sort of market economy espoused by Mr. Murdoch. It could no longer take its audiences for granted.

Mark Lawson, in a report for “The Late Show” on BBC-2, commented that although ITV had always been thought of as commercial, in reality its vulgarities had always been strictly controlled. In that sense, Mr. Lawson continued, it was an extension of the old BBC idea, of television as a supply market, rather than a demand one. From 1993, by comparison, what the viewer saw was Britain’s first truly commercial television. Liz Howell, then director of programmes at GMTV, got it about right. Heralding the arrival of demand television, Ms. Howell was quoted as saying, “The public will get what the public bloody well wants.”

She was only, rather colourfully, stating the reality. Times had indeed changed, as events would show. By the turn of the millennium, Sky Digital would boast an impressive array of literally hundreds of distinct channels, many of them specialist, such as BBC Four, Al Jazeera, and religious broadcasters.

But it was the handful of general, mass-entertainment channels that were really competing tooth and claw for the hearts and minds of ITV’s traditional audience. As a result, ITV had to respond the only way it could: give the public what it wanted, as opposed to what the great and the good thought it should want.

Taking advantage of the new dispensation granted by the ITC, ITV surged shamelessly down-market, pulling out all the stops to drive ratings as high as possible. The arrival of the multi-channel era, as much as anything, forced its hand. If ITV occasionally put out a dull but worthy programme, as was its wont twenty years previously, its audience would reach for the remote control and defect to (for instance) Sky One for the rest of the night. Getting and keeping the viewer was the name of the game, now more than ever.

This had a dramatic effect on programming, and the independent production houses that, by this time, counted Thames in their ranks. The old scheduling system, in which the “big five” contractors (Thames, Central, Granada, Yorkshire and LWT) plotted and planned the network schedule among them, had come to an end. In its place was the new ITV Network Centre, and its central scheduler.

The scheduler would plan the network schedule, commissioning programming from the production companies (both the production arms of ITV licensees and independent production houses). The commercial imperative meant that the schedules would be different.

Who now would schedule “World in Action”, and drive the viewers straight into the arms of Sky One?

The levy had also been scrapped. In its place came a flat annual fee, to be paid by each of the companies broadcasting from 1993, plus a percentage of profits. A process of competitive tendering chose the applicants in 1991. In their applications, they had to say what fee they would pay; with no knowledge of what their rival applicants were proposing.

Apart from the obvious overbidding the process encouraged, this had two implications. The profits companies made were now taxed at a rate more in line with the rest of industry, so the companies had more incentive to tighten up on costs, improve accounting procedures and shed staff.

And, each year, the companies had to find from their profits the substantial fee, to be paid each year to the Treasury. All this meant that there was far less money for programme making than before.

The Broadcasting Act 1990 has been blamed for the abysmal lack of quality television. Whilst its dismissal of the IBA certainly had a role to play, it is hard to imagine how even the old Authority, had it presided over the cut-throat competition we now have, could have succeeded in coaxing out of the ITV companies the sort of programming that now constitutes what is seen as British television’s golden age.

However, allegations of what is now called “dumbing down” are almost as old as ITV itself. Two months after its launch, Associated-Rediffusion’s director of programmes, Roland Gillett, notoriously made the statement that, some forty years later, GMTV’s Ms. Howell aped, had she but known it.

Deciding that the schedules should become more popular, Mr. Gillett shortened many of the serious and cultural items and moved them to late evening. The most publicised change was the move of the Hallé orchestra from an hour-long eight-thirty slot to half an hour starting at ten. His justification?

“Let’s face it once and for all,” he said. “The public likes girls, wrestling, bright musicals, quiz shows and real life dramas. We gave them the Hallé orchestra, Foreign Press Club, floodlit football and visits to the local fire station. Well, we’ve learned. From now on, what the public wants, it’s going to get.” Plus ça change.

It took ITV a long time to recover from what was dubbed the “retreat from culture”. However, this was as nothing compared to the opinion of Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury during the gestation of the 1988 White Paper on broadcasting. Mr. Lawson thought the 1991 franchise round should be a straight auction; it didn’t matter a row of beans what was on the box and the highest bidder should win, come what may.

Interestingly, it was some time before this that Greg Dyke took over at TV-am in 1983. Reaching for the morning station’s controls, he unceremoniously dumped its “Mission to Explain” and installed Roland Rat in its place. This was under the heavily regulated IBA regime, before Thatcherism had been going long enough to make much of an impact. Dyke knew that if he didn’t arrest the haemorrhaging of viewers, TV-am would fail.

The people who run broadcasting now see it in a different light from their predecessors. The sea change of attitudes that took place in the 1980s is partly responsible.

In a sense, though, the forces that are driving the retreat from culture now are the same as those that drove the retreat from culture in 1955-1956, and the same that forced both LWT and TV-am to plunge down-market after disastrous experiments. Broadcasting is a business.

The first duty of any business is to survive. For advertising-funded television to survive, it must attract viewers. Therefore, it must schedule the programming viewers will watch. All the rules and regulations in the world cannot change this basic truth. Robert Fraser recognized this when he let A-R charge down-market (by the standards of the day) in 1955.

LWT failed to recognize this in 1968, and was duly punished, years before Thatcherism. TV-am did likewise in 1982, and it took Greg Dyke and Roland Rat to rescue the station from a certain death.

Some have credited a few dedicated politicians that the 1990 Act, for all its faults, was not a good deal worse, and the ITC for doing its best to make it work. George Russell realized that he could not arbitrarily appoint the stations he wanted without going observing due process and applying the criteria in the 1990 Act.

He acknowledges the decision to ditch Thames was the hardest of all those he took, and he was very unhappy in having to make it. He also said the Act gave a good degree of scope for interpretation, which the Commission used to the utmost.

To be sure, David Mellor worked hard and had the ear of lobbyists such as the Campaign for Quality Television, of which the then Granada managing director David Plowright was a leading luminary. Mr. Mellor had no intention of going down in history as the man who ruined British television. Maybe, despite his best efforts, he was unable to save it.

Long before Mr. Mellor took charge of the legislation, the two fundamental factors behind the political causes of television’s “dumbing down”, the competitive tendering and the lighter touch regulation of the ITC, were set in stone by Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet and were sacrosanct.

All this did was give market forces a free ride. Under the IBA regime, in an era of proper competition, the companies would have lobbied the Authority to distraction to remove the competitive hurdles that were then in their way.

The Authority would have had to either cave in, or hold all the rival broadcasters to the same standards. Given that many channels available in the UK on satellite are originated from outside the UK and not subject to British law, this would have been impossible. The number of channels, had the technology then existed, would have been far below what the system was capable of supporting.

Of course, it is important to remember that, although the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, their libertarian, free-market ideology took time to become embedded within the national psyche. By the time it did, the Government was already thinking about its 1988 White Paper on broadcasting and the IBA, doubling as the shadow ITC, was already considering how it would operate after 1990.

So, for almost all of the IBA’s life, the sort of brutal commercial considerations ITV had to face in the 1990s and beyond did not feature in the Authority’s deliberations. And since almost the establishment of ITV, the IBA’s predecessor, the Independent Television Authority, was pressing for the spectrum allocation necessary to licence two or three competing broadcasters in the same area.

It is quite possible that, had the technology to sustain dozens of rival commercial broadcasters pre-dated the political forces at work in the 1980s, the IBA would have found a way to reconcile the commercial imperative with the demands of quality broadcasting.

However, the basic facts of the market would have exerted their pressure then, as now: the temptation would always have been to schedule competitively to retain audience figures. The Authority could have moved to temper the commercial pressure, but it would have been there, and would almost certainly have had an impact on the programmes made, and the programme schedules.

Once the multi-channel era really did take off, technological advances interacted with the political forces then at work, and the new channels readily took advantage of a far more permissive environment.

With the IBA gone and its successor, the ITC, operating a policy of light-touch regulation, ITV could face its rivals head-to-head. The quality of programming was suborned to populism.

It requires a lot of effort, talent and hard work to make programming that sustains both critical and popular acclaim. The technology makes it possible now for almost anyone to make programming.

Judging from the results on screen it would seem that almost anyone “is” making the programmes we see. This slip-shod mentality has its defenders; notably, Peter Bazalgette holds the view that television today is better than it has ever been. Even so, there are still talented individuals and companies putting out the occasional gem here and there.

But not enough. Even Thames, which was once the lynchpin of the ITV network, has succumbed, turning its once excellent drama series “The Bill” into yet another soap, and milking the “Pop Idol” franchise for all it’s worth.

Why has Thames not set itself up as a national broadcaster on the Sky Digital platform, giving its formidable programme archives a second airing and using its production facilities to make new programming of equal calibre? Why is Granada Television, in business since 1956 and once regarded as a colossus in ITV, now blamed for ruining the network?

There are two reasons. Whereas in the 1970s the talent would be concentrated within the schedules of BBC 1, BBC 2 and ITV, today it is scattered across a far wider area. A predictable consequence of the growth of channels is that there are more hours to be filled.

So programme makers of limited skill get commissions now for programmes that, twenty years ago, would have been rejected at the first hurdle. Dovetailing in with that is the fact that the senior executives now in charge of the media industry have a different outlook to their predecessors.

No longer do they try to raise the viewers’ cultural tastes; rather, they pander to the expectations they believe the bulk of the audience hold. The result is an increase in game shows such as “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”, ‘reality TV’ programmes (“Holidays from Hell”, “Airport”), sometimes combining an audience participation element (“Big Brother”), and an obsession with DIY, home and garden makeovers and the like.

The BBC’s “Panorama” and LWT’s “The South Bank Show” get ditched to the graveyard slot and Thames’s “This Week” and Granada’s “World in Action” are scrapped.

For all the technological advances that we have benefited from, the ability of British television to sustain quality programming was always going to be put at risk from the bracing air of true competition.

The Broadcasting Act 1990 brought about the most fundamental changes seen in independent television throughout its history. But the competition from cable and, in particular, satellite, did at least as much.

From the point of view of the new broadcasters, the 1990 Act came at just the right time, removing the restrictions that would have hindered the competitive scheduling required in this new, multi-channel era.

Throughout the centuries, the House of Lords evolved into a revising chamber, with the intelligence and influence to improve legislation and pull countless Government chestnuts out of the fire, but without the actual power to challenge the democratically elected Commons.

This evolution was never the result of some grand design; it came about because of several bouts of political expediency. Like the Lords, the BBC/IBA duopoly was a quintessential example of the British knack of building practical contraptions, from which emerge beautiful machines.

Over time evolved a system that, had the authorities sat down one afternoon armed with a blank sheet of paper and a glass of port, they would not have had the intelligence to create.

The three factors that resulted in such a high proportion of quality programming were: a lack of competition for advertising revenue, the guiding hand of the regulator, and a tax system that encouraged turnover to be ploughed back into the business.

Take any one of these away and the populist impulse increases.

Take all three away at the same time, and it is little surprise that a typically British compromise, balancing public service and commerce in a way that was universally admired, was blown sky high.

Your comment

Enter it below