The ITV Top 10: 2 – Thames 

3 September 2005

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ALBUM Thames

This article was written in 2005 to coincide with ITV’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The text has not been revised.

At number 2 in our top ten comes the second ITV company in our list to have been created under the direction of the IT(B)A.

On ABC's last weekend, John Benson makes an appearance to show off "what ABC is doing next".

On ABC’s last weekend, John Benson makes an appearance to show off “what ABC is doing next”.

Thames Television was an accident. If history had followed the lines that seemed most likely at the time, the post-68 make up of ITV would have seen ABC moving to London weekends, Rediffusion continuing on London weekdays, TWW surviving in the west and Wales and STV being the sacrifice to show that Hill had muscles.


But STV’s competition was poor; TWW’s competition was better on paper; and David Frost decided to build a group of the great and good from Rediffusion and BBC staff to make a killer application.

LWT destroyed all of the ITA’s plans. There was simply no way of turning the Frost consortium down, for they promised to bring Rediffusion’s gravitas to London weekends – something ATV London severely lacked.


The weekend contract was ABC’s for the taking. ABC felt it had earned it; the ITA agreed. Above all else, ABC were the only company to be completely displaced in the new pattern of Independent broadcasting.

The invention of LWT plugged the hole ABC was to fill. Other options either went against stated policy (Yorkshire’s local talent) or political necessity (ATV’s export dollars).

In 1964, Lord Hill of Luton, the new chairman of the ITA, had seriously considered forcing the then-Associated Rediffusion to combine with a rival consortium to try to shake up the incumbent’s stodgy reputation and arrogant behaviour. But the finances didn’t work and the rival consortium offered little in new ideas.

Rediffusion had relaunched itself with the new contract, ditching the stuffy exterior and embracing the 1960s – not at the ITA’s urging, but to fight the competition from the new BBC-2.

But the management, and the management style, had not changed. Disposing of Captain Thomas N Brownrigg DSO RN (Rtd) as General Manager reinvigorated the company internally; but in meetings with the ITA, even at contract renewal time, the same old arrogance was displayed.

With the idea of taking Rediffusion’s deep pockets and adding them to another group with more flair for television already being on the cards, the next step was only logical – ABC was stateless; give them Rediffusion’s money and most of its old contract and the result would be great television at best, interesting at worst. The ITA couldn’t lose.

And didn’t. It worked. The new Thames Television had ABC’s flair and love of the medium. It had Rediffusion’s sound financial acumen and ready-made heavyweight departments covering education, documentaries and children’s programming.


ABC on its own would have made a better fist of the weekends than LWT managed. But ABC alone on weekdays in London would have been a disaster: the company was a great entertainer and a great sales medium, but gravitas it did not have – nor want.

Howard Thomas of ABC was a man of action and adventure. He believed in popular programming aimed at providing viewers with what they should want (not ATV’s “what they do want” or LWT’s “what we want them to want”). The ideal man for the weekends.

Add into that mix people like Jeremy Issacs, an ex-ABC and Granada man inherited from Rediffusion, as department heads and you had a new thing on weekdays – a company with a light gravitas; an entertaining serious company; a company that balanced the programmes and the audience.

But Thames isn’t at number 2 in our top ten because of this history; nor is it here because of its ABC and Rediffusion roots.


Thames gets to the penultimate position simply because it is impossible to imagine ITV without it. If the ITA had not created Thames, it would have been necessary for the ITA to have created it. ITV wasn’t ITV without Thames.

Throughout the 1970s, the best mix of programming came from Thames. The London weekday company was traditionally ITV’s rock, but without Thames there, the network would have been eaten alive by Hugh Carleton-Greene’s new-style BBC.

For confirmation, look at what happened to ITV when the Conservative government under Mrs Thatcher and her forgettable successor contrived to corruptly exclude Thames from the privatised ITV of the 1990s. The result was more than a decade of falling viewing figures and headless-chicken ‘management’ of the network.

So Thames comes in at number two because ITV was unimaginable without it; and, when that came to pass, unwatchable too.

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