The ITV Top 10: 3 – Rediffusion 

3 September 2005 tbs.pm/3473

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

ALBUM Rediffusion

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

At number 3 in our top ten comes the granddaddy of them all, Rediffusion (and its stuffier alter-ego, Associated-Rediffusion).

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Rediffusion gets in at number three simply because, without it having existed, ITV would have failed dismally and immediately.

When the new channel launched in London on 22 September 1955, it was obvious from the first day’s advertising receipts that something had gone terribly wrong. The London companies – AR and ABC (soon to become ATV) – had thought that the first night would be very profitable, and thus were donating those profits to a London charity. There were no profits.

The ITA had assumed that each new company would lose money in the first year, break even in the second, and make decent profits in the third, or thereabouts.

What AR and ATV found was that they made exceptionally big losses right from the start. After a year, they were still making crippling losses. When ATV and ABC came on stream in the midlands a few months later, the losses continued. ABC and Granada in the north also suffered right from the beginning and for a long time.

But Rediffusion’s parent companies, British Electric Traction and Rediffusion Limited (the ‘Associated’ being a relic of Associated Newspapers, who bailed out in horror of the losses soon after launch) had deep pockets. Their management were sure that they would be on to a good thing once the period of losses were over.

But the first three years were painful. The losses were so great that you could shovel £5 notes on to a fire and have trouble keeping up with the rate ITV was burning cash.

Worse than that, Rediffusion had a great fear of being left to carry the whole shebang. If ATV fell, a 7-day London contract would beckon for Rediffusion – two more days of extreme losses. So ATV were given free house room and facilities in Television House, Rediffusion’s headquarters, as part of an effort by the weekday contractor to keep the weekend company alive.

When Granada came on air, Rediffusion ran to the rescue before the losses had even begun, agreeing a deal that effectively paid for Granada’s network output but in return kept most of the future profits. The deal made sense to Rediffusion not least because ATV in the midlands was happy to withhold the most popular shows it made in order to put them out on the London transmitter at weekends. A deal with Granada prevented the only other regular source of network programming from also going elsewhere.

This strategy – effectively throwing more and more money at the problem – unbelievably worked. By 1958 the system as a whole was well in profit. Rediffusion, thanks to the plum 5-day London contract was even more so. Add in the Granada deal profits and the investment seems inspired. By the 1960s, Rediffusion could have started moving the profits around in wheelbarrows for want of knowing what to do with them.

If Rediffusion, and BET, hadn’t been the main ITV contractor in 1955, it’s hard to see how ITV would have survived those first three years – there simply wasn’t another company in the country with enough money to bankroll the new channel, even if one could be found with the stupidity to do so.

Even for this heroic act, Rediffusion was poorly served by both the ITA and history.

The ITA got in first, making them a minority part of Thames from 1968 in what was probably an act of spite on behalf of chairman Lord Hill of Luton (to be fair, both he and Rediffusion as a whole were generally very arrogant with each other in their meetings – but in 1968, Hill held all the cards and dealt them accordingly).

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Then history got to work on Rediffusion’s legacy. The problem with Rediffusion was some very canny scheduling. It made some very heavyweight programming – shows with gravitas and minority appeal. Expensive shows with large teams of researchers.

History doesn’t recall this. Instead, history remembers AR scaling back on these productions, temporarily, in the lean period of 1956-7. Then history remembers the two programmes that Rediffusion used to pay for all its highbrow output – Double Your Money and Take Your Pick.

These two programmes were terrible rubbish but very very popular. The advertising revenue from them cross-subsidised the documentaries, interviews and investigations that followed them each night.

But history is written by the winners; and Rediffusion effectively was a loser. History therefore records that Rediffusion was too light, too crowd-pleasing, and that Thames brought London a bit more gravitas.

History has it wrong: Thames was certainly a lot lighter than Rediffusion; and LWT, Thames’s neighbour, was certainly heavier than ATV London (it would be difficult to think how it could have been otherwise).

So, for being the deep pockets behind the system in the early years, and for being so cruelly mistreated by everyone who every commented on them once they had gone, Rediffusion deserves its place near the summit of our top ten.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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