Can TV’s ‘lost weekend’ be brought to life? 

13 May 2019 tbs.pm/68776

From the Daily Telegraph Magazine for 19 July 1968

 

The “new-look” ITV, starting in a fortnight, gives Granada and London Weekend a major role at the weekends. A panel of nationally known critics puts a list of complaints about “fleapit TV” to the men in charge of weekend viewing. By PHILIP PURSER

 

TV COMPANIES assume that on Friday night the mental effort of viewers takes a sudden plunge, the critics agreed. From left to right: L. Marsland Gander (The Daily Telegraph), Peter Black (Daily Mail), Milton Shulman (Evening Standard), Richard Last (The Sun), Philip Purser (chairman), Stanley Reynolds (The Guardian), Francis Hope (New Statesman)

 

WHATEVER you think of television you probably think (even) less of it at the weekend. Everything that’s undemanding is there in force, anything that’s exciting or stimulating is notably absent, at least from the old-established channels. With a radical re-shaping of the commercial television pattern coming into effect at the end of this month, including the debut of a new company concerned only with weekend programmes, we asked half a dozen leading critics to sound off about weekend TV as it has been and took their views to three men representing weekend TV as it will be. Or so they hope.

Milton Shulman of the Evening Standard started by comparing the adjacent weekend listings he’d clipped from a newspaper. He said he could not tell them apart.

Shulman: What is there about a weekend audience that is different from a Tuesday. Wednesday or Thursday audience? Aren’t they the same people? Have the companies bothered to investigate?

Richard Last (The Sun): It’s an assumption that on Friday night the entire mental effort of the nation takes a sudden plunge, and that old movies, mid-Atlantic series and variety are all people will take. There should be at least two plays at weekends. The other great lack is current affairs.

Peter Black (Daily Mail): All countries with a free television market have bland, undemanding programmes at the weekend.

Shulman: It’s because the people in power want to cut down the importance of television. They want it to be bland and unimportant.

Stanley Reynolds (The Guardian): I get the feeling we’re better off in the North. There is a play on Saturdays — Armchair Theatre which is mid-week in London. And we’ve got Just Jimmy, with Jimmy Clitheroe, which one day people are going to look back on as one of the classics.

 

 

Leonard Gander (The Daily Telegraph): The trouble is the companies have become too used to the big audiences at the weekend. They daren’t risk losing them now. They’re boxed in by this big audience, and their profits, and the network, and the restricted hours they can broadcast… (Cries of “No, no!” It was pointed out that television is on the air longer at the weekend than at other times.)

Gander: But a great deal of it is sport. And it’s no good anyone trying to compete. BBC coverage is so good that any attempt by ITV is really a wasted effort.

Black: That’s all right. Basically, ITV is women’s television, BBC is men’s. And the only sport women like is professional wrestling.

Francis Hope (New Statesman): Technically, anyway, there is something slightly special about the weekend. The Saturday sport has to be transmitted immediately – you can’t hoard it like other programmes. But on Sunday everything pretty well has to be canned. The studios are virtually closed, outside broadcasts would cost too much in overtime. And people do feel a bit different.

Black: I agree. The weekend has a different temperature.

 

 

What about all those old movies?

Shulman: Old films at peak-time have to go. They are a deteriorating influence on the whole medium — 30-year-old standards of imagination, made by people who probably wouldn’t get a job today in television. Yet they take precedence over original TV programming.

Reynolds: My interest in television started with watching those old films!

Shulman: Late at night or in the afternoon, that’s fine. But not in peak time. It’s turning television into a substitute for the fleapit. The ITA should ban old films at peak times and then we might get more ideas for good television coming forward.

The companies should ask themselves, is it in the long run good for television that the audience should be fed constantly with this opium? They should have enough intelligence and integrity to say No. Even if their profits go down they should produce programmes that are different, that expand the whole business of television. That’s their responsibility.

Gander: The new companies have got to recognise that to be different and to make real progress in this medium they have got to sacrifice the big audiences.

Reynolds: Though I think ABC seems to be better at weekends than ATV I’m sad the country is being cut up into even smaller regions by these new franchises, with half the old Granada area becoming Yorkshire. One of the advantages of this country is that it’s compact. You can have national newspapers, all see the same TV show at the same time…

 

 

What’s the main need?

Gander: For an experimental unit established on commando lines to find new talent, new ideas, new audiences, and to work away at a programme until they make it popular.

Black: The quality of surprise is the one I would go for. I think there should be one hour on a Saturday or Sunday or Friday which would be vacant for people to fill as they like. But it must be something that hasn’t been done before, preferably live. There is more edge to live television.

Finally the critics were asked to imagine they were watching TV in the company of a choosey visitor from abroad; was there anything they might show him without embarrassment?

Gander: The News, One Pair of Eyes.

Last: BBC-2 serials.

Hope: I agree – Portrait of a Lady was better than the book.

Black: Also the Sunday afternoon serial on BBC-1, and The Troubleshooters.

Shulman: Saturday night satire, if ever they brought it back. The Eleventh Hour was taken off just when it was beginning to work.

Reynolds: Jimmy Clitheroe.


Russ J Graham writes:

It’s possible to see from this exactly why London Weekend was an initial disaster. The great and the good had been putting up with ATV London since 1955 and found it wanting. Bickering between ATV and ABC had seen many of the latter’s programmes sold to Rediffusion, replaced on the weekend in London with variety and ITC filmed series.

The result was an ATV London schedule that was undemanding and uninspired… and very very popular. But the great and the good had spoken. Swap the Palladium for a Pinter play. Take the films off and put arts programmes in their place. Aim higher, give the public what they need, not what they want. Build it and they will come.

The problem was, they didn’t come. The audience deserted ITV at weekends in droves. Milton Shulman says that a daring ITV would make less profit but better television; he doesn’t seem to understand that making a profit is fundamental to making better television. With less profit than London Weekend had anticipated, there was less to spend on programmes. With less money spent on the programmes, they got worse. The public tuned away, leading to less profit and worse programmes and more of the public tuning away… a vicious circle that consumed London Weekend and its fancy plans, leading to boardroom coups, a financial near-collapse and London Weekend having to put itself into the hands of a white knight – Rupert Murdoch, of all people – and a resulting heavily populist schedule.

Stanley Reynolds stands out as the voice of reason here. The Guardian at this time is still largely based in Manchester, so Reynolds watches ABC at weekends and likes what he sees. He also doesn’t mind the more populist programming ITV has on weekends, seeming to better have his finger on the pulse of what working class viewers – the vast majority of ITV’s audience – want on their day and a half of rest (it was still common in the North for people to work Saturday mornings).

Ultimately Gander, Shulman et al got what they wanted on weekends in London. And it failed, hard.


Kif Bowden-Smith adds:

The major difference between ATV and ABC was that ABC was a creature of the weekend, a weekend-only company to its very core. ATV saw itself as a 7-day operation that just happened to spend five of them in the Midlands and two in London. A 7-day company is a very different thing to a truly weekend-only company, and ATV’s attitude to Saturday and Sunday television programming was shaped accordingly: they could put their biggest hitters on air on the day they thought they’d get the most profit, homogenising their output; ABC, however, had to cram everything into their two days, causing the cream to rise to the top (sorry about these metaphors).

The other side of this is that ATV could happily deny its best programmes to ABC by showing them on a weekday in the Midlands and the weekends in London. This also included the ITC filmed series: the ITA, keen to deny ATV claiming these as their own productions, had excluded them from being counted as such in 1964, but the result was that ITC sold each one twice to ATV, Midlands and London, preventing ABC from showing them at all. Without that cheap filler available, ABC had no alternative than to produce its own programmes to fill the gaps… which ATV would then decline to buy, leaving them to be picked up by Rediffusion if they were to air in London at all and denying ABC its full network credit.

The bulk of these critics don’t seem to realise this – which is a surprise from such erudite and learned people as L Marsland Gander and Milton Shulman. It’s left up to Stanley Reynolds, notably younger as well as living in Manchester, to see that television in London on weekends was poorer for such machinations.

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