A rationalised ITV structure 

27 May 2019 tbs.pm/68794

From the Daily Telegraph for Saturday 27 February 1971

THE problems of London Weekend have become well known, but in the context of independent television as a whole they are a symptom, not the disease. The system suffers from a structure evolved in response to the concept of a licence to print money.” In the long term the concept has proved mistaken. When the Prices and Incomes Board reported last October that the system was economically wasteful, this was not so much a revelation as a truism.

During the present six-year contract period, which ends in 1974, the Independent Television Authority appears determined to preserve the independence of the 15 companies. Even where a financial merger becomes absolutely imperative, as with the rescue of Tyne Tees by Yorkshire last August, it is insisted that each company will still be responsible for its own production. After 1974 things will surely be different. “There is certainly nothing sacred about the number 15,” as Mr Brian Young, Director-General of the ITA, said last week

The ITV regions in 1973

Anticipating changes in 1974, my colleagues of our television staff and I have in the past five months visited all 13 provincial companies and seen something of their programmes, as well as those of the two London companies familiar on our home screens. We embarked on the exercise knowing that the structure was economically unjustifiable, and with the object of discovering whether it could be justified on either programme or social grounds.

The present system is that there are five “majors” and 10 regional companies. The “big five” each provide a quota of programmes for the network as well as for their own regions. The small 10 are mostly excluded from the network, not invariably for the best professional reasons, and concentrate on their own areas.

The difference in scale between the companies is great. Thames, the London weekday giant, is now paying £5,544,000 [£85,000,000 in 2019, allowing for inflation] in advertising levy and transmitter rentals: while Channel, the island tiddler, pays a grand total of £100 [£1,500]. Where Thames serves 4,270,000 homes and employs 1,350, Channel is screened to 32,000 homes and employs 61 people. The revenue of Channel is £160.000 [£2.5m]: that of Thames approaches £18 million [£275m].

It follows that the division of resources in ITV is far from equal. And this is inevitably reflected in programmes. Expensive programmes are not necessarily good ones, but visual stimulation does depend on the flexibility of equipment, time and place that only money can provide.

Ulster is at present considering making a full-length documentary. The main motive is not to provide a better service for the viewer: a single programme may hardly be noticed against the total output of the company, much less against the output of ITV as a whole. The main motive is to keep the interest of a talented director who is understandably frustrated at being confined so often to the studio and pictures of talking or singing heads.

This is the problem of wasted talent in a nutshell. Despite so much devotion to the regional ideal the ambitious continue to drift to London, or at best to Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. As costs increase faster than revenue, the drift looks bound to continue.

All the regional companies have in their time made programmes up to network standard and of sufficient national interest to be shown on the network. But looking at the general run of output by the regional companies our unanimous finding is that the present system cannot be justified in pure programme terms.

The social case for the system, on the other hand, remains strong. Regional companies do give news, current affairs and documentary coverage in areas that would otherwise be ignored by television and they give a good showing to indigenous folk arts—where these are not too expensive. Audiences feel able to identify with their local company and its early evening news magazine rather as they do with their local newspaper. Despite BBC endeavours in the same direction, this is a service at which ITV is best, and it is in the national interest it should survive.

 

Loyalty first

 

So to the crux of the matter. At present we have a socially desirable system containing some units too small to provide a really effective programme service. Instead we need a compromise which will maintain the system, but with units that are, as far as possible, both socially meaningful and large enough to be effective.

 

In redesigning the ITV map for 1974 we have kept national and regional loyalties uppermost. If social desirability is the main justification for the system, as we have found, it is absolute nonsense to ignore such loyalties.

There are two other essential points: overlapping between companies is to be encouraged, and all companies should be able to show programmes on the network when they are good enough. This should lead to constructive competition.

If the ITA were persuaded to reduce the number of companies it should also be made mandatory that at least a news studio was retained in each of the centres made partially redundant. Thus, if Scottish were amalgamated with Grampian and those parts of Border that are north of the border, as logic suggests, it would be expected to maintain a news and current affairs service in Aberdeen and Dumfries.

Moving down the map, we would confirm the merger of Yorkshire and Tyne Tees and add the English territory of Border, stressing again that, although “Meet the Press” or “Challenge” could be as easily made in Leeds as in Newcastle, the excellent news and current affairs service at Newcastle should be sustained together with that at Carlisle.

Underlying map source: WikishireCC BY-SA 4.0

Ulster is a special case. Even a loose financial association with Scottish or Granada would probably create as many problems, political and social, as it solved. It might be thought more sensible to subsidise its news unit as a branch of ITN and let it take network programmes at nominal prices.

Wales is also an individual case and its national status, at least in the cultural sense, should be recognised by confining Harlech within its boundaries. Like Ulster it would need English help and it should certainly be relieved of its expensive obligation to provide a Welsh-language service. This might be transmitted as a joint venture between the BBC and ITV on one of the second channels.

Anglia is worth sustaining from programme as well as social considerations, particularly if the territory it recently lost to Yorkshire were returned. ATV is less worthy in the sense that the “A” mostly appears to stand for “American” but it obviously has the financial strength to improve its programmes for the British market.

As the ITA recognise the regional differences between Scotland and Granadaland, or between Yorkshire and East Anglia, it should look as clearly at the South. Here the main distinction should be between the relatively independent South-West and the London-dominated South-East.

Southern is a well-run company with a sound financial situation and lavish studios in Southampton, even though it has not been a very enterprising programme maker, but its territory is a meaningless agglomeration. It should be made the base for a new South-Western company, taking in the English side of Harlech together with Westward and Channel and retaining news branches in Bristol, Plymouth and St Helier.

A single London company is ruled out on the grounds that it would dominate the entire system, yet the viability of a weekend company remains in question. The answer is to make London Weekend, due to have a new South Bank headquarters next year, a south-of-the-river company taking in the entire South-Eastern section of Southern. Thames, lately moved to Euston, would be the north-of-the-river company stretching deeply into the present Birmingham-based ATV territory where viewers reasonably regard London rather than Birmingham as their centre.

There would be a massive overlap between these two, stretching from Crawley to Luton and from Reading to Chelmsford. Both companies would broadcast throughout the week on separate channels, ITV-1 and ITV-2, and Londoners would enjoy increased choice. Stringently controlled by the ITA, this might even be a rewarding competition for the viewer.


Russ J Graham writes:

These are interesting ideas, but what Sean Day-Lewis doesn’t grasp very well in his thoughts on the geography of ITV is that the geography of the United Kingdom and its transmitter network makes some of them impossible.

For instance, the thought of cutting Border Television in two looks sensible on paper, but Border Television only existed because the physical geography meant that its main transmitter would cover ⅔ England to ⅓ Scotland. There’s no way to split this transmitter down the middle without giving viewers in both areas a choice of both the Scottish ITV service and the Border/Tyne Tees/Yorkshire one… and there was never the available channel bandwidth nor the finance available for this.

Similarly in London: handing north London and the south Midlands to Thames and south London and the south-east to London Weekend is all very well, but both of these companies come from the same transmitter that covers the whole existing region. There isn’t the bandwidth to broadcast both and no way of stopping people from watching the “wrong” region, throwing the advertising market into chaos.

Day-Lewis also encourages greater overlaps between ITV regions, but one of the reasons the ITA disliked that idea was that, whilst competition was fine, it would be too easy for one larger company to suck the available advertising spend out of a smaller overlapping neighbour. The resulting bankruptcies would undermine the ITV system – the ITA still felt the burn from the death of Teledu Cymru after only 2 years, partially due to it being in an overlap area – and prevent the expansion of independent broadcasting into radio and other services that the ITA had long sought.

As a get-out for these problems of his own making, Day-Lewis moves away from promoting overlaps into promoting the default creation of ITV-2 by making stations that overlap into ITV-1 and ITV-2 services. This idea is just painful, as it has no benefits I can see at all. He says this would provide rewarding competition for the viewer. How? On this basis ITV-1 and ITV-2 are showing the same mix of programmes, possibly at the same time, unless the dead hand of the ITA was to step in and prevent networking… which would destroy ITV’s finances and reduce competition. Also, good luck to whoever gets demoted to ITV-2, which would have to be on UHF only, whilst the remaining ITV-1 service would keep the huge expanse – albeit only in black and white – of VHF.

The ultimate result – local companies that are no longer local, a shambolic and unpromotable network, a new competitor made up of the old competitors, the geographic nightmare of trying to make this work and the huge costs – rather explain why nothing further was heard of any of these ideas (with the exception of the interesting plan to make ITV-2 in Wales a joint ITV/BBC Welsh-language service).


Kif Bowden-Smith adds:

Advertising in the UK at this point – and to a large degree even now – was regionalised. Local papers then, targeted geolocating adverts on the web now, and in both cases across clearly defined markets on ITV. The advertising agencies took advantage of this, being able to advertise different products at different prices according to how they saw the social and financial make-up of each marketing region.

The 1968 ITV strike saw a national service across the network. ITV were very keen that viewers were not to be disappointed by some products not being available locally.

Sean Day-Lewis’s plans throw this all up into the air. Test marketing instantly becomes impossible. Regional price variations are suddenly very difficult to do. Whole swathes of regional-only products – which existed in droves at this point – became impossible to sell without creating disappointment and the resulting brand damage.

Some advertisers would give up: the international airlines, for instance, advertised almost exclusively in London. They didn’t want to advertise in Abingdon or in Dover. Faced with, inevitably, paying more money to reach less of the people they were speaking to, their agencies would happily fold that advertising spend – which was largely prestige brand building rather than “BUY NOW!!” grabbers – back into print.

The 1970s Neilsen Marketing Regions, marrying up distribution chains and ITV regions without overlaps, whilst still allowing for regional loyalties that were largely set by the BBC’s Regional Scheme for the wireless in the 1930s

The advertising agencies and their customers did want to see reform of ITV’s ad sales, but mainly a reduction in price and the opening up of new markets (which the much talked about ITV-2 might do). Tearing the system up into little pieces, throwing them in the air and seeing where they landed wouldn’t provide this reform. It’d just cost them more and reduce their options.

The reality of marketing in the UK: TWW’s area map from 1966, with population figures and pockets of extra-territorial coverage

The other point that Day-Lewis has spectacularly missed is that closing ITV regional production facilities but leaving a news operation is a terrible idea. We’ve seen it come to pass, and it didn’t work: the ITV regional companies didn’t just make news for their regions. They made local general interest and entertainment programmes, featuring local people and local talent. Day-Lewis, safe in London, was likely unaware of this and considered the regions simply to be news operations – just as ITV itself would do in at the turn of this century, a decision that fundamentally destroyed ITV and from which the almost-unified company has yet to recover.

All in all, a very odd article and a classic example of London-centric, metropolitan mentality.

You Say

7 responses to this article

Neil Crosswaite 27 May 2019 at 5:11 pm

A clear case of London knows best. Back then there was still a strong loyalty to the regions. The notion of a “Border South/Tyne Tees/Yorkshire” region for example would lump together people with nothing in common.

Peter Kelsey 27 May 2019 at 9:44 pm

The merged Border/YTV/Tyne Tees would be renamed Northern Television? Thames would remain the north-of-the-river London company, would the south-of-the-river London company be called Television South East, or something similar?

Neil Crosswaite 28 May 2019 at 2:13 pm

Television South East would be hamstrung from the off. Would it keep a dual weekend/weekday identity or just close off one set of studios and decamp to London or Maidstone?

Steve Gray 28 May 2019 at 10:00 pm

Considering the merits, or otherwise, of yesteryear’s blue-sky thinking can shine a light into how things actually were.

But it requires experience of the terrain, to know what questions to ask of that blue-sky thinking and what information to seek about why a given change may have been proposed in the first place.

It’s interesting to see Transdiffusion row out into these difficult waters, of opinion and evidence – a discussion about the past – in preference to an easier path.

Neil Crosswaite 29 May 2019 at 1:37 pm

As I Understand it the 1968 franchise round was underlined by the ITA being concerned about the power of the “big 4” (ATV, ABC, Granada and Rediffusion)

It seems to me that Day-Lewis’s article is the reverse of that belief. He appeared to believe that “less is more”

Chloe Jones 29 May 2019 at 3:36 pm

I see the logic in Northern Television – but only if it’s Tyne Tees and Border England, with Border Scotland handed over to STV. Two small companies like Border and Tyne Tees merged as one would have more clout. The two regions have plenty in common as well, far more than Border does with Granada, or Yorkshire does with Tyne Tees.

Neil Crosswaite 29 May 2019 at 5:55 pm

We have Tyne Tees and Border now united but with Granada owning both its clout has been sucked out. Lets be honest the life was sucked out years ago.

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