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Practical Television cover

From Practical Television magazine for May 1956

THE announcement by ABC-Television and Associated TeleVision of their plans for the Midlands TV transmissions indicates something more than programme details – it gives an idea of the general pattern of things to come on ITV all over the country. The rival contractors are evidently going to be rivals in name only, with close co-operation between them and fairly wholesale exchanges of both live and filmed programmes. There is every indication that this co-operation will be extended to the Granada TV network in Manchester. Technical facilities are likely to be shared in both Birmingham and Manchester, where the usual crop of theatres and music halls are likely to turn over to TV. In Birmingham, the Theatre Royal has been taken over by A-TV and the Astoria by ABC-TV. In Manchester, the Capitol Cinema in Didsbury, which has unique theatrical facilities including a revolving stage and a four-manual Christie organ, has been acquired by ABC-TV, and the studios which Granada are building in the centre of the city are also likely to be used by ABC-TV. Thus, Howard Thomas seems to be steering the ABC-TV organisation on a steady course, acquiring good programme material from other sources by negotiation and enabling his carefully recruited staff to concentrate on fewer programmes of the highest possible quality. I notice that A-TV’s most popular successes, “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” and “I Love Lucy” will figure in the ABC-TV’s Sunday programmes from Birmingham.

 

The following section is commentary from Transdiffusion's expert writers

Kif Bowden-Smith writes: The drafters of the Television Act 1954 that created Independent Television had no idea how it would work. There was simply no basis for comparison to be found anywhere except the United States.

In the US, it seemed like competition was working. The biggest cities had three networks and a scattering of local stations; the medium-sized markets had two stations (one often carried the strongest programmes from the third, missing, network). But competition also worked too well. The actual programmes were often variable-to-poor; the sponsorship was often intrusive; the race for viewers was often a race to the bottom.

So the Act was written to introduce American-style competition, whilst also severely hobbling it so it didn’t happen. The civil service were cool on the idea of unseemly competition, fearful of the blood and feathers that would be left by the fight between capitalists, so they drew even further back from the idea of raw, naked competition.

The Act said that the appointed company for each transmitter would be required to compete with the other companies for advertising spend, talent, programming and everything else that could be competed for. The Post Office, the regulator’s regulator, then made this impossible by assigning only one frequency to each transmitter, and only one transmitter to each discrete transmission area. Two companies could not go head-to-head. The Independent Television Authority, tasked with introducing the competition that their superior organisation was determined to prevent, decided to split the three main regions between four companies, so that income would be roughly equal, there would be no head-to-head competition, and quality could flourish; but also, by the letter of the law, there would be competition: each company was competing for national spend, and for programmes and talent, and to a degree for local spend for weekdays and weekends.

It was a very British compromise – a fudge, in other words.

 

 

The economics of the new system were also something the drafters of the Television Act had no idea about. But that was okay: neither did anybody else. Again, there was the example of the United States, but their television networks were largely built upon the backs of the (very rich) three radio networks that came before them. In the UK, commercial television was coming without that type of backing and experience.

Instead, each of the companies brought a different method of financing to the table. Associated-Rediffusion‘s majority owner was British Electric Traction, a very cash-rich company that needed to spend its income on something – almost anything – to stop the government taxing the profits away or, worse, nationalising the business. It was prepared to keep throwing money at building a prestige service, also knowing that it would help other parts of its business, which included cable television and rental of television sets.

ABC’s parent, the Associated British Picture Corporation, also had very deep pockets, courtesy of a large investment from Warner Bros. But it wasn’t willing to reach into those pockets. Deeply doubtful about television as a medium – Warners had declined to involve itself in the US system – it gave Howard Thomas a budget of £1,000,000. Once that was spent, the parent company would pull the plug and close ABC Television down.

Granada was in an unusual position. It didn’t have a parent company the size of BET or ABPC, but it did have a feeling that television would overtake cinemas. And they owned a lot of cinemas that would suffer when it did. Better to be in on the competition from the start; better still to have their TV station in an area that didn’t have any Granada cinemas and was sufficiently wet that people were apt to stop home if offered an alternative. Television might kill off cinema, but it’d start with the rival Rank and ABC chains, not with Granada’s own. That was worth investing in.

ATV had no big parent company. It was a rag-bag of television enthusiasts, venture capitalists, entertainment moguls and people who wanted to give the BBC a kicking. The money was scraped together and the sums never quite seemed to add up, for themselves or for the ITA. They were pretty sure there was gold in television’s hills, but they knew they would have to dig for it.

This mixed bag of finances produced a mixed bag of approaches to setting up a television system. Rediffusion simply created what it needed, with a centrepiece central London headquarters and studios and a large outside broadcast fleet from the start.

Granada also built afresh, although not in the city centre, finding wasteland out in Manchester 3, hard against the border with Salford, a cheaper area, and building only what they needed at the time, with room for later expansion.

ABC’s Howard Thomas, one hand tied behind his back, had to buy secondhand. He found cinemas owned by ABPC in his two regions that were loss-making and got the parent company to give them to him. For a big studio for large scale productions, he had ABPC’s casts off, first with Borehamwood and later with the redundant Teddington film studio facilities.

ATV couldn’t afford to build, or even, really, to rent. It moved in with Associated-Rediffusion, taking a floor of their Television House, and sent outside broadcast facilities to film things in the quieter of Prince Littler and Val Parnell’s theatres in London. In Birmingham, it moved in with ABC to their defunct cinema in Aston Cross, creating Alpha Television (the letter they had in common) as a joint venture to save spending money they didn’t have on premises.

 

With thanks to Dave Jeffery

 

Iconos only has the experience of the two London companies at this point to guide his thinking. He knows they’re not really competing with each other. In fact, ITV at this point was haemorrhaging so much money that Rediffusion was effectively bankrolling ATV to keep it on air, terrified of the idea of having to supply another two days of expensive programming a week if ATV failed.

But that bankrolling didn’t go as far as sharing programmes, something it was doubted the ITA would allow. The ITV system viewed from that vantage point seemed like it was going to be a series of city stations, each producing their own programmes, overlapping only with the provision of international and national news from their joint ITN venture.

The publication of the programming plans for ITV in Birmingham showed the start of what would become the federal Independent Television network. Iconos notes in wonder that ABC seems happy to carry ATV London’s biggest programmes live (perhaps unaware that ABC would be paying half of ATV’s costs until the northern transmitters opened, at which point it would be paying two-thirds) rather than producing rival programmes from scratch to air in their place.

The last remaining scrape of the idea of competition was to be removed: instead of producing alternative programmes, each company would take the best of those of the other companies; and in turn would offer the best of their programmes back to the network.

By the time Scottish Television opened in Glasgow in 1957, the idea of each ITV company being a city station was dead, as was the very last bit of competition when STV simply ‘affiliated’ with ATV and took whatever programmes ATV had already bought from A-R, ABC and Granada, without striking the individual deals the drafters of the Television Act may have had in mind.

Independent Television would be a competitive system. But not the hard-Right, devil-take-the-hindmost, free-for-all system that was in Selwyn Lloyd’s mind when he first thought of drafting what would become the Television Act 1954. ITV would compete, but only really with the BBC.

Like it or loathe it, the result, for both ITV and the BBC, was a couple of decades of really great television.

 

With thanks to Dave Jeffery

 

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1 response to this article

Ray Wilson 7 June 2021 at 5:18 pm

Yet another excellent and informative article,
Thanks…

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