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The rise and fall of ITV

Robert Weedon | Television | Sunday 12th July 2009

There's no business like show business, allegedly. However, although television is a business, and a big one at that, the medium has been constantly diminished by the need to appease principals of business and the "free market". Nowhere is this more true than in the sad case of ITV, the formerly excellent national commercial broadcaster, currently swamped in a mire of its own ineptitude and mediocrity.

Critics such as, ahem, Michael Parkinson, have recently been queueing up to express their sadness at the demise of the South Bank Show, the long running arts programme originating on London Weekend Television presented by Melvyn Bragg. This series has been a consistently excellent showcase for 'the arts' through the medium of television, discussing everything from theatre, art, classical music, pop music and literature, continually weeing all over the rival efforts of the BBC's equivalent arts programmes. Indeed, in terms of ITV's public service remit, this is a programme that fulfils just about every obligation. However, Melvyn Bragg is about to retire, and they appear to be in no hurry to produce a replacement, the show being expensive and time-consuming to produce and not gaining massive viewing figures, (therefore being unappealing to television executives in both ways). In many ways, the fall of this programme is symptomatic of the decline of ITV.

Ultimately, the reasons behind the demise of ITV can probably be directly traced to one controversial broadcast - Thames Television's Death on the Rock, part of their This Week strand. This was a documentary that claimed that four IRA suspects had been executed by the British government during a set-up on Gibraltar. Whether it was true or not we aren't going to discuss. What is true, however, is that the incumbent Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher was furious, considering the broadcast unpatriotic, perhaps even treasonous (or should that be treacherous?) They were even more concerned when the Independent Broadcast Authority upheld the complaints against the programme. Therefore, it was conspired to remove the IBA and introduce a more government-influenced body, the Independent Television Commission (now known as OFCOM).

What is confusing about ITV is that until 2004 it never was a company called ITV. Instead, Independent TeleVision was a group name used to refer to a series of independent broadcast companies administered by a central body called the Independent Broadcast Authority (IBA), who owned the transmitters and network. Every seven years or so, companies were invited to bid or re-bid for the franchises to different broadcast regions, rather like railway companies now bid for the right to run, say the East Coast Mainline. Some were obviously more 'plum' choices, such as the London weekday franchise held by Thames, or Granada TV's Manchester-based North-West franchise. With each company selling advertising individually, it was these franchises that brought in significant money (particularly in the internet and multichannel-free environment of the time). Therefore, these companies were able to afford to make lots of the great (and not so great) ITV programmes with larger budgets, and then sell them to other less affluent companies across the network, for example Westward Television or Southern Television, etc (incidentally both companies that lost their franchises in an earlier round), although most smaller companies still contributed some programmes to the network, for example Anglia TV's Tales of the Unexpected.

Anyway, these franchises were chosen on a basis of quality first, money second - for example, LWT was chosen to replace ATV London for the London Weekend franchise because the IBA were concerned that ITV was developing a bad reputation for 'low brow' programming, and were impressed by that company's promise to make arts and educational programmes (similar to the original remit for Channel 4 in 1982). However, for the 1990 Broadcast Act and subsequent bidding round, it was the amount bid that was the main judge, with the quality threshold pushed down on the list of priorities, with a so-called "beauty contest" ensuing. This meant that a media consortium called Carlton was able to win the London Weekday franchise, despite having few, if any programming ideas, but probably a good business plan with significant cost-cutting to be made by...not making any programmes. Slightly deliciously, the same criteria designed to sink Thames also capsized TV-AM, a company Mrs Thatcher personally supported in favour of GMTV, leading to her writing the deposed chairman of that company an embarrassing apology.

The less independent Independent Television Commission also lost the power to stop these broadcasters gaining a monopoly, and so soon the two big companies, Carlton and Granada had mopped up all the smaller regional broadcasters, with most of them simply becoming names and local news providers during the 1990s. Eventually, in 2004, the two big broadcasters merged, at the same time cutting out any form of regional identity, rebranding all onscreen idents and marketing as "ITV", and saving money by closing most of the regional studios AND relocating much of the operation to London, leaving ITV where it is today: a fairly bland, underperforming giant, with few original programming ideas and an intrinsically unappealing "popular" image. Good, eh? RW

(As a footnote, it wasn't just in the commercial realm that the free market influence was introduced to an organisation through government interference. In 1992 John Birt, a media executive who had made his money in the independent sector, became the Director-General of the BBC, where with the government's blessing, he introduced a "virtual internal market", whereby each BBC department behaves as if it's a separate mini-company, and which actively encouraged producers to outsource from outside the Corporation to reduce costs, resulting in the closure of a number of previously significant departments, for example the Radiophonic Workshop. Dennis Potter, one of the most famous television playwrights famously labeled Birt a "croak-voiced Dalek in an Armani suit" and in a 1993 internal 'Christmas tape' produced by the BBC's post production department, but obviously contributed to by other departments, Birt was portrayed as Davros, in a video that must have taken far too long to make considering that it was not for broadcast, but shows how different BBC departments were obviously happy to chip in in opposition to the move. RW)



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