This article originally appeared in a two-part form, in Kaleidoscope's Vision On! and Raiders of the Lost Archives 2 convention brochures in 1993 and 1994 respectively, both now out of print. It forms probably the definitive history of how the system of British television broadcasters came into being, and is now used as learning material for new employees in at least one ITV company.
For the story of the birth of British television, the first such service in the world, to the gradual construction of the ITV network up to 1964, read on. Further chapters, to bring the story up to date, are promised.
by Simon Coward
Over the years, the vast majority of the programmes screened by Kaleidoscope were made by companies which no longer themselves broadcast. In recent years we have screened programmes made by both Thames Television and TVS both of which failed to regain their broadcasting contracts in 1992. These two companies will obviously still be familiar, but what about ABC, ATV and Associated-Rediffusion? What about the other ABC? This article will hopefully fill in some background on the formation of these early broadcasting barons.
The British Broadcasting Company commenced sound radio broadcasting in 1922. The following year, the Sykes committee recommended that "control of such a potential power over public opinion ... ought to remain with the state" but their report did not inspire immediate governmental action. A later committee of enquiry, the Crawford committee of 1926, was primarily responsible for the government's decision to buy up the privately held shares in the BBC and soon after created the British Broadcasting Corporation incorporated under Royal charter. In 1928, television pioneer John Logie Baird was granted a five-year licence to make some test television broadcasts from the BBC's transmitters. Baird's technology was soon overtaken by that provided by a joint venture between EMI and Marconi and when the BBC's television service was officially inaugurated on 2nd November 1936 (it was the world's first public high-definition service) it used the EMI-Marconi system. The Selsdon committee of 1934, and the Ullswater committee after it, also pontificated on the merits and demerits of allowing the BBC to broadcast advertisements but neither came down in favour of the idea. The new television service was short-lived when it was stopped on 1st September 1939 as Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany.
After the war, the Labour Government of 1946 renewed the BBC's charter for five years, and it was during this time that the London-only television service resumed. The BBC announced a five-year plan in 1949 to build eight new transmitters, beginning in the Midlands, with the aim of covering 80% of the population by the end of that time-span. The Beveridge committee was formed in 1949 to examine the future of broadcasting in Britain. The report, published in 1951, supported the continuing monopoly of the BBC and, once again, did not favour advertising. That same year, a general election took place and the incumbent Labour party was ousted by the Conservatives. The new government had two months to decide the future of the BBC before its charter expired on 31st December that year - their first act was to put their deadline back by extending the charter for an extra six months. Even this did not give them a great deal of time. The party re-formed their committee on broadcasting policy and a hastily produced White Paper appeared in early 1952. Although it left much still undecided, it did contain the following phrase: "The present government have come to the conclusion that in the expanding field of television provision should be made to permit some element of competition".
One of the biggest influences over the course this "competition" would take was Norman Collins. Collins had been Controller of BBC Television from the late 1940s until the early 1950s, but had resigned when the then Controller of the BBC's Third (radio) programme was promoted over his head when the new position of Director of Television was created. Collins was a fervent supporter of the new medium and believed that the appointment of a man whose roots were in radio to this new important position would slow down the development of the BBC's television service. Shortly after his departure from the BBC, Collins formed an alliance with industrialist Robert Renwick and C. O. Stanley of the Pye company to promote the cause of commercial television. In June 1953, a Labour politician, Christopher Mayhew, formed the National Television Council with Lady Violet Bonham Carter, Lords Brand, Halifax and Waverley and many others - their purpose being, as a letter to The Times stated, "to resist the introduction of commercial television into this country". Not to be outdone, Collins, Renwick, Stanley, Lords Bessborough and Derby and others formed the Popular Television Association. They also wrote to The Times pointing out the dangers inherent in a monopoly situation such as existed in the UK at that time, and pressing for competitive television for the British public as soon as possible. As you will undoubtedly realise, the days of the BBC's monopoly were coming to and end. The Television Bill was published on 4th March 1954, and it reached the statute book on 30th July that year. Just five days later the newly formed Independent Television Authority held their first meeting. The first public announcement by the new authority appeared on 25th August 1954.
At this time Lew Grade, together with his brother Leslie, ran one of the foremost artists' agencies in Europe. He was not initially interested in being a prospective contractor feeling he, or his organisation, did not have sufficient funds. One of Grade's business associates was able to assist Grade in coming to an agreement with the bankers Warburgs who would provide the necessary finances. This enabled Grade to start contacting friends and colleagues he hoped could join him in this new venture. He contacted Val Parnell of the Stoll & Moss and General Theatres Group, Stuart Cruikshank of Howard and Wyndham Theatres, Binkie Beaumont of H. M. Tennents and others. Parnell contacted him soon afterwards to inform him that he could not join Grade as his contract was exclusively with Stoll Moss and that the group's owner Mr. Prince Littler was against television, fearing, quite correctly, that it would have an adverse effect on the attendances at the theatres in his group, and would not let him take part. Grade persuaded Littler that television would come about with or without Littler's involvement and on the basis that "if you can't beat them, join them", he not only persuaded Littler to allow Parnell to join the group but also persuaded Littler himself. Grade and Littler met Warburgs who appointed Commander James Drummond to the board of the new company. Grade proposed Littler as chairman and with himself as managing director. They named the company the Independent Television Programme Corporation.
ITC, as it soon became known (the "P" was dropped from the acronym fairly early on even though it remained in the name for slightly longer), was one of twenty-five applications resulting from the advertisement. These twenty-five were quickly whittled down to five serious applicants of which ITC was one. The twenty non-runners are not our concern here, but I shall pause here to give a brief run-through of the remaining dramatis personae in this tale.
Norman Collins, Sir Robert Renwick and C. O. Stanley of the Popular Television Association headed a consortium known as the Associated Broadcasting Development Co. Ltd. (ABDC).
An unlikely participant for the contracts was the British Electric Traction Company (BET). BET had been foresighted enough to acquire an interest in the Broadcast Relay Service as far back as 1947, and had been operating various broadcasting services in Canada for a number of years. BRS/BETs bid for one of the contracts was made in partnership with Lord Rothermere's Associated Newspapers (owners of the Daily Mail).
It was a similar motive to Grade's that persuaded Sidney Bernstein to enter the fray. Bernstein was then a leading theatrical and cinema impresario. Having already witnessed the impact that BBC television had made on his audiences, he realised that he stood to lose more custom once another television network started broadcasting. Unlike Grade, who was not personally disadvantaged by the advent of television (quite the contrary, it was another outlet for his agency's clients), Bernstein had been paying more attention to the new Independent Television Authority and when the request for applications came, Bernstein was waiting. He had no trouble in finding the necessary capital to finance the operation - their initial application assured the ITA that they only had to pick up the phone and speak to Barclays Bank to satisfy themselves that they had access to the necessary £3 million. Bernstein's group took their name from one of his newest cinemas - the Granada in Dover.
The final group within the big five was that formed by Lord Kemsley, owner of The Times amongst other newspapers, and television producer Maurice Winnick. The group were mainly financed by Kemsley's companies and by Isaac Wolfson, the head of Great Universal Stores with Kemsley almost certain to be the leader of the group.
The first contracts to be awarded were for the three main areas, London, Midlands and North, which would not only provide the programme material for their own regions but would also provide the majority of the programmes screened throughout the ITA network once it had come into place. The contracts for each of the three network regions were split in two – one contract covered Monday to Friday, the other Saturday and Sunday. The applicants had been interviewed between 28th September and 20th October that year. On 26th October, the ITA announced the allocation of the contracts.
Of the five front-runners, only ITC was left out in the cold. Paradoxically, the main reason for this appears to be the formidable array of talent Grade had assembled. Afraid that the group would be just too powerful with interests in television on top of all their wide range of theatrical interests, their bid for a contract was rejected by the ITA. It appears that the ITA still envisaged a role for the company, but as an independent programme maker, selling programmes to the other network companies.
The Kemsley-Winnick group began to disintegrate almost as soon as the contract was offered and accepted. Kemsley himself pulled out very early in 1955 with Wolfson following soon, after a disagreement with Winnick. This meant that the vast majority of those earmarked for the board of the new company were no longer part of the group. The ITA decided that the company that remained was now significantly different from the one to whom the contract was awarded and they re-advertised for new applicants.
The Kemsley-Winnick Group were not the only ones to have problems. It appears that ABDC had secured a good proportion of their financial backing on the understanding that they would be allocated the main London contract. When this failed to occur, their backers withdrew and they found themselves without sufficient funds to mount their operation. This problem was certainly exacerbated by the ITA themselves who would not allow extra funding to come from the Daily Express group. Their argument was that two right-of-centre newspapers were already represented within the four companies and it would be ill-advised to include another. At this point no other newspapers had expressed an interest, so there was no question of any paper with centre or left-of-centre views such as the Daily Mirror or The Guardian having been rejected or ignored. By March of 1955, the ITA was getting desperate and so a merger between ITC and ABDC was suggested and eventually agreed. A new company, the Associated Broadcasting Company, was formed with Littler as Chairman, Collins as Deputy Chairman and Parnell as Managing Director.
While this was happening, the ITA was still trying to find a replacement for the defunct Kemsley-Winnick group. No part of the original group re-applied when the contract was re-advertised and likely replacement candidates were thin on the ground. The Associated British Picture Corporation made a bid for the contract but forces within the company were against Independent Television and this probably explains why the application, described as "half-hearted" by the ITA, was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, it appears as though the ITA viewed ABPC as their main hope and eventually applied pressure at board level to persuade them to submit a more convincing application. When this occurred, they were awarded the contract and immediately the company set up a subsidiary named ABC Television after ABPC's cinema chain Associated British Cinemas.
For a few weeks there was a fracas as both ABCs fought to retain their name. ABPC took the ABDC/ITC company to court but the latter capitulated during a preliminary hearing and agreed to change their name to avoid further conflict. The new name they took was ATV or Associated TeleVision. The four companies still standing, Associated-Rediffusion, Associated TeleVision, ABC and Granada formed the backbone of the Independent Television Network until the first proper re-allocation of contracts in 1967/68.
The contracts awarded thus far (which initially only ran until 1964) covered England only. Scotland, Ireland and all but the few in North Wales who could receive Granada's output were still tuning into the BBC alone. The first regional contracts to be awarded were unsurprisingly for Scotland and Wales and the West of England. From as early as January 1956 it was assumed that Roy Thomson would be offered the franchise for the Scottish region and this was indeed what transpired although the Independent Television Authority (hereafter referred to as the ITA or "the authority") did interview representatives from two other groups. Thomson, then chairman of Scotsman Publications, had declared an interest as early as July 1954 before the ITA had even been constituted. Born in Toronto, he had, among many other careers, been involved in broadcasting in Canada, though on nowhere near as profitable a footing as he would be in Britain. The Scottish service (Scottish Television) opened on 31st August 1957 covering Central Scotland. Due to transmitter difficulties, areas as far away as Dundee which were intended to be within the STV area had poor reception until the installation of a new aerial on the Black Hill transmitter in 1959. Despite this setback, it did not unduly affect STV's success which had far-reaching consequences outside the television field. The huge financial rewards gave Thomson (and it was he who coined the famous phrase that an ITA contract was "just like having a licence to print your own money") the opportunity to acquire the entire Kelmsley group of newspapers including The Times and so create the basis of the Thomson press empire in the 1960s. How different things would have been had the Kelmsley-Winnick application for one of the major contracts succeeded.
The group which won the contract for Wales and the West of England was a consortium headed by the eighteenth Earl of Derby. An unlikely stablemate of Lord Derby was Jack Hylton, a leading theatrical impresario. Their connection resulted from Derby, as Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire receiving the Queen in the north-west during her post-coronation tour of the country. He had invited Jack Hylton to provide the entertainment. The company was named TWW (Television Wales and West) and commenced broadcasting in January 1958. Although not specified in their application nor in any terms and conditions of the authority's acceptance, by mid-1957 the problem of Welsh language programming reared its head. To cut a long story short, it was agreed that a minimum of one hour per week would be in the form of a Welsh language programme and that to count towards this quota, any such programme must be exclusively Welsh in language as well as Welsh in performance. Half of this hour was to be screened in normal programming time. This proved to be easily accomplished and, perhaps partly due to their willingness to co-operate in this matter, they became very much the favourite sons of the ITA.
Nine different groups applied for the next available franchise, that of the south-east of England. Unlike the Scottish and Welsh contracts, the authority found themselves seriously considering how "local" the applicants for a contract need be. Four of the applicants for this contract were nationally-based and the contract was awarded to one of these groups – an amalgamation of the Rank Organization, Associated Newspapers and the Amalgamated Press. As would often be the case, the name of the company became a topic for much discussion. The company itself favoured the words "South of England" or "Southern England" in the title while equally wanting to avoid made-up titles like "Wessex Television". Finally the name Southern Television was preferred over another suggestion, "English Channel Television". Associated Newspapers, the part-owners of Associated-Rediffusion, had already reduced their shares in A-R to ten per cent and a condition of the awarding of the southern area contract was that this remaining shareholding was sold. The company began transmitting in August 1958 to part of their area from the Chillerton Down transmitter. It was not until January 1960 that they were able to broadcast across the region when the Dover transmitter became operational.
On October 1st 1957 the ITA advertised for applications for the contract for North East England. The new company would have to abide by a number of conditions: namely that it would provide or build a central studio and outside broadcast unit and that it would house its management and sales teams within the area. In addition, fifteen percent of programming output would have to be produced locally. As well as the four major contractors, a number of well-known names were involved with groups who applied for the franchise including Isaac Wolfson (who had been part of the failed Kelmsley-Winnick application) and the Manchester Guardian. It was the second of these together with a local group headed by industrialist and JP Sir Richard Pease which made the final short-list with the local consortium finally winning through. The offer was made to this group in mid-December. The company's initial intention was to name themselves "Three Rivers Television" but this was ruled out by some in the authority as being too obscure. Eventually the name "Tyne Tees Television" was agreed upon with the two named rivers geographically bracketing the third river, the Wear.
The authority's insistence that all companies retain independent finance and control meant that two of the directors of the new company had to dispose of shares in Associated-Rediffusion and a third, Peter Cadbury, would have to relinquish his directorship of Keith Prowse Music Publishers in which A-R had 55% equity. Cadbury had also made no secret of his intentions to apply for the contract for the West of England and it was made clear that should his application succeed he would be expected to resign his position on the Tyne Tees board. As you will see below, his group were awarded the West of England contract and his resignation came on 20th January 1959, just five days after Tyne Tees began broadcasting.
The East Anglian contract was the next to be made available and four groups forwarded applications in addition to those, once again, from the four major companies. One of the groups, headed by the Marquess Townshend of Raynham included a representative of the Manchester Guardian along with John Woolf of Romulus & Remus Films who had also been party to the Guardian's application for the North West contract. This time they were successful. Once the contract was awarded, the only cloud on the horizon with no obvious silver lining was that of the new transmitter at Dover which would increase Southern Television's catchment area and encroach into the places which Anglia (as the new company was named) hoped to provide programmes. The ITA decided to offer a Kent station as a satellite to one of the existing contractors. Both Anglia and Southern applied as did at least three of the major companies. The majors were rejected, primarily it appears, to avoid increasing their already impressive profits even further. Of the two remaining runners, Southern pipped Anglia at the post largely due to their commitment to open a local Kent studio and appoint extra staff to handle local news and local advertising.
The most populated area still without an ITV station was that of Northern Ireland. Enquiries had been made of the ITA by interested parties since 1956, but it took two further years before the authority was able to set a target opening date for such a service, which was then possibly as much as another two years hence. Although there were fewer households had television sets than in the other regions, the money-spinning aspect to all the contracts awarded so far brought five applicants. The contract was awarded to a group led by the Earl of Antrim and including Sir Laurence Olivier and film-makers Betty Box and William MacQuitty. The first transmitter, on the picturesquely-named Black Mountain was operational from October 1959 but this left a third of the franchise area uncovered and it would not be until much later (1963) that a second transmitter, in Strabane, would be operation. This did not cheer the new company, Ulster Television, although the fact that a larger percentage of households had multi-channel TV sets did. Nevertheless worries about finance resulted in the company still having only tentative programme-making plans by July of 1959, just three months before they were due on air. Those plans they did have were often at odds with the resources they had available at the time, namely one small studio and no O. B. unit. With the assistance of representatives of ABC, who were brought in to give UTV advice, a workable production schedule was put into place. In fact the company scored a number of local successes in its early days including Midnight Oil, a series of forty-two broadcasts by the teaching staff of Queen's University Belfast covering subjects as diverse as medicine, music, history and physics. By 1962 the company was on a sufficiently sound financial base to open a new studio which tripled the amount of studio space they had available.
As mentioned above, Peter Cadbury was intent on winning the contract to provide programming for the South West of England. Despite opposition from eleven other groups, Cadbury's was clearly the most impressive featuring the support of the Lords Lieutenant of all four counties covered by the contract together with local representatives from the TUC, St. John Ambulance Brigade, Mothers' Union, a host of other local groups and the personal support of Daphne du Maurier and Ted Willis. Over 208 shareholders were named in their proposal and all but fourteen of them were resident in the area. The company thus formed, Westward Television, began broadcasting on 29th April 1961. An early problem related to the overlap of the Westward area by its neighbours Southern and TWW. Nothing could be done to prevent this and in any case, some early worries were based on a misprinted coverage map provided by TWW to potential advertisers. The autumn and winter of the first year also saw the Equity strike take effect. Although this was country-wide, the potential damage to a new company as yet without any large profits was great. As the year progressed, Westward's losses grew resulting in the need to cut back. The operational cost of Westward was much larger than that of any comparably-sized ITV company with expenditure on both operations and assets on a much more grandiose scale than was prudent. The ITA were reluctant to assist and while Westward's directors agreed to waive their fees for the year this amounted to only about £6000 a year. Despite the disbanding of their press and public relations departments there was no choice but to make a cutback in the number of production staff. A proposal for 18 (25%) redundancies was made by the board but this was greeted with hostility by the union, the ACTT. The dispute between the union and the board looked as though it would widen into a national dispute at one point, but eventually an unusual peace formula was agreed whereby the other network companies agreed to take on fourteen of the eighteen if Westward would retain the other four. This was indeed what transpired.
In comparison to the problems faced by Westward, the next three contracts to be awarded - those for the Channel Islands, the England/Scotland border region and the Highlands of Scotland were uneventful. The contracts being won by Channel Television, Border Television and Grampian Television respectively.
The last card in the pack was that of the West and North Wales area. The area housed just over one million potential viewers but over a much larger geographical area than any of the smaller companies had hitherto been expected to cover. The size of the area coupled with the mountainous nature of much of the region meant that at least three transmitters would be needed to provide near full coverage. The advertisement for applications appeared on April 7th 1961; the interviews of those short-listed would take place the following month. In these days the overall responsibility for broadcasting (both BBC and the ITA) fell within the purview of the Postmaster General. Four days before the interviews, the ITA were contacted by the Post Office who insisted that the Welsh contractor provide a distinctly Welsh service containing at least fifty percent locally produced material the majority of which should be in peak time (compare this with the fifteen percent which companies like Westward and Scottish were providing). Despite this, the Wales Television Association (Teledu Cymru) headed by Dr. Haydn Williams and the Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan beat three other contenders to the contract. The ITA contacted the Post Office pointing out that asking a new company to provide what would amount to 30 or more hours a week (compared with, for example, 12.5 hours by A-R or 7.5 by Anglia). The ITA suggested that the company would be hard-pushed to provide any more than one hour per day. The reply was that the PMG could not agree to anything less than ten hours per week, although this total could include bought-in Welsh programmes made by TWW or Granada (although the latter put another spanner in the already overloaded works when they decided to stop production of Welsh language programmes in early 1962). The result of this was that the newly-named Wales West and North (WWN) were attempting to produce five hours a week from the start of their operation - the cost of this provision meant that the company were effectively being subsidised by the ITA and the rest of the network. Nevertheless, by May 1963, the board of WWN concluded that the only possibility for continued operation would be a merger with TWW. Despite further efforts, the company's overdraft increased as advertising revenue came in at a rate much slower than had been hoped for. The ITA deferred the need for payment of rentals from WWN eventually reducing it to a nominal £100 in any case; the other network companies charged WWN nothing for the programmes they provided. Even the PMG agreed to drop the ten hour commitment but eventually the ITA agreed that the proposed merger was the only way out. WWN continued in operation as a subsidiary of TWW until the expiry of the initial contracts in 1964.
When the contracts came up for renewal in 1964 the only change in the make-up of the network was in the awarding of TWW the dual region of the West of England and all of Wales. The next changes to the make-up of the network would be in 1968, but that's another story.
Copyright © Simon Coward 1993, 1994. All Rights Reserved.
|Kaleidoscope - The Classic Television Organisation|
|[ Email Kaleidoscope ] [ Kaleidoscope Home Page ] [ Reference Section ]|