Part Three: 1980s – 2000

Robin Carmody on Radio and TV Times

First published July 2000

What happened to the TV Times in the ’80s and after is a sad story. At the start of 1981, it was still the model for mass, populist magazines that it had been for most of the ’70s, but by the end of the year it was a hideous, horrible production.

The relaunch of TVT in the 3 – 9 October 1981 issue – concurrently with a new look for the “junior TV Times” Look-In – created an indescribably unattractive design, shown up in the editor’s piece which claims, portentously, that they were “getting ready for the year 2000″, or words to that effect. The lovely design touches added to the magazine in 1980 had given it a wonderful “This is the future – the 1980s!” feel, which was totally absent from the autumn 1981 new look. That said, in ITV terms it stands as the definitive line separating the 1970s from the 1980s, more nationally important than the franchise changes on 1 January 1982, which may have seen the names of ATV, Southern and Westward fade into history, and the brash “’80s-ness” of Central, TVS and TSW come to the fore, but which meant very little to viewers in, say, Manchester (where Granada continued exactly as before, and the most popular ATV programme, Crossroads, simply passed on to Central). But it marks the demise of TV Times as an interesting, compulsive or readable magazine – by 1985, it knew so little about ITV history that it suggested that Associated-Rediffusion were still known by that name in 1965 (a mistake also made by the BBC when Rediffusion London lost its franchise in 1967, though, so maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh …)

By 1988 TV Times was identifying the events of 1968 by associating them with the titles of various pop songs of the day; so revolutionary and hugely significant moments were corralled under such headings as Fire, Mony Mony, Those Were The Days and What A Wonderful World. The magazine also printed a letter which claimed to find disturbing, shocking images in, of all things, the innocuous Worzel Gummidge Down Under. Things got worse – when ITV began its exclusive Football League coverage in October 1988, TVT employed Jimmy Tarbuck to write about the game every week. A hideous design change in the late summer of 1989 removed the distinctive, and actually quite attractive typeface which had survived in some form since the 1981 relaunch, and an even worse new look in the autumn of 1990 ushered in the magazine’s multi-channel era, which began on 1 March 1991. By that time it was the worst it had ever been in its 36-year history; little more than a glorified woman’s magazine with weekly updates on the soaps, and silly phone polls where rent-a-quote celebrities would present diametrically opposed views on “hot topics” and you’d have to ring a certain number to say who you agreed with.

I remember being absolutely relieved when I could stop buying it, and it’s execrable and unreadable now. But we must cherish the TV Times of 1955 – 81 for a fine indication of how good straightforward populist magazines could be.

Like British broadcasting itself, the Radio Times embarked on a series of dramatic changes in the late 1980s, occurring at rapid and confusing speed. In March 1989, it experienced one of its most radical design changes ever, although the main cause of distaste – the fact that radio programmes were not only separated from TV for the first time since 1960, but listed network-by-network rather than day-by-day (an incredibly inconvenient format) is away from the subject of this piece (the day-by-day format for radio was revived late in 1989, but radio programmes have remained at the back of the magazine, separate from television, ever since). The design used until November 1989 was hated by many (myself included) at the time, but it now seems superior to the one which succeeded it for about six months, and certainly to the one which succeeded that when RT went to full colour, for the first time, in June 1990. In turn, the typeface of that design was changed towards the end of 1990. Within two years, the style, appearance and aesthetic of the magazine had totally changed, and for me this was a hideously backward step – it now looked brasher and glossier, but had utterly lost the beautiful clarity of the 1984 – 89 design (in its various forms), and the tone of the actual writing was becoming blander every week, with the increasing influence of women’s magazine-type features such as “My Kind Of Day”, introduced in late 1988. For some time in 1990, the ill-fated British Satellite Broadcasting advertised in the RT every week, taking the last four pages to promote its five channels. But the biggest change of all was waiting around the corner.

In September 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, displaying a typical obsession with “choice”, competition, market forces and deregulation, had changed the laws on television and radio listings to the effect that they could no longer be exclusive to any one publication, or to the broadcasters themselves. From 1 March 1991 onwards, the Radio Times would be allowed to print listings for ITV, Channel 4, and the nascent satellite channels, and details of commercial radio stations. TV Times would be allowed to print BBC radio and television listings, and the market would be opened for new listings magazines (some of which – TV Quick and the moronically-titled What’s On TV – survive today, others failed quickly, others have begun since, and none of them deserve to be analysed in any sort of depth). One other major change would come into play – newspapers would be allowed to print TV guides for the entire forthcoming week on a Saturday or a Sunday, where previously they had only been able to list each day’s programmes in that day’s edition.

At the end of 1990, both magazines began talking in fevered anticipation about the day when they would print each other’s programmes, and the hysteria was intense during the months of January and February 1991, when television itself was dominated by Gulf War coverage. Radio Times – from this point in, our only subject of discussion – had one of its least attractive designs ever during the early months of deregulation, messy and with an overlarge typeface (a similar problem to that which had affected it in 1984) and the need to include much more output reduced programme details to their lowest ever. In an echo of 1985′s aesthetic cleanup, it was streamlined into a more attractive look in the autumn, but the year had seen the RT’s look and feel change frequently as it struggled to find a place for itself in the new world.

At one point, the cover headlines seemed to be increasing in size every week, and during 1991 the magazine displayed an unprecedented tendency to put glamorous female stars on the cover – people as diverse as Felicity Kendal, Joan Collins, Melanie Griffith and Madonna – doubtless seeing itself more and more in terms of “competition”. While a fairly good design was achieved in September 1992 – when satellite television got two pages a day for the first time, and the terrestrial programme pages were expanded to make the listings more detailed – things hit absolute rock bottom in September 1993, when the magazine’s most hideous design ever was introduced. It reduced programme details, especially in the daytime, to a new low, and to add insult to injury it was introduced in the 70th birthday issue with its ugly and uninspiring cover, an aesthetic world away from the beautiful 50th birthday cover. Even worse, by the summer of 1993 RT sales had fallen to about half the figure of three years before, and the magazine finally lost its status as Britain’s biggest-selling magazine, which it had held unbroken for more than 60 years, as it was overtaken by Reader’s Digest. The top-selling magazine in Britain now is, astonishingly, the dreadful What’s On TV.

Radio Times came to consolidate – a phrase we’ve heard so much in discussions of the transformation of ITV over the last seven years – in September 1994, when a much more pleasing design was introduced. This would remain constant until 1997, and a variation on that look stayed until the autumn of 1999, when the most recent major change came into effect. With some of the typefaces recalling the brave new dawn of 1989, it looks better now than when it was first introduced, and it is possibly the first design since deregulation not to attempt to beat the more commercialised publications at their own game, with its calm up market style reflecting RT’s happiness with its own core readership. Journalistically, the magazine remains a shadow of what it once was – the faith it puts in its “star” writer Alison Graham is profoundly depressing, and much of the reportage is dully middlebrow – but it could be much, much worse.

The glory days of the Radio Times are past, but there is life in it yet. If that also feels like a description of British television, it would not be a coincidence, because the history of the magazine over the last 77 years mirrors that of the BBC as a whole, and its history over the past 45 years is a pretty good parallel to the history of British television itself. If it ever finishes, something very important indeed will be lost. But it seems almost certain that the RT will survive the transition from analogue to digital television – it has, after all, survived everything else.

The great mirror and survivor of British broadcasting – should the worst ever happen, let that be its epitaph.


<Part Two: 1960s-1980s