The Story of ITV: The People’s Channel

Sunday, June 26, 2005 by

The first part of The Story of ITV: The People’s Channel left me with an aggravating nostalgic glow severely tempered by a kind of emptiness at what the programme missed out or glossed over. I wasn’t expecting (or necessarily even wanting) a BBC2 Late Show/Newsnight Review-style programme, but the clips here were so insultingly brief, so carelessly intermingled and the tone so utterly uncritical as to be almost absurd given the artistic and commercial state of ITV half a century on. The programme seemed to assume that its entire audience consider the channel to be nothing short of wonderful and this was taken for granted over the back-slapping hour to come. It wasn’t helped either by the hard-to-read factual text accompanying the clips. Maybe the typeface was meant to look jaunty, but it was bordering on the indecipherable.

The documentary took two themes, the main one being that ITV was and still is the people’s channel. Presenter Melvyn Bragg attempted to identify a strand which unites 1950s and ’60s programmes like Sunday Night at the London Palladium with contemporary reality TV shows such as I’m a Celebrity … The message was that, fundamentally, ITV hasn’t changed; it is still doing what it has always done, what it does best, albeit in a different way for different times.

A second shtick was that ITV is unique amongst commercial broadcasters because as well as being a tough, commercial channel, its public service remit has produced excellence and demanded respect in fields such as current affairs and the arts, and a commitment to regional programming.

The bland, unimaginative studio backdrop unintentionally provided an appropriately sterile antidote to Bragg’s sometimes triumphalist commentary. It was as if he were expecting some phantom studio audience leftover from Palladium days to applaud his litany of ITV’s half-century of achievements. But it all felt a bit hollow because the programme attempted to disguise the network’s commercial and artistic decline in recent years by taking a largely thematic rather than chronological approach. Whilst ITV1 remains the most watched channel in terrestrial only homes, its audiences and share have dropped dramatically and its nervousness is evident in its recent panic commissioning of tired celebrity formats which have failed to draw audiences (the much vaunted and quickly withdrawn Celebrity Wrestling crushed by a revitalised Doctor Who is a case in point). Executive Charles Allan talked about ITV today being better positioned than ever, an extraordinary statement that went totally unchallenged.

As to ITV’s tattered public service commitment, this was first smashed by the 1990 Broadcasting Act and subsequently watered down to the extent that it is now honoured by a few trophy programmes (the main one perhaps being, ironically, Bragg’s very own South Bank Show). ITV’s hard-hitting current affairs were trumpeted by referencing World in Action and proudly declaring ITV still packs a punch today (yes, but only in the occasional sidelined Pilger doc, not the ongoing, peak time strands like Tonight with Trevor Macdonald, let alone the “fabric” of the channel).

Even so, in focusing on Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Coronation Street, the programme did give a feel of how the two elements which largely characterised peak time early ITV – showbiz glitz and Granadaland grit – must have felt so entirely innovative and exciting to an audience accustomed to BBC deference and dullness (the creaking clip of the Duke of Norfolk at Arundel Castle illustrated this to a tee). Early ITV also unashamedly introduced eager audiences to US westerns, crime series and sitcoms, as well as ushering in a transatlantic brashness to many of its own quiz shows, not to mention the big budget glamour of the Lew Grade stable of ITC adventures; these must have seemed like emblems of egalitarianism and optimism as Britain emerged from post war austerity into the bright, new age of proto consumerism and you could almost see this in the enthralled faces of studio audiences of shows like Take Your Pick. There was a poignancy here because the rows of be-hatted women and raincoated men could easily have been the audience of a holiday camp entertainment or of one of the then dying variety theatres, the very communal institutions which, with its more privatised and aspirational world view, television was set to erode.

By the time ITV’s 50th birthday falls on 22 September, it will be interesting to compare the extent of ITV’s anniversary celebrations with previous TV anniversaries. The BBC marked 30 of BBC2, whilst C4 all but ignored its 20th anniversary in 2002 – perhaps a comment on the health and robustness of each channel at the time.

We don’t yet know whether The Story of ITV is a prelude to more celebrations or the sole acknowledgement of its landmark birthday. It’s certainly significant as a rare recognition of ITV’s past given that the channel has sought to virtually extinguish all trace of this, at least on ITV1. In 1989 ITV celebrated 21 years of Thames and LWT in some style, clearing the schedules to proudly rerun its past successes and recruiting Gloria Hunniford to reminisce with many of LWT’s stars. The BBC has provided well-researched and evocative retrospectives of both Granada and ATV in two of its theme nights, far more impressive – and above all, affectionate – than tonight’s effort.

ITV does have a celebrated past and the programme allowed us a glimpse of this. But it seems as if the true story of ITV – a sad rise and decline – will go untold, at least by this series. But maybe the lingering emptiness I felt just before midnight was a kind of unease that the custodian of those more innocent times is a faceless corporate world player (yes, a people’s television with no personality). The same kind of unease at seeing Carlton on Sapphire and Steel DVD cases. The Story of ITV gave out gales of PR bluster but little in the way of real affection for the “product” it showcased.


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