Ten into Three

Steve Williams on 10 days that shook ITV

First published October 2005

1. Wales West and North go bust – 1964

The map of the UK was not carved up particularly fairly in the early days of ITV. While the entire north of England from Chester to Hull got one company between them, North East Scotland, the English-Scottish Borders and the Channel Islands were all blessed with their own contractors. It seemed that everyone wanted their share of the commercial TV cash cow, after Scottish TV’s Lord Thomson had famously been so thrilled by the windfall from his company he referred to holding an ITV franchise as “a licence to print money”.

However this failed to prove the case in North and West Wales, where the snappily titled Wales West and North Television – the “West and North” was added after TWW had pointed out that they weren’t the only company providing “Wales Television” – had completed the ITV network in September 1962. There were worries that the area was too small to justify its own company, but the likes of Border and Channel were proving successful and it was felt this part of Wales was distinct enough from the south to justify a separate contractor.

However there were added complications for WWN. Their contract stipulated that a sizeable percentage of their output was made of Welsh language programming, which was a hefty burden on such a small company – the other tiny regions had no such obligations. Geography also played a part as a sizeable percentage of the region could already pick up Granada and TWW and were disinclined to retune to the new company, especially in the predominantly English-speaking parts.

When it became obvious that WWN were suffering from severe financial difficulties, the ITA eased some of the more troublesome conditions of their licence, and eventually the rest of the ITV network started providing their programmes for free. But the result was inevitable and in January 1964, WWN went out of business. The ITA declined to readvertise the franchise and admitted that it was probably to small a region to sustain its own company, instead allowing TWW to expand its area – although it was still required to provide opt-out programming. WWN’s end was the first and only time an ITV company went bust.

2. Daytime programming begins – 1972

It was a former ITV face Christopher Chataway who, in his role as Postmaster General, presided over the biggest expansion of ITV’s programming in a generation. The channel had actually provided morning programmes in its earliest years, but lack of funds meant these were soon dropped. Monday 16 October 1972 saw it launch an extra 20 hours of broadcasting a week, as the lift in the limit of time it could be on air meant a permanent daytime TV service came to the UK for the first time. When schools’ programmes were broadcasting, it resulted in ITV being active from first thing in the morning until last thing at night.

Originally ITV’s daytime line-up competed with a similar selection of afternoon programmes from the BBC, but much of the Corporation’s schedule was dropped in the mid-’70s due to a cash crisis, and only Pebble Mill at One remained before a lengthy closedown until children’s programmes. ITV stuck with it, though, and got off to a flying start on day one with the first instalment of Emmerdale Farm. The inaugural afternoon line-up produced a hugely varied menu, including iconic drama in Crown Court and General Hospital, light entertainment in Jokers Wild and documentaries such as All Our Yesterdays. Later the slot became home to a host of fondly-remembered magazine programmes, including Good Afternoon (broadcast on the first day, and later renamed After Noon Plus), Here Today, Live from Two and most famously of all House Party.

This domination of the housewife and shift worker demographic continued until 1983, when the BBC finally moved the schools’ programmes over to BBC2. This meant a lot more flexibility during the day, but as ever cash flow prevented much taking their place, with every new programme being accompanied by about three times as much Ceefax. However, in 1986 the BBC finally launched its first full daytime service, broadcasting non-stop from Breakfast Time to Children’s BBC – a major change, and one that ITV were unable to combat fully as they still had schools’ programmes on their channel and the IBA refused to sanction a switch.

Eventually in 1987 they finally relented and the educational fare moved over to Channel 4 that autumn – in turn giving C4 a major expansion of broadcasting hours. For a time, there was a chance that the new ITV morning service would be run by TV-am, thanks to Bruce Gyngell moaning at the IBA, but this never came to pass (he would later repeat the trick with overnight ITV and Channel 4′s breakfast programme, with a similar level of success). Instead, from September the ITV network ran Chain Letters, US soap Santa Barbara and travelling debate show The Time … The Place … in the mornings, though this new line-up was somewhat underwhelming and about the only publicity it garnered was from parents pissed off that the new schedules had seen the lunchtime childrens’ programmes such as Rainbow moved forward an hour from noon to 11am.

A year on, ITV launched a new magazine programme to fill up the awkward morning slot, and from the arrival of This Morning, they were back on top during the day – Richard and Judy combating everything the Beeb put up against them for years. In recent times, however, a sense of stasis in the schedules has meant BBC1 is now the dominant player in daytime – and thanks to that, it’s now Britain’s most popular button.

3. The ITV strike – 1979

In December 1978, an industrial dispute the week before Christmas had left the BBC in chaos, with Bill Cotton, then-controller of BBC1, even having to compile two schedules for Christmas Day in case the strike continued. It also meant the three highest-rated programmes of that year were all transmitted on ITV on the night of Friday 22 December – The Muppet Show, Sale of the Century and Survival all benefiting from a captive audience deprived of the usual BBC alternatives.

The following year, things were very different. Work stoppages began in some ITV regions on 6 August, but by 10 August the entire ITV network (bar one) had been completely knocked out – a situation that would remain for the following 10 weeks. For nearly three months, all the channel broadcast was a tasteful white-on-blue caption apologising for the lack of programmes. The wording changed over time, when it became obvious this was a hugely significant dispute and there seemed little chance of a resolution any time soon.

Unfortunately for viewers, the strike coincided with the height of summer and the BBC’s traditional schedules of repeats and sport. However when the autumn began, the new season on BBC1 proved to be hugely successful, with series such as Blankety Blank and To the Manor Born becoming especially popular, while shows such as Mastermind and Larry Grayson’s Generation Game gained their highest audiences ever. As the strike continued into the autumn, such was the paucity of options even the funeral of Lord Mountbatten got over 17 million viewers (though it was calculated ITV’s caption and music was receiving a regular audience of around a million).

The only part of the ITV network where the audience had more than two channels to choose from was in the Channel Islands. Channel Television had their own agreements with the unions, aware that any industrial action would probably have put the tiny company out of business. As such they stayed on air throughout, though with no network programmes to screen, it was clearly a struggle, with the local news stretched to a whopping 60 minutes each night (when they often had trouble filling 30) and an evening schedule made up entirely of repeated regional programmes and films.

Finally on Wednesday 24 October at 5.45pm, the sounds of “Welcome home to ITV” rang out and the commercial channel was back. Yet the strike had also meant no new programmes could be made, so the schedules were somewhat haphazard for the first few weeks of the return, with stockpiled episodes of 3-2-1, recorded before the strike, appearing to be screened almost daily. Other new series planned for the autumn were also substantially delayed, and 12 months on from the BBC’s troubles, a schedule of series that had proven especially popular during the dispute meant BBC1 thrashed the commercial channel on Christmas Day.

4. The launch of Channel 4 – 1982

When ITV2 launched in 1998, the name was not new to many people who, for many years, had seen “ITV2″ on the front of their television sets. The arrival of Channel 4 was a major turning point for ITV, who now had the same benefits at the BBC – a second channel to offload some of the less enticing parts of their schedules.

No longer, therefore, would ITV have to spend the occasional evening transmitting a live opera or ballet to a tiny audience. Programmes such as this were much happier over on the fourth channel, with ITV pleased to be churning out less demanding entertainment. Other series, such as the religious strand Credo, were later shifted over, though it was felt important to emphasise that this was in no way a demotion. Indeed, Credo was able to be expanded to an hour and moved away from the Sunday ghetto (although it was later axed and replaced by newer religious programmes). Similarly, LWT’s shows for black and Asian viewers could now be seen nationwide for the first time. It meant that ITV no longer had to make every single genre of programme.

Coverage of the party conferences switched sides, and sport was also an obvious contender to make the most of the two-channel system. Moving midweek racing to Channel 4 was the best of both worlds – more races were able to be shown in an expanded timeslot while ITV could continue their regular female-orientated afternoon shows. Events such as the Olympics could allow the commercial channels to compete with the BBC for the first time – although the tendency for the nation to automatically associate the big events with the Corporation meant they failed to make much of an impact.

The importance of the new channel to ITV was best illustrated by the evening of Thursday 8 April 1983, where, from 8pm until midnight, we had ITV’s Channel 4 Showcase, an evening of programmes from the new network – Father’s Day, K’tang Yang Kipperbang and Cheers among them – in an attempt to lure viewers across, while Channel 4 broadcast an extended edition of TV Eye opposite it. The only region that didn’t join in was HTV Wales, as S4C provided their fourth channel. This was in itself a major change, as it saw all of HTV’s Welsh language obligations transferred to the new start and meant World in Action no longer had to go out near midnight.

A decade in, however, Channel 4 became wholly independent of the ITV companies, selling its own advertising. The link with ITV was therefore ended, and it had to wait another five years before it could expand its horizons again.

5. Thames poach Dallas – 1985

There are currently no imported programmes on peaktime ITV, the general consensus appearing to be that these no longer pull in the really big audiences on the main channels. It wasn’t always like this, however, and in the ’80s the likes of The A-Team and Knight Rider were perennial staples in the schedules. The daddy of them all, however, was safely under lock and key on the BBC – the mighty Dallas. That was until January 1985, when Bryan Cowgill of Thames – a former BBC1 controller – approached the US soap’s distributors Worldvision with an offer of double what the BBC were currently paying.

The story went that Worldvision wanted more for their top asset and the BBC were being somewhat lukewarm about this, so Thames nipped in and nabbed it. This may seem fair enough, but at the time it transgressed a “gentleman’s agreement” between the BBC and ITV who pledged not to get involved in poaching each other’s programmes to stop prices spiraling to an unacceptable amount. Thames also hadn’t consulted either the IBA or any of the other ITV companies about their purchase.

Paul Fox, then in charge of Yorkshire Television, announced that, “We feel there are better ways than this of going about buying programmes. We have no plans in Yorkshire to show Dallas, which after all is not as popular as our own Emmerdale Farm“. It seems somewhat bizarre from a modern perspective that there was a sense of real antagonism between the ITV companies and that the regions were genuinely independent bodies who had a great deal of autonomy over what they would show.

When the Thames deal became known, Michael Grade had hauled Dallas from the BBC1 schedules and announced he wasn’t intending to show any more episodes until the exact moment Thames screened theirs. The IBA actually requested Thames find a way of getting out of the newly-signed contract and give the programme back to the BBC. Eventually come February, Michael Grade appeared on Wogan to announce that the outstanding episodes of Dallas would be back on BBC1 within weeks, and the new series eventually arrived on BBC1 as well. Bryan Cowgill left Thames around the same time.

One of the most curious moments in telly history, the idea of an ITV company becoming a pariah among the rest of the network seems unthinkable in the modern day. Perhaps Worldvision’s Bert Cohen summed the whole affair up best – “Why should Thames want Dallas to go back to the BBC anyway?”

6. World of Sport ends – 1985

The Saturday afternoon sports magazine had never been universally popular within ITV – many, including ATV supremo Lew Grade, felt they would have been better combating Grandstand with programmes aimed at a completely different audience. However the grab bag of the sublime and the ridiculous (the World Clown Diving Championships, canal vaulting, bus jumping) ran for 20 years. By 1985, though, the old format was appearing somewhat dated, and live and exclusive sports coverage was considered the way forward. So in September, World of Sport was finally dropped.

ITV were quick to point out this didn’t mean the end of their commitment to sport, and the axing of the series offered much more flexibility – live action could be screened for longer without having to fit into pre-packaged slots, and if there wasn’t anything happening, there’d be more general entertainment (mostly Airwolf) rather than wasting time on some daft imported pseudo-sport. It saw the start of a new era for ITV Sport, who invested heavily on exclusive action – most notably a deal with the Amateur Athletics Association, which nicked top-class athletics from the BBC for the first time. There was also substantial coverage given to snooker, darts and, a particular favourite with the demographic advertisers were desperate to target, rugby.

However, unlike the BBC, or later Sky, ITV never seemed to have the patience to stick with some of these activities when they went through leaner times. The likes of ice skating – the subject of a deal signed at the height of Torvill and Dean mania – and snooker failed to prove a long-lasting hit, while the much-prized athletics were flung out in mid-afternoon or late at night by the early ’90s. Meanwhile an ITV regular, boxing, was almost entirely snaffled by satellite TV, so by the late ’90s ITV Sport decided to concentrate on just a few pursuits – mostly football and the newly-arrived Formula One.

The arrival of Brian Barwick from the BBC as Head of Sport in 1998 saw a further shift in policy, with another attempt to broaden ITV’s horizons. So snooker was back, in the form of some contrived new tournaments ITV had asked the authorities to invent, as was some mediocre boxing and even a darts competition one Sunday afternoon. Yet ITV never had the hours to devote to many of these events (with just one channel, snooker was never going to fit, with the final of one tournament hauled off before the end for a football match), while the likes of boxing failed to make an impact as Sky had all the big names under contract. So once more ITV decided to concentrate of football (with the Premiership highlights arriving in 2001) and F1, while rugby consisted of the World Cup every four years and virtually nothing else.

However in 2004, the loss of the Premiership rights meant that, once again, the channel was scrabbling around to find sporting rights to fill the hole. This seemed to mean the purchase of anything that wasn’t nailed down, including the Boat Race (which the incoming Head of Sport admitted he wouldn’t have bought) and the Superbowl, and the return of boxing yet again. This was yet another shift in ITV Sport policy, which in the past two decades has never decided whether it wants to emphasise depth – lots and lots of one or two popular sports – or breadth – a BBC-like range of many sports.

7. ITV goes 24 hours a day – 1986

It isn’t that long ago that television was strictly rationed, like petrol and eggs, and there would be virtually nothing on offer if you wanted to watch outside normal hours. ITV was perhaps the most radical in that, after the limits on opening hours were lifted in 1972 (and again after the three-day week), it eschewed the frequent closedowns and Ceefax breaks of the BBC and stayed on air non-stop from morning until midnight. Yet, moon landings and General Elections aside, it would always call it a day in the early hours of the morning. Generally the commercial channel would be the last of the networks to close down, at around 1am.

Eventually, in 1986, Yorkshire Television decided to take the plunge and not close down. Obviously, with audiences likely to be microscopic, little cash was invested in the service, most of the downtime being filled with pop videos from the cable channel Music Box. But this didn’t matter – more important was the fact they were broadcasting round the clock. Slowly but surely, the rest of the ITV network followed suit, and by 1988 every region was on air 24 hours a day. This wasn’t hugely welcomed by everyone, it appears, with some of the smaller ITV companies being distinctly underwhelmed at the idea of having to fill extra hours.

In time, many regions decided to avoid the expense by joining forces, with Granada’s Nightime service being taken by a number of networks. For a time, the concept of overnight telly seemed to be an exciting one, with strands such as Night Network being almost respectable. Later, however, cheaper alternatives found their way into the dead of night, including such staples as the live phone-in The James Whale Radio Show and The Hit Man and Her, which could run for hours on end, alongside inexpensive imports such as Donahue, American Gladiators and, most famously, Prisoner Cell Block H. Many of these had the dubious honour of being cult viewing among students.

Nearly 20 years on from Yorkshire’s pioneering efforts, now all five of the main channels, and dozens of others, broadcast 24 hours a day. Yet ITV’s overnight service has if anything got worse, with a depressing array of poor quality imports, dull pop profiles, ancient movies and syndicated sport. There isn’t even any live programming anymore, and there seems to be no idea what audience it’s actually aimed at. The only criteria seems to be that it fills the gap between the late news and the start of GMTV.

8. Coronation Street goes four times a week – 1996

Coronation Street has always been a major audience puller for ITV, yet from a modern perspective it seems bizarre how little the channel seemed to rely on it. Throughout the ’70s and much of the ’80s, you got half-hour episodes on Mondays and Wednesdays and that was about it. It wasn’t until 1987, and the departure of Hilda Ogden on Christmas Day, that there were more than two editions in a week. Clearly it was felt the quality of the programme would suffer if they tried to squeeze any more out of it.

However the arrival of EastEnders in 1985 seemed to put ITV under more pressure, and thought was given to making more of their assets. Hence in 1989 Coronation Street expanded, with a Friday episode added permanently to the schedule which helped to latch in more viewers to ITV on a particularly important evening (especially for LWT, who now had a regular audience grabber for perhaps the first time). The Friday episode was unsurprisingly a hit, and it probably helped Corrie to recover from a decline in audiences caused by the rival soap. There didn’t seem to be much of a decline in quality either.

Reliable hits such as this were proving to be particularly useful for the broadcasters as we went into the ’90s. Marcus Plantin, ITV Director of Programmes, said that he was hoping to make the most of their continued success by working his schedules around their storylines – so hour-long Corries were becoming increasingly common when a major plot was reaching its climax. Eventually thought was given to offering more of the programme on a regular basis – with a fourth weekly episode. The day chosen was a Sunday, already an important night for ITV as that was when the really big audiences were around. Kicking off the evening with Corrie would, it was hoped, allow the channel to dominate still further.

Many, however, felt that four Corries a week seemed like overkill. It appeared the series wasn’t as special as it once was, as it always on. Indeed, there seemed to be some teething troubles with the new format, with plots being stretched to breaking point and an obvious strain on the writers and cast. The arrival of the fourth episode coincided with a low point for the series, with the audience on Christmas Day 1996, of just nine million, being it’s worst of modern times. Yet eventually it turned a corner and, within a year or two, it was back to its best. The Sunday episode was here to stay, while its increasingly popular stablemate, Emmerdale, was also extended from two to three times a week in January 1997.

Marcus Plantin suggested around this time that “we are at the maximum delivery of network soaps”. Move to the present day and it appears few at ITV shared his opinion. Emmerdale moved from three to five episodes a week in 2002 and later became apparently the first soap anywhere in the world to be broadcast six days a week. Meanwhile an extra Monday instalment of Coronation Street, launched “for a limited period” in 2002, shows no sign of stopping, and extra episodes of both series are regularly dropped into the schedules whenever there’s an awkward gap. Their popularity shows no sign of waning, which is fortunate when at times they seem the only ITV shows the can guarantee a big audience.

9. Ondigital launches – 1998

Consolidation over recent years meant that Carlton and Granada were undoubtedly the major players in ITV come the late ’90s. With digital television on the horizon, and the potential of dozens of channels in every home, it seemed wise to get involved in the new technology to ensure they still had an important part to play. Carlton and Granada’s consortium, British Digital Broadcasting, duly won the franchise to operate digital terrestrial television, which they later announced would go under the name of ONDigital. Going up against Sky’s digital satellite system, they needed killer applications to ensure their system had an advantage. The most obvious was ITV.

Hence when Sky Digital launched in October 1998, viewers found BBC1, BBC2, Channel 4 and Channel 5 were all available on the platform – but ITV wasn’t. If you wanted to see Coronation Street, Emmerdale or Formula One, you had to subscribe to ONDigital, which was carrying ITV exclusively. This was also the platform that was blessed with ITV spin-offs (including an Emmerdale special) before they arrived on the main network, the new ITV2 channel and, from 1999, extensive coverage of the UEFA Champions League, the jewel in ITV’s sporting crown.

Sky subscribers who wanted to watch ITV therefore had to go out of their satellite system and stick with analogue – if they were even able to receive that in the first place. For many, this was such an irritating and fiddly process, they simply stopped watching ITV completely. The “commercial decision” that ITV had taken to stay off the Sky platform meant they were now an irrelevance in a substantial number of homes.

ONDigital, meanwhile, was not progressing as well as its owners had hoped. Sky’s bottomless pockets meant it could offer set-top boxes for free, something ONDigital had to repeat to stay in contention. Meanwhile the signal was somewhat fragile, with some regions unable to receive the service at all and those that could had to put up with the picture breaking up at any opportunity. Umpteen websites, meanwhile, seemed to have discovered a way to crack the encryption and assisted ONDigital in losing money hand over fist. It was therefore decided to change the name of the platform to take advantage of a familiar brand name – so from 2001 it was now ITV Digital and was home to a new ITV-branded sport channel. Yet the first division football it offered proved to be a distinctly underwhelming proposition to would-be subscribers.

In November 2001, the now-renamed ITV1 and ITV2 quietly arrived on Sky Digital, and in May 2002, ITV Digital collapsed in financial chaos. ITV did make some effort to win the readvertised franchise for digital terrestrial, but unsurprisingly they failed. Now, ITV1 and its sister channels can be found on all digital platforms – satellite, terrestrial and cable. However, if you want to take advantage of the interactive “red button” options on ITV1 … you’ll have to be watching on Sky.

10. The end of LWT – 2002

The obvious difference between ITV and the other broadcasters for much of its life was that, rather than being one company that looked the same wherever you were, it was instead 16 different outfits, all with their own ways of doing things and their own different identities. It was even said that programmes were trailed in different ways – a region like Central emphasising the brash, action-packed aspects of a show, while Westcountry would concentrate on the more cerebral moments.

However as we went into the digital age, it was felt that having so many identities on screen was confusing for the viewer and there needed to be a more coordinated approach. In 1989 the first attempt was made to bind the regional companies together as a single ITV, with a generic national look created, but it failed to succeed as most companies refused to use it, concerned their own identities would be marginalised. By the start of the new millennium, however, most ITV companies were run by a handful of people, and having a more generic look not only helped emphasise the ITV brand, but also made financial sense – why have 16 different continuity announcers making 16 different announcements for Heartbeat with a different channel name in each, when you could just have one instead?

So finally in October 2002 the familiar regional names, which had spent the previous few years on screen alongside an ITV logo, were finally dropped altogether. Now the channel would be known as ITV1, no matter if you were in Newcastle or Exeter, with the same announcements and trailers. Commercially it probably made sense, but it was disappointing to see some of the famous old names disappear – many of which had become hugely respected and trusted in their regions.

One of those to leave the screen was LWT, as after 35 years the region would now be known as simply ITV London seven days a week. Their final day on air was Sunday 28 October 2002, and to mark the occasion, they decided to spend most of the day’s announcements revisiting old slogans. The transmissions began with a faux-IBA start-up sequence and juddering mechanical clock into the ITV News at 5.30am, while a montage of idents and trailers, together with an in-vision farewell from the announcing team, ended proceedings just after midnight. A hugely nostalgic and enjoyable sequence, it showed that there was still pride and affection for the old regional ITV.