Independent Television: An Overview

By Ian Jones

First published April 2000

The 15 regional companies (plus the one nationwide “breakfast” service) operating as part of the ITV network on 9 March 2000 included a mixture of some of the oldest commercial stations in the country, together with some of the youngest.

Five of them first began transmitting over 40 years ago. The oldest, Granada Television, commenced broadcasting to the North-West England region on 3 May 1956 – just under eight months since commercial television first started in Britain. Initially Granada only operated a weekday service, but extended to weekends from 3 August 1968. Scottish Television is the next oldest, having begun transmissions to central Scotland on 31 August 1957. Three further companies still operating on 9 March 2000 began broadcasting in 1959: Tyne Tees Television (North-East England, from 15 January), Anglia Television (East England, 27 October 27) and Ulster Television (Northern Ireland, 31 October).

Border Television first began operating in the Border regions on 1 September 1961, extending to the Isle Of Man from 26 March 1965. Two other companies also date from the early 1960s: Grampian Television, broadcasting to the Northern Scotland region as of 30 September 1961; and Channel Television, transmitting to the Channel Islands from 1 September 1962 onwards.

The next round of franchise allocations came into effect from 1968 and, out of those awarded at the time, three companies were still broadcasting come TV24. Harlech Television (HTV), operating separate channels in Wales and West England, first began on 4 March 1968; Yorkshire Television, responsible for the Northern England franchise, started transmitting on 29 July 1968; and London Weekend Television (LWT) began broadcasting from 2 August 1968 to the London region at weekends.

Following another round of franchise distributions in 1981, Central Independent Television became the company officially broadcasting to the Midlands region, but was in reality the previous franchise holder ATV under a different name. Central was the title used from 1 January 1982 for this company, still transmitting to the Midlands area on TV24.

The most recent, and most controversial, reallocation of franchises came into effect simultaneously from 1 January 1993. The remaining four ITV companies broadcasting on 9 March 2000 all won their franchises at this time: Carlton Television, serving the London region during weekdays; Good Morning Television (GMTV), replacing TV-am as owners of the early morning “breakfast” franchise; Meridian Television, owned by United News & Media and broadcasting to the Southern England region; and Westcountry Television, transmitting across the South-West England region.

Although this summary gives the appearance of laudable regional diversity and impressive historical continuity and longevity, in reality the condition of the ITV network is significantly, depressingly different. Many of these independent regional companies remain both independent and regional in name only. Never before in ITV’s history has there been such a high, and deliberate, level of synchronicity, duplication and standardisation across its so-called regional “variations”. This acceleration towards uniformity dates back to the last round of franchise allocations in 1991, held under a very different set of rules to those that preceded it.

The Conservative Government of the day had, via the 1990 Broadcasting Act, subverted the franchise process so rather than resembling a considered procedure involving the awarding of licenses to bidding TV companies on merit by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the allocations now went simply to the company with the highest bid – an auction, in other words, with the franchise going to whoever had the most money. The controversy over the subsequent reallocations was compounded by the way certain well-known reputable companies, specifically Thames Television, were denied a renewed franchise, infamously losing out to the unliked Carlton group; and how three other franchise holders including TV-am lost their licenses after only winning them a decade earlier.

Although various requirements concerning output were inserted into all new franchise contracts, the whole affair typified the Government’s obsession with competition, market forces and deregulation. It was with this latter point in mind that the Broadcasting Act enforced a second big change: the replacement of the IBA with the Independent Television Commission (ITC), a much less influential body with far diminished power to regulate the nature of cross-network relations and sustain regional diversity.

A third major reform was to allow existing franchise holders to now “own” other franchise holders – to buy them up and take them over, leaving only nominal regional “independence”. Almost immediately, smaller companies found themselves hunted down by larger and richer ones, with the result that, on Thursday 9 March 2000, this was the true condition of ITV:

- Granada owned LWT (from 1994), Yorkshire and Tyne Tees (1997)
- Carlton owned Central (1994) and Westcountry (1996), and, from 6 September 1999, rebranded them both under the name Carlton-Central and Carlton-Westcountry regions.
- United News & Media owned Meridian plus Anglia (1994) and HTV (1997)
- Scottish TV owned Grampian (1997)

The take-overs have coincided with a relentless drive towards network integration that has seen the emergence of a Network Centre, headed by current Director of Programmes David Liddiment, ruthlessly dictating the shape and nature of all output across the ITV regions, limiting the amount of opt-outs and regional variations, reducing the degree of individual character and personality of each region to a paltry level, inserting ITV logos and idents on all continuity, and leaving little diversity other than daily regional news bulletins.

ITV argues that it can only survive as a successful programme distributor and broadcaster, and compete on a global level with giant multinational media conglomerates, if it continues and renews these moves towards total integration. Critics respond that the unique and precious regional tradition of Britain’s independent television, the careful balance between local identity, programme making and networking nation-wide, and the history and legacy of commercial television itself is all being sacrificed purely in the name of business and profits.

On Friday 26 November 1999 United News & Media and Carlton announced they were to merge, creating a single company in charge of ITV output in 15 million homes and controlling over a third of all ITV regions. Granada responded by contesting the legality of the proposal and declaring an interest in buying either of the companies themselves. A decision from the Competition Commission regarding both bids was due to be announced by June 2000. The move towards ultimate integration, and the emergence of one single owner of ITV with no separate 15 regional broadcasters, seems ever closer; and in this sense the snapshot of the network captured by TV24 more than likely resembles the dying breath of almost half a century of truly independent British television.

Independent Television on 9 March 2000

First independent transmissions by Associated Rediffusion: 22 September 1955

Director of Programmes: David Liddiment
Chief Executive (outgoing): Richard Eyre