The years of strife

Independent Television in Britain, Volume 5
November 6, 1998

The saga of ITV rolls inexorably on. Denis Forman watches another episode.

The authors of this, the fifth volume of the history of Independent Television, faced the formidable challenge of living up to the standard set in the four earlier volumes - one and two by Bernard Sendall, covering the story from the beginnings of ITV to 1968, and three and four by Jeremy Potter, taking it from then up to 1980. If they have not quite achieved this they have succeeded in producing a meticulously researched and comprehensive work of reference which will be invaluable to students of the medium who have now reached, as we are told, the astonishing total of some 32,000 in number.

This volume is at its best in describing the that shook Independent Television to its foundations and changed it from what was essentially a public service to an industry driven by market forces. It was the Peacock Committee set up, ironically enough, to consider the possibility of the BBC taking advertising, which, coupled with Thatcher's deep dislike of the public service principle, sowed the seeds of change. The Peacock findings set in motion a process described here in all its convoluted and fascinating detail which led to the appointment of a Government Select Committee, a White Paper "with green edges", a wholly unsatisfactory draft bill and a period of strenuous lobbying and redrafting that resulted in the present Act, combining some of the virtues of the old system with the principle of auctioning the franchises. The two heroes of the struggle emerge as David Mellor, the then Home Office minister responsible for guiding the bill through the House, and George Russell, the newly appointed chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The leaders of the industry, by comparison, cut a sorry figure.

Until the early eighties the television companies had worked together effectively as a collective. There were, of course, the inevitable stresses and strains that afflict any trade association; nevertheless the group that was set up ten years earlier to make the industry's case to the Annan Committee, for instance, was given unanimous support by all 15 companies. But the relationship between company principals was to change disastrously during the next decade. We are given no reasons for this but it is clear that this new generation of chief executives were to become increasingly champions of their own company's short-term interests and came to regard all other companies as rivals rather than colleagues.

Indeed so quarrelsome were the leaders of the industry that they failed over some four years to agree on a mutually acceptable method of scheduling network programmes. This led the IBA to impose on them the principle of central scheduling, with a network scheduler who would do the job as their agent. This solution, which was hailed by the industry with a sense of relief, was to put an end to the impresario role of individual companies. Instead of being free to innovate and to back their own hunches they now had to apply, cap in hand, to a hired man for permission to make any network programme. A scheduler who feeds on ratings and audience reaction is bound to play yesterday's game and will always tend to repeat or at least to recycle yesterday's successes; one of the reasons for the present decline in the popularity and quality of Independent Television programmes can be traced back to giving the power of decision to what is now the Network Centre.

This Balkanisation of the industry also had an even more calamitous effect on the manner in which the industry lobbied the government during this, the most critical period in its history. The official line of the Independent Television Association was endlessly to reiterate its belief in the virtues of the public service system. Nothing could have been more counter-productive since it was this system that the government was determined to abolish. This, however, was only the message given by the mouthpiece of the industry. Chief executives lobbied ministers independently, each one offering a different view. Agreement on any new constructive proposal became impossible. After one industry meeting at which an alleged consensus had been reached, Raymond Snoddy, the Financial Times correspondent on television affairs, commented: "no one believed them. Could the body of men notorious for being unable to agree on what time to have lunch really have reached a consensus on anything?"

The most serious omission in this volume is the absence of any overall survey of the network's output of programmes - drama, comedy and light entertainment, which along with the rise of the soaps formed the backbone of ITV's schedule. Instead several specific items are examined at inordinate length and indeed in the 50 pages devoted to network programmes more than half are devoted to four individual episodes - London Weekend Television's problem in finding a place on the network, Death on the Rock, the Dallas affair and the furore over the programme Sins. These items are undoubtedly interesting but only one of them - Death on the Rock - was to have a serious impact on the course of ITV's affairs and this could, perhaps, have been better treated as an appendix. Ten pages devoted to a gaffe committed by one managing director - Brian Cowgill of Thames - in unilaterally breaking an agreement with the BBC by filching the American series Dallas from them, is surely excessive. Here, and sometimes elsewhere, the authors are less than adroit in the art of compression. While comparatively minor items loom large, there is no examination of several major items such as the withdrawal of financial support by the American oil companies Exxon and Mobil - which for over a decade had resourced ITV's (and the BBC's) major drama and without which neither The Jewel in the Crown nor Brideshead Revisited could have been made. There is no analysis of the reasons for the demise of the single play, no mention of the huge increase in prize money for game shows, nor of the emergence of the television-sponsored feature film.

Another serious omission is the absence of a glossary of abbreviations which proved invaluable in the Potter volumes. Since, on average, some four or five sets of initials appear on each page, some of them arcane, this can cause for the reader serious frustration. The several major component elements of ITV, however - Independent Television News, Labour Relations, Advertising, Networking and the like - are covered extensively and well, and combine to give an admirably comprehensive account of the whole spectrum of Independent Television. If it lacks the elegant style and easy readability of the earlier volumes, this book gives a sound and well-documented account of what was the most fraught and perhaps the most critical decade in the continuing story of Independent Television so far.

Sir Denis Forman was formerly chairman, Granada Television.

Independent Television in Britain, Volume 5: ITV and IBA, 1981-92: The Old Relationship Changes

Author - Paul Bonner with Lesley Aston
ISBN - 0 333 64773 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £25.00
Pages - 542

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