Watch carefully – it’s TV’s big night

Blair Thomson surveys the prospects of ATV-viewing after the 1968 regional reorganisation

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Birmingham Post front page
From the Birmingham Post for 29 July 1968

TONIGHT is the biggest night in commercial television in Britain since its inception 12 years ago. For tonight the new contract period comes into operation —bringing the new companies of Yorkshire and Thames to the screen for the first time, putting Harlech officially on the ITV map and redefining the pattern of Granada in the north and ATV in the Midlands.

And at the end of this momentous week the new London Weekend Company — with David Frost as one of the principal figures both behind and in front of the cameras —takes the air.

But, unless you happen to watch the ITV channel tonight for half an hour before the 10 p.m. ITN news, you might be forgiven for not realising that a new era has dawned with ATV.

ONE OF 17

For though there are 17 new programmes advertised to start this week, only one — a twice-weekly serial called Driveway — carries the ATV label (notwithstanding tonight’s half hour introduction and the Royal Gala show on Thursday which are, after all, only one-off programmes).

Of the others, one is from Anglia, two from Granada, four from Yorkshire, two from London Weekend and seven from the new London weekday company, Thames TV. It is hardly an impressive start.

For example. ATV’s Midland contributions to tonight’s 7¼ hours’ viewing amounts to 15 minutes of Tingha and Tucker, ten minutes of regional news, 25 minutes of ATV Today and the 30-minute “hullo-to-the-new-contract” programme.

REPEATS

It even manages on this first night of the brave new world of independent television to devote 80 minutes to repeats of American film series.

Given the regional news and ATV Today each night, the rest of the week’s Midland contribution to our viewing is:

  • Tuesday: Crossroads (25 minutes); Driveway (new series — 30 minutes).
  • Wednesday and Friday: Tingha and Tucker (15 minutes); Crossroads (25 minutes); Pulse (new religious series — ten minutes).
  • Thursday: Tingha and Tucker (15 minutes); Crossroads (25 minutes); Driveway (30 minutes); Pulse (ten minutes).

 

And of the other 27 hours of evening television this week ATV productions account for only three hours and ATV presentations, usually film series purchased from overseas (mainly America), amount to five hours — 25 minutes of which is a repeated programme: in total, less than a third of the week’s evening programme time.

Nor is the picture to be much better between now and the beginning of the autumn schedules at the end of September. For while the other programme companies pour out thousands of pounds worth of new programmes, and experiment with new ideas, ATV’s “new” offerings for the period are:

‘X’ SERIES

A late night “X” film series starting on Saturday; another new twice-weekly series Crimebuster (about a disgraced sportsman who turns exposé journalist for a Sunday newspaper); a documentary on Warwick University; another documentary about the racehorse Arkle; Sunday afternoon recordings of Midland soccer matches when the season starts; a series called Stars, with Maurice Woodruff and Marjorie Proops; and three programmes featuring Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore.

Again, not a line-up which really merits a heralding fanfare.

On ATV’s side, of course, it could be argued that it is bringing Midland viewers a choice of the best of the new programmes being produced by the other companies. This is true — and so it should.

TOO FACILE

But it is also a far too facile answer, and no excuse for a company which was one of the “big four” and is now one of the “big five,” being responsible for only one seventeenth of the week’s new programmes.

It would also be an all-too-easy reply that ATV is already known in the Midlands and, therefore, does not have to make such a big splash just because it enters a new contract period which now includes the weekends as well as the weekdays.

Neither does Granada, now seven-day contractors in the north-west area based on Manchester, have any need to re-establish its identity in that region. But, true to its tradition of liveliness and willingness to have a go, it is managing to introduce two new series this week, one of them an hour-long drama series in the mould of City ’68.

The sad fact is that this week, ATV had a once-for-all opportunity to make a real impact in the Midlands, to give us some foretaste of all that is promised for the future – but it chose not to take it.

Even if such a splash by ATV had only been a gesture — it is one that ought to have been made nevertheless.

NO SNAGS

What makes the picture even more damning from ATV’s point of view is the fact that it has not been beset with the chaos of moving or the uncertainties of starting from scratch that some of the other companies have experienced in recent months.

A few months ago Yorkshire TV had only a few odd rooms in Leeds to work in. Yet today, it has four new programmes ready for the network. Thames has had severe internal problems, mainly staff ones, as a result of its formation out of Rediffusion and ABC, yet has come up with no less than seven new programmes.

ATV has had no such problems. True, its faculties in Birmingham will remain limited until the new centre is ready.

FACILITIES

But it has had available all the marvellous facilities of its vast Elstree production centre and it would have mattered not one jot that the programmes were actually produced there provided that they had either a real Midland content or were worthy of networking under the ATV Midlands banner.

Having said all that, however, I am still prepared to take at face value the promises made by ATV that the autumn schedules will reveal all; that the new programmes being planned (some of them announced a few months ago) will be really new and extremely viewable; and that ATV will prove its allegiance to the Midlands as a region within the ITV pattern.

And if I have expressed doubts about independent television in the Midlands, nothing would please me more than that ATV should, with its new programmes and new interest in the Midlands, confound those fears and doubts and make me eat my words

 


Commentary

Transdiffusion’s Russ J Graham writes: Lew Grade was smarter than Blair Thomson gave him credit for. The three major contract changes in ITV’s life – 1968, 1982, 1993 – were all marked by by a massive drop in ITV viewing figures.

People are generally conservative about change. They start to stop watching when changes are announced. The more big announcements of big changes, the more the make sure they’re tuned to BBC-1 to avoid them. Those that stay for the actual changes find programmes they liked gone from the schedules and turn over. They find programmes they watch moved to different days and times and turn over.

It takes months – over a year in 1993 – before they drift back.

The point at which the contracts change is not a good one for launching new programmes. Obviously the new companies have to – they’re new, it follows that they have new programmes to launch – but for companies that were renewed, even with the major changes of region and/or timeslot for ATV and Granada, there’s nothing to prove and no need to build up a stock of programmes in anticipation of changeover day. If nothing else, the viewers will not be there to watch, as Driveway proved for ATV.

Add to that the changes happening in summer, when viewing figures across all channels are lower as people sit outside or go on holiday, and you’re asking for a disaster launching a raft of new programming.

Hold the new and the special programmes back for the autumn, as Lew Grade was planning, ensures that they’ll get viewers returning to ITV after the changes. It means that the network will have had time to gently ease out the shows from new companies that viewers didn’t take to – I’m looking at you, LWT – and it means the summer lull is over and viewing figures are climbing anyway.

The autumn is the time to launch such adventures, as Grade knew and Thomson didn’t. And Lew was right.

About the author

Blair Thomson (1939-2011) was born in Scotland. He worked for a variety of newspapers, ATV Today, Look North (Leeds) and for international television and radio in Ethiopia. He was later the head of Ceefax and retired to Cornwall where he was active in voluntary and community work.

2 thoughts on “Watch carefully – it’s TV’s big night

  1. I agree with Russ. Some more details:

    The new ATV was an amalgamation of its previous Midland and London operations.
    From London:
    The ‘startup’ changed to the London arrangement – The Midlands had always used the ‘distorted’ ‘Associated Television Ltd’ zoom (with the words missed off from 1966), with the announcer giving his name as part of the Authority Announcement at the end of the music (at 4:45pm) – very friendly!.
    On Monday 29th July 1968, the Authority Announcement moved to follow the tone at the start of the music (now devoid of the announcer’s name and ‘Monday to Friday’, but gaining channel’6’) Predictably, the ‘ATV MIDLANDS’ zoom now appeared with the region name zooming in synchronised with the 3 bongs, and then switching to the clock (on most days).

    From the autumn, the ATV/ITC film series were moved from weekdays to weekends – e.g. ‘The Saint’ to 7:25pm on Sundays, and ‘Joe 90’ on Sunday afternoons. (Interestingly, LWT was not averse to taking these, although Yorkshire often didn’t or moved them to off peak times.)

    ‘Star Soccer’ (with generic ‘ATV PRESENTS’ symbol at the start) with Hugh Johns replaced ABC’s ‘World of Soccer’ with Barry Davies – now with Midlands teams each week. – ABC had understandably given priority to the big northern teams.

    ‘Golden Shot’ was also famously moved to Aston – remember Anne Aston?

    From the Midlands:
    Regional programmes continued from Tinghar and Tucker, through the regional news to Crossroads, and also some late evening programmes. – This left the evening clear for entertainment, of course.

    The identity including the ATV MIDLANDS zoom. – The announcer always added ’THE’ before ‘Midlands’. The clock continued to be in the bottom half of the ATV symbol. (London had top half.)

    Its 3 announcers of Mike Prince (who opened up on the 29th), Pat Astley, and Joan Palmer continued and worked weekends as well (with only the occasional ‘relief’).

    Oddity:
    On 29th July, the ITA changed the test card and Picasso to carrying the company names (except London on the 30th – I assume!). I saw this for Yorkshire (on Emley Moor) and Anglia (on Sandy Heath).
    However, for Lichfield, the test card continued as ‘ITA Lichfield Ch8.Membury Ch12’, and the Picasso stayed as ‘ITA MIDLANDS’ – well into 1969!!! One Saturday, there was ‘ITA ATV Network’ on the test card, but by Monday all wording was removed from it. It took a month or so for ‘ITA ATV’ to appear on both, and so it stayed.
    Any ideas?

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