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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.