After opening on a Thursday, and two days of Granada, the Winter Hill transmitter began broadcasting programmes from ABC Television on Saturday 5 May 1956.
By this date, it was becoming clear that commercial television was a disaster. Indeed, Associated Newspapers, part of Associated-Rediffusion in London, were already making increasingly panicked moves to pull out of the company. ATV in the midlands and London were feeling the pinch and began to look for ways to extend their financing – until now supplied mainly by television and camera manufacturer Pye.
ABC’s midland operation had begun on 19 February that year and the extension into the north had been more expensive than the parent company, Associated-British Picture Corporation, had hoped.
Very soon, retrenchment became the watchword of the network. Morning programming died away. A-R backed away slightly from the ‘BBC with adverts’ ethos, moving highbrow, low audience programmes like those from the Hallé Orchestra away from peaktime and into the (comparatively) late night.
ABC was already producing a mixture of popular drama and entertainment programmes from its three sites, and the lower overheads inherent in their contract insulated them from the spiral downward. But ABPC rarely tolerated loss-making subsidiaries – especially one created for not much more than a way of promoting ABC Cinemas and ABPC films.
“Invisible earnings” was a phrase not much known outside of non-Keynesian economists and supply-side politicians at the time. Instead, 1950s capitalists saw things in terms of black and white – profit-making or non-profit-making.
Programmes meant profit, being sold to other stations in the UK and beyond, attracting advertising to the two operations and getting bums on seats, televisions bought and Band-III aerials installed.
Presentation, the forgotten linking material between one programme and another, or between a pause in programming and a resumption of the entertainment, was obviously non-profit-making.
So this is where the axe fell. More continuity came from Teddington and less from the regions. The presentation was perfunctory, plain, and likely to drop in a mention of the cinemas too for good measure.
As ITV’s fortunes began to recover, and with boom times possible round the corner, ABC’s management still thought little of presentation. Its programmes were popular, the station began to break even, then moved into profit. Who cared?
The regulator cared. The Independent Television Authority took its duty of providing quality television very seriously. An otherwise complementary annual report expressed dissatisfaction with ABC’s presentation style and content.
ABC management were horrified. Whilst the ITA had been critical about aspects of ATV, A-R and Granada, ABC had expected a good report – it was the golden boy of the regulator and had been since its inception.
The criticism was taken as a body-blow, but ABC did not react in the style we have become accustomed to in latter days. Instead, Howard Thomas, their legendary Managing Director, seemed to vow that this criticism would never be heard again. He hired a skilled presentation manager, relaunched the on-screen identity of the company (something never heard of before) and began to pump money into presentation.
In doing so, he changed the ethos at ABC forever. Suddenly, the identity of the station, its mark on its viewers minds, was to become of paramount importance. In doing so, he also solved a problem that the company was not necessarily even aware of – that of being noticed in amongst the 5-day players of A-R and Granada and the all-embracing 7-day might of ATV.
Suddenly, local viewers knew the difference between ABC and ATV in the midlands, and between ABC and Granada in the north. The advertising sales force had a recognisable brand from which to launch their hard sell. The ABC ident and chimes became synonymous nationwide with the quality programming, and the programming with the quality ident.
As the 1950s drew to a close and the exciting world of the sixties began to unfold, ABC entered its golden age.