The Battle For Your Favour


A contemporary view of early ITV

Britain’s wavebands.
7 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Millions of pounds.
Admittance to your home.

It is the most expensive game of chess ever played, a matching of wits between a handful of men with millions to spend. And the prize? You – and your viewing habits and buying habits. For this is the Battle of British Television, the tussle for supremacy, the struggle for the flick of your channel switch.

Ambition, an advice-on-screen series by ABC Television, had journalists Percy Cudlipp, Ursula Bloom and Noel Whitcomb, as well as a number of provincial newspaper editors.
Up to September 1955 the BBC had a clear run. Unopposed, they put on what they liked; in fact, sometimes it was said that BBC Television was more concerned with pleasing itself than pleasing its audience. But the opposition opened up two years ago, with the first rounds fired by Associated-Rediffusion and Associated TeleVision (ATV) from London. Five months later the Midlands came on the air and ATV spread northward and were reinforced by ABC Television. Three more months went by and Lancashire went on the air, ABC spreading to the North and being joined by Granada Television, both companies expanding into Yorkshire in November. From 250,000 London homes capable of receiving the ITA service in September 1955 to 5,000,000 homes in Britain by Christmas 1957!

The key question was whether Britain would accept the “commercials.” They were not only accepted but enjoyed, and the jingles and cartoons especially are as entertaining as many of the programmes.

ITA went all out to be a light alternative to the BBC, but at the beginning the BBC did little to change its course, and made few concessions. The result – a predominance of 3 to 1 for ITA over BBC in every home where receivers permitted a choice – was revealed by the research figures of both parties. The ITA’s TAM figures and the BBC’s Audience Research figures, checked by door-to-door sample calls, were closely comparable.

The Army Game
Poking fun at Army life provided the comedy material for ITV’s The Army Game series. Viewers followed the antics of (left to right) Geoffrey Sumner, Michael Medwin, Alfie Bass and Charles Hawtrey.
Late in the day, perhaps after too long a delay, the BBC began to fight back. They brought in new blood, lured back some of the bright boys who had left them for richer pastures, and sent programme scouts with dollar cheques to the United States. American filmed series had helped the ITA, so the BBC bought American series, and at the time this article was being written the BBC was offering up to three hours of American film on Saturday nights. The battle has been joined. Strength for strength, money and resources, skill, showmanship and experience; everything is now thrown into the struggle.

The BBC had the initial advantages of television experience, trained staff, studios and equipment, and a huge revenue, with a gross income of £20,000,000 from licences only, as well as useful extras like the £l,000,000 profit from the Radio Times.

The commercial contractors lacked television experience, but during those first two gruelling years they learned, painfully and expensively. Yet all the contractors had rich experience of showmanship and public tastes in other fields. Associated-Rediffusion coupled overseas commercial-radio knowledge with the might of the Daily Mail. Associated TeleVision had Val Parnell and Prince Littler, with their life-long experience of the theatre, and in time added the Daily Mirror’s power to their Board. Granada brought the showmanship gained in operating some of the best-run cinemas in Britain. ABC had this, too, plus all the skill of making films like The Dam Busters at Elstree, and news and documentary films at Pathé.

Criss Cross Quiz
Highly successful innovation in TV quizzes, the Criss Cross Quiz won viewers to ITV. It had Jeremy Hawk, seen above with two contestants, as its master of ceremonies.
Yet all the contractors had to build or acquire studios, persuade manufacturers to allocate equipment earmarked for export. Then they had to recruit staff, some from the BBC, some from films, some from Fleet Street, and electronic engineers from industry. And there was no income, apart from the capital the contractors raised to go into business. Facing the contractors was an essential order of events. First they had to spend at least as much as the BBC to provide programmes more attractive than the BBC; then they had to encourage viewers by the million either to convert their receivers and aerials to receive the ITA or buy new receivers; and finally, having won this audience, they had to “sell” the audience to advertisers in sufficient numbers to justify manufacturers spending money to reach this public.

All this was done. As soon as a large enough audience was “exposed” to TV advertising there was a resulting impact on sales, and commercial television was established as a worthwhile advertising medium.

So the revenue began to flow into the ITA companies, until today they have as much to spend on programmes as the BBC. The disparity remains in resources; for the BBC, with its dozens of studios and outside-broadcast units, its regional offices and its 13,000 staff (this total includes 8,000 working in sound radio. The radio staff can be regarded as a resource for BBC Television, since it will in time be absorbed by the TV service to a large extent), is still better equipped than the ITA contractors with their two sets of studios in London, one in Birmingham, and two in Manchester, and a combined staff strength of 3,000. But by economical use of all their resources the ITA companies’ comparative smallness in relation to the BBC is not noticeable on the viewer’s screen.

Holiday Town Saturday Night
Holiday Town Saturday Night was a summer series ABC Television attraction, featuring a bathing-beauty contest. Here, Marilyn Davies, New Brighton winning beauty, appears with the motor car which was one by the grand final winner.
By mighty effort the BBC has managed to make a tiny reduction in the ITA’s 3:1 domination of the wavebands; but every month, as the ITA’s 5,000,000 viewing homes creeps towards the BBC’s 7,000,000 (including areas beyond reach of ITA transmitters), the BBC’s nightly audience grows less.

The importance to the ITA contractors of an increasing audience must be obvious. The more people reached, the more attractive television becomes to advertisers. But why should the BBC worry? They get the licence revenue, and the ITA gets none. It does not affect BBC revenue if the ITA audience is ten times as great, or if the BBC audience dwindles to nothing. The ITA charges to advertisers are based on a scientific calculation as to the actual audience reached at any given hour. Such considerations do not affect the BBC. Why then the consternation at Broadcasting House and Lime Grove?

Every ten years the BBC’s charter comes up in Parliament for renewal. Suppose there is a proved public preference for ITA, then why should all viewers’ licence money be paid over to the BBC? Or, more practically, why not reduce the licence fee? This is the real threat to the BBC – that ITA may reduce them to a minor position in television, and the Government might decide the BBC should have a lesser income, to match.

In the Manchester studios of ABC Television The Joe Loss Show was mounted, with its Howard Keel Singing Contest. (Left to right) Dennis Lotis, Joan Edwards, Howard Keel and Joe Loss.
So the battle goes on. With their sheets of daily programmes marked out hour by hour, BBC programme planners try to fight the ATV/ABC Sunday-night combination of London Palladium and Armchair Theatre, by lightening the BBC play and placing it earlier. ABC and ATV throw in The 64,000 Question and Hour of Mystery against the BBC’s Saturday-night comedy hour. BBC buys America’s Wells Fargo to pit against an ITA Western.

The men in Broadcasting House and Lime Grove, headed by Gerald Beadle, Cecil McGivern and Kenneth Adam, match wits in this expensive game against Associated-Rediffusion’s Paul Adorian and John McMillan, ATV’s Val Parnell and Lew Grade, Granada’s Sidney and Cecil Bernstein, and my own ABC executives. This is no battle of pounds and shillings. Between them, BBC and ITA companies are spending £80,000 to £100,000 a day on programmes. Perhaps £2,000 to £4,000 per hour is spent on artists, writers and musicians. Who can spend most effectively, which are the real stars, the best combinations, the presentation methods that you will prefer?

All this is for you, bringing you a choice, and offering more carefully planned programmes than when television was a monopoly. And your tastes are ever changing. Today’s favourite is tomorrow’s bore. Where is the exact point at which a popular programme begins to pall? The programme planners’ job is to anticipate your change of taste months before you do, and then take the programme off the air before you will not want it.

Personal Appearance
The Granada ITV company imported comedian Alan Young from America for their series Personal Appearance. Scoring high with British viewers, this comedian had one Oscars for his American TV shows. Born in England, he was reared in Canada.
Trends have to be watched. The sharp and sudden fluctuations of star values are reflected in sales of records, theatre appearances, mail requests. Cinema receipts show variations in audience preference, especially the rapid decline and fall of fads like “rock ‘n’ roll.” The American market is often a useful indication of what Britain will like, and song sales, box-office figures, etc are carefully studied here. Even so, American crazes, like calypso singing, sometimes fall flat in Britain, and success in the United States is no guarantee of a hit over here.

In some ways it is a gamble, but a calculated gamble, to assess public taste. I do not think any of us deliberately try to play down to the lowest common denominator. The fascination of the “game” is in the prospect of being able to guide public taste and to try to give people something better than they think they want. The trouble for all of us in this intricate business of catering for your whims is that the public never knows what it wants – until it gets it.

About the author

Howard Thomas (1909-1986) was a writer, producer and television executive. He was managing director of ABC Television throughout its existence and held the same post at Thames Television until the early 1980s. His autobiography, 'With an Independent Air: Encounters during a lifetime of broadcasting' was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1977.

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