Vital vulgarity 

1 January 2002


The Television Act of 1954 is celebrated for creating what we now call “ITV”. However, this is the one thing the Act didn’t do.

In the true style of much British legislation, the Act provided a framework for a competing television service but left the actual structure to be created by other architects.

The Act’s main job was to break the monopoly of the BBC in television provision, and this it did simply by declaring that the monopoly was gone. It also created an Authority to run the new service, but left the composition and organisation of the Authority up to the Postmaster General in Whitehall.

The vagueness of the Act was to have profound implications for the development of ITV and the operations of the new Independent Television Authority. For a start, the ITA found itself acting as a broadcaster who didn’t do any broadcasting; a regulator with another regulator – the General Post Office – regulating its regulation; and being in charge of implementing the law from an Act of Parliament that appeared to be all spirit and few letters.


Printed copies of the Television Act 1954


Fortunately for the new service, Earl De La Warr, as Postmaster General, was either a genius or very very lucky. He had the job of assembling the “great and the good” of British society to form the board at the top of the Authority.

De La Warr began calling on men and women of culture and position and asking them if they’d like to serve. He called on Sir Kenneth Clark, the chairman of the Arts Council, former director of the National Gallery, ex-surveyor of the King’s pictures and much more. Would “Sir K” like to be a member of the ITA? Yes, he would.

A day passed and De La Warr had a flash of insight. “You might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb. Will you be chairman?” he asked of Sir K. Yes, he would.

The ITA, and the new ITV, was born at that moment. For all that history remembers the personalities in the ITV companies – Grade, Brownrigg – or the men who made ITV a success – Howard Thomas, John Spencer Wills – the man who actually created ITV was Sir Kenneth Clark.


Five men pose around a desk covered in paperwork

THE MEN IN CHARGE of ATV (responsible for London weekend programmes) hold a management conference. Left to right, Harry Alan Towers, Norman Collins, Richard L. Meyer, Val Parnell and Lew Grade – Picture Post 1955


A man reads a letter. He stands in front of a bust of the Madonna and Child

Kenneth Clark – by Cecil Beaton 1955

He took the job, according to 1977’s “The Other Half”, because “I saw a number of ways in which the Authority could intervene and prevent the vulgarity of commercialism from having things all its own way”. Yet, he is also quoted as saying “commercial television might add some element of vital vulgarity which is not without value”. In keeping with the vagueness of the Act, Sir K had hit on a formula for ITV – non-vulgar vulgarity.

Now all he needed to do was to create the means of putting this non-vulgar vulgarity across – the actual television system itself.

In the few places the Act was not disconcertingly vague, it managed to be disconcertingly specific. Section 5(2) charged the ITA with ensuring “that there is adequate competition to supply programmes between a number of programme contractors”. This, in itself, was a vague instruction to do something specific – the ITA’s system must not merely compete with the BBC: it must compete, in some way, with itself. It could even be read as saying that the system must compete on all levels – programmes, advertising, regions, staffing and so forth.

The immediate and simple answer was to have two or more contractors providing programmes from each transmitter. Each programme would thus compete with the other for viewers and advertisers.

But this left the ITA with numerous sub-options to choose from. Should the ITA present the programmes, deciding the schedule and putting them out under its own name?

Would this be arranged by having ITA1 North and ITA2 North, ITA1 London and ITA2 London and so forth, or by having two – or more – national ITA channels?

The other alternative, having the programme contractors presenting the programmes, also had similar sub-options. Regional or national? How much ITA control – for more would be needed of a national network than a regional one.

In the end, the wrangling of options was rendered unnecessary when the regulator’s regulator, the GPO, politely but firmly told the ITA that they read the Act in a different way. They saw nothing that would allow for two or more broadcasts from each transmitter. Quite the reverse – they were clear that even overlaps from one transmitter to another were technically a no-go.


1963 map of each transmitter area

1963 map of each transmitter area


Worse, the GPO was the department that held the ultimate trump card. The GPO was in charge of licensing the frequencies for broadcasts and, partially to prevent multiple channels, partially to protect the BBC, and partially out of sheer bloody-mindedness, the GPO would only allow Band III VHF channels 8, 9, 10 and 11 to be used.

With four frequencies available, the ITA could cover the bulk of the country by carefully drawing up a patchwork map to ensure that no two stations on the same frequency shared a border. If the ITA wanted two or more broadcasts in a given area, they would need two or more frequencies and the patchwork would be impossible to draw – the minimum number of frequencies for a two-channel system was six. Round one to the GPO.

The ITA was left with a single frequency in each area, into which the Act’s requirement for competition would need to be squeezed. Sir K’s new Authority looked at the various options available.

Regional – each transmitter gets a separate contractor.

Pros: The contractors compete for programming, staff and talent amongst themselves.

Cons: The contractors gain an instant advertising monopoly in each region.

Dutch horizontal – dividing the day into layers, with a contractor producing a few hours a day and handing on to another.

Pros: The contractors are in direct competition for everything.

Cons: The audience for drama at 2pm is tiny. Where does the news go? How does a contractor cope with losing half of their day’s allocation to a Party Political Broadcast? Who decides when to promote and demote contractors and when and how often does this change happen?

Genre horizontal – appoint contractors for each genre and give them a slice of each day to put out their programming.

Pros: The contractors compete for staff and talent amongst themselves.

Cons: Advertising goes where the viewers go. Creativity and originality is drained from the system.

Vertical slice – national contractors appointed for each day of the week, or specific blocks of days.

Pros: The contractors are in direct competition for advertising and staff but not programming.

Cons: Inflexible. If a company had a great show in its Monday slot that doesn’t prosper, it won’t sell that programme to the Sunday (where it would do well) contractor because of the competition for advertising, so the show dies. The system will go stagnant in months.

Vertical equity – four or five national contractors appointed for blocks of two days at a time. A single contractor would could broadcast Monday-Tuesday one week, Thursday-Friday the next and so on.

Pros: The contractors are in direct competition for advertising and staff but not programming.

Cons: Dizzying. A viewer enjoying a show on Monday must know that he can see the next part a week on Wednesday, with the third part a week on Sunday next.

All of these options, with the possible exception of a modified form of the Dutch horizontal system that still works to this day in the Netherlands, would have required either more patience from viewers and advertisers than was likely to appear, or would have required an ITA bureaucracy so large that the costs would have neutralised any benefits. Above all, the tight limitations on broadcasting hours would have made virtually all of them unworkable.

The ITA’s director-general Robert Fraser, an appointment that proves how much of a genius Sir K was, declared that all of the systems would be “cages in which we would be caught forever”.

On 14 October 1954, the Authority chose the path of least resistance. Each main transmitter would be allocated to two contractors, and the split would be a vertical one, based on established viewing patterns: in other words, a weekday broadcaster and a weekend broadcaster.


Logos of the companies in operation or planned in 1957

Companies in operation or planned in 1957


In practice, the system wasn’t to work that way. The finances of the new ITV were unlikely to allow six contractors springing into being across the initial three regions. The weekend company in London would be dwarfed by the weekday company. The weekend company in the Midlands would be so small as to be unviable. An ingenious alternative solution was developed…

Whilst still deciding the ultimate shape of the system, the ITA had been busy interviewing contractors. Six days after finishing the interviews and only 12 days after finally choosing the pattern of the new ITV system, the ITA was ready to announce the opening line up.


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