Year zero 

1 January 2002

Every newcomer company things it’s the first and therefore tries to re-invent the wheel. Dave Jeffery sees this as a continuing – and bad – idea.

When looking back at the history of ITV over the years, you can often find remarkably consistent patterns. One such pattern is that the boardrooms of companies hoping to replace incumbent ITV franchise holders seemed to be filled with budding Pol Pots.

These tin pot dictators all seemed share dreams of reinventing television from Year Zero in their region, using a scorched earth policy to brutally erase all remnants of anything that existed before with presentation often first in the firing line. I’m going to examine three examples of the “Year Zero” phenomenon, and then look at the conclusions that can be drawn from these examples.

One only has to go back to 1968 (the first ITV franchise round to actually replace companies) to witness the first time this phenomenon occurred.

In this franchise round ABC Television, the weekend contractor for the North and Midlands, was given 51% control of a new franchise holder, to be called Thames Television, for London weekdays.

The first casualty of this award was the presentation department of Rediffusion, London. Rediffusion was a company that had been established in London since the dawn of ITV in 1955.

However, despite a forming a successful relationship with Londoners over thirteen years its entire presentation department – including announcers such as the legendary Redvers Kyle – were now all headed for the dole queue. ABC wanted to import its whole team en masse headed by their widely respected Head of Presentation Geoffrey Lugg.

This example is the exception to the otherwise universal outcome of an ITV “Year Zero”. It’s the only example of a presentation style and announcing team of an ITV company being successfully replaced in its entirety overnight.

The reason was that ABC’s team was perhaps the most professional in Britain at this time, and had a warm and personal style that was new to London. The ABC team broadcast to viewers rather than at them, in a way that would have seemed distastefully parochial to the outgoing Rediffusion team.

However, a change in style alone would not have been enough – it was the professionalism of a seasoned team that already worked closely together and some clear deficiencies in the presentation style of its predecessor that ensured this team bedded in so successfully.

At the same time, Harlech Television had decided to dispense with the services of TWW continuity announcers such as Ivor Roberts, Iris Jones, Christine Goodwin and Linda Lee. They weren’t “with it” enough for the new station. Despite ten years of sterling service to Wales and the West, they were consigned to the scrap heap. This decision turned out to be disastrous.

Harlech was a company that promised “a new type of independent television for Wales”, which in essence meant a lot of very dull and worthy arts programmes usurping entertainment programming.

They were also going to be “younger” and “groovier”, which meant that the TWW team of announcers didn’t fit their image. The rich voice of TWW’s Ivor Roberts was replaced by the soporific monotone of Endaf Emlyn as chief announcer heading up a fresh faced team of young, new, good looking announcers.

While this idea may have looked a dead cert on paper in the boardroom, in practice it turned out rather differently.

The Harlech team lacked gravitas, they lacked experience and they lacked a store of a goodwill carefully nurtured with TWW viewers over a decade. The audience in Wales and the West missed friendly faces that had been as comfortable as a pair of old slippers and felt utterly disoriented – the programmes, logo, people had all changed (indeed many well-loved programmes had disappeared entirely) and they switched off in droves.

What can be seen in the Harlech example is that viewers build a very personal relationship with continuity announcers over time, and come to treat them as friends. When six or seven of your friends disappear overnight (which is basically what happens when a continuity team is replaced in this manner) then the effect is shocking, unpleasant and the relationship between the channel and the viewer is severed.

It has to be built up again slowly, and only then if there are people that are sympathetic to the audience.

And there lay another mistake made by Harlech. It picked ambitious youngsters (many of whom, such as Endaf Emlyn, Liz Carse and Peter Tomlinson did go far) as announcers who were clearly using the opportunity as a stepping-stone in a “media career” – and weren’t set on a career in presentation.

A succession of short-lived announcers (which plagued HTV West in the late seventies and early eighties) has a corrosive effect on the relationship between view and station simply because there is not enough time for a one to be built.

Although a “Year Zero” replacement of an entire presentation department can work, as Thames proved, it took a team with 12 years of experience to decamp en masse to do it. No one else ever managed it.

And, with the exception of Thames, every replacement ITV company made howling Year Zero mistakes with their programming, though these are not covered here. So why were “Year Zero” mistakes made over and over again?

The first is that the type of people who run television companies have never watched television enough – certainly not in the same place – to build any kind of relationship with a presentation team, therefore they have no comprehension of what is lost by removing one or, more pertinently, what is to be gained by building one.

It’s also clear that in their excitement of starting to broadcast they probably overlook the horrible shock and sense of loss that viewers feel when several familiar faces disappear from their screens overnight, never to return. This immediately makes viewers resistant towards any incoming company as an instant store of bad feeling is built up.

The incoming company boasting on screen how wonderful it is, while the viewers are still upset that their old friends have disappeared, can exacerbate this problem; this was particularly true in the case of Westcountry.

As soon as TSW flickered and tearfully died the upstart newcomer proudly boasted it was “A new kind of broadcasting for the south-west”. We all parroted back at the screen “Yes, we’ve never had crap down here before”.

Also, by nature of setting up something new, there is a strong temptation for any new company is to take a blank piece of paper and try to build everything from scratch, but that inevitably means repeating mistakes that have already been made, disregarding lessons that have been learnt and generally providing a service that is for quite some time less satisfactory for the viewer.

TSW wasn’t a charity – it kept a team of “expensive” in-vision announcers because there was a sound business case to be made for doing so.

Because of the demands of advertisers, wishing to get consumers young so that it can hang on to them for life, it has always been imperative to attract to young adults and teenagers to ITV.

However, one of the myths in the drive to attract youthful viewers is that young people are solely interested in watching young people on television. This is the trap that Harlech fell into when sweeping out the old TWW announcers. Young adults grew up with the old faces, and trusted them; they’re also very wary of being patronised by organisations trying to be “trendy”. And, most of all, young viewers had the same affection for Ivor Roberts or Ian Stirling as they did for Annette Mills or Geoffrey from Rainbow – youngsters tend to cherish icons from their childhood rather than despise them.

We currently live in an age were too many veteran broadcasters have been swept aside in favour of younger people who aren’t as good simply due to their age. This is surely as unacceptable as racism or sexism, particularly given our aging population.

Finally, because the nature of franchise rounds was adversarial, new contractors felt the need to criticise every aspect of the incumbent broadcaster. To be different to an incumbent, the easiest way is to be the opposite – but than can often lead you into the trap of being the opposite of what your viewers like.

Evolution tells us that just as a fish looks like a fish for a reason (it is the best shape for the job it does) TSW in 1991 looked like TSW in 1991 for a reason. And, just as evolutionary pressures remain constant in nature, business pressures have dictated an increasingly successful Carlton West Country is looking more and more like TSW – hence the increasing on-screen presence of Westward and TSW faces.

And, of course, an in-vision continuity team is the public face of any broadcaster, and their faces became so related to the company in the minds of the public that it is perhaps understandable that potential new franchise holders were wary of them.

It’s worth remembering that in 1981 TSW wanted to get rid of Gus Honeybun; if they hadn’t have seen sense whilst running a bankrupt Westward for its final three months, they probably would have done.

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