Deja vu down under 

1 June 2003

ITV1 is going down that well-worn path of ‘brand cleansing’ with its new identity launched just recently. Apparently the “know-alls” in London think that the punters will be switching over from the other channels back to ITV in their droves with some flashy new graphics and images of their favourite stars hamming it up for the camera. And in the process, nearly kill off the brands that have made the channel what it is today.

These brands represent the proven track record that past ITV companies such as Thames, ATV, Southern, TVS, TSW and Westward, and to a lesser extent LWT and HTV, have built up through being committed to fine programming and the communities that they served. This isn’t new. In fact, since the late 1980s, countries throughout the world have deregulated their television laws to allow takeover after takeover of television stations by companies both local and foreign based.

In fact, Australia had the wheels in motion for a deregulated television industry way before then-PM Margaret Thatcher forced the effective privatization of the IBA. Australia’s system was based in a way similar to the UK’s system: the government-owned ABC and one regional commercial station everywhere, with three stations in the major cities. The only shake-up pre-1991 was the addition of an ethnic station, SBS, and not everyone received the station until the late 1990s.

Aggregation would allow for stations from outside their intended region to broadcast to a much larger audience. There were those who benefited from the new rules; namely Channels 7, 9 and 10 from the capital cities who would align with broadcasters such as Prime Television, itself formed from mergers of stations in Victoria and New South Wales, and WIN Television, the Carlton of the Australian television industry. Not to mention the viewers, in most cases, would get more choice in what they wanted to watch. It sounded good to begin with. However, the cracks began to appear.

Those living in Western Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory, South Australia and those receiving satellite television in remote Australia can still only get two stations, or one, and have to put up with the owners favouring one network over the other. The laws that allowed aggregation did not force regionalism to continue so that the people continued to get their news and local information. Already we see some similarities to the Broadcasting Act, which saw Thames replaced by Carlton and the beginning of the degeneration of ITV.

The three main networks, 7, 9 and 10 and their identities would soon be seen throughout Australia. Where I live, the Upper Hunter Valley in Northern New South Wales, our area covered by stations from:

  • Newcastle (NBN-3, an affiliate of the 9 Network)
  • Tamworth (Prime, a Channel 7 affiliate)
  • The North Coast (NRTV, a Channel 10 affiliate)

For the first two years, the logos from the pre-aggregation era kept for a few years. Come 1994 though, things changed for the worse.

NRTV’s identity was the first to go. During coverage of the Commonwealth Games, NRTV dropped its very distinctive red and blue striped logo for the now very boring Ten logo (a blue circle with the word “Ten” in yellow writing). Prime started to drop local identity, including idents and in 2001 the local news, for programming fed from Sydney. Even then the Prime logo was already similar to the Channel Seven logo, an unimaginative 7 in a circle, only with bars running across and “prime” in small letters. Sounding familiar already?

NBN Television has kept local programming right throughout its time as the Nine affiliate in Northern New South Wales, but did lose its identity, giving in to Channel 9’s “9 Dot Grid” logo. But so did WIN Television, a station you’d do well to compare with either Carlton or Granada. WIN Television kept on buying station after station, even making a bid for NBN at one stage, whose parent company, pharmaceutical concern WHSP, declined.

Now only Channel 9’s regional affiliates (NBN, WIN, indigenous station Imparja and Channel 8 Darwin) run local news bulletins, only NBN does all local continuity from its base. The only commitment Prime and Ten have to their local area, apart from ads, is a token five-minute “community noticeboard” program, shown when only uni students, the unemployed and mothers would watch.

The UK and Australia are so much alike in this case. We both have governments that are more concerned with getting healthy revenue from taxes and license fees than the viewer’s best interests. We have companies that are only interested in getting the best return to the shareholders instead of helping the community they are broadcast to.

There are ways around it. Maybe another ITV strike will bring Carlton and Granada out of their merger-friendly trance and realise they have a commitment. Maybe those in power in London will realise that Thatcher, in her quest to get back at Thames for broadcasting documentaries that made a fool of her, has created a monster that threatens to drag the otherwise high standard of British television through the mud and make the Yanks look good, which is hard to do. Maybe the new Office of Communications will place restrictions on how many stations Granada and Carlton can own, and allow investment from companies such as Viacom, News Corporation, maybe even Virgin, and make Sir Richard Branson’s dreams for an ITV franchise come true at last.

Prepare to have your regional voice stapled shut, Britain. But feel safe in the knowledge that you’re not the only one. Others have been before you and survived. However, do not think ITV will survive this re-brand unscathed.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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