All changes 

24 May 2004

David Hastings on the many changes in style in the south

The South of England ITV region has historically been one of the most turbulent in terms of franchise changes when compared to the whole of the ITV network.

As to why this is the case, it is possibly due to the fact that the region happens to be prosperous yet (rightly or wrongly) not regarded as being one of the major ITV regions such as London, the north-west, Yorkshire, and the midlands.

This can lead to a franchise either becoming complacent through having to do relatively little in terms of major network contributions (Southern) or trying to overachieve in order to become one of the ‘big boys’ (TVS).

Turning back the clock 21 years, Southern Television (the original contractor) lost its franchise on 1 January 1982 to a bright young upstart known as TVS (Television South).

TVS had successfully convinced the IBA that it could give the south and south-east of England a kick in the pants in comparison to ‘lazy and complacent’ Southern.

It won on condition that it would give the south-east a separate news service based on new studios to be constructed at Maidstone. This plan was so appealing to the IBA that TVS was even given the Bluebell Hill transmitter in Kent that used to broadcast Thames/LWT.

Whereas Southern had been dependable but very conservative in its outward approach, TVS set out to be the exact opposite from day one.

The general presentation style was very contemporary (especially when compared with its Southern predecessor) and TVS launched with ‘Coast to Coast’ presenter Khalid Aziz touring the region by helicopter.

Of course, there was the usual ‘bedding in’ period associated with any new franchise, though TVS was not slow in producing a variety of networked programming in its early days such as The Real World (science/factual) and Number 73 (for children). These programmes met with varying degrees of success, as would be expected.

A major casualty of the Southern-TVS franchise change was the loss of the much-loved Worzel Gummidge. Sleepy Jack Hargreaves’s Out Of Town and the locally famous Houseparty also bit the dust as well.

As the decade progressed, TVS became more and more adventurous in terms of its ambitions both on and off-screen, though this fits in with the general corporate entrepreneurial trend of the mid- to late-1980s.

Looking to gain a foothold in TV production in America, TVS bought MTM Entertainment, even though the strategy was a very high risk one – MTM had little or no new programming ready and a back catalogue that had, surprisingly, aged badly.

The US is littered with the casualties of UK companies trying to buy in to a market that is either lucrative or bankrupting, often with nothing in between.

TVS Entertainment’s US acquisition proved to be a ‘hot potato’. When it became clear to MTM shareholders that TVS ownership was not reaping the rewards that they thought it would, the MTM share price started to slide down rapidly until it reached such a point that TVS was forced to sell MTM in order to avoid being brought down with it.

And although TVS tried to make amends for its commercial misjudgement, this incident did not exactly endear the company to the government or what was to become the ITC.

On the UK programming side, TVS fared a lot better during the second half of the 1980s and had a working relationship with LWT that helped it to gain an impressive track record relating to networked programming.

Two prime examples of popular programming that worked on ITV were the quiz “Catchphrase” and the variety show “The Brian Conley Show”, shot at various outdoor locations close to the TVS studios at Northam.

Despite all the progress TVS had made in networked programming, given the MTM debacle it was of little surprise (except perhaps to TVS itself) that TVS was to lose the franchise that it had worked so hard to gain over ten years earlier – not least because it bid an amount that would have bankrupted the station even when it was at its most profitable.

The choice of the company that replaced TVS was nearly as predictable as well – Meridian was owned by Labour peer Lord Hollick’s MAI, and sold itself in its franchise application as being a “publisher broadcaster”.

This new fashion – based on the model established a decade earlier by Channel Four and copied by three of the four newcomers to ITV in that franchise round – meant that Meridian was not going to produce many programmes itself.

Apart from local news programming such as the early evening flagship replacement for “Coast to Coast” called “Meridian Tonight”, Meridian would commission programming from a selection of independent production companies.

Meridian had plans to establish its headquarters at an industrial unit near Fareham in Hampshire but as the studio complex at Northam was still available, Meridian decided that it would be cheaper to continue working from Northam as opposed to investing in a whole new complex.

This decision also gave Meridian the flexibility to produce large scale productions itself if it wanted to, and Meridian was later able to gain further revenue by sub-letting parts of the Northam studios to independent production houses such as Topical Television and Countrywide Films.

With the demise of TVS imminent, there was a gradual wind down of programme production and towards the end of 1992 there was a bizarre mix of TVS presentation coupled with new-style promotions for Meridian programmes.

Each Meridian promotional clip began with the ‘sunburst’ effect that was to become the first part of the new station ident that Meridian was going to use.

TVS typically decided to end in style with a big studio-based programme entitled “Goodbye To All That” which had a live studio audience.

You had to be very unemotional not to feel a tinge of sadness when TVS displayed its final caption at the very end: the TVS logo with the text “Thanks For Watching” underneath.

What followed at midnight on 1 January 1993 was in direct contrast to what had gone before. When Meridian showed its very first programme, simply entitled “MERIDIAN: The first ten minutes”, the programme started with a live shot of a local cathedral in order to welcome in the New Year, and after a brief introduction then introduced members of the public wishing Meridian good luck with its new franchise.

It is rumoured that disgruntled ex-TVS engineers caused the minor problems with the sound level encountered during this programme. This theory has neither been proved nor disproved.

Anyway, Meridian wisely guessed that the best time for a proper station introduction would probably be for the early evening when more people are watching, so the low key introduction at midnight was probably appropriate given the circumstances.

Early Meridian presentation seemed to be a conscious attempt to move away from the general look and feel of its slick, metallic-finished predecessor. It used bright and bold yellow and orange colours.

The new ident featured an explosion of sunshine yellow as the new sun-based logo rotated into view, forming the two-dimensional logo with “MERIDIAN” appearing in large letters underneath on a background now divided vertically into two halves using orange and blue colours.

Programme promotions were initially simple affairs; one promotion for Coronation Street on Meridian’s first evening simply showed clips (along with a “NEXT” caption) with the theme music playing.

In order to introduce themselves properly to the viewing public, Meridian showed on their first night a programme that was aptly entitled “First Night on Meridian with Michael Palin”.

This featured Palin as “official spokesman for Meridian Television” travelling by public transport from London to the Isle of Wight then back to Southampton (this makes for an interesting comparison with the expensive helicopter trip that TVS had on its first morning).

He asked people what they wanted from their new ITV contractor. The first woman interviewed gave the rather predictable answer that she wanted more nature programmes but less quizzes and she liked Coronation Street. Palin was then quick to reassure viewers that despite the new image and programmes, the old soaps would not be disappearing from our screens.

Amongst the new Meridian programmes previewed on the first day were “I Can Do That” (job swapping), “Future Perfect” (an afternoon offering for “mid-lifers”), the gardening programme “Grass Roots” (still being shown today), arts programme “The Pier” plus “A Tale of Four Cities”.

Children’s programmes such as “Zapp”, “Eye of the Storm” and “Wizadora” were also previewed, along with ‘social action’ programming such as “Three Minutes”, “Freescreen” and “Loud and Clear”. Drama included the one-off “Harnessing Peacocks” and comedy included the short-lived “Full Stretch”.

Despite some very good intentions, after a while it soon became obvious that Meridian’s “publisher” model was not quite as adept at producing networked programmes on a regular basis as its TVS predecessor, despite the involvement of top ‘independent’ producers such as Alomo.

A survivor from the TVS days was “TV Weekly” (independently produced by Topical Television), and a brave attempt was made to resurrect the old afternoon favourite “Houseparty” during 1993, though both TV Weekly and Houseparty were soon dropped.

The arrival of Meridian could almost be regarded as the prodigal return of Southern Television, albeit with more up-to-date values and a weaker network presence.

The brash, network-oriented glossy “go-getting” approach of TVS had suddenly been replaced with a much more modest outlook (despite early attempts to show otherwise), with a solid and well made (if rather conservative) selection of mainly local and regional programming. Southern’s “Out Of Town” wouldn’t have been out of place in the Meridian line-up.

Meridian started making more programmes of its own as the years went by, though its network presence still remains steadfastly low (“Hornblower” being a rare exception) and is more likely to remain so as ITV now becomes more centralised, especially as Meridian is now part of Granada Media.

Given the high demand for luxury riverside flats in the River Itchen area where Meridian’s Northam studios are based, with two housing developments finished and another currently under construction, there is a strong possibility that the Northam studios may either be made smaller or demolished altogether in order for more flats to be built. That continuity is no longer based there gives one more reason to “realise the assets”.

If this does happen, it is likely to mean the end of a long tradition of programme making at the Northam site and another big nail in the coffin for regional productions.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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