Four into three goes… 

1 April 2005

Three populous areas: four independent television contractors. Why was it done? How could they fit?

Picture of the leaders of the big four ITV companies

Leaders of the ‘big four’ ITV companies aboard MV Iris at Teddington, presumably in the early 1960s. Left to right: Cecil Bernstein (Granada), Howard Thomas (ABC), Capt. Tom Brownrigg (Associated-Rediffusion), John McMillan (A-R), Lew Grade (ATV), Paul Adorian (A-R). From Howard Thomas’s autobiography.

An immediate task facing the fledgling Independent Television Authority in 1954 was how to come up with a scheme that promoted both competition between companies and the possibility of networking together to combine strengths.

The ITA really wanted to have two companies broadcasting in each region simultaneously, but this would have needed all the TV channels in Band III, and the Postmaster General’s iron grip on broadcast frequencies would not relax to let ITA Chairman Sir Kenneth Clark have more than four. As a result, there would only be one independent broadcaster transmitting at a time in each area, so only one contractor could serve a region at a time. There were several ways in which this could be done, but all of them had disadvantages of one sort or another: either they didn’t promote competition or they didn’t work together – see Vital Vulgarity. A fine balance needed to be struck.

The solution came from Sir Robert Fraser, the ITA’s Director-General under Clark, who proposed the idea of offering contracts to what would ultimately be fourteen companies across the country. The majority of the regions these companies would serve were straightforward, but three were not. These were the three most populous parts of the United Kingdom: London, the Midlands and a pan-Northern trans-Pennine region, later to be split in two, but initially including both Lancashire and Yorkshire.

They were each too big to give to one contractor, and the idea was mooted of splitting them into two, with one contractor serving weekends and another, weekdays. But the Midland weekend could not be compared, for example, to the London weekend. Dividing the regions, weekdays and weekends, between six contractors would result in six very unequal programme providers – in size, revenue and ability to provide programmes for the network. How could it be split more evenly?

Fraser’s answer was ingenious: to take the total population of each of the three regions and multiply it in each case by the number of broadcast days the companies would be expected to provide. That meant that London came in with a total of 91 (7 days x 13 million people), split into 65 to the weekdays and 26 to the weekend. The North was a bit smaller – 5 x 12.5 million or 62.5 for the weekdays and 25 for the weekend. The Midlands was the smallest of the three, with 5 x 8.8 or 44 for the weekdays and 17.6 for the weekend. These different blocks were arranged so as to represent three different franchises of roughly similar size: London weekdays (65); London weekends and Midlands weekdays (70); Northern weekdays (62.5) and the remaining Midlands and North weekends, the smallest of the contracts, 42.6.

The first three contracts were awarded on October 27, 1954, just under a year before the first ITA stations opened. In London, Associated-Rediffusion got the weekdays – “Monday to Friday”, as Mr Mitchell would later intone. In that trans-Pennine Northern region, which he later referred to as ‘Granadaland’, Sidney Bernstein picked up the weekdays. The weekend contract for the Midlands and the North went to the ill-fated Kemsley-Winnick group.

The following week, the London weekend/Midlands weekday contract was awarded to the Associated Broadcasting Development Company, the broadcasting organisation formed out of Norman Collins’ original pressure group. Curiously, all but the last had originally been opposed to commercial television, and three (other than Granada) were staunchly right-wing, leading to ITV being referred to as ‘Toryvision’ by the Daily Mirror… but that’s another story.

Then in June 1955 the Kemsley-Winnick partnership fell apart, to be replaced, following bended-knee appeals by the ITA, by ABC Television, founded by that part of the Associated British Picture Corporation that was in favour of commercial TV, under Howard Thomas. Collins had trouble finding finance, so teamed up with Prince Littler’s Incorporated Television Production Company to form the Associated Broadcasting Company and thus lost control of his foothold in the very network he had striven to create – and within a short time of the official opening had to change its name to Associated TeleVision to placate ABPC.

However, despite these last-minute near-disasters, the ‘Big Four’ were born, and proved that four into three did go – the arrangement worked well for thirteen years. But the approach had its drawbacks. Although the establishment of two major provincial production centres promised to limit London-centric production to an extent, the proper operation of the network relied not on competition but on co-operation between the four main contractors – instead of the intense competition to bring programmes to the network that was intended to raise standards and do all the other things that competition is supposed to do.

But all too soon after opening night, any thought of raising standards had gone in the mad scramble to escape the apparent financial disaster that loomed over the first year or so of Independent Television, when only the deep pockets of BET kept the network afloat, with A-R producing the lion’s share of programming alone in the early months and safeguarding Granada’s existence for some time after that. But that, too, is another story.

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