Howard Thomas Part 5: Commercial TV 

2 August 2005

Howard Thomas went head-to-head with the BBC three times in his long career. In the 1930s he fought battles against its radio monopoly. In the 1940s, he helped create the Corporation’s wartime reputation but fell out with the organisation in a spectacular and public fashion. In the 1950s, he was to come back to the fight, this time against the BBC’s television monopoly.

To remain “in the media” yet to be outside of the BBC during the war was a tough thing to do. The newspapers certainly wanted him on staff, but only so he could attack the BBC as an ex-employee who had left acrimoniously.

There was no television; the BBC had a radio monopoly; the newspapers had limited horizons. Where to go?

The answer was unexpected, and no one was more shocked than Howard when a new role opened up for him.

The Associated British Picture Corporation ran cinemas, studios and newsreels. They picked up Howard and installed him as head of Pathé, the newsreel and archives subsidiary.

This was a new experience and forced another new lesson: taking in a scene with your eyes, not just your ears. After 10 years in radio, it was a tough lesson to learn.

But Howard made a success of it. He tightened up the organisation, began the process of creating the British Pathé library now so gloriously available online, introduced colour filming and relaunched, to great success, Pathé News.

The success was noticed by the senior management and Board at ABPC. It opened doors for him and he was soon able to talk business and expansion to the top people. The problem was that ABPC wasn’t interested in expansion, and, since the business was successful, who needed to talk about that?

But he persisted, always looking for new creative outlets and new things for both Pathé and ABPC to do. One of these would obviously be commercial television.

Members of the Board at ABPC were not interested. They were sure television would be a flash in the pan. One member was Dr Eric Fletcher, Mandelson-like Minister Without Portfolio in Atlee’s postwar government and still close to the Opposition Leader. The Labour Opposition was opposed to commercial television on principle; therefore the conservative Board of ABPC had a powerful voice to help keep them doing nothing.

Despite his success at Pathé, Howard was getting restless. Commercial television was coming and it was the one place he hadn’t yet been. It was clear that was where he was going – and a nice irony that in doing so he would be striking a blow against the BBC.

But since ABPC weren’t interested in the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” strategy that Granada Theatres and the Rank Organisation both seemed likely to follow, his future plans were unlikely to include ABPC.

Howard made it known through contacts in the various industries he had already worked in that he would be available should someone want a Director of Programmes or a Managing Director for their new commercial television company. With time ticking away before the first contracts were applied for in late 1954, he would need to be quick.

The call came from the contractors for the weekends in the Midlands and the North. This contract was the smallest of the four on offer, the most logistically difficult to run but the one that covered the ‘plum’ advertising areas. The winner would make it big, and quickly.

Howard went to lunch with the top men from the company, Kemsley-Winnick Television. Maurice Winnick, the impresario, and John McMillan, the formidable business brain, offered £10,000 a year and the role of General Manager.

Dining in such a media-friendly public place as The Ivy meant that word got out louder than ever that Howard Thomas, the popular producer and head of Pathé, was looking for a job in Independent Television. Immediately, Associated-Rediffusion came knocking, offering a non-specified management job. Associated Broadcasting Company, later ATV, appeared with a (rather pathetic) producer’s role for him.

Finally, and most enjoyably, the BBC came knocking, asking if he would be interested in having his name go forward as Controller of Programmes. Howard enjoyed turning that one down flat.

A final pitch to ABPC’s Board was made, Howard desperately trying to get them to join the new ITV. It failed, and Howard decided to take up the Kemsley-Winnick job. After all, he was an adopted Manchester lad and knew the area, the consumers and the advertisers. The Midlanders might be more difficult to learn about, but that would provide the challenge.

At that point, fate intervened.

Kemsley-Winnick Television collapsed when newspaper baron Lord Kemsley got cold feet about the amount of money he might lose and the damage it might do to his newspaper business (ironically, Lord Thompson of STV went in the opposite direction, using the masses of money he made from ITV to buy newspapers – specifically, Kemsley’s newspaper empire).

There was now a gaping hole in the new ITV, and only one company could fit it. With renewed lobbying from Howard and friendly calls from the ITA’s chairman and DG to the ABPC board, Associated British Cinemas (Television) Limited was formed, applied for and was nodded through into the North and Midlands weekend contract.

The new company’s Managing Director set up an office at 1 Hanover Square, pleased to be away from Wardour Street at last. He now faced the biggest challenge of his life – creating, from scratch, a new commercial television company in only five months.

Howard Thomas had got what he had wanted for years.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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