Howard Thomas Part 6: The ITA 

2 September 2005

The problem with ABC Television’s very late entry into Independent Television was that most of the decisions on how the new network was to be organised and run had already been made.

The Authority, keen to make the new enterprise work, had closely consulted on inter-company matters like national news provision and networking arrangements. Where the companies could reach an agreement, they were left to it. Where they could not, or where the results of an agreement didn’t satisfy the ITA, the Authority was more than happy to step in and knock heads together.

But these agreements were all made between the ITA on one hand and ARTV, ATV, Granada and Kemsley-Winnick on the other. ABC, not being party to ITV, was not party to the agreements.

Most of what was decided, or enforced, was not too difficult to live with. But one thing did present a problem.

The Authority had been very keen to ensure that the new network had a strong, cohesive news service. This service needed to take head-on the BBC’s output. Such a service would therefore not be cheap. The resulting bulletins would need peaktime placement and would be insulated from advertising. Above all, the service couldn’t be left to each company to run: they would need to pool resources and money – sending 4 camera crews to the latest world hot spot to report for 4 newsrooms was wasteful and ridiculous.

Thus was Independent Television News born; the ITA planned for it to be a lavish, high-quality affair and the four contractors agreed. Start-up costs would be high, but each company would put in £75,000. Running costs would be high also, but £77,400 a year per company to start would cover that.

Three of the four original contractors were weekday operators. This meant that carrying news programming was important to them. One contract didn’t include weekdays. This was the contract ABC had now inherited – and ITN’s costs were the biggest item on the new company’ books.

From a cost point of view, Howard Thomas wondered why his company should be paying a quarter of the costs of ITN in order to receive less than two-sevenths of its output. Kemsley-Winnick had agreed to that, but then they had agreed to a lot of things; the failure of their business plan was plainly evident for everyone to see, thanks to their absence from ITV.

The ITA had extracted promises from all the companies to join in, and fund, ITN. Fatally, however, they had failed to write this into the contracts. The agreements were simply gentlemans’ agreements – binding by convention but not by law.

Howard had made gentle enquiries to ITN shortly after ABC Television had been formed, attempting to establish how negotiable the costs of entry were. The answer came back somewhat arrogantly and read to ABC as: the costs are not negotiable; any problems should be taken up with the Authority; get the chequebook out.

Howard set on a two-pronged approach to sorting out ITN. ABPC’s chairman, Sir Philip Warter, under the guiding hand of anti-commercial-TV-turned-pro Dr Eric Fletcher, wrote a letter in terms of shock and distress to the Authority, complaining loudly at the reckless costs and lavishness of the news service.

More, with little need for weekend news (if at all), ABC could easily throw together agency film linked by a good journalist and read by Edward Ward, their chief announcer. For less than £100 a week, they could have what ITN was charging £1000 a day for.

The Authority was naturally appalled. Their first response was to write directly to Fletcher and try to hold him to the gentleman’s agreement he had made.

When that failed, the Authority took to a more pleading tone, asking for more understanding of the costs and prestige of ITN. Again, it was a move that failed – this time pushing Fletcher to say that (in effect) ITN should be scrapped because it evidently wasn’t working for its customers – the contractors.

At this point, Howard’s second prong kicked in. Working from the basis of being practical rather than political, he started to lobby senior management at ITN, asking them to look for major savings, giving advice on how to achieve it and generally destroying the morale of the company. The ITA was horrified at these “decidedly hectoring terms” and that ABC were “hollering from the touchlines” rather than taking part in the game

The two-pronged approach started to work in Howard’s favour. ITN’s board started showing signs of splits, as other contractors also saw the benefits in reducing the service’s costs. Other members were willing to leave the costs as they were, but wanted more for their money – ITN’s output, especially the expensive filmed output – wasn’t up to much.

Add in the financial crisis already affecting the two contractors first on air, ATV and AR, and it was clear that, Authority support or not, ITN was not going to survive. Worse, AR reduced the 7pm opening bulletin from 15 to 7 minutes in order to fit in more light entertainment, and moved the 10pm bulletin to 10.45pm to increase the hours of peaktime available. This latter move, coupled with Howard’s letters and boardroom turmoil, finally managed to shatter completely the morale of the staff at ITN.

It was now only a matter of time before the news company gave in or got out: either would have suited Howard, and best of all it hadn’t cost him a penny.

The ITA moved to calm the situation, offering assurances to ITN’s staff but cutbacks to the contractors. The Authority declared that 20 minutes of illustrated news a day in peaktime was a licence requirement (under the “balanced programming” clause) and that the contractors were only licensed to provide local news in their area – anything national had to come from ITN.

At the same time, the contractors were told that, perhaps, they had a point. ITN was a news company, so the planned feature programmes would not be allowed and that would lead to a subsequent cut in staff and costs. ITN’s original costings had been based on several hours a week of ITV airtime; at 20 minutes a day, that was now less than 2 and a half hours a week, so new budgets reflecting that would be prepared. Above all, ITN would now remember who its customers were and would tailor its output, within reason, to what the contractors wanted.

This was acceptable to the contractors and to the Board; if nothing else it represented a cut in costs of up to two-thirds – reducing ITN’s expenditure to a more manageable £300 pounds a day.

Howard Thomas had taken on the Authority and won. It was something of a hollow victory. Aiden Crawley, ITN’s editor in chief, had to resign, his bluff called on the cutbacks. His deputy went as well and the morale of the staff got so low that Sir Kenneth Clarke, chairman of the ITA, felt compelled to risk breaking the Television Act by going on air and being interviewed by ITN in order assure the staff that their jobs, and the news company, were safe.

ABC joined ITN on 1 March 1956, less than a fortnight after going on air.

That ABC had got on air at all in Birmingham in just five months was an amazing feat. Not suffering the major losses encountered by AR and ATV was another.

In doing this, Howard was to come head to head with the ITA again.

For Howard, one of the most disappointing things about the Television Act that created ITV was the prohibition on sponsorship. His experiences at LPE, making sponsored shows for Radio Luxembourg and the like had shown him that well-made, high-quality sponsored shows were better than the BBC’s output and were better than spot-advertised shows as well.

At Pathé, sponsorship of segments by the International Wool Secretariat had allowed him to take the weekly newsreel into colour years before Pathé could have afford to do it on its own.

All told, sponsorship wasn’t a bad thing, except perhaps in the way it operated in the United States: and the United States experience was why it had been banned.

There were ways around this. One of the things that ABC needed early on was cheap, popular programmes to fill the gaps that ATV were deliberately leaving in the schedule in order to show popular programmes on both their services.

The financial burden was one Howard didn’t want to take on if he could help it – ABPC had clearly told him that the day losses went over £1 million was the day ABPC handed back the contract to the ITA and ABC Television went off air.

The solution was a show called Film Fanfare. Officially made by ABC Television, it was in fact produced on film by ABPC. It featured clips from films coming to, ahem, ABC Cinemas near you soon. These films were usually made by ABPC and Warner Bros (ABPC’s largest shareholder) and other associated ABPC companies.

Best of all, it featured stars under contract to ABPC and Warners, talking about their latest ABPC/Warner film and watching other ABPC/Warner films.

Effectively, Film Fanfare cost nothing to make – and what it did cost was swallowed up by a grateful ABPC. It was popular too, featuring as it did a parade of stars and so many clips of brand new films. So the advertising break sold itself. Unsurprisingly, ABC churned these things out by dozen and stuck them wherever they would go in the schedules.

This was clearly sponsored programming, but there seemed little the ITA could do about it – and Howard Thomas knew this.

To make it even more difficult for the ITA to tell where ABC TV stopped and ABC Cinemas began, the presentation of the station made a point of overlapping the two. The cinema programme opening sequence appeared as the TV opening sequence. Announcers helpfully mentioned Associated British Cinemas Television when they could get away with it. The chatty Edward Ward would happily fill time by talking about the gala opening he’d just been to for some Warner film at an ABC in Birmingham.

All very cosy.

But as Independent Television’s finances stabilised after the rocky first 18 months, the Authority grew more and more concerned about this type of thing, as well as other dodgy practices by other contractors.

As soon as the original “Big Four” companies were in profit, the ITA began to conduct reviews into their business practices, programming and compliance.

The industry was aware that three of the four at least would catch it from the ITA. AR, so promising at first, was felt to have thundered downmarket and not resurfaced. ATV was always downmarket, but was clearly abusing the privilege in London and neglecting the midlands. Granada had obviously done a secret deal with someone at some point, protecting it from losses but meaning it made little or no profit when everyone else was managing it.

ABC, however, was likely to do well out of any review. Its drama was winning awards; its sports coverage was innovative and giving the BBC a run for its money; the company had ambitious plans for expansion and development. Howard Thomas could be confident of a good report.

He got it. The ITA slapped the other contractors around and told them to pull up their socks. But ABC got a good report – except one thing: the presentation of the station was the worst on the network. Tacky. Perfunctorily. Plain. Derivative of the cinemas. A big disappointment.

Whilst the other companies ran around complaining loudly about their reports and starting to lobby for the ITA to be wound up, Howard took the words to heart. His first slap over the wrist from the ITA would be his last.

The announcing team was changed; the references to the cinemas dropped; the still shield symbol replaced with an animated triangle; the music enlivened; and the face of the station changed, quickly and utterly, forever.

Having bent over backwards to comply and making sure that ABC’s reputation with the ITA remained glowing, Howard was able to start his biggest fight with the Authority.

ABC was unique in having no London outlet. AR and ATV both had them. Granada, oddly, was able to show anything it made via AR in London, almost like the two had made some kind of secret agreement. ABC was left to face ATV head on.

Howard Thomas appealed repeatedly to the ITA for them to intervene and guarantee his quality drama and variety an output in an otherwise totally ATV-controlled London weekend.

This was one battle with the ITA Howard was never going to win. The Authority had lots of sympathy but no practical help to offer. Instead, Howard was continually told that he had to take his problems up with ATV themselves.

That meant facing down Lew Grade.

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