The ITV Top 10: 4 – ABC 

3 September 2005

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This article was written in 2005 to coincide with ITV’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The text has not been revised.

ITV is a strange place to inhabit. The companies with the best potential tend to come to nothing. The companies with the most questionable records tend to survive.

And then there’s a class of company that is too good to be let go, but at the same time too good to be allowed to stand by the regulator.

ATV was one, surviving despite the odds. Westward was another, continuing on past its notional date of death.

Into this category we tentatively insert ABC.

All three were, in effect, reconstructed by the IT(B)A into being something else. That something else turned out not to be what the regulator expected – different where they expected the same, the same where they expected difference. The frightening thought must be that the ITA rarely knew quite what it was doing, or else was only ever half smart.

But lets ignore Central, TSW and, to a lesser extent, Thames, and focus on the 12 years of ABC.

What a rollercoaster ride those years must have been, for ABC, the ITA and for the viewers. For, when ABC started in 1956, it was clearly NBG.

The problem was the definition of what an ITV company should be. Howard Thomas, the legendary managing director of ABC, had one idea; the board of the parent company ABPC another; the ITA yet a third.

Howard Thomas’s ideas were the bridge between the two. When ABPC pulled in one direction, he followed. When the ITA pulled in another, he followed that too.

The result could have been a disaster in television terms. ABPC wanted sponsorship and cinema plugs; the ITA wanted television for television sakes and a divorce from the owners. Howard Thomas managed to want both, letting himself be convinced by the strongest argument.

That strongest argument, however, was usually from neither the ITA nor ABPC. It was from what the viewers responded best to.

Not to what they watched most – any old drivel could get to the top of the charts, but the company and the advertisers would rarely make money out of dribbling viewers.

No, what Howard Thomas wanted, and ABC pursued, was the idea of programming that viewers would actively watch. Programmes that would grip them, hold them, keep them returning in anticipation from week to week or from advertising break to advertising break.

ITV never really learnt this lesson. Instant profits could be had from ATV’s brand of populist drivel; that those profits would die after a few weeks didn’t matter – there was always something else to replace them.

ABC invested in programming that caused repeat viewing, so it could predict the audience from weekend to weekend and therefore sell the programmes, the station and the products efficiently. And it did it in that order – the ultimate in soft sell: we’re so memorably good that you’ll watch our memorably good programmes and buy these memorably good products.

A steady and sustainable return is guaranteed for shareholders: no great peaks of profit, but then no great troughs of loss – exactly what most sensible shareholders want, if not their quick-profit brokers.

A mix of programming is required to make this work: arts for the upper middle-classes; entertainment for the upper working-classes; sport for the middle working-classes; information and education programmes for all viewers – viewers with more knowledge are better consumers and thus better viewers for an advertising based medium. Reith’s plans perverted for capitalism – exactly as they should have been.

ITV no longer has this power. ABC’s next incarnation, Thames Television in London, kept it going across four and half days a week for as long as it could; but the very package goes against everything that modern advertisers want.

They don’t want an educated audience. They don’t want an informed audience. They don’t want a steady audience. They want an unthinking, uniformed, quick-to-change-brands, instant profit audience.

In the 1960s, Howard Thomas knew nothing would come of this. This short-term thinking could never be sustained and ABC, modelled in his own image, would benefit its viewers, shareholders and owners by not following that path.

For that, ABC deserves its high place of fourth in our top ten.

Howard Thomas died at home on 6 November 1986.

You Say

1 response to this article

keith martin 2 September 2018 at 9:50 am

The Channel 4 showing of the ABC Armchair Theatre play, included a pre-recorded ‘standard’ opening. Years earlier, when i appeared as an ABC presenter/announcer, (in either Manchester or Birmingham,:) it was then I first heard the re-voiced voice of Keith Fordyce do the honours. A voice heard much earlier as a disc-jockey and announcer on Radio Luxembourg. Later, i was to see Keith, along with Kathy McGowen, introducing ‘Ready Steady Go’. Whilst the Rolling Stones were thrusting I was jumping and twisting as part of the small basement studio audiences at the Rediffusion Television House in Kingsway, London. There’s more! I was wearing my dark grey suit at the time. Why? Because i had rushed, no, i ran from the offices of Granada Television in Golden Square, W1 to be on-time for the early starts (were they around six?) of ‘Ready Steady Go’! All those facts i thought youd like to know, Russ.

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