Missing the river 

3 September 2005 tbs.pm/3450

1967 saw a marriage of Rediffusion Television (London Weekdays) and ABC Television (Midlands/North Weekend). And this very strong marriage soon produced a child, an infant Thames Television. With both parents strong, ambitious and successful, baby Thames grew into an entity that commanded respect in everything it did.

Thames grew up to be arguably the finest station ITV ever had. Its famous London skyline symbol was probably the most recognised television logo across the globe and certainly became the most admired – not just for the innovative skyline, but also for the quality programming that almost inevitably followed it.

Thames made programmes local viewers. These programmes were offered to Londoners for enjoyment first, then for the network. Rightly, they were then exported across the globe. Whilst broadcasters like ATV had sister companies to produce popular midatlantic fare, the suspicion that the producers had their eyes on Birmingham, Alabama rather than Birmingham, England was never for from the surface whilst watching.

As Thames reached 25, and now a strapping adult, its demise was cruel. The Thatcherite government was determined ‘privatise’ ITV and destroy the power of the unions in the ‘last bastion of restrictive practices’.

The loss of the London weekday franchise was a disgrace caused by the policy of auctioning off ITV contracts and a determination that the truths of ‘Death on the Rock’ would be punished. The 25-year history of the Euston/Teddington station was washed away. Prime Minister John Major agreed for the future a fairer system was needed, but this did not help Thames. The ITC was powerless to use the station’s track record to defend them from the onslaught of an unfriendly government.

As Carlton entered ITV, the law allowed it to buy up other ITV stations. Granada did the same, and both became a TV force to be feared. Eventually, either Granada or Carlton will control the entire network.

Granada has emerged as the stronger of the two behemoths, but had Thames survived, the scenario may have changed, tilting towards Thames as the dominant player. Carlton’s lacklustre programming – even after buying the Midlands production powerhouse Central – has ensured that they may have inherited the Thames contract but will never fill the company’s shoes.

Thames, of course, had the combined talents of the cream of ABC and Rediffusion to help it emerge with strength from day one. In colour days, the Euston-based presentation and news, strong and bold, combined with Teddington-based productions to create a company that went from strength to strength.

Across the other side of the Globe in Australia, viewers can still see comedy and variety shows like ‘Benny Hill’, ‘Kenny Everett’, ‘Mr.Bean’, and ‘Man About the House’ …the list goes. And Thames drama productions are still seen, including Minder, a reminder of a regional side of Thames not afraid to show London to the world, warts and all.

Thames was a success for several reasons. Brilliant parents in ABC and Rediffusion. A strong advertising sales force inherited from ABC. The power of operating from and to the capital enabled stars to be readily available. Backbone owners such as ABPC (later Thorn-EMI) with deep pockets. For all this, Thames was exceptionally good at what it did. Everything it touched was all world class.

Now Thames Television is a much-missed station, locally, nationally and internationally. The remains of the company – nothing more really than a brand name for Fremantle Media’s UK production interests – no longer innovate. They sit and wait for ITV to commission programmes that fit formats they are collectively sure about. The brand name of Thames survives, but the Carltonisation of the network ensures that the genius of the station will never return.

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A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Tuesday 28 November 2023