From The South (part 2) 

2 October 2005

Once again the time for renewing the ITV contracts was looming as the renewal process was due to commence in 1991. At this point, the financial quagmire TVS had been drawn into over its loss making purchase of MTM worsened.

James Gatward relinquished his management and board roles – but damagingly, this was within three months of the franchise renewal negotiations and the company came to be seen as “vulnerable” to usurpers waiting in the wings. This included a new consortium created by Labour peer Lord (Clive) Hollick, Michael Palin and quality TV campaigner Simon Albery, backed with cash from Central in the midlands. Called Meridian Broadcasting, the group announced its intention to contest the ITV South and South East franchise one week before the closing deadline.

Four bids for this ‘dual’ region went before the new Independent Television Commission (ITC). This time all applicants had to place secret bids, based on their assessment of what the licence was worth financially. This was in addition to submitting detailed plans for programmes and development.

This unseemly secret auction, caused by the introduction of zealous new market ideologies into the broadcasting ‘ecology’ from the right-wing government of the day, led to an amazing final array of applications, often based on sheer guesswork among applicant groups as to which regions would be contested and at what price.

Some bids were way too high by millions, virtually unaffordable in the light of probable turnover, while others ‘gambled low’ on just a few thousand pounds. The contractors selected had to raise the money they bid. It was widely believed that the most successful applicants would simply be the ones who bid highest, though it was recognised that high bids might rob programming budgets, so there was provision for the regulator to delete applicants on the basis of ‘inadequate business plans’ and, thanks largely to the efforts of David Mellor, a ‘quality threshold’ was introduced so the decision would not rely solely on the amount a consortium bid.

On 16 October 1991, George Russell, Chair of the Independent Television Commission, informed TVS that they had awarded the south and southeast contract to Meridian Broadcasting, even though their bid was £20 million lower than the TVS bid. History repeated itself and there was now bitterness at TVS, in the same way there had been when they in turn had ousted Southern.

This constant ‘merry go round’ of company changes was not what the founding fathers of ITV had planned, and changed the nature of the network forever – from the once-established ‘broadcasting companies’ of old to a ‘passing blur’ of ever more temporary ‘franchise holders’. ITV companies would never again have the sense of BBC-style permanence they had enjoyed in their early decades.

Meridian Broadcasting was to be a rather different animal in what was fast becoming a multi-channel television age, as it would be a “publisher broadcaster”. In effect this meant it would manage its own sales, admin and transmission suites and make its own regional daily news programmes, but the great majority of its output would be commissioned from the growing band of independent production companies that had been spawned initially by the launch of Channel 4 back in 1982.

The ITV companies and the BBC were now required to commission a growing percentage of programmes from these independent production houses. Channel 4’s financial links with ITV were severed and it too now had to programme for commercial survival first and for the ‘national culture’ very much second. This lead to the inevitable effects that follow any ratings-dominated television culture.

This use of small independent producers was initially seen as a good thing, and it was thought that the broadcasting industry would happily become more like the publishing industry. Latterly, however, some commentators on media issues claim that it can now be seen in retrospect that the loss of the traditional breadth and richness of the “all in-house” broadcasting companies has led to a less cohesive and more fragmented television industry in the UK, with a loss of overall strategic vision for television in its erstwhile role as cultural ‘crucible of the nation’.

TVS’s impending loss of contract cast gloom over its employees as with greatly reduced in-house programming Meridian would need much fewer staff.

Some would be taken on and others could work for independents, but with a limited time to run down its operation TVS decided to shed forthwith some 360 of its 760 staff. Only about 100 staff from TVS eventually joined Meridian, as the Southampton dream factory entered the final phase of its 46-year existence as a television studio.

So it came to pass that at midnight on 1 January 1993, Meridian Television was born, but not before TVS had its final swan song, “Goodbye To All That” presented by Fred Dinenage and Fern Britton. TVS finally faded just as the chimes of Big Ben rang in the new year. It was then live to Winchester Cathedral where a new Meridian face, Debbie Thrower, introduced the station to those viewers not too busy celebrating the New Year. Thrower would be a new co-host for the station’s flagship news magazine ‘Meridian Tonight’, now split three ways, from studios in Newbury, Maidstone and Southampton.

Meridian TV accumulated some ITV network successes but as most of its programming was provided by independent producers it is harder to grant true credit, a regular curse for the new ‘publisher broadcasters’.

Meridian revived former Central drama series ‘Shine on Harvey Moon’, commissioned from Witzend Productions. Offerings on CITV included ‘Eye of the Storm’ and ‘Wisadora’. ‘Harnessing Peacocks’, a Mary Wesley book, was televised. Esther Rantzen joined as a freelance to present occasional social affairs features.

However, before the ink really dried on the new post-1992 ITV contracts, changes were afoot as the government ‘became minded’ for the first time to allow various ITV companies to mount takeover bids and assume control of ITV regions other than ‘their own’ by means of company takeovers rather than contract applications to a regulator.

Meridian joined with Anglia, HTV and, strangely, Express Newspapers, to become United Media; United Media itself was soon broken up, the newspapers going to Richard Desmond, HTV to Carlton and Meridian and Anglia to Granada.

Eventually, Granada and Carlton merged to produce a single ITV broadcaster in England and in Wales. The new ITV plc, seeing the opportunity for cost savings, began to greatly reduce its own studio capacity as former production centres in Norwich, Glasgow, Newcastle, and Bristol were scaled down.

With multiskilling of crews and slimming down of ‘in-house’ production capacity, there was a need for fewer staff in smaller, highly computerised production facilities. The dream factory in Southampton became surplus to requirements.

So it was with some sadness that the final network production recorded in Studio One of the Southampton dream factory, in June 2004, was the seemingly eternal ‘Denis Norden Laughter File’ (No 19!).

The very last regional programme screened live was a late night Meridian News Bulletin from studio three on Friday 17 December 2004. The lights were then dimmed on the Northam studios forever, as Meridian moved into its small hi-tech complex at Whiteley, near Fareham in Hampshire.

There are local news bureaux in Bournemouth, Reading, Salisbury, Newbury, Brighton, Hastings and on the Isle of Wight, all equipped with technology enabling pictures to be relayed back to Whiteley, without engineers. The first Meridian Tonight went out from Whitely on 4 December 2004, as a test run before the old studios were abandoned.

Sad to report, the studios are in a very sorry state now, as decisions are pending regarding purchase of the site for the building of flats. For many, the memories of those thousands of programmes made at Southampton’s ‘Dream Factory’ under Southern, TVS and Meridian will linger on – but this time, only as a dream.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Jack J. 10 December 2016 at 10:49 pm

How many studios did Southampton have? This page mentions studio 3 while an archive news report mentions two studios, on this page:

When Meridian launched, they seemed to broadcast news from a different, and bigger, studio than TVS did. Later, Meridian’s final news sets at Northam looked like they were in a much smaller studio again; they also had the Newbury production there by that time.

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