Stirred but not shaken 

28 December 2014


There’s a game popular with children that is known as “Chinese whispers”. A line forms and one kid whispers a phrase to the kid next to them. That kid then passes on exactly what they heard to the next child and so on until it reaches the end of the line and the first child is told what the phrase has become after passing through so many people. The most famous phrase that is said to have been mangled this way was an army order: “Send reinforcements we are going to advance!”, apocryphally becoming “send three and fourpence we’re going to a dance!”

Here’s the game in action between the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s offices in Knightsbridge and Fleet Street. Every one of The Observer’s bullet points has a grain of truth in it, but they’ve passed through so many people and been given so much spin as to render them nonsense.

  • They’re on the money with Peter Jay’s TV-am being one of the likely winners of the breakfast franchise, but wrong on merging it with Lord Lever’s offering. And a swing-and-a-miss on January 1982. The start date had long been debated, but January 1982 simply wasn’t possible technically. When TV-am finally fell on air in February 1983, it was with the British Telecom links still not set-up.
  • Southern, of course, lost its franchise, and not to Sir Freddie Laker either. This appears to be a mis-reading of what exactly a “dual region” was going to be, missing the glaring fact that HTV had been running a dual region operation for over a decade.
  • ATV diversifying. Well, yes. The parent company Associated Communication Corporation was asked to sell a large stake in ATV, which also had to change its name. But there was no merger with Mercia TV and, again, a misunderstanding of what the nature of what the dual regions were to be about.
  • Trident was indeed told to either sell one of the stations – either Tyne Tees or Yorkshire – or to reduce its stake in both so it no longer had control of either. In the end, that was what it did, selling most of TTT and YTV and a little company called “Satellite Television” (branded ‘Sky’) it had picked up and buying Playboy’s UK operations instead.
  • Westward. Aww, bless. 100% wrong in every way. The in-fighting at Westward, which had seen private detectives following staff and board members about as Sir Peter Cadbury’s paranoia over the franchise round had grown ever larger, did for the company. In fact, it did for Westward so badly that the IBA gentle eased the existing management out of Westward and put TSW’s incoming board in its place in August 1981.

Also wrong is that TWW (that’s Television Wales and West, not Television West and Wales, but no matter) was the only franchisee to go out of business – Wales (West and North) Television Ltd having fallen into bankruptcy in 1964.

You Say

4 responses to this article

Kevin Tennent 21 January 2015 at 1:02 am

Thoroughly bizarre article that ignores historical context. A region had already been split, with the Lancashire-Yorkshire region obviously being split into Yorkshire and Granada in 1968, and it may have seemed plausible that this might have happened in 1982. Also, the assertion that a launch of breakfast TV in 1982 was impossible is odd. How come TV-am worked if the British Telecom links didn’t work? The assertion that it ‘fell on air’ is rather bizarre. I just feel that the tone of this article is unesscarily critical given that the writer was merely trying to predict what might happen in 1982, rather than actually report what happened in 1982, which is what Graham seems to assume is the purpose here.

Russ J Graham 22 January 2015 at 2:43 pm

The changes to the old pan-North region were announced in 1966, with potential contractors applying for the new geographic (vs chronological) split region fully aware of what was happening in 1968. It is highly unlikely – nay, impossible to imagine – that the IBA would spring such a similar change upon people who had just applied for a different contract on the day the contract announcements were made. Such changes cannot be made instantly as you seem to imagine.

A national ITV contract with regionalised advertising in 1982 was technically impossible. The links between the federal ITV network were not designed for such a thing, and BT had to invest a lot of time and money in creating them and then automating them. This is why TV-am went off-air at 0915 at first, while ITV didn’t come on until 0925: there had to be ten minutes for BT to *manually* change the links to the transmitters from TV-am > mega-regions to region > region. That process was only completed in May 1983 – after TV-am fell on air without it in place due to starting early – as early as was technically possible.

Finally, the writer of The Observer piece is not trying to predict what would happen in 1982. He is confidently, but wrongly, predicting what would happen *that afternoon* on Sunday 28 December 1980 – when the IBA made the announcements of the changes (again, lots of lead time is required to make *any* changes in ITV – these are not just pieces on a chessboard).

Kif Bowden-Smith 22 January 2015 at 3:47 pm

It is also worth noting that at that time, The Observer had a bad reputation in Fleet Street for front page leads that were all prediction and little in the way of fact. This was very fashionable in some of the Sunday broadsheets at the time. The Observer used to regularly come unstuck over Budget leaks, where articles by their Adam Raphael often turned out to be startlingly wrong. Better not make the predictions, would seem to have been good advice.

As for TV-am, the fact that the special regions for their commercials were not wholly contiguous with the standard ITV regions caused further headaches for BT, but one single stream of national adverts would have been too expensive to sell in a new market and they had to feel their way with cheaper adverts in smaller areas (though some breaks were national).

Glenn Aylett 6 December 2015 at 5:24 pm

Something had to happen with ATV. No one would doubt under Lew Grade they had made some magnificient television for the network and for sale abroad, but as a regional broadcaster they weren’t very good. A large part of their productions still came from their ATV London studios in Elstree, the East Midlands felt left out in Birminghamcentric local bulletins, and Grade seemed to think he was invincible, The creation of Central, new studios in Nottingham and the gradual closure of Elstree was long overdue.
No surprises that Thames’ franchise was safe in the franchise round. Their talent for television, which mixed high brow PSB with Benny Hill, was well liked and they were one of the biggest exporters of programmes in Britain. As I have mentioned before, Thames had a certain glamour, a swagger without being arrogant like ATV and genuine popularity that always made them the best ITV franchise.

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