Choosing the companies 

5 January 2015


Independent television was created at a breakneck speed, achieving launch less than fourteen months after the passing of the Television Act. This needed the setting up of a whole new infrastructure, but not least the selection of the companies to run the television stations. The Television Act required competition, so there had to be more than one, but the format of how this could be achieved within the limited frequencies available could not be determined prior to advertising for expressions of interest, and would not be for nearly a month later. So companies or consortia were applying against almost a blank canvas with their own plans and desires which would be assessed against developing and shifting criteria. This would be considered unacceptable standards today.

The mosaic weekdays/weekend format was achieved by 27 September, just one day before the first interviews of the 25 applicants were to take place. These proceeded over the following month; contracts to the successful applicants were issued on 26 October and all accepted on the 6 November. That some of these unravelled over the following few months does not undermine completely the success of this rapid work, although the lack of diligence possible in the time for examining the finances in particular proved unfortunate.

The successful

Two contractors fulfilled the merit seen at interview and application, of rather different characters. The Broadcast Relay Service/Associated Newspapers consortium, eventually to become Associated-Rediffusion, brought experience of operating commercial broadcasting systems in various commonwealth countries, most notably its own cable station in Montreal. Granada Television Network could not boast this, but its parent Granada Theatres had a high reputation in its cinema and entertainment business. What they shared were the backing of the financial resources of stable companies with a solid track record, run effectively by competent and enterprising managers and businessmen.

The unsuccessful – initially

Two potential contractors who were not selected but were to play their part as rescuers: Independent Television Programme Company and the Associated British Picture Corporation. They weren’t selected for quite different reasons.

The ITC application was perceived as well-financed but at heart imbalanced, showing only a show business angle controlled through the likes of Moss Empire and the Grade Organisation, to the extent of even being too good, potentially sucking in all the talent in this area. Hence the suggestion by the ITA that instead of being contractors their best role would be as subcontractors to the others as programme providers. This did not go down too well, although the ITA at the time had the vision that independent content providers would be in a strong position. This proved not to be the case, although it might have been if the ITA had ever been able to create the degree of competition amongst its contractors that it intended.

ABPC were on paper strong contenders, with a corporate experience of retail cinema like Granada, but also film production of entertainment as well as news, documentaries, and current affairs through Associated British-Pathé. They were also strong financially. Their application and interview seemed somewhat lacklustre, offering only to provide programmes for two days a week and their commitment and enthusiasm seemed lacking.

The rescued

Associated Broadcasting Development Company, led by Norman Collins, Robert Renwick and CO Stanley were the pioneer commercial television company in Britain in one sense, having both led the campaign for its introduction and mounting its own productions. That they should not win some kind of prize for all of this effort seemed unlikely. Its problems though came down to finance. In their application this was vague, to come it seemed from a number of different sources. In the course of interviews these were not pinned down; Odhams Press and the Daily Mirror were mentioned, but only as possibles. It wasn’t long before it came apparent that nothing was actually in the bag, and in effect they had been offered a contract in principle without the financial backing needed to deliver it. ABDC scrambled around for some firm commitments, but the Authority was closed against anyone who had not taken part in the original expression of interest. This ruled out the Daily Express and News of the World and pushed them towards ITPC and the Birmingham Mail. The reconstituted contractor, at first called ABC and later ATV was dominated in control by ITPC and although Collins and Renwick held the chairmanship side of the Board, the Executive side was firmly with Val Parnell and Lew Grade.

The failed

Kemsley-Winnick on the surface was a good all round application including a bit of everything on the programme side. Maurice Winnick had built up what today would be a TV format business and Lord Kemsley, formerly Gomer Berry, was part owner of a newspaper empire. The third player, silent in the consortium name was Lord Wolfson. The latter two were put forward in the application as equally providing about a third of the finance, the remaining third from other sources. Not only did these never materialise, both major shareholders had retreated to only 30% each of the necessary capital by January 1955. The Authority, having seen all this before became more anxious and pressed for all details to be confirmed. Within two months the consortium completely imploded. Woolfson had a disagreement with Winnick and withdrew. Kemsley wanted to reduce his personal interest, and it became apparent that the original driving force within the newspaper company was not him. The months dragged on until he finally withdrew completely in June. Winnick was left with his programme plans and no finance, and the Authority, following its own precedents, wouldn’t allow him to create a new group. So the contract was re-advertised.

The white knight

Although openly advertised, the Authority was not going to leave the remaining contract to chance. Indeed the financial situation in general was worse a year on. Mindful of the content of the ABPC bid if not their corporate enthusiasm, the Authority, in the shape of its Director General Robert Fraser, set to work to warm up parts of the ABPC Board that might be more receptive, and counterbalance the known antagonist Eric Fletcher who as a Labour MP had opposed the Television Act. The planned approach via the Chairman Sir Philip Warter was heading nowhere, but a chance meeting with CJ Latter in the ABPC offices eventually swayed the day, with Warner Bros as shareholders providing the pressure. ABC Cinemas (Television) was the result under Howard Thomas, receiving their contract on the eve of the opening in London. Any others need not have applied.

The criticism

Contemporary criticism centred on the involvement of newspapers, and charges of favouritism. The interest of newspapers in hindsight seems clear, although there had been little opposition raised to their future involvement at the time of the passage of the Television Act. Maybe it was that the left-leaning press, of which there were more and stronger examples at that time did not participate. The Authority went as far as to contact the Manchester Guardian as to their lack of interest. Perhaps there was an ideological reasoning, or that the Labour Party maintained opposition the whole concept, clinging on to abolishing independent television should they win the next election. It may simply have been a business decision as it was a common view shared by Cecil King of the Daily Mirror that the first wave of stations would bear substantial losses, and hence it may be possible to buy in later cheaply. ABPC to some extent demonstrated that, buying up equipment ordered by Kemsley-Winnick at a substantial discount. None of these considerations deterred Sidney Bernstein as a fully-paid up member of the Labour Party though.

The conflict of interest ranged from the slender case of Dilys Powell, both member of the Authority and film critic of the Kemsley Sunday Times, through the ultimate untenability of the links of the Deputy Chairman of the Authority with some of the applicants through being mutual fundraisers for the Conservative Party.

Looking back this first set of appointments in hindsight shows the same kinds of successes and failures in later contract rounds in embryonic form. Already the Authority could be dazzled by star names, although this time as much in the business world as later they would be of entertainment, and they loyally stuck to some of their choices where they could have been more decisive and forceful over delivery. However, from the position they were in, the job they made of it can be hard to criticise too strongly. After all they had other technical matters weighing equally heavily.


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