Tonight’s Independent Television… in 1968 

8 August 2018

From The Times for 8 August 1968

In the run up to the 1968 contract changes, the ITV companies had stopped focussing on industrial relations and wages throughout the system had started to fall behind the national standard. Average inflation in Great Britain was 4.69% for 1968, which by 1970s, 80s and 90s standards seems like nothing, but was thought of as high – especially as there had been periods of deflation (falls in prices) in most years for the past decade.

On top of this grievance was the changes themselves, which had created a perceived inequality in the system. For instance, a cameraman at ABC in Didsbury got a redundancy payout and then the exact same job at YTV in Leeds. But a cameraman at Rediffusion in Wembley got no redundancy payout, despite changing to London Weekend as their employer. Was that fair? The courts decided it was, as long as continuity of service was counted from when the person started working for ITV as a whole if they got no redundancy payment. But then the people who had moved from ABC to YTV saw their continuity of service broken – it was considered that they joined ITV in 1968.

Nowadays we have Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations – TUPE – to take care of this. Back then, it was all individual union-management agreements with industrial courts being the final deciders. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service – ACAS – existed (under the name Industrial Relations Services), but it was seen as a government industrial policy vehicle and usually bypassed by both sides.

The fall in wages plus the uncertainty plus the perceived inequality equaled a very unhappy staff across ITV. Signs of what was to come had shown up in the weeks before the contract changes, with the unions using their legal right to call meetings to disrupt programmes at several ITV contractors by holding them for an hour or so during programme time.

After some disruption over the last weekends of ABC and ATV London, the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT), the biggest of the ITV unions, formally warned the companies that they had a mandate for strike action across the network.

On Monday 29 July, the ACTT walked out at Granada, taking Coronation Street off air. Most screens went blank, although the new Yorkshire Television, not wanting its opening night spoiled, shifted its schedules around to fill the gap.

On Tuesday 30, Thames Television’s opening day, the ACTT took action again, with Tyne Tees staff refusing to work on the Outside Broadcast of horse racing from Redcar in the morning and Thames staff downing tools halfway through Cooper King-Size that evening and taking the next two hours of programming off as well.

On Wednesday 31, the ACTT took to a new tactic: the programmes went out as normal, but the technicians refused to touch the commercials, leading to the advert breaks being replaced by a caption at Granada, Thames and Anglia during Coronation Street, ITV’s peak advertising sales time for the week. Other companies also saw adverts blacked out, with the unions claiming the action had cost ITV £300,000 (£5 million in 2018, allowing for inflation) and the Independent Television Companies Association saying it was £130,000 (£2¼ million today). The truth is likely to be somewhere in between this figures.

Thursday 31 saw programmes go out as normal, after the companies warned technicians that any action at all would lead to instant dismissal. The ITV companies though they had won. The ACTT, however, were outraged, and this marked a complete breakdown in industrial relations across ITV.

On Friday 1 August, Tyne Tees and Thames dismissed eight technicians – six at TTT for refusing to put out a standby programme to cover London Weekend going off air at due to strike action moments after it launched at 7pm, and two at Thames for refusing to work on their flagship Today programme at 6pm, leaving blank screens. Worse, the companies sacked these staff members at the exact moment the unions and ITV were about to sit down at the negotiating table for the first time. The ACTT side walked out. Then the brand-new London Weekend belatedly joined with the rest of the network and told its technicians that any further strike action would lead to instant dismissal.

That weekend the problems snowballed. The ACTT stopped handling all film, which took most commercials and a fair slice of programmes off air. The ITV companies dismissed those members of staff. Other members of staff walked out in sympathy. The companies then locked them out – in other words, didn’t sack them, but stopped their wages and refused to let them do their jobs. This led to more walkouts, and by the Monday morning 1,000 technicians were on strike, 800 had been sacked and 1,200 had been locked out without pay.

ABC’s former clock, pressed into service on the emergency network, with black tape partially covering the ABC triangle logo

The ITV companies then started to put together a plan to stay on air without technical staff. Non-union management, many of whom had worked their way up through the technical grades and therefore knew, somewhat rustily, how to operate the equipment, would put out material that was already on film and video. Fortunately for ITV, the new companies – Yorkshire, Thames and London Weekend – had been stockpiling programmes ready for their first Autumn season. Meanwhile ATV had ITC’s film catalogue and Granada had a couple of weeks’ worth of World in Action and Coronation Street available.

The ACTT moved to stop new commercials being made available to the “scab” service by having members down tools at the film processing laboratories. They also looked to fellow unions for support, calling on the Association of Broadcasting Staff, the biggest union at the BBC, to join their action. The programmes from the “scab” service would need to be distributed to the transmitters over the General Post Office co-axial cable network, so the Post Office workers were asked to refuse to handle the switching. The Musicians’ Union was asked to stop allowing their members’ music being used and British Actors’ Equity was asked to withdraw permission to repeat material with Equity members appearing. The other unions demurred.

Finally, the ACTT went after the Independent Television Authority, saying that by allowing their transmitters to be used to show “black” (ie strike-breaking) material, they were taking sides with the companies. The ITA denied this, simply saying that they were required by law to put out a programme service, and were doing so. The ACTT had a hard lesson to learn: strikes in other industries caused the country to grind to a halt and brought sympathy from other unions. Strikes in television meant there was no television that night, and the public were merely inconvenienced rather than actively stirred up. No other unions or organisations were willing to help when the result was but a brief shrug from the customers as they turned the dial to BBC-1.

That evening, non-union Thames management grabbed as many video and film reels from Television House and Teddington as they could and went to ATV London’s recently mothballed switching centre in Foley Street, behind BBC Broadcasting House and near to the GPO’s network facilities at Museum telephone exchange at the base of the Post Office Tower.

Using ex-ABC announcers, ex-ATV equipment and ex-ABC props, they began a scratch service that would last until closedown on Sunday 18 August, with the strike officially ending on Friday 16.

The dispute was estimated at costing the companies a total of £500,000 (£8¾ million today). The amount lost in wages by the workers was not reported as ever.

The ACTT claimed victory. All 2,000 sacked workers (the number had increased as the strike went on) were reinstated and their continuity of employment was not affected, although they didn’t get backpay for period. The ITV companies agreed that they would consult the unions in future rather than making sweeping changes unilaterally, and a new negotiated agreement would be signed to ensure that wages kept up and ahead of inflation at all grades, within the government’s policy of keeping both salaries and prices down, and that a reduced working week (40 hours being the norm, 35 being sought) and increased leave days would also be on the table.

The ITV companies claimed victory, in that they had proved that a scratch service run without technicians was not only possible but also could last weeks if not months, taking the threat of a national strike off the table for at least a decade.

Both sides agreed that the new negotiations would be for a three-year deal, giving stability to ITV shareholders and guaranteeing jobs, rights and wages for ITV staff.

Peace returned to ITV and the individual company identities and schedules reappeared. As for the TVTimes, reading the issues covering this period today, you wouldn’t know that there was a strike or an emergency service. The lead times to write, typeset and publish millions of copies of eight editions (Granada, Yorkshire, London, Southern, Anglia, Border, Scottish and Grampian) meant that by the time a strike edition would be required, the dispute was already over.

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6 responses to this article

Alan Keeling 8 August 2018 at 4:08 pm

I hate to admit it, but I really enjoyed the two week ITV strike during the summer of 1968, various British and US film series were shown to “Bridge the gaps” where the proper schedules should have been, we were treated to shows like I Spy, The Last of the Mohicans, F Troop, The Untouchables, etc. There were also well liked cartoon series such as Rocket Robin Hood, The Bugs Bunny Show and Superman.

Andrew Hesford 9 August 2018 at 12:35 pm

I remember that on Monday August 5th,1968,”Scrooge” was shown at teatime and an “Abbott and Costello” movie later in the day… There were a couple of commercials that ran backwards (in particular a McDougalls flour ad!) I recall it all as being exciting and unpredictable when I was 7!!

Arthur Nibble 13 August 2018 at 11:58 am

I knew some of this info but just the tip of the iceberg compared to this superb in-depth report on the strike. Wonderful stuff.

Graham Pearson 18 February 2019 at 5:19 pm

One of the bosses at ITV was like Enoch Powell and went round slagging off the unions over their actions.

Stephen Wildsmith 11 April 2019 at 2:02 pm

My opinion, overall, is that the trandiffusion commentaries on ITV 1968, London Weekend Television “Crisis Weekend Televison” etc, would make excellent audio books for trandiffusion to post via You Tube.

Keith Brown 5 July 2020 at 1:46 pm

I was 10 in August 1968 quite young but remember the sudden loss of ATV London at weekends and continuity announcer Trevor Lucas. Following up on this period at ITV the contract changes were disastrous for the employees and viewers whom none wanted changes. Llew Grade at ATV turned in disgust at losing the ATV weekend to LWT and I would whole heartedly agree with him. In my personal opinion these changes were unessary and caused friction at ITV

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