ITV dopes the public 

14 September 2020

I accuse! logo

To the Editor, Daily Herald,

Dear Sir, I’m getting fed up with television programmes on both channels — and scared of the effects of commercial television on my young family.

We switched to ITV at first out of curiosity. And we got into the habit of watching it a good deal because it all seemed less snobbish than the BBC. But I’d like to ask one of their “big shots” why they give us so many old films — most of them violent and all telling pretty well the same story. They’re treating the public like sheep and drugging the younger viewers into an acceptance of shoddy and dangerous ideas.

Yours truly, Patricia Benson (Mrs.), Hagley, Worcester.


Daily Herald masthead

From the Daily Herald for 7 May 1958

YOU’D better meet Howard Thomas, managing director of ABC Television, which provides week-end viewing for Birmingham and the Midlands as well as Manchester and the North of England.

Mr. Thomas, who left the BBC to organise this coast-to-coast network, has strong views — based on his own family life with two teenage daughters — on how to provide lively programmes.

Like you, Mrs. Benson, I have doubts whether he’s succeeding.

On your behalf, I ACCUSE ITV of lowering public taste, selling shoddy ideas and turning that wonderful invention, the television set, into an inferior home cinematograph. Howard Thomas — What have you to say?

My company’s policy is to be entertainingly informative. And now we’ve advertising support, we’re producing more and more intelligent programmes for thoughtful people.

We’ve got five or six watching our plays for every one who watches BBC drama. We have won out on variety and we have made our news programmes compelling by making them intimate.

As for being “borne cinematographs” – three out of the nine hours’ broadcasting we give on Sundays are informative or religious programmes without a single foot of film.

Howard Thomas

Howard Thomas of ABC Weekend TV

But you do show a wearisome lot of old films.

The film industry wont let us show any films less than ten years old. But millions are eager to see again the ones we do screen. Take the Korda films we bought — a quality package.

Sheer pressure on studio space stops us giving live programmes, hour after hour.

But we are producing new films for TV, at a cost of £10,000 a half-hour.

So you’ll drop old American films as soon as possible?

No — I reckon many are first-class entertainment.

Even for children — with so much gunfire and violence?

Well, we’ve set up a committee to vet films for children. Some violence — a good dust-up with clean blows “above the belt” and a strong moral tone — does not harm at all.

But we’re being more positive. We’ve just acquired a series of Walt Disney. One of them uses Donald Duck to explain atomic energy. They’re splendid hour-long programmes.

What about sex in your programmes? Children don’t stick to children’s TV, do they?

On the whole, newspapers feature sex more than we do.

Do you know how many people are looking-in at any time? Are you satisfied with your audience research?

We check on a proportion of viewers with gadgets attached to their sets – I sometimes think the sample is too small. But there is remarkable agreement between the companies supplying this service.

ABC's shield ident

But not with BBC research. That gives a different picture.

The BBC go round from door to door asking questions, and I think people simply give them polite, tactful answers.

Still, you do tend to treat your public rather like sheep.

We don’t. Frankly, I think the public is ahead of what the experts think they want. The trouble is that only the discontented ones write to us. All we can do is keep in touch.

That’s why I’m glad Commercial Television is divided Into regions. That helps. The BBC made the mistake of getting too remote and highbrow.

Then why is there a week-end swing back to BBC viewing?

There isn’t on Sundays. ITV dominates the viewing. But the BBC have learnt from us to take more notice of public taste.

Isn’t that because you suppress good programmes and personalities?

We’re always looking for new ideas. This summer, my company will be trying out new programmes every alternate Sunday afternoon. If we get one winner out of every six we try, we’ll have done well.

We’re guessing. The public must show what they want. For children, we’re hoping soon to give an hour-long Saturday morning programme — live — with all sorts of children taking part in it. Stimulating, imaginative stuff.

Not another “Sunday Break,” I hope — with rick ‘n’ roll and jazz sandwiched round little bits of religion?

Is that what you think of it? Well, “Sunday Break” is my baby. It talks to youngsters in their own language. It tries to get them at ease, arguing about life, morals… all sorts of things, in such a way that the discussion will go on after the show.

Already viewing figures for it have just beaten the BBC’s “Six-five Special.” So discussion must have a strong appeal.



And Mrs. Benson’s verdict:

It sounds exciting. I’d watch for the new experiments with interest – because I’m still sick of the canned programmes from America which ITV keeps reeling off.

And I couldn’t watch another of their variety shows. Three cheers for the hope of more live shows to come.



❛❛Kif Bowden-Smith writes: The Daily Herald dupes the public!

We hear a lot today about fake news. It’s political and toxic. It’s a problem that causes real damage in the long run. The idea is not new however – just the source and purpose has changed.

Back in the fifties, a real, if much less harmful, equivalent existed, in the form of froth constructed press features which used largely confected narratives to fill space – literally – in newspapers and news magazines.

This article is one such work. You can tell at a read through that it is a fairly majestic piece of contrivance.

A woman viewer, who might be real but is more likely to be invented, is being used to help a features editor fill space. That’s his job. Not to convey information so much as to meet a target that the paper requires.

The lady who has ‘written in’ to the editor poses a series of questions which are presented to suggest a ‘round table’ meet up with a leading television executive of the day. She has frustrations, or even complaints with the state of current ITV – a new channel under three years old that has only slowly moved into profit after heavy losses in the early years.

The paper uses this imaginary meeting to provide insights into the mind of a contemporary viewer and more significantly how her critique, if you can call it that, looks from the point of view of the television executive.

The newspaper have made an error (from their point of view) in choosing to match this ‘viewer’ off against Howard Thomas of ABC, probably the most adroit and far-seeing Managing Director of any ITV company at the time… though Paul Adorian of Associated-Rediffusion could well match him for intellect. Thomas takes no prisoners because he cannot allow the complaints to stand without appearing to endorse the view (which he does not hold) that ITV is letting the viewers down.

He deals with the questions – which are poorly framed (and probably written by a TV critic trying to spice the story up), in a calm and urbane way by deploying the politicians’ skill of answering questions that were not asked and answering them in a way which is slightly to one side of their intent… and batting the issue out of the ball park on almost every occasion. This is not reprehensible but smart, as to answer them on their own terms he can only deny the accusations or admit the accusations – neither would be a true position and it would make a very dull interview.

The tone suggests that he was sent the questions on paper and that he and the woman, fictitious or not, never met.

It’s fairly obvious that the questions asked are based on an inaccurate familiarity with total output and the sort of difficulties relatively new channels face in the years after launch. ITV was the first commercial television channel in the UK and was not in a position to employ the resources of Hollywood or Pinewood in terms of big productions – but ironically the paper has chosen the one new ITV company who did have special recourse to the world of cinema, with the Associated British Picture Corporation as parent company of ABC TV, and Warner Bros a shareholder within that. This guaranteed a range of good ex-cinema films would be available (over ten years old) and at a discounted price that would leave more money for in-house productions. The poor questioner didn’t of course know how lucky she was with that particular franchise. I hope she did notice the difference between her weekend and weekday ITV and that the Herald wasn’t so sloppy and ill-researched that poor Howard Thomas was being asked to answer for ATV’s shortcomings (“what shortcomings?” asks a Mr V Parnell of Great Cumberland Place, London).

If Howard Thomas was in effect having to answer for all the then-programme contractors of ITV (what, even the weekday ones?), then it ought to be like shooting fish in a barrel, but no… the questions are so poorly framed and the questioner so unrealistic in her expectations, that Howard Thomas bats the cricket ball so far off the pitch that the woman doesn’t stand a chance.

The questioner suggests (in a subheadline surely dreamt up by the subeditor) that the effect of commercial television on her young family may be adverse. If the viewer judges that most of the films shown are violent and only really have one plot, I doubt that these films have been watched at all. It’s a classic “subediting plant” to speak of a threat that doesn’t exist, to try to raise the stakes in a rather mundane discussion. “Treating the public like sheep and drugging younger viewers into shoddy and dangerous ideas” seems a recipe confected for the newspaper readers, as it bears no resemblance to anything scheduled or transmitted.

The guilty party here is of course the Daily Herald, selling a scenario that simply did not exist. “On your behalf, I accuse…” says the reporter, revealing at once that poor Mrs Benson is a helpless stooge, while poor Howard Thomas (yes I do mean that) with his patient yet evidently exasperated answers, is being asked to defend himself against something that isn’t really happening at all. On two occasions he even tells Mrs Benson bluntly that she is just wrong. I like that. No compromise. She’s a patsy and he knows it. If she exists at all this is as much about her personal taste as the supposed inadequacies of the channel. I’m sorry that she shares a surname with ABC’s greatest continuity announcer – but there we are! Away with you, Madam.

You Say

1 response to this article

Alan Keeling 15 September 2020 at 4:23 pm

ABC began screening the Disneyland series from the late fifties (previously shown on BBC), first on Sunday afternoons and later in a Saturday tea time slot. Midland & North viewers enjoyed cut down versions of cartoon features such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty, plus programmes featuring Donald Duck or Pluto as well as True Life Adventures.

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