The future of television: The I.T.A. 

26 December 2021 tbs.pm/74158

[PART 1] • [PART 2] • [PART 3] • [PART 4] • [PART 5] • [PART 6] • [PART 7] • [PART 8] • [PART 9] • [PART 10] • [PART 11]

 

Line drawing by John Farleigh

From the Daily Mirror Spotlight on the Future of Television, published in 1958

“The Authority has managed to create a competitive system — competitive for prestige, practical success, and income — within the artificial framework of a ‘one region, one station’ structure. It is a first duty, as the system extends, to keep it competitive, open to new talent and free from restrictions, and to bring it in the end to a fully competitive shape, with two companies and two stations in each area, and a group of programme companies large enough to embrace the full national talent.”

— Sir Robert Fraser, “The Times,” August 28, 1957.

The Television Act does not call upon Associated TeleVision, or Associated Rediffusion, or A.B.C., or any other programme company, to run commercial television.

It puts this task entirely on the shoulders of the Independent Television Authority.

It charges the I.T.A. with providing “television broadcasting services, additional to those of the British Broadcasting Corporation and of high quality both as to the transmission and as to the matter transmitted.” It requires the I.T.A., not the programme companies, to see that the canons of good taste are not offended, that the programmes are properly balanced, that news bulletins are impartial, that “proper proportions” of the programmes are of British origin.

The I.T.A. has three main jobs:—

  • To get commercial television working and keep it working;
  • To see that the best people possible get the job of running it;
  • To see that the best programmes possible go out on it.

It is on the I.T.A.’s record in fulfilling these tasks that commercial television will be judged. It will be against this record that the future of commercial television will be decided.

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About the I.T.A.’s first task, little needs to be said. Commercial television is working. Between the passing of the Television Act and the screening of the first advertisement for toothpaste, only fourteen months elapsed. This in itself is an astonishing achievement. By 1960 the Independent Television Authority will have done in six years what the B.B.C. did in fifteen. The B.B.C., it is true, was the pioneer; but the I.T.A. was working against special technical difficulties. And, as Sir Robert Fraser has said, “We had never built a transmitting station in our lives.”

There were many differences of opinion about the new pictures that began to appear on British television screens on September 22, 1955. The fact that they appeared at all is a major engineering achievement worth remembering when the third television programme is allocated.

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One of the I.T.A.’s most responsible tasks is to appoint the contractors who will operate the programme companies.

A contractor unwisely appointed could have wrecked commercial television in its first delicate days. Even now, a bad choice of contractor could have a very grave effect on the future of television.

The I.T.A. gets its contractors by advertising for them in The Times. It puts them strenuously through the financial hoop and finds out how qualified they are to do the job.

Twenty-five groups applied for the first four television contracts. Since then, about ten or a dozen groups have been applying for each new contract. They fall, usually, into four categories. There are locally formed groups which, if not given the local station to operate, disband and are never heard of again. There are groups which are determined to get into television and which apply for each contract in turn. There are bands of City marauders who have heard about television and want to be in on it. There are the big existing programme companies, which are encouraged to apply in case no new group is suitable.

The I.T.A. wants to know from all these applicants :—

  • Who are you?
  • Where are you from?
  • Where did you get your money?
  • What makes you think you can do the job?

Each applicant gets a lengthy questionnaire. It asks about plans for financing the company. It asks for the name of every prospective shareholder with an interest of ten per cent. or more. It asks about voting rights. It also wants to know about the applicant’s experience and plans for television programmes.

The applicant is then invited to the I.T.A.’s headquarters at Princes Gate and questioned closely by the assembled members of the Authority. The Authority makes its decision not by vote but by a mutual agreement gradually reached. Sometimes — as in the case of the present Tyne-Tees Television and the group including the Manchester Guardian which also wanted the contract — it may call applicants back for a second interview. Originally the Authority relied very heavily on the judgment of its Director-General, Sir Robert Fraser. But by now it knows what it is looking for. And what it is looking for — although it does not always find them — are strong local groups of character and financial stability able to build up strong local stations.

The Authority’s interest in the financial structure of programme companies does not end with the signing of the contract. Its consent has to be obtained for any changes not only in the ownership of the programme company itself but in some cases for changes in the individual companies that are members of it. The Incorporated Television Programme Company, for example, part-owner of Associated Television, has got to get I.T.A. approval for any major changes in its structure.

 

IT(P)C device

 

The I.T.A. has rigid control over the private companies that run commercial television. It has no authority over the public companies that have an interest in television and which are free to traffic in public shares. In the unlikely event of, say, British Electric Traction succumbing to a take-over bid, the I.T.A. could do little to prevent control of Associated-Rediffusion going with it. But it can influence ownership through its contracts with the programme companies. The Associated British Picture Corporation, controlling A.B.C. Television is a public company which is partly American-owned. So here the programme contract requires that in all circumstances A.B.C. Television should remain under British control.

The I.T.A.’s relations with the programme companies are friendly and informal. It does not always apply its powers according to the strict letter of the law. An example of the I.T.A.’s latitude has arisen over the case of Associated Newspapers. Strictly speaking, the Daily Mail group should have given up its interest in Associated-Rediffusion the moment the contract for Southern Television was signed. But the Authority, probably in recognition of the Mail’s pioneering work in launching one of the major network companies, allowed it to keep both interests for several months. It is unlikely that such benevolence would be repeated.

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ITA symbol

 

Cover of the first TVTimes

Cover of the first TVTimes, featuring ‘I Love Lucy’

As to the actual content of commercial television, the I.T.A. has the task of seeing to it that “the programme maintains a proper balance in their subject-matter and a high general standard of quality.” This is generally agreed to mean that commercial television should have something more elevating to offer than “I Love Lucy.”

The future of commercial television rests to no small extent on the I.T.A. ensuring that its programmes do maintain this “proper balance.” How has the I.T.A. done this particular job?

Commercial television opened up in September, 1955, with a good proportion of serious programmes. Then, three months after the new service had started, these programmes began to drop off. The Authority came in for a great deal of criticism, for not ordering the programme companies to keep the cultural flag flying. Soon there was a fierce controversy raging and a great deal of talk about worst fears being realised, lowest common denominators being pandered to, etc., etc.

At this point a more timid public corporation might have been panicked into publicly denouncing the programme companies and instructing them to mend their ways. Instead the I.T.A., quietly, patiently and with some understanding of the vast problems of the young medium in its care, began seeking a permanent and satisfactory approach to serious programmes. Its annual report last year said: “It may be that, from the point of view of its own standing in the eyes of the public, there would have been advantages in making generally known the occasions on which the Authority sought to influence the programme policies of the companies, and there were times when commentators in the press concluded that the Authority was indifferent to, or incapable of influencing, programme trends. But the Authority regards the maintenance of a basis of trust and confidence between it and the companies as a matter of first importance for the future development of independent television.”

Today, the brou-ha-ha long behind it, commercial television’s serious programmes are well established. Out of every hour, on average, I.T.V. devotes something like 17 minutes to news, current affairs, science and the arts, education and religion.

1. Religion

Independent television has developed religious broadcasting in a way that has astonished its critics.

Sir Robert Fraser the shrewd, patient and and unbureaucratic Director General of the I.T.A., has pointed out that in any typical period of ten weeks in 1955, before commercial television, there were four religious programmes — one church service and three discussion programmes. In a similar ten-week period now there are thirty-two — twelve services and twenty discussion programmes. Of the twelve church services, ten are on I.T.V. and two on the B.B.C. Of the twenty discussion programmes, ten are on each service. A.T.V., with its weekly programme “About Religion” was the first in the field with regular religious discussion programmes. The B.B.C. followed suit with “Meeting Point.” Recently I.T.V. has added another religious programme, “The Sunday Break.” It also produces a nightly Epilogue.

2. Schools

 

 

“The new Authority is not likely, even in the wildest dreams of those who support the scheme, to put forward a plan for a school television service.” (Mr. Joseph Reeves, House of Commons, April, 1954).

Commercial television was the first service in the English-speaking world to provide a national television service for schools. Associated-Rediffusion, with the backing of the I.T.A.’s Children’s Advisory Committee, puts on a schools programme every afternoon. A typical week’s programme has courses on Shakespeare, agriculture, industrial power and books.

 

 

3. Current Affairs

Before commercial television, the B.B.C. had two regular current affairs programmes. It now has three. I.T.V. usually has eight — Free Speech, Tell the People, We Want An Answer, Paper Talk, Roving Report, Under Fire, This Week and What the Papers Say. It has also led the B.B.C. on news and is succeeding in jogging the B.B.C. out of its former paralytic approach to election coverage.

4. Other serious programmes

Dr. Bronowski’s New Horizon, A. J. P. Taylor’s lectures, Wolf Mankowitz’s Conflict, and programmes on the serious theatre and on books are among other serious programmes put out by commercial television. Some of the I.T.V.’s critics say that its serious programmes are not serious at all, but that they exploit serious subjects with a “sensational” technique. It may certainly be true that commercial television has the happy knack of putting over serious material in an exciting manner. The viewing figures for Mr. Taylor’s lectures were indeed sensational.

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Administratively, technically and culturally the Independent Television Authority has shown that it can run television with skill and responsibility. It brought commercial television into being with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of speed, and with a refreshing absence of what it disapprovingly describes as “bureaucratic overheads.”

The I.T.A. has shown that it would create a third television service with the same speed and efficiency.

But its quickly-acquired talents will count for little unless it can prove that it can afford to start another television service.

The vast fortunes of the programme companies would cut no particular ice here. It is the I.T.A. which builds television stations, operates them, and has to pay for them. The television companies merely hire them.

Fortunately, the I.T.A. is financially sound.

It has three potential sources of income:—

  1. the grant not exceeding £750,000 [£19m today allowing for inflation] which the Postmaster-General may take in any one year, £100,000 [£2.5m] of which has so far been offered and refused;
  2. a ceiling of two million pounds [£50m] which may be lent by the Postmaster-General and which must be paid back by 1964; half a million [£13m] of which has been actually borrowed;
  3. the rents and station fees paid by the programme companies.

It is upon these last that the Authority depends for a steady income.

The Television Authority has a duty under the Television Act to lay in capital as soon as practicable so that it can pay off Government loans and provide for capital expenditure. It has gone about this duty with gusto, collecting fat cheques which the programme companies pay each year.

The rents are worked out on a calculation of number of days broadcasting and number of people (not necessarily viewers) in area serviced. As the Authority can vary its rents according to the cost of living and size of population, and its station fees according to the number of hours broadcast, it was apparent from the very beginning that whatever the risks in commercial television the Authority was not going to be the loser.

It was, for a time, the only organisation in commercial television to be making a profit.

In its first operating year the I.T.A. collected £423,500 [£11.5m], in the second year £1,700,000 [£46m]; and from the eight contractors now in being it can expect a yearly income of some three million pounds [£81m].

It is clear that, even after financing its programme of station construction, paying G.P.O. hire charges, paying off its annuity instalments and setting money aside for research, taxation, the I.T.A., like the programme companies, is going to be left with substantial profits.

What does it intend to do with the money? The programme companies would answer promptly that it should reduce the rents.

Certainly the I.T.A. would be taking a risk by hoarding large amounts of unused revenue. The Television Act allows it, in fact directs it, to build up a reserve fund. But it also allows the Exchequer to dip into this reserve fund:

“Any direction given under subsection (1) of this section may require the whole or any part of any such excess as aforesaid to be paid into the Exchequer.”

The subsection (i) referred to says that the I.T.A.’s surpluses shall be used as the Postmaster-General, with Treasury approval and after consultation with the chairman of the Authority, may direct.

A wise Postmaster-General would direct, with Treasury approval and after consultation with the Government, that the I.T.A. should spend its money on a third television service for Britain.

The Independent Television Authority could afford very soon to start on its programme for an additional television network. It could do this without any loan from the Government and without any increase in the licence fee. Which, as we shall see, is more than the B.B.C. could do.

 

[PART 1] • [PART 2] • [PART 3] • [PART 4] • [PART 5] • [PART 6] • [PART 7] • [PART 8] • [PART 9] • [PART 10] • [PART 11]

 

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