Another chance to see… regional ITV 

21 July 2023


Regular readers to this strand will know that it’s usually a chance to revisit individual programmes and talk about their history and development as well as looking into the various aspects of their production. On this occasion though I’m paying homage to an entire TV channel in acknowledgement of an anniversary last year that seems to have quietly passed us by.

When I say “TV channel” it’s not quite accurate, one could argue that it’s actually fourteen different channels all providing the same service, but even that’s not really true. The complication comes in the term “ITV”, which as a broadcaster has only really been in existence since 2002. Prior to that ITV was a service provided by a company that was unique to where you may be watching. 2022 marked the twentieth anniversary of the demise of ITV as a truly regional service, meaning that there is now a generation who have never experienced ITV as anything but a national broadcaster.

Let’s be clear, when we talk about regional ITV we’re not talking about regional opt-outs, rather we’re looking at network “opt-ins”. Quite simply, a private company would be awarded a franchise to set up in your local region with a studio in a city near you and, by renting the use of a transmitter covering that region would broadcast their own programme schedule which could be a mixture of programmes from other regional companies, imports from the US or elsewhere along with their own home made programmes, some of which they may offer to other regions, maybe to be shown simultaneously across the country (networked), or at a time that suited the individual companies (syndicated).


The growth of ITV 1955-1963


It was a system that worked well for most of its time. Initially three ITV regions were set up in London, the Midlands and the North (largely based on Lancashire, Yorkshire and surrounding counties). These three regions were served by four companies on a timeshare basis, roughly giving each company the same share of viewers based on the population and estimated viewing hours with the share being split between weekdays and weekends. Thus in 1955 a company with the impressive title of Associated-Rediffusion (to become Rediffusion, London from 1964) came to serve London on Mondays to Fridays while another company, Associated TeleVision (ATV) provided the service on Saturdays and Sundays. From 1956 ATV would also provide for the midlands on weekdays with Granada Television doing the same in the north, while weekends in those two regions would be the duty of ABC TV. All four companies largely compiled and broadcast their own schedules and while there was a certain degree of programme sharing, there were several times where, if you lived in an area where transmitter coverage from two regions overlapped (and there were many locations where this happened), it was quite possible to have a choice of programmes from a service that was simply referred to as “ITV”.

Those transmitters were owned and operated by the Independent Television Authority (ITA) who also appointed the programme companies and kept a close eye on them. By the end of 1956, having set up a federation of companies with the resources to provide a worthy alternative to the BBC, the ITA started to expand the network further afield, by the end of the decade there were programme companies serving the nations as well as some of the lesser populated regions of England. This second tier of regional companies were appointed to serve their respective areas on a seven day basis and while many of their programmes found their way into other regions, they were largely expected to concentrate on productions for their own areas. A third tier of companies came on the air in the early 1960s with transmitters serving west and north Wales along with the Channel Islands completing the jigsaw in September 1962, each region being served by a company keen to establish its own individuality and identity.


Programme listings from the Daily Herald

The Daily Herald’s TV and radio programme guide for 21 July 1964, with the ITV regions highlighted


The sheer brilliance in this system lay in how each company could come up with a service that was (more or less) unique to their region. All of them had to comply with providing a required quota of news (provided by yet another company, Independent Television News – ITN – which was jointly owned by all of the companies), educational and factual programmes as well as religious broadcasting. Beyond that they could set their own programme schedules in order to cater for their regional audience and for this they looked to the original four companies who, as stated earlier, were broadcasting their own individual schedules from which the “regions” could pick and choose. On Sunday evenings at 7.25 for example, Southern would take ABC’s broadcast of Batman. ATV in London wouldn’t take the show, preferring to run The Saint or one of the other filmed adventure series from their ITC subsidiary (which in turn may have been relayed by some of the other regional companies), therefore London viewers would be treated to Batman by Rediffusion on a weeknight. Similarly, if you lived in the appropriate overlap area and you missed Southern’s screening of The Avengers on a Wednesday evening, you could catch the same episode when Rediffusion showed it on Friday.

Sometimes such part-networking or syndication could fall foul of the politics of the larger companies who weren’t always enthusiastic about taking programmes from the smaller outfits. To overcome this the likes of Anglia, Southern, Tyne Tees and TWW would often share or syndicate their programmes on a sub-network, many of their productions being seen around the country without ever having been touched by the likes of Granada or ATV, while the smallest of the companies such as Border or Channel TV simply lacked the resources to offer their wares to the network and were quite happy to take what was on offer from the bigger companies, concentrating production on their own local programming.


The ITV regional logos in 1963


Then of course there were the different types of programmes available as each company tailored their service to their region. In the industrial north east Tyne Tees compiled a schedule more than slightly top-heavy with light entertainment programmes, one suspects that given half a chance they would have abandoned most of their serious output had they not been bound by the requirements set by the ITA. Meanwhile it seemed that the south of England was home to many who took cinema very seriously and Southern duly obliged by regularly running the types of feature films not really seen in other regions, quite often these would be from overseas with their native dialogue complete with subtitles.

Programme schedules could also be tailored around industrial shift systems, for example in the midlands ATV were quick to cater for those on a dinner break in the late fifties and early sixties by providing lunchtime entertainment shows while Granada in the north recognised the slightly different shift patterns and moved many of their programmes into later slots. This was a time when parts of the country sat down for their tea at 5.30 – 6pm, others would be settling down for dinner at 7pm and these timings were often reflected with the placing of the regional news and magazine programmes which could be just after 6pm in some regions or at 6.30pm in others. Of course there would be times when the companies would come together with regular programmes being shown across the network, shows like Coronation Street, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, World in Action, World Of Sport or drama productions run in the 9pm slot, but a look at newspaper TV listings will show that even up to the late 1980s there were real variations across the country.


Programme listings from the Daily Mirror

The Daily Mirror’s TV and radio programme guide for 21 July 1983, with the ITV regions highlighted


Over time some of the companies developed a niche for certain types of programmes. Granada specialised in serious documentary and current affairs, especially with its World in Action team. It also excelled in gritty drama productions, often exporting the north of England to the rest of the UK. With its initial weekend franchise in London and its connections with various theatre groups ATV was a willing supplier of light entertainment to the network, it also provided the network with filmed action series such as The Saint, Danger Man and The Prisoner from its sister company ITC who also brought Gerry Anderson’s ‘Supermarionation’ puppet series to ITV. Meanwhile in the east of England Anglia Television had set up a film unit making several wildlife documentaries under the Survival banner, they also had a knack for producing some excellent single plays that would find their way into various network drama strands, while Southern became a strong player in producing children’s programmes, most notably How!, Freewheelers and Worzel Gummidge.

The companies also found themselves with a roster of personalities who would become household names initially within their own regions, such as Alan Taylor (TWW and HTV in Wales and the west of England), Derek Batey (Border), Brian Trueman and Bill Grundy (Granada) and of course, Fred Dinenage (Southern, TVS, Meridian). Then of course there were the station announcers, the on-screen faces of the companies guiding you through the day’s programmes. All of this led to a certain amount of brand loyalty among the regional audience, viewers would tune into Westward or Granada rather than referring to the channel as ‘ITV’. But while the company that had produced whatever you were watching had stamped their mark at the beginning and the end of the programme with their own ‘ident’ (often animated), the company that you were tuned to in your region left you in no doubt as to who was actually providing those programmes.


1968 ITV changes


Being based on a franchise system meant that nothing was ever permanent for an ITV company. They were under the watchful eye of the regulator and had to work hard to keep their place on the broadcasting map. Periodically their franchises would be reviewed, renewal was not guaranteed as TWW found out in 1967 when they found themselves as the first ITV company to be replaced by a fresh applicant, namely Harlech Television (to become HTV from 1970), while in London the incumbent Rediffusion was ‘invited’ by the ITA to form a joint company with ABC TV when their weekend regions in the north and the midlands went over to a seven day franchise; thus was born Thames Television, a big name fondly associated with ITV for so many years. A couple of other new names appeared in the form of Yorkshire Television (which also took on a new region effectively when the Northern region was literally divided in half) and London Weekend Television (doing exactly what it said on the tin). More new names appeared in 1982 with TVS replacing Southern, TSW in place of Westward while ATV was forced to change its name to reflect a new image in the east and west midlands, becoming Central.


1982 changes


Naturally such changes stirred up a degree of indignation among the loyal viewers in the affected regions. When such things happened the new companies had to tread carefully to retain the brand loyalty achieved by their predecessors and while they were eager to endear viewers with their new station image and some fresh faces, they were also careful to trade on some familiarity. Indeed, the first edition of the TVS regional news magazine Coast To Coast featured reporters who had been doing much the same thing on Southern’s equivalent Day By Day the previous night, while the during the first few months on air the company ran a weekly feedback show (Watch This Space) which spent much time trying to reassure disgruntled Southern devotees that everything really was going to be alright…

By this time the ITA had become the Independent Broadcasting Authority after taking on the role as regulator for the new Independent Local Radio stations in 1972 and, while the IBA were quick to emphasise the importance of the regional services to be provided in the new franchises, they were also keen to see some unification among the companies when it came to peak time viewing. Consequently the period on weeknights between 7pm and 10.30pm saw the companies coming together to present a networked service, but they still found themselves able to provide a comprehensive service to their regions outside of these hours, especially during the daytimes.

However, by the end of the eighties the fifteen ITV regional companies found themselves up against a fierce commercial competitor. The satellite broadcaster Sky had launched its group of channels in the UK, none of which were bound by the regulations of the Independent Broadcasting Authority and while it did maintain its own moral standards in its output, its main channel Sky One had no obligations to the religious, educational or factual programmes that ITV had to adhere to. While the ITV companies were showing Highway during the Sunday evening ‘closed’ religious hour, Sky Channel was playing light entertainment and game shows, taking much of ITV’s audience – and advertisers – with them.


ITV logo, 1989


Collectively the ITV companies adopted the ‘ITV’ brand while retaining their own regional identities, almost as an afterthought in some cases. By now the practice of playing the producing company’s ident at the start of the programmes had been dropped anyway and the image of a federation of regional companies was gradually being eroded.

The regional set up took a major blow in the next franchise round at the start of the ‘nineties, not least with the unthinkable loss of Thames Television in London whose franchise was now in the hands of Carlton Communications. Other casualties were TVS and TSW, losing out to Meridian Broadcasting and Westcountry Television respectively. Like Carlton, Meridian and Westcountry were publishing companies, commissioning their output rather than producing it themselves. No longer would the south and south west of England have their local programmes produced by their regional programme providers. Although the individual companies were still setting their own schedules, the emphasis was now more on network programming to compete with the BBC and the satellite broadcasters. Furthermore, the rules set by the ITA/IBA regarding each company only being allowed to serve its own region had fallen by the wayside, the new deregulated ITV (now under the less watchful eye of the Independent Television Commission) was now a free market and the takeover of London Weekend Television by Granada in 1994, followed closely by Carlton’s move into the Midlands with its takeover of Central signalled what many of us regarded as the beginning of the end.

One by one the individual companies found themselves under new ownership, eventually being taken either by Granada or Carlton, leaving only STV (who had already bought out their northern neighbour Grampian), Ulster and Channel Television as the last to stand independently. Then of course in 2002 the inevitable happened with the merger of Granada and Carlton to become one national ITV company, the new service being branded simply as ‘ITV1’ and while the occasional regional programme popped up every now and then, it would take the form of a regional opt-out, rather in the same fashion as the Inside Out strand on BBC-1 and even these were soon to disappear.

Today the flagship regional news magazines are the only legacy of what was once a proper regional service, some still bearing the names of former companies; there must be a generation living in Lancashire wondering how their locality takes the name of a city in Spain, while those in the south could ponder as to why their regional news service isn’t simply ‘ITV South’. Those of us who fondly remember the pre-2002 set up will undoubtedly mourn the loss of what was a varied and interesting television spectrum, the days when it was possible in places to receive two ITV services and have a real choice, but we do have to acknowledge that in the highly competitive multi-channel world of today, ITV as we knew it would be unlikely to survive, for while a single ITV plc (plus STV plc) can take on the likes of Sky in competing for advertising revenue, a company like Border Television may not be quite so successful.


Courtesy of ITV plc


For those of you who really weren’t around during the heyday of what I’ve been describing, I’ll leave you with this. It’s sometime in 1979, you’re living in the south of England and you’re watching the end of News at Ten along with everyone else across the United Kingdom who have their sets tuned to ITV. During the closing moments of the programme as the signature music is playing out, in fourteen different studio centres across the land there are station controllers with stopwatches ready to cue in what will happen next in their own region. In some it could be a regional news update, in others it could be a commercial break or a trailer for forthcoming programmes.

The final jarring chord of the News at Ten theme plays out, the screen fades to black and rolls a little as the Southern Television ‘star’ ident forms up on the screen announcing Southern News Extra. At this point one network has become fourteen separate services, fourteen different companies each going their own way and doing their own thing. You couldn’t actually see those other broadcasts, you just knew it was happening. That’s what made ITV special.


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