Televised Football In The Regions: The Beautiful South
With the serenity of the rolling fields of Kent, the South Downs National Park and the New Forest all sitting comfortably within its boundaries, one might expect that the history of commercial television in this part of the country to have been peaceful. However, the South of England (later South & South-East of England) franchise proved to be one of the most controversial in the entire history of the patchwork of companies that made up the ITV network. This is a region for which the identity of the local broadcaster changed twice in a little more than a decade, and for which the story takes in hubris, entitlement and petulance, an attempt to become a global media giant and, eventually, near financial collapse.
From a sporting perspective, however, it would with the best will in the world a stretch to describe the South of England to be anything like a sporting hotbed. Despite the vastness of its geographical reach – from Dorset in the west to Kent in the east – the South of England franchise holder would only oversee coverage of seven clubs – Aldershot, Bournemouth, Brighton, Gillingham, Portsmouth, Reading and Southampton – with an eighth and ninth, Southend United and Oxford United, being shared with the East Anglia and Midlands regions respectively.
As such, the South of England contractor had an inherent contradiction within its requirements as a local broadcaster and its obligations as a commercial company. On the one hand, all ITV franchise-holders had an obligation to produce local programming and weekly football highlights package was a fairly straightforward way of doing this. On the other, however, producing these programmes required physical resources that may be required elsewhere – the South of England may not have been a football hotbed, for example, but it was a horse racing hotbed and outside broadcast units would often be required elsewhere on Saturday afternoons to provide live racing coverage for the entire ITV network – and viewing figures for Sunday afternoon shows were never guaranteed to be particularly high. It’s a contradiction that would run solidly through the history of football in this part of the world.
Commercial television arrived in the South of England in July 1958, when Southern Television began broadcasting from their studios in Southampton. It would be, however, eight years before the company would pitch in with regional football programming of their own, a surprisingly late time to enter into this particular corner of broadcasting when we consider that it was two similarly sized companies, Tyne-Tees and Anglia, who had blazed this particular trail in 1962 with their newly weekly programmes, Shoot and Match Of The Week. The arrival of Match Of The Day on BBC2 in 1964 and, likely more significantly, an increased interest in televised football following the 1966 World Cup finals were the likely motivations behind the company joining that particular bandwagon at that particular time.
Throughout its early years of football broadcasting, Southern were fairly assiduous in ensuring that they put out a weekly highlights show, which was usually broadcast under the name of Southern Soccer. For its first couple of seasons, their main commentator was Maurice Edelston. A promising footballer who saw his playing career demolished by the Second World War, Edelston played a shade over two hundred games for Reading (as well as Fulham, Brentford and Northampton Town) before moving into broadcasting with BBC Radio. He joined Southern in 1966, but left at the end of 1968 to focus on his other work with the BBC and died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven in 1976, still in the employment of the corporation.
That Edelston doesn’t seem to have been completely replaced upon his departure was, perhaps, a reflection upon a change in Southern’s priorities as the 1960s drew to a close. The company had sailed through the 1967 contract renewal process, but they now had flash new neighbours to the north in the form of London Weekend Television, who were producing a slick new show of their own called The Big Match every week. Why take up expensive outside broadcast units – Southern purchased one at a cost of £225,000 in 1968, a more than princely sum at the time – and continue to produce a weekly show on a budget when one’s neighbour was producing something big, brash, glossy and popular which could be shown inexpensively and might even, due to the big London clubs on offer, pull in better audiences?
From the end of the 1960s on, football coverage seems to have slipped further and further down Southern’s list of overall priorities. Simon Smith, better known as a boxing commentator on the BBC, and Gerry Williams, who would go on to considerably greater fame as one of the lead commentators on the BBC’s Wimbledon tennis coverage, would provide commentary where required, but more often than not Southern would simply buy in The Big Match from LWT and show that instead. Throughout the early 1970s, Southern’s local coverage of matches fell off year on year, from twelve matches during the 1970/71 season to just four during the 1973/74 season. At the end of that season, the Southern Soccer name was dropped altogether, leaving Southern in the unusual position of only covering matches for other companies’ programmes rather than producing much of their own. With first Martin Tyler and then David Bobin commentating, Southern’s teams would be inserted into The Big Match and then broadcast back to Southern viewers every Sunday afternoon.
None of this is to say that there weren’t football stories to be told in this part of the world. Amongst the most surprising of the decade came in the winter of 1973, when one of the most famous managerial duos of all-time pitched up out of the blue at one of the region’s clubs. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’a relationship with the directors of Derby County had deteriorated rapidly following the club’s 1972 Championship win, but even so their departure from The Baseball Ground in October 1973 made national news headlines. The Brighton & Hove Albion chairman Mike Bamber and vice-chairman Harry Bloom – grandfather of current Albion chairman Tony Bloom – persuaded Clough and Taylor to The Goldstone Ground, where their club was struggling in the Third Division after having offloaded their manager of the previous four years, Pat Saward.
The arrival of the brashest names in British football management in Brighton was huge media story, all the more so after Clough and Taylor’s Brighton team was dumped out of the FA Cup, four-nil at home by non-league Walton & Hersham after a replay, shortly after taking charge of the club. Television cameras were at The Goldstone Ground for Brighton’s next match, a home league match against Bristol Rovers, but the home side this time underwent a further degree of national embarrassment after Rovers won the game by eight goals to two. Clough – alongside his son Nigel – pitched up at the television studios to plead his case for the defence after a second consecutive home humiliation.
It wasn’t the studios of Southern Television in Southampton at which the Cloughs arrived, though. This match was covered by London Weekend Television, with Brian Moore commentating on the match and carrying out the subsequent interview. Southern, one might have easily been forgiven for thinking, didn’t have much time for its region’s football teams at this time. Two years later, when Southampton won the FA Cup from the Second Division, the only matches that Southern showed were the semi-final against Crystal Palace and the final against Manchester United, both of which were covered by LWT for the national network, and the final against Manchester United, along with a review programme the following day called “How The Cup Was Won.”
By the end of the decade, however, it had finally started to feel as though something was starting to move. A combination of a renewed television contract following ITV’s “Snatch Of The Day” attempt to secure exclusive television rights for the first time and the revivals of both Southampton, who seemed as likely as anyone to be the club best-equipped to challenge Liverpool during the 1980s after winning promotion back to the First Division in 1978 and reaching the League Cup final a year later, and Brighton & Hove Albion, who were promoted to the First Division for the first time in 1979, finally persuaded Southern to up their game. The company had started using the Southsport name for its local football coverage from the start of the 1978/79 season, switching to “Southsport Soccer and The Big Match” the following season, but even the arrival of football highlights on a Saturday night – the 1980 television deal guaranteed alternating Saturday night/Sunday afternoon slots for the BBC and ITV for the first time – couldn’t persuade Southern to broadcast a regular weekly show.
The return of regular regional football broadcasting didn’t return to the region until the start of 1982, though, and this turned out to be a side-effect of events elsewhere. For potential newcomers to the broadcasting world at the time, the South of England was a highly desirable area, with few expensive commitments to produce programming for the national network and high advertising revenues. ITV contracts came up for further renewal in 1980, but Southern, having apparently become complacent as a result of more than two decades on air, only produced a sixteen page booklet to the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in support of their reapplication. Despite the IBA requesting that the company re-submit its application, this time asking the company to go into more depth over its future plans, the governing body decided to offer the new contract to a new company, Television South (TVS), from the start of 1982, with the rationale given by the IBA being that their plans for a better mix of programmes and greater investment than Southern were offering.
What the IBA probably weren’t expecting at this point was the massive hissy fit that the outgoing contractor subsequently threw. TVS spent months trying to persuade Southern to sell its studios until it finally succeeded, and the new company was forced to use portable cabins in Southern’s car park until Southern finally agreed to lease its studios for the production of TVS programmes and sell them to TVS outright at the end of 1981. Furthermore, on the night that the franchises changed hands, New Year’s Eve 1981, Southern made their last programme the bizarre “And It’s Goodbye From Us”, which served as a wake for themselves and included a derogatory song about TVS from Richard Stilgoe called “Portable Cabin TV” – sample lin, “It’ll be all systems go in our Maidson studio, just so as we work out where Maidstone is”) as well as a lengthy goodbye show featuring many of the company’s announcers and presenters, lined up in front of cameras wearing rictus grins, as though about to face a firing squad made up of clowns. After the programme finished, Southern switched their transmitters off with no closing or shut-down announcements, only the company’s well-known star logo eerily spinning off into a deep space background.
The new company came to life the following morning with a rainbow coloured logo and a jaunty brass fanfare. TVS had started its life as the brainchild of producer James Gatward, executive Bob Southgate, and journalist Martin Jackson. In recognition of the IBA’s decision to rename the region “The South & South-East of England” (following the transfer of a transmitter which brought the whole of the south-eastern corner of England under their sphere and the subsequent requirement to run it as a “dual-franchise” region), they promised new studios in Maidstone and a focus on quality programming, specifically in the areas of science and children’s programming.
Viewers across the south and south-east of England certainly saw an immediate upswing in local football coverage as the new company sought to ingratiate itself with its local audience. The new company named its show Sunday Sportshow for the remainder of the season, featuring as its first match a game between Brighton & Hove Albion and West Ham United with commentary provided by Gerald Sinstadt, who’d quit his former position with Granada to work for TVS covering opera the previous year. He would move back to the BBC in the middle of the 1980s and even now, at eighty-seven years old, he still writes a weekly football column for the Stoke Sentinel newspaper.
Regional football on TVS wouldn’t come to last for very long, though. Sunday Sportshow had its name changed to The Saturday Match for the 1982/83 season, hosted by Fred Dinenage and with Sinstadt still in the commentary box. With Southampton still knocking on the door of European football and Brighton reaching their first FA Cup final while getting relegated from the First Division, it was a busy year for the region’s football clubs, but this was to be the last of regular regional highlights on ITV, with a new contract featuring nationally networked highlights and live matches due to start from the start of the following season. The final episode of “The Saturday Match” was broadcast on the penultimate Saturday of the 1982/83 season, featuring Portsmouth crowning their title-winning Third Division season by beating Southend United by two goals to nil at Fratton Park.
By the time that regional football coverage returned properly to the South & South-East of England in the early 1990s (it remained sporadic throughout the 1980s), however, everything had changed. ITV finally secured the exclusive rights to live Football League coverage that they’d long cherished in 1988, but this was a part of something greater, which ended with the formation of the Premier League in 1992 and the end of top flight league football on free-to-air television altogether. The start of this new landscape in August 1992 came, however, at a point of great friction for commercial television in a broader sense. The Broadcasting Act 1990 had completely redrawn the rules on how contracts to broadcast on ITV were to be decided, with contractors now required to bid against new applicants to pay for the right to hold a franchise and a “quality threshold” in place to, in theory at least, filter out undesirables first.
TVS had spent an eventful decade first rolling around in money and then making an attempt to build a media empire before falling to pieces as their world crashed around their ears. If the 1980s offered the British economy a period of revival, much of this revival seemed focused in the south-easternmost corner of England and TVS were clear beneficiaries of this, seeing annual profits rise year-on-year throughout their first few years on air. Buoyed by its success, the company bought into a number of foreign broadcasting and production companies, most notably purchasing MTM Productions (producers of international hits such as Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere and Remington Steele) in 1988 for £190m. A subsequent collapse of the American syndication market at the end of the decade, however, left MTM as having been wildly too expensive as an acquisition and the 1990s began with redundancies at TVS as the company struggled to balance the books.
With the company having passed the quality threshold and being already insecure in the knowledge that this was a highly desirable part of the country in which to hold an ITV contract, TVS opted to bid as high as possible in order to retain its franchise. Its £59.8m per year bid should have been enough to sail through the bidding process, but the Independent Television Commission (ITC), which had replaced the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) as regulator at the start of 1991, replied by stating that they didn’t confidently believe that TVS would be able to maintain this stipend over the ten years of its contract and instead handed the franchise to its only rival, Meridian Broadcasting, who had bid £23m per year less for the privilege than the incumbents had. This time, however, there was little drama. TVS ended their contract on New Year’s Eve 1992, with MTM Enterprises being sold the following year at a vast loss.
Meridian were very different broadcasters for a very different age. The Broadcasting Act 1990 had removed a requirement for ITV companies to produce their own programming, and the new company was explicit in announcing that the majority of its programmes would be commissioned from independent producers rather than produced in house, a decision most pointedly brought home by the fact that one of the touchiest points of the handover involved the fact that Meridian wanted hire less than half of the outgoing TVS’s staff. The old company’s first and only live Football League match was broadcast in September 1992 between Portsmouth and West Ham United, and Meridian’s first half-season ended with only two league matches being shown – neither of them local – alongside League Cup matches and end of season play-offs.
Such reticence was, perhaps, to be expected. At the time the region only had two clubs in the newly-retitled First Division, and one of those, Southend United, was still shared with another region. These circumstances would remain the same until the start of the 1994/95 season, when Reading and Swindon Town (also both shared with other regions) joined Portsmouth and Southend at this level. At the start of the 1995/96 season, regional highlights returned in the form of The Meridian Match, a half-hour broadcast every Sunday afternoon that was usually followed by another company’s live match. This continued until the end of the 1996/97 season, but for their final season Meridian only showed live matches from outside of their region. Their last home match turned out to be between Reading and Portsmouth, in February 1996.
Meridian itself became reasonably short-lived as an independent company, mainly thanks to The Broadcasting Act 1990, which removed the restriction on ITV companies from buying each other but also perhaps allowed the company its route into the market in the first place. A complex series of buyouts, mergers and attempted mergers ended in 1999 with its sale to Granada and, as with most other ITV companies, its on-screen identity disappeared in 2002. Nowadays the only significant trace of its existence being ITV1 Meridian News, the nightly local regional news show, which is co-hosted by former The Saturday Match anchor (and former Portsmouth director) Fred Dinenage. Had it continued to this day, the South and South-East of England would be enjoying one of its purplest ever of football patches, with Brighton, Southampton and Bournemouth all in the Premier League. Of course, one of the more consistent ironies of the last four decades of football broadcasting in the UK has been that a culture that ITV itself was instrumental in building – of the critical importance of exclusivity in televised football contracts – means that Meridian still would never have got to broadcast a single live Premier League television match almost a quarter of a century after they came on air in the first place.
Highlights of the match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Bristol Rovers from 1973 are available here.
You can get a taste for the local news version of Southsport with Fred Dinenage here.
There’s a TVS edition of The Big Match from January 1987 featuring an FA Cup match between Reading and Arsenal here.
There’s short documentary about the construction of Southern TV’s new studios in Southampton from 1970 here.
None of this would have been possible without the absolute treasure trove that is this glorious history of football broadcasting on ITV. Show them some love by wading into their vast wealth of information.