Whatever Happened To ITV?

During Euro 2016, at the end of an evening match, I wandered off to do something else for about half an hour before making my way back to the sofa. The post-match tribulations of the ITV brains trust had reached their conclusion, the credits had rolled, the adverts had run, and they were already five minutes into the News At Ten. It was a few days after the referendum result, and I wasn’t very interested in watching the news. The BBC’s coverage had been dismal, and I didn’t imagine that ITV’s would be either. I got on with something on my laptop for five minutes, but soon found myself getting increasingly distracted by the news. It was balanced. It was informative. It was refreshingly clear and level-headed. It wasn’t not what I expected.

I didn’t go back to ITV again afterwards, though.

The temptation, of course, is to label this as a class thing. The middle class watch the BBC, the working class watch ITV. But my upbringing was split down the middle, class-wise. I spent my first ten years in one of North London’s less salubrious areas, and my adolescence in a village just outside one of the most affluent cities in the south of England. I’m a class mongrel, and regardless of this there was no switching off programmes because they were on the “wrong” channel when I was young. I have a vague recollection of my grandparents being a little spooked by the concept of adverts on the television, but this is very fuzzy and might even be a false memory, spawned from a very definite memory of them wheeling their television set out of the living room on Christmas days at their flat. As a kid, though, I’d flick between Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Tiswas of a Saturday morning without my parents pulling the plug on the television and lecturing me on the evils of adverts for Frosties.

If anything, as a youngster I think I preferred ITV to the BBC. For one thing, we lived in London, which meant that late on Friday afternoons there’d be frosty few seconds as Thames Television handed over to London Weekend Television, which was always oddly satisfying to watch. In addition to this, ITV seemed bubblier and brighter. The colours were slightly over-saturated, with their Saturday evening light entertainment shows – the centrepiece of the television week at a time when, with no internet to distract people and only three (later four) television channels to choose from, mass audiences could still be relied upon by broadcasters – having a strangely glassy look to them, especially by the 1980s. On Saturday afternoons when I wasn’t at a football match, they had wrestling or banger racing on, and there was a better chance of Spurs featuring on The Big Match than on Match Of The Day. They had Dangermouse and, later, Roland Rat. Even at the start of the 1980s, the BBC looked a little fusty by comparison.

Recent England matches had cause to get me to watch ITV for the first time since there were last football matches that I wanted to watch on ITV. And as the closing credits ran and I turned over, I wondered… what happened between us, ITV? Where did it all go wrong? There were good times. I spent far too much of my time as a student watching This Morning in an ill-fitting dressing gown. I even went to see the guy who turned out to be a wrong ‘un do the weather on a giant map of the UK in Liverpool’s Albert Dock a couple of times, since it was kind of on my way to class. I preferred Dickie Davis to David Coleman. I voluntarily watched Crossroads as a child. I even occasionally watched entire episodes of Weekend World, rather than switching the television over at the end of the opening title music, like most sensible people did.

The answer to this question is the 29th April 1988. That was the date that ITV broadcast Death On The Rock, a part of the This Week documentary strand made by Thames Television. The programme called into serious account the official version of events surrounding the death of three members of the Provisional IRA at the hands of the SAS on Gibraltar in March of that year. Claims that the three people were armed and carrying a bomb. What had been claimed to be a vital security exercise was presented more as like something else. Two days before it was first shown, Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary made a phone call to try to get it postponed. The government reaction was incandescent. Margaret Thatcher described it as “trial by television,” which was dutifully repeated across her newspaper front pages.

A subsequent report found that the tendency of the evidence presented in the programme was to suggest the terrorists had been unlawfully killed and that it did not explore alternative explanations in any depth, but it concluded that Death on the Rock was a “trenchant” work of journalism, made in “good faith and without ulterior motives”. In conclusion, the report’s authors believed that Death on the Rock proved that “freedom of expression can prevail in the most extensive, and the most immediate, of all the means of mass communication.” It can’t be proved that Death on the Rock caused the 1990 Broadcasting Act, but it feels like the legal mechanism which caused what happened next being issued so soon after this couldn’t entirely be a coincidence.

The 1990 Broadcasting Act was, in the broadest terms, an all-round liberalism of the broadcasting market. The BBC were now required to buy in 25% of their programming from independent production companies. Channel Five was confirmed. And, most significantly, the entire structure of ITV was to be torn up. Previously, regional ITV companies had been required to reapply for their franchises every thirteen years, with a halfway rubber-stamping, which allowed the regulators, the IBA, to voice any concerns they had over the actions of any of the companies. Fair warning, if you will. The companies would ultimately issue applications to renew their contracts along with anyone else who fancied their chances. Incumbent companies obviously had the advantage of experienced, but when one was vulnerable, it was usually known. A panel would sit. Sometimes there would be public meetings. And eventually, at a press conference, the IBA would announce who’d got what. One or two existing franchise holders would usually lose out.

All of this changed with the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The upcoming ITV franchise renewals would now be an auction, with the highest bidder to be awarded the franchise, so long as they passed a “quality threshold”, the exact requirements for which seemed almost shape-shifting in their liquidity. The IBA would be axed, to be replaced by the considerably lighter touch ITC. And the rules regarding one ITV franchise-holder owning another would be relaxed, with one “large” franchise holder being allowed to own one “small” franchise holder. These regulations were later relaxed further, and ultimately abolished. The franchise auctions were held towards the end of 1991, and when they were made, it was bad news for Thames. They were outbid by a company called Carlton, who were owned by Michael Green, who’d been rumoured to have had some input into this area of the 1990 Act and who two years later would hire a director of public relations by the name of David Cameron.

Two other existing companies also lost out, both at the end of their first contract. TVS, in the south of England, had found advertising revenues very healthy in their region but had expanded too quickly, ultimately buying an American production company, MTM, shortly before a stock market collapse. Floundering financially, they decided on a “bid high or die” policy resulting in them wildly overbidding, an amount of money so high that the ITC refused their licence on the grounds that there was no way they’d ever be able to afford it. TVS bid £59m per year for the contract. It was awarded to Meridian Television, who only bid £36m. The same fate befell TSW in the south-west of England. They were deemed to not have a viable business plan, and the contract was handed to Westcountry Television instead. TSW pushed the matter all the way to the house of lords, but the decision was still ultimately upheld.

Bit by bit, slowly but surely, the companies that had made up the patchwork quilt of ITV companies that spread across the entire country merged into one over the next thirteen years. The two big winners of this process were Carlton and Granada, who ended up as two rival blocs controlling almost the entire network – only Scotland and Northern Ireland were considered exempt from this, and Ulster TV finally caved in and were purchased a couple of years ago – before merging as ITV Plc in 2005. Job losses were great throughout the 1990s and, despite the fact that the very idea of regional television started to feel increasingly anachronistic, something was definitely lost with this corporatisation. ITV lost a part of its identity with this shift, and it rather feels as though nothing has been put in to replace it. Nowadays its regional output is broadly limited to the local news every day, whilst some smaller regions have seen even this diminished through cost-cutting. Viewers in the South-West of England, for example, now get their local news from Bristol rather than Plymouth, as they used to, after ITV Plc were granted permission to merge the two regions.

Equally slowly but equally surely, the public service remit part of their contract has been stripped away to the bone. Next Saturday’s schedule, for example, ends with an hour and forty minutes of interactive gambling, followed by a repeat of a Bradley Walsh gameshow and then more than two hours of something called ITV Nightscreen, which is presumably what they call Teletext, now that Teletext doesn’t exist any more. Somewhat surprisingly, there’s no GMTV or equivalent any more on a Sunday morning, but three hours of cartoons, instead. There’s time for five minutes of news at 9.25, then a cookery programme, This Morning (somehow), another cookery programme and a whole ten minutes of news and weather.

The afternoon consists of almost two and a half hours of Britain’s Got Talent, almost two hours of The Voice, and a gameshow to take us to the evening news. The evening consists of another game show, a Jason Manford vehicle which is something to do with guessing how children will react in certain circumstances. By this point we’re into the A-list material. Two dramas follow (both historical), the evening news, and then The Olivier Awards, from the Royal Albert Hall. They are hosted, both somehow or other and obviously, by Jason Manford. Sunday night on ITV finishes with two hours and fifty minutes of interactive roulette. Well, it is God’s day, after all.

I am not the target audience for ITV. That much is obvious. But there is a sense, in that schedule, that they’ve given up. Religious programming has gone from the Sunday schedule, and total news and current affairs over the entire day amounts to fifty-five minutes. It’s a pattern repeated throughout the week. Peston seems to be the one hour devoted to news and current affairs outside of the news, and Australia with Julia Bradbury is the only documentary. It’s half an hour long. The generous interpretation of this is to suggest that they now throw all their money at a tiny number of drama series, with a side-gig in owning the libs with their daily puke of Good Morning Britain, all perfectly timed for video clips to be shared by the easily-trolled on their morning commutes.

Of course, it isn’t only ITV any more. There’s ITV2, which is more of the same, only with an added layer of reality programming. This is the home of Love Island. ITV3 is dedicated to re-runs of old dramas, with the occasional sitcom thrown in for good measure. ITV4 is the spiritual heir to Granada Men & Motors, and is described as having “a male-orientated line-up.” ITVBe targets a young, female audience – its signature show used to be The Only Way Is Essex – and its output is entirely froth. It’s to be presumed that these channels are scientifically targeted at the right audience for the right return to advertisers.

But ITV (which yes, was known as ITV1 between 2001 and 2013) is worth something more than this. Even if I hadn’t been paying very much attention to it of late, I’d been continuing to hold it to a higher standard than other channels. After all, it’s the channel that broke the BBC’s monopoly in 1955. It’s part of the heritage of British television. It has retains the coveted third spot on the EPG. This is the channel that gave us The World at War, World In Action and the Pilger documentaries. The Muppet Show, The Prisoner and Brideshead Revisited. ITV used to revolutionise television. Nowadays, it has a rigid demographic, the same as everybody else, and it will not deviate from that. This, and the process of getting to this point, explains how ITV and I came to drift apart, and why our relationship is likely over.