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In the last 50 years, the effects of ITV have been felt not just within broadcasting, but also in wider British society. ITV's history has been dramatic, veering from vast financial riches (as Scottish TV's chairman Roy Thomson said, it could be "a licence to print money") to sudden cash crises, and from artistic triumphs to critical brickbats. In all of these phases its social and cultural influence has been felt and reflected the age.

ITV launched on 22nd September 1955, concluding a long public debate. Television technology was established and the general population could now afford sets, many buying after the coverage of the Coronation in 1953, as post-war austerity gave way to a new consumer boom in Britain. A coalition of Tory MPs, advertisers, and industry won the case for a commercial channel, against the BBC's and others' claims that it would cheapen culture. The Independent Television Authority was installed to act as both controller and regulator of a regional structure of franchises.

And so the show began. Loud, cheerful and brash, ITV proved an immediate hit, although initially coverage was only in London, quickly followed by the Midlands and the industrial North. As the service gradually rolled out across the nation, its audiences grew, the working class in particular attracted by the chance of having popular, visually exciting entertainment in the home, reflected in a huge corresponding decline in cinema audiences.

ITV was quickly criticised for its largely populist fare, such as variety specials (especially Sunday Night at the London Palladium, 1955-69), American imports, and big money quiz shows (such as Double Your Money, 1955-68; and Take Your Pick, 1955-68). Sometimes, however, ITV outstripped the BBC for quality and innovation. Its dramas, particularly adventure series like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-59), used film to great effect rather than the staid studio bound Corporation style. Canadian producer Sydney Newman brought new writing and directing talent to a mass audience through the single plays of Armchair Theatre (1956-74), creating a specifically televisual kind of drama in Britain; raw, gritty and using the intimacy of the medium. Likewise ITN, the news company serving commercial channels, delivered the news with an irreverence and energy that suited the age better than the establishment BBC.

Populism and innovation paid off. By 1957, ITV dominated Britain's homes with an 80% share of the potential audience. The money was pouring in from advertisers, making most of the companies very rich indeed. Success led to political pressures, however, and in the early 1960s the power of ITV was questioned and attacked.

In 1960 a committee was set up under Lord Pilkington to investigate the broadcasting industry, and allocate a third television channel. During its deliberations an 11% levy was placed on advertising, and the BBC under Hugh Greene competed fiercely with fresher programmes, pulling back a respectable audience share. The Pilkington Committee's outlook was distinctly public service and outspoken in its criticism of what it perceived as ITV's greed, vulgarity, and lack of social conscience. Many considered Pilkington's report unfair on publication in 1962, but it still had great influence on the Television Act finally passed in 1964 - BBC got the third channel, the ITA gained more regulatory powers, and levies on advertising revenues were increased.

Pilkington produced a new, chastened ITV and the channel's character changed in the 1960s. Eager for political acceptance and faced with a resurgent BBC, ITV stayed popular but developed an impressive serious side too. The ITA could now force scheduling of news, current affairs and drama, and programme makers responded with innovation and imagination. The '60s and '70s were the height of the duopoly - what was now the nation's main leisure activity, source of information, and form of popular culture was controlled by just two organisations. It was in the interests of both BBC and ITV to maintain a symbiotic relationship, instead of destroying each other. The duopoly was certainly uncompetitive, but it also had benefits for the viewer. Stability allowed for risk-taking and investment in talent and programming.

The centrality of television to British life meant that the best shows and stars on ITV had a resonance; they spoke to people about their lives and became cultural identification points. New satellite technology brought global events into the living room and gave more opportunities for ITN to develop its excellence; in addition, current affairs strands like This Week (1956-92) were digging further behind the headlines. Huge entertainment stars like Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill were made by ITV, and the channel's top dramas, which were frequently daring and diverse, regularly drew in audiences well in excess of 20 million. Coronation Street (1960-), for 45 years now Britain's favourite show, chronicles an ordinary working-class Northern community, mirroring the rhythms of viewers' own ordinary lives. In contrast The Avengers (1961-69) and The Prisoner (1967-68) were baroque fantasy adventures, saturated in '60s style, that still retain their cult charm.

ITV always styled itself 'the people's channel'. It was built to be a mass experience, engaging with huge audiences. This informed its self-image, although this was not without contradictions. It contrived to be both firmly capitalist and proudly working-class in character; hand in hand with big business but vaunting an anti-establishment stance.

The only cloud on this otherwise stable horizon for ITV was the franchise renewal round. Companies were on contracts with the ITA that had to be renewed and therefore could be challenged. For years these were deferred or uncontested, but 1967 brought in big changes. Established names like Associated-Rediffusion disappeared and new broadcast areas were created; Granada's northern empire was carved up to establish Yorkshire TV. In London, two new contractors, Thames and London Weekend Television, were born and were to prove enormously influential, although LWT's initial highbrow aspirations were quickly watered down by commercial reality. The regional structure of ITV gave an interesting slant to its progress and helped deepen regional identities - The North-West was sometimes known as 'Granadaland' and some of the smaller companies, such as Border, Ulster, and Channel, became an integral part of their areas.

ITV was inevitably affected by Britain's economic downturn in the 1970s. An advertising recession coincided with the advent of colour TV, with its high start-up costs for the channel. More problems developed over industrial relations - strikes meant no advertising revenue so were particularly effective against ITV - culminating in a stoppage for over 2 months in 1979 that ended with huge wage concessions to technicians.

Despite these economic travails, ITV was now a mature organisation and a significant player in British cultural life. As well as entertaining the country, the channel was informing them; The World at War (1973-74) was a landmark documentary history, and World in Action (1963-98)'s investigations were a regular irritant to the establishment.

Confidence and ratings remained high and ITV naturally expected to be awarded a new fourth channel. The Wilson government set up a committee, under Lord Annan, to examine the case. However, the published report in 1977 favoured the option of an independent channel that reflected a changing society. Significantly, it would be a publisher, not a producer, of programmes, thus offering opportunities for the burgeoning independent production sector.

Although Channel 4 was placed under the aegis of the new Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), it was not going to be the expansion that ITV had craved. Once this was clear, the franchise auctions came into action and a number of regions changed hands, including the midlands, where the once mighty ATV was replaced by Central.

Perhaps as a reaction to Channel 4's claims to the artistic high ground, ITV tried hard for prestige in the 1980s. The channel attempted to gain the affluent, opinion-forming viewers that had traditionally eluded it through major period dramas such as Brideshead Revisited (1981) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984) and, later, through the languid, middlebrow pleasures of Inspector Morse (1987-2000).

While prestige shows found favour with audiences and advertisers, by the early 1980s the writing was on the wall for the old duopoly, although its decline has proved long and painful. The birth of Channel 4 showed the potential of using independent producers and has been the template for the proliferation of channels since. This new multichannel world became possible through technological change, as cable and satellite could deliver potentially vast numbers of channels to homes. The Thatcher government espoused the doctrine of market forces and this had a dramatic effect on ITV. Competition was encouraged and, although the contractors were able to access new sponsorship money and were aided by Downing Street in their disputes with the unions, fingers were soon pointing at their privileged positions. The Peacock Committee that informed the 1990 Broadcasting Act attacked their advertising monopoly (thus allowing Channel 4 to sell its own airtime and opening the way for Five) and their 'restrictive practices'.

The 1990 Act paved the way for future deregulation of the industry, making ITV a business dependent on shareholder profit. This was reflected in the brutal franchise auction in 1991. A strange mix of cash bid and quality threshold managed the irony of getting rid of both the Tory government's nemesis Thames (responsible for the critical investigative documentary Death on the Rock (tx. 28/4/1988) and its favourite, union-bashing breakfast franchise, TV-am.

The 1990s and the turn of the new century have been periods of rapid change for ITV. Gradually restrictions on cross-media ownership, and the holding of multiple franchises, as well as obligatory programming quotas for religious, arts, and children's shows have been lifted. The regional network of franchises that made up ITV faded. Initially contractors were carved up between the two biggest contractors, Carlton (Thames' replacement) and Granada, before the 2003 Communications Act enabled the birth of one ITV company, ITV plc, in 2004. Only at the fringes of the nation - Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Channel Islands - is there now independent ownership within the regions.

ITV's self-image as the popular voice of the nation has taken something of a battering in recent years. In 2003 the number of multichannel homes passed 50%, but ITV is still suffering from its disastrous early foray into digital broadcasting. ONdigital (later rebranded ITV Digital ) lost vast amounts of money and gained very few subscribers. Only now, through ITV2 and ITV3, is the company developing the 'family' of channels thought to be the future of broadcasting in the multichannel age.

In the 1990s, ITV marketed itself as 'the nation's favourite button' but the BBC has often proved ruthlessly competitive in the battle for ratings. Under director-general Greg Dyke's programme strategy, BBC1 overtook ITV in audience share in 2001. ITV has also had to compete with a multitude of rivals across different media for advertisers, with serious consequences for its programming. There is now a need for instant hits that immediately grab the public attention - difficult when potential viewers have so many other options. The vast audiences gained by ITV in earlier decades were partly due to a scarcity of alternatives - as consumer society has developed this audience has atomised into many different individual units. ITV's triumph was its appeal to us as a collective force, something the whole family, or the whole street, saw and enjoyed. The dissipation of the British working class has inevitably affected the channel, and it has been squeezed by the BBC's establishment identity on the one hand and the aspirational zeal of Channel 4 on the other.

ITV faces a difficult future but it surely has a place, albeit a less powerful one, in the new multichannel universe. It would be a grave mistake to underestimate its importance. ITV has made many challenging programmes that made its audiences think about their world. More than anything, for half a century now, ITV has been a pretty accurate mirror for Britain, reflecting its tastes, concerns and anxieties.

Phil Wickham

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