Owners of movie theatres in Britain were initially opposed to advertising-supported television, which they believed would reduce already falling cinema audiences (which had declined from 1,635 million in 1946 to 1,182 million by the mid-1950s) and thus company profits. But faced with the inevitability of the introduction of commercial television, one cinema chain, Granada Theatres, concluded that the way to avoid losing out was to be involved in it from the beginning. Granada bid for a franchise, which was duly awarded.
The Associated-British Picture Corporation, however, had forcefully campaigned against commercial television. Despite some differences among the Corporation's senior managers, ABPC decided against making an application for an ITV contract. Subsequently, Howard Thomas, Managing Director of ABPC's joint distribution company with Pathé, and one of those who shared the Granada view, received a number of offers from other consortia. Lew Grade's ATV invited him to become an advisory producer, while Associated-Rediffusion offered a directorship and the ill-fated Kemsley-Winnick group asked him to become Managing Director. Even the BBC wanted to make him Controller of Programmes.
The Independent Television Authority allegedly offered ABPC a seven-day Midlands contract, but it was turned down by the board. No sooner had Thomas gone on holiday, however, than Kemsley-Winnick's consortium collapsed and ABPC found themselves being offered the weekend contract for the Midlands and the North. As a result of various encouragements from Sir Robert Fraser, Director General of the ITA (including a share of the ₤750,000 allocated by the government in case independent television failed, guaranteeing that the company would at least break even), ABPC eventually decided to say yes, finally signing the contract on 21 September 1955 - the day before the opening of commercial television in the UK. This gave the new company, to be called ABC Television, just twelve weeks to prepare for broadcasting to the Midlands, three months more for the North.
The company was to operate from three studio centres. In the Midlands, which ABC did not regard as its primary service area, it established Alpha Television Studios as a joint venture with ATV, based in the former ABC Astoria cinema in the Aston suburb of Birmingham. In the North, the cost-conscious company converted the ABC Capitol Cinema in Didsbury, on the outskirts of Manchester, to contain a large studio with audience capability, plus a smaller studio upstairs along with a news/presentation room. Other news studios were installed around the two regions. Teddington, the home of the parent company and former UK HQ for Warner Bros., was ideal for the production of filmed programming but was the last to come on-stream, in 1958/59. ABC was able to save on equipment costs by buying up gear originally ordered by the failed Kemsley-Winnick group.
ABC Television started broadcasting to the Midlands on 18 February 1956, with an extended fanfare written by Sir Arthur Bliss and a logo directly derived from that of the cinema chain. From Manchester, broadcasts began on 5 May with the F.A. Cup Final, Manchester City beating Birmingham City 3-1. The first weekend continued with film star Hazel Court, Macdonald Hobley and Ludovic Kennedy reading the news; the first showing of ITC's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-59) and ABC's first weekend drama, The Last Reunion, with Eric Portman and Michael Gough.
The company soon made a name for itself and produced a wide range of programming, one of the most memorable shows being cult drama The Avengers, produced from early 1961 until September 1969 - after the television company had ceased broadcasting under its own name. Other contributions to the ITV network during the company's twelve years of broadcasting included the Armchair Theatre (1956-74) series of plays, the historical documentary series Time to Remember (1968-72), Hughie Green's Opportunity Knocks (1964-68), Ian Hendry in Police Surgeon (1960) and many others. ABC, with what was, at the time, ITV's largest fleet of outside broadcast vehicles, also produced World of Sport (1965-85), broadcast opposite the BBC's Grandstand (1958-2007) on Saturday afternoons. Company policy was that each weekend would contain something for each member of the family, including adult education programming on Saturday mornings.
None of the initial ITV companies fared well financially in the early days, and they were obliged to cut costs to stay afloat, but ABC's astute repurposing of existing buildings and other cost-saving measures limited its first year's deficit to under ₤100,000. Three years later, in 1959, commercial television had turned around, and ABC's profit was in the region of 1.5 million pounds. By 1964, ABC Television contributed around 50% of the parent company's profits, and in 1965 it was two-thirds.
Following early ITA criticism, ABC Television was praised in the 1964 contract round. But in 1967, the regulator, under Charles Hill, eliminated weekend franchises outside London. ABC intended to pursue the London weekend franchise but the London Television Consortium - later to become London Weekend Television - succeeded in impressing the ITA.
Following criticism of Rediffusion's performance in the London area, the ITA proposed that ABPC and Rediffusion's parent, British Electric Traction, should create a new company from the resources of their subsidiaries, with profits split equally, but 51% of shares - and thus management control - held by ABC. The company would be given Rediffusion's London weekdays contract. LTC had chosen the name 'Thames Television' but then dropped it: it seemed an ideal name for the new company. ABC Television ceased broadcasting on July 28, 1968, but continued to exist as a holding company, as did Rediffusion. Thames Television took over from Rediffusion on July 30.
Independent Television in Britain, Vol 1, Bernard Sendall, Macmillan 1982
Independent Teleweb, http://www.itw.org.uk
ABC At Large, http://www.transdiffusion.org/abc/index.htm
Richard G. Elen