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TV Technology 7. An Independent Air by Richard G. Elen


Rediffusion's Adastral logo

Rediffusion's Adastral logo

Before the end of the Second World War, plans were being drawn up to restart television broadcasting in Britain. A government committee was set up in September 1943 to investigate the return of the BBC Television Service, and what form that return should take.

There have been various explanations why impoverished postwar Britain even thought of restarting a television service that, by its close in 1939, had racked up under 100,000 viewers and was limited to the London area. The reasons range from philosophical to practical. Certainly the attitude in Britain, rebuilding after the war, was that this was a new world, and a new approach was needed. The new postwar Labour government instituted dramatic and far-reaching changes to the infrastructure of the UK - with nationalisation, social services and a reappraisal of the state's duty to care for individual welfare - but also attempted to engender a new, positive worldview to which progress, national achievement and pulling together were central. Television certainly had a role to play here: informing, educating and entertaining in the manner of Lord Reith's pre-war BBC. But in addition, the country needed cash - foreign cash. Britain had been a world leader in television before the war, and although other countries, notably the United States, had caught up, British broadcasting technology, from switchgear to transmitters to television receivers - which could allegedly easily be converted from British 405-line to American 525-line operation - could be sold abroad.

The government committee, under Lord Hankey, reported back at the end of December 1944, and in October 1945, only a month after the official end of the war in Europe, the word was given. Just eight months later, the BBC Television Service, headed by Maurice Gorham, was back on the air from Alexandra Palace. Over the following years, the 405-line VHF service - technically to the same specification as before the war (to be called 'System A' and introduced across Europe, but due to advances in both cameras and receivers, now capable of delivering noticeably better images) - was expanded from the London area, first to the Midlands from a new transmitter in Sutton Coldfield, and then beyond, ultimately bringing about the Committee's aim that the service should be extended to cover "at any rate the larger centres of population within a reasonable period after the war".

Transmitters arrived in Scotland and Wales by 1952, making TV signals available to over 80% of the British population. Television grew so quickly that just eight years after it restarted, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was watched by an estimated 20 million viewers. Television was no longer a novelty and, although the price of sets was still high compared to disposable income, nor was it any longer the domain of the few. There was pressure for additional broadcasting hours, and concern in some circles that the BBC would be overstretched. The Television Service needed larger premises: the BBC bought land at Shepherds Bush for a new Television Centre, and purchased the old Rank film studios at Lime Grove.

Other changes were in the air too. In 1952, a Government White Paper had acknowledged the need for a wider choice in television viewing. Various groups and organisations, including advertising agencies, those involved in offshore commercial radio before the war (when Radio Normandy and Radio Luxembourg had challenged the BBC radio monopoly), TV manufacturers and, perhaps most importantly, Conservative back-benchers, campaigned for commercial television. They didn't all want the same thing. Some wanted sponsored programmes as well as commercials, along American lines, while others wanted commercials only. Some expected the BBC to provide an additional commercial service, while others thought it should be included in the existing channel. Conservative Party leaders in opposition were initially unconvinced, but ultimately came round as powerful lobbying groups pressed their message home.

Labour was opposed to commercial television and instead supported the continuation of the BBC monopoly - which had, interestingly, been established by a Conservative government. But then it lost power and, following some of the most unpleasant wrangling in parliamentary history, the Television Act of 1954 introduced commercial television - but without sponsored shows. As the word 'commercial' was regarded as pejorative by some, a different euphemism, 'independent' was employed; it was a running joke at the time as to who or what the new service was 'independent' of. A new public regulatory body, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) was established, with Sir Kenneth Clarke, chairman of the Arts Council, as chairman and Robert Fraser as director-general.

While the 1954 Act established Independent Television (ITV), it didn't delineate how it was to be done - it was "all spirit and few letters" as one commentator has put it - leaving the ITA with a major job on its hands. Television had so far been broadcast in VHF Band I, 41-68 MHz. The new commercial stations would broadcast in Band III, 174-216 MHz. This meant a new transmitter network, while viewers would need additional receiving aerials, and new sets - or at least converters that would add the new channels to an existing set.

The General Post Office (GPO) was in charge of licensing, but instead of allocating all the available Band III channels to the new service, it would only allow four: channels 8 to 11. Immediately, the ITA's options were limited. The new service had not only to compete with the BBC; the Act (in one of its more specific clauses) called for "adequate competition to supply programmes between a number of programme contractors." This would be extremely difficult if it was going to be impossible to run more than one ITV station in a given area - which was all that four channels would permit. Indeed, none of the possible options looked very appetising. They all seemed to be, as Fraser put it, "cages in which we would be caught forever".

Yet Fraser came up with the solution: dividing the country into regions - served, ultimately, by 14 companies and linked by a common network - a structure that was to endure for decades and which, even today, in a Britain in which ITV is homogenous and non-regionalised, is still used for marketing and commercial purposes. In his ITV system, companies would serve their own regions, but they would provide them with a mixture of their own programmes and programmes networked from other contractors around the country, with the companies competing to provide content to the network.

Most regions were assigned a single company. However, the initial rollout of ITV would be first in London - from a new transmitter on Beulah Hill, Norwood, in sight of Crystal Palace - then in the Midlands, from Lichfield; and finally in the North, from Winter Hill and Emley Moor. These three enormous regions included a significant proportion of the UK population and could not simply be allocated a contractor each. The idea was suggested of assigning two companies to each region - one serving weekdays and the other weekends - but that too was only part of a solution: six companies established on that basis would be too disparate in size, income and competitiveness to create the necessary balance.

Fraser's solution to this additional challenge was ingenious. He took the population for each area and multiplied it by the number of days each contractor would broadcast - broken down into weekdays and weekends. He combined these six blocks into four groups of approximately equal size, and allocated them a contractor each. Thus London had one broadcaster Monday to Friday. The Midlands also had one contractor Monday to Friday, but that contractor was also to serve the London area at weekends. The large pan-North region that included both Lancashire and Yorkshire had one contractor for weekdays, and the smallest of the four companies was to serve the Midlands and the North at weekends.

While all this had been going on, the ITA had been interviewing prospective franchise-holders. Under a week after completing the interviews, and under two weeks after Fraser's design had been finalised, the ITA announced the first four franchise-holders for the new network. Following the announcement, there was one change before the service went on the air, as the Midlands/North weekend Kemsley-Winnick consortium failed and was replaced by another, ABC Television. But as opening night drew near, the other three contractors were in place: Associated-Rediffusion for London weekdays; ATV (initially also called, confusingly, 'ABC') for the Midlands weekdays and London weekends; and Granada from the North during the week.

Independent Television opened in London on Thursday, 22 September, 1955 with a combined programme from Associated-Rediffusion and what was to become ATV. Leslie Mitchell, the former voice of the BBC Television Service, announced for the first time, "This is London." A fanfare by Charles Williams was heard as Associated-Rediffusion's 'Adastral' logo, with the company name and channel number beneath, formed up for the first time.

Mitchell went on, "This is Channel Nine, on Band III, which brings you programmes by Associated-Rediffusion, every week, from Monday to Friday." He was followed by an excerpt from Sir Edward Elgar's overture 'Cockaigne - In London Town'. The station's elegant, heraldic clock reached 7:15 pm. Independent Television was on the air - and British broadcasting entered a new era.

Sources include:
Peter Black, The Mirror In The Corner - People's Television (Hutchinson, 1972)
Howard Thomas, With An Independent Air - Encounters During a Lifetime of Broadcasting (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977)
H.H. Wilson, Pressure Group: The Campaign for Commercial Television (Secker & Warburg, 1961)

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