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Forty years ago this week, ITV was launched - an event regarded by certain observers as the end of civilised society.
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Britain's very first beer commercial showed a row of four frothy glasses of Watney's amber liquid, filmed in shades of grey, being emptied in turn with a satisfying slurp. It was screened between rounds of a live boxing match on ITV's opening night, Thursday 22 September, 1955. As the last glass was drained, viewers were switched back to the fight to see one of the boxers spitting a generous mouthful of saliva into a bucket.

It was a timely reminder of the array of potential banana-skins that lay in the path of the new commercial television service. The good news was that, despite the passionately expressed fears of its diehard opponents, there was no sudden outbreak of mass depravity in the 188,000 homes in the South-east equipped to receive the new service on that first night.

Yet what happened on that Thursday 40 years ago marked a watershed in our national culture. It was the night viewers were allowed to grow up. With broadcasting no longer the monopoly of a publicly-funded corporation controlled by state nominees, it would become increasingly hard for the great and good to limit what we watched. The historian AJP Taylor wrote soon afterwards: "The ending of the BBC monopoly is the biggest knock which respectability has taken in my lifetime."

After 1955, the barriers of reticence that had been carefully placed around broadcasting by Lord Reith, the BBC's first Director-General, were gradually dismantled where they conflicted with the demands for broadcasting to respond to the new market-place. Over the years, ITV would let people watch what they enjoyed rather than what was deemed good for them. And Auntie BBC, if her entire audience was not to vanish, was obliged to grit her teeth and start thinking of the ratings.

John Birt, the present Director-General of the BBC and a former ITV executive, admits: "What ITV did was to oblige the BBC truly to engage the whole of the audience. It's had a very substantial impact on the BBC, changing it from an organisation that might have thought it knew best what the audience should see, to one that is much clearer that it has to satisfy a wider range of interests and needs."

The political battle over the introduction of commercial television represented the last stand of those who believed that the growth of popular media posed an intolerable threat to social stability. The most ferocious critic was Lord Reith himself, whose stern Presbyterian ethic flowed through the BBC long after his departure. In debates in the House of Lords in the early Fifties, he likened the proposed ITV to "smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death" and "a maggot in the body politic of England".

This was an extreme but not a lone view. It was not just about television but about consumerism. The idea of having blatant advertisements on the screen horrified many in a climate in which the BBC still went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that no brand names should ever sully the eyes and ears of viewers and listeners.

ITV tried to avoid calling itself "commercial" because commerce was a distasteful word. Michael Grade, a former Controller of BBC1 and now chief executive of Channel 4, says: "The initial opposition was a class thing. They looked down on trade. The fear was that vulgarians like Lew Grade [Michael's uncle], Sidney and Cecil Bernstein were going to be let loose on the airwaves. It was total snobbery."

In the Fifties, those who ran the BBC had the same blushing attitude to money as Victorians had to sex: something not to be mentioned in polite society. While televising horse races, for instance, BBC commentators would primly avoid any reference to betting, the sport's raison d'etre.

Even after ITV defied this precedent in its own racing coverage, Auntie could not quite bring herself to go the whole hog. Sir Paul Fox, who was running a BBC sports programme at the time, recalls that commentators would be instructed to stay silent as the racecourse public address system gave the starting prices, allowing viewers to hear the news while the Corporation's virtue remained unsullied.

Sir Paul recalls the traumatic effect on the BBC of its first taste of competition 40 years ago: "The earliest memory I have is a queue outside an office in Lime Grove with people going in and being offered a salary increase for not going to ITV.

"The new companies were recruiting hard. A man called Harry Alan Towers (controller of programmes for ATV) invited me to his flat in Langham Street. It was like an old farce. You were put in one room and were appraised by Towers' mother. You knew someone else was in the next room being interviewed. There was a lot of money being offered."

But Fox decided to stay with the BBC. "Ian Jacob, then the Director-General, felt that sport would be a decisive battleground. The BBC found some money to almost double my salary and others', and let us do things that wouldn't have been possible had the competitor not been round the corner. It was a wonderful time in the BBC. Budgets were constantly being increased and there were no management consultants to tell us what to do."

Not all the commercial companies were keen to recruit from the BBC. Sir Denis Forman, who was with Granada when it began ITV transmissions to the north of England in 1956 and later became its chairman, says: "We got our people from journalism, from Canada, from the post office, anywhere but the BBC. We thought they were arrogant, stuffy and patronising."

That philosophy was evident in Granada's coverage of news and current affairs, for which it became famous. ITV did not just push out the borders of public reticence on advertising and gambling, it had a profound impact on political coverage as well.

It launched hard-hitting and long-running programmes, such as World in Action and What the Papers Say. The BBC's timidity about reporting politics was highlighted when Granada became the first broadcaster to give full coverage to a by-election - in Rochdale in 1958. Pressure from the ITV companies forced the abandonment of the "14-day rule" that barred discussion on television or radio of topics coming up in Parliament in the next fortnight.

News was the BBC's most vulnerable area in 1955, and one that ITV attacked vigorously. "BBC television news was the laughing stock of the country," says Sir Paul Fox. "It was just words with pictures, and pompous announcers in dinner jackets."

The assault came on two levels. Because ITV companies were regionally based, their local news was an immediate strength. Nationally, Independent Television News - jointly owned by the ITV franchise-holders - seized its chance by appointing two men in their twenties as its regular news- readers: Christopher Chataway, already famous as an international athlete, and the unknown Robin Day.

Informality was the watchword. After the opening night, Chataway received mixed reviews: one critic feared that "over-chattiness" might rob the news of its authority; another noted disapprovingly that Chataway was interpreting the news rather than announcing it. When Day made his debut the next night, Bernard Levin wrote in the Manchester Guardian that he was "much too eager to please". Chataway recalls: "We were modelled on American newscasters like Ed Murrow. Robin and I insisted on writing the scripts ourselves."

Another area in which ITV quickly made its mark was drama. The Canadian Sydney Newman was brought in by ABC, the Midland weekend franchise-holder, to begin a series of contemporary plays for Sunday evenings. His Armchair Theatre established itself as the home for new television writing. At the other end of the market, experiments were made with soap operas until Granada finally struck gold with Coronation Street.

Betty Willingale joined the BBC's drama department the week that ITV began. "I can remember the feeling of being on the run," she says. "Until then we'd mainly done theatre plays but the head of drama, Michael Barry, squeezed some money out of the BBC to start a script unit and hire writers - like John Hopkins, John McGrath and Troy Kennedy Martin. The success of Armchair Theatre accelerated that."

ITV's biggest success was in light entertainment. ATV, the London weekend contractor run by the impresario Lew Grade, led the way with Sunday Night at the London Palladium and by importing popular American comedies such as I Love Lucy and shows by the exotic pianist Liberace.

"The BBC's attempts at light entertainment were puerile," Sir Denis Forman recollects, singling out Cafe Continental, which sought to re-create the atmosphere of a smoky night club between the wars. ITV relied on stars such as Tommy Trinder and Hughie Greene, who appealed to a broader audience.

William Stewart, the veteran producer of entertainment and quiz programmes, says: "Sunday Night at the London Palladium was a big, brash new baby, bringing in American stars most of us had never seen, like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby."

By the end of the Fifties, with the whole country able to receive ITV, it was heavily out-gunning the BBC, with the audience split 70-30. Two things happened to shift the balance. When Sir Hugh Greene became Director- General in 1959, the BBC threw off many of the cobwebs and inhibitions of pre-competition days, especially in news and current affairs. Then a report by the Pilkington Committee slated ITV for the triviality of its programmes, and suggested root-and-branch reform. That paved the way for a second BBC channel in 1964; thus it could launch a two-pronged attack on its commercial rival.

Since then the respective fortunes of BBC and ITV have see-sawed. ITV had two boosts in the early Seventies: first, restrictions were lifted on the hours it was allowed to broadcast; then the government levy on the companies was switched to being paid on profits rather than revenue.

This encouraged investment in prestige programmes, notably Granada's expensive serials, Brideshead Revisited (1981) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984). The BBC hired Michael Grade to restore its gloss, which he did so successfully that by the end of the Eighties advertisers were complaining of ITV's poor ratings.

Four decades after its birth, the future of ITV is far from certain. It put on a spurt just before the 1992 franchise allocation, but when the new companies took over in 1993, those that had bid high for their franchises were again complaining of a shortage of money. A series of mergers left the ITV system dominated by three businessmen, none with roots in television: Garry Robinson of Granada/LWT, Michael Green of Carlton/Central and Clive Hollick of Anglia/Meridian. There was growing pressure on broadcasters to maximise revenue, which meant going for ever-larger peak-hour audiences and moving less popular programmes to the margins.

Today, with competition for advertising from a growing number of specialised satellite and cable channels, as well as the proposed Channel 5, there seems no prospect of this trend being reversed. Sir Denis Forman believes that, when digital technology increases the number of channels still further, the days of all-embracing stations, such as ITV and BBC1 may be numbered. But not everyone agrees.

David Plowright, Sir Denis's successor as chairman of Granada, says: "It seems likely that ITV is going to be a major commercially supported entertainment channel, but with less and less of the original regional structure that was so important."

Michael Grade thinks ITV's "public service role is diminishing. It is being pushed more and more to the edge of the schedules and will eventually fall off. Soon it will be wall-to-wall entertainment, to win the ratings war in every time period at all costs."

John Birt takes a measured view: "ITV is at the beginning of a new period in its history, losing its advertising monopoly, but it would surprise me if it didn't remain a substantial player in the foreseeable future. The last thing I'd like to see is ITV and Channel 4 not offering competition in all areas."

Bill Stewart is more pessimistic: "I see ITV becoming a more cynical operation for its shareholders. It had a brash birth in the Fifties, then became a sophisticated and polished service of a very high standard. I now think it has become a cynical trader." Which, of course, is what Lord Reith and the stuffed shirts predicted from the start.