Happy birthday, ITV

As it celebrates its golden anniversary, the network is facing unprecedented challenges. Ex-chief executive Richard Eyre focuses on battles to come
Click to follow
The Independent Online

John was director general of the BBC when I was chief executive of ITV, so we are both used to hearing the other take pops at "our" channels; neighbours who routinely mistake shade in the other's garden for sun in our own. Yet in the hand-to-hand combat of recent years, supremacy was ever only temporary. The BBC's chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, would shrug off short-term triumphs of BBC1 or ITV as merely the yo-yo of competition between them. He was right, then.

When I gave the MacTaggart lecture in 1999, I argued that our multi-channel, broadband, personal video recorder world did not condemn us to an abyss of lowest common denominator shows, because in times of infinite competition, ITV would retain its significance by securing the things that differentiate it from newer competitors: strong regions, risk-taking, innovation, quality (expensive) drama, well-funded sport, as well as inspired minority shows - the kind of unpredictable diversity that David Liddiment's genius had nurtured. I ventured that this prescription would keep ITV attractive to the best on and off-air talent, whose creativity would delight a wide range of viewers of all sorts, thereby maintaining the channel's performance for advertisers and shareholders. QED.

This was naive. I did not envisage that the terms of the deal to create ITV plc would involve handing the reins to the investors. Some of my dearest friends are fund managers, but they are what they are. Their job is to turn "1 into 2" faster than the other guy. This is neither surprising nor depressing, even though a greater share of investors' money than ever before is now managed by hedge funds, who spurn the more generous long-termism of the traditional fund manager. These are traders, much more willing to take an active position with management, and flip money around for short-term gain. I want these lovelies working my pension for me but unchecked, their agenda will kill ITV.

All business demands the resolving of divergent agendas. For broadcasters, the interests of shareholders, employees and customers must also be weighed against those of the viewers and the culture. But in ITV plc, the investors have simply muscled their way to the front. When they did for Michael Green, they reached further into the running of a company than is normal or good for it, putting Charles Allen, whose skills I admire, under unprecedented pressure to promote a cost/risk reduction agenda ahead of all others.

Pressure on ITV programme commissioners to favour in-house productions is not about great television but operating efficiencies. Investors are seduced by this vertical integration theory since it appears to keep margins in-house and add a layer of control to the creative process. But it doesn't work. Great broadcasters must source ideas from the best producers. And great producers must sell their shows to a broad range of customers for the best price they can get. Neither thrives when its range is constricted by being tethered to the other.

A great television channel takes risks; it accepts that some risks fail. A great investment doesn't; it likes predictability. But if a creative business tries to edit risk out of its processes by trusting to formulae or thrashing successful ideas, it will fail. The best talent won't stay, the audience will never discover anything unexpected in its schedule. Its reach falters, advertising prices fall and so does the share price. At that point the ITV yo-yo will have reached that stage where no matter how hard you yank it, it just lacks the momentum to rebound. The fund managers will move off into pork bellies or internet stocks but the cultural asset that is ITV will have been hollowed out.

But this is terrible. Who will stop it? The market? Not the advertising customers or the viewers. Why should they care? They have more choice than ever before. The employees? Arguably, so do they. Who then will speak up for an ITV that is a continuing cultural force? Lord Bragg's series is a powerful argument that someone should. Come on Ofcom, this is no time for lightness of touch.

Richard Eyre was chief executive of the ITV network from 1997-2000

Ciar Byrne recalls 50 past highlights

* The BBC tried to strangle ITV at birth on 22 September 1955 by killing off Grace Archer, a leading character in the radio series, The Archers.

* ITV's launch night was marked with a lavish banquet at London Guildhall, where the menu included clear turtle soup, lobster chablis and roast grouse washed down with 1947 Krug.

* ITV went live at 7.15pm on 22 September 1955, with a line-up including the Hallé Orchestra playing Elgar's Cockaigne Suite and an excerpt from The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Sir John Gielgud.

* The first full day of transmission was on 23 September, and included the weather presented by Squadron-Leader Laurie West.

* ITV had the first female newsreader on British TV, Barbara Mandell, who read the news on the second day on air.

* Before ITV launched, Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, compared "sponsored broadcasting" to smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death (all of which were introduced to England from overseas).

* Opponents of commercial television were incensed when American TV coverage of the Coronation was interrupted for an ad break featuring a celebrity chimp, J Fred Muggs. A clause was included in the commercial television Bill banning ad breaks from broadcasts featuring the Royal Family.

* More words were spoken in Parliament about whether a law allowing commercial television should be passed than are contained in the New Testament.

* The Broadcasting Bill was given Royal Assent on 30 July 1954, paving the way for a new independent television service supervised by the Independent Television Authority.

* Household cleaning products were the most advertised products in ITV's first five years.

* Adverts were placed in the press inviting applications from prospective programme contractors on 25 August 1954, attracting 25 replies.

* It is a myth that Sidney and Cecil Bernstein, the founders of Granada TV, chose to set up their company in the North, because it rained more, so they thought people would stay in to watch more TV.

* Lew Grade's ATV consortium, which held ITV licences in London and the Midlands, changed the face of television entertainment. But the ITA turned down the impresario's first application for a franchise, fearing it would give him too much clout.

* The first advert shown on ITV was at 8.12pm on its launch night for Gibbs SR toothpaste. At the time, more than a third of the population never brushed their teeth.

* ITV was the home of the first US TV shows to be broadcast in the UK, including I Love Lucy and the A-Team.

* Granada needed two transmitters for the northern region to serve both sides of the Pennines, but while the Lancashire transmitter was ready in time for launch night on 3 May 1956, the Yorkshire side was delayed until November.

* In the early days of ITV, the actors' union Equity refused to allow repeats so, if a show was repeated, the actors had to perform it all over again.

* An Oxford postgraduate called Somerset Plantagenet Fry became a celebrity as the first contestant on the quiz show Double Your Money's Treasure Trail in 1955.

* In 1958 Granada covered the Rochdale by-election, the first election to be shown on British television.

* Sunday Night At The London Palladium was one of ITV's most successful shows. At its height in 1958, when it was presented by Bruce Forsyth, it was watched by 28 million people.

* Armchair Theatre, run by Sydney Newman, brought original plays to a broad audience, but in 1958 one of the cast died as Underground was being transmitted. The play went on.

* Gone With The Wind star Vivien Leigh made her TV debut on ITV in 1959, in a production of Thornton Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth.

* The first episode of Coronation Street was broadcast on 9 December 1960. Writer Tony Warren originally called it Florizel Street and it almost became Jubilee Street.

* In 1962, the Pilkington report was highly critical of ITV and suggested the licence to run the third channel should be awarded to the BBC.

* In 1965, the ban on advertising cigarettes resulted in an £8m loss of revenue for ITV.

* ITV switched from black and white to colour in November 1969, prompting employees to strike for a pay increase for operating the new system.

* The Beatles made their TV debut in a live performance for People and Places, from Manchester on 17 October 1962.

* ITV's first major ratings clash with the BBC was on 20 July 1969, when the two went head to head with their live coverage of the first man on the Moon.

* The tape of ITV's coverage of the Moon landing has since been erased, along with many other programmes of the 1960s and 1970s, so it could be reused.

* In 1968, London Weekend Television acquired the rights to the one-day cricket contest, the Gillette Cup. The MCC was furious when ITV interrupted play for ads. The MCC took cricket back to the BBC, prompting an ITV lawsuit.

* 'Pop Stars' presenter 'Nasty' Nigel Lythgoe made his first television appearance as a dancer on Sunday Night At The London Palladium.

* Robin Hood was brought to ITV by Hannah Weinstein, who had fled the US in the McCarthy era and employed other blacklisted Hollywood talent to make a show about a character who redistributed wealth from the rich to the poor.

* ITV pioneered the concept of the studio panel to discuss football matches during the 1970 Mexico World Cup.

* Richard Burton was one of the backers for HTV's successful bid for the ITV franchise in Wales in 1967.

* ITV hoped to set up a second terrestrial channel like the BBC, but its hopes were dashed by the 1977 Annan report into the future of broadcasting.

* Lew Grade tried to keep down the cost of employing Roger Moore in The Saint by telling him episodes would last half an hour rather than an hour.

* The name of The Avengers' character Emma Peel was an expression of what the producers were looking for - M[an] Appeal.

* Mindful of impact, in the making of Jesus of Nazareth, Lew Grade asked: "Why are there only 12 apostles?"

* The Sweeney was the first police drama to be shot on location in real streets rather than in the studio.

* It takes longer to watch ITV's 13-part 1981 costume drama Brideshead Revisited than it does to read Evelyn Waugh's novel.

* The US oil companies who usually sponsored ITV's big dramas at first would not back Jewel In The Crown, saying India was too far away for the US audience.

* In 1973, the ITA banned a World In Action programme about the business affairs of bankrupt architect John Poulson, uniting The Sunday Times and Socialist Worker in a campaign against censorship.

* The South Bank Show first aired in 1978. When writer Richard Curtis applied to work for it, he was not even shortlisted.

* Greg Dyke was hired as editor-in-chief of TV-am in May 1983, when the new show was engaged in a frantic battle with BBC Breakfast and had just 800,000 viewers.

* City analysts reckon ITV's first unsuccessful foray into digital , OnDigital, had losses of up to £1m a day. Even rebranding it as ITV Digital, with a campaign featuring a woolly monkey, couldn't save it from going bust in 2002.

* In the first Pop Idol final, which pitted Will Young against Gareth Gates, on 9 Feburary 2002, the public cast 8.7 million votes and BT said the volume of calls had threatened the network.

* Bryan Ferry has admitted to being a fan of Footballers' Wives. He said the show was: "Wonderful! All these trashy women wandering around done up to the nines. I love it."

* The final of the first series of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here inspired some to recreate their own jungles. B&Q reported a 30 per cent rise in online sales of deck chairs, barbecues and garden arches.

* Nearly 13 milion viewers tuned in to watch Ken and Deidre Barlow get remarried on Coronation Street in April 2005; 7 million saw Charles wed Camilla the following day.

* Royal Mail is releasing stamps to mark the 50th birthday, but Kevin Whately's image has had to be cut from the Inspector Morse stamp, as no one living, apart from the Royal Family, is allowed to appear on UK stamps.