Happy Birthday ITV, you've given us all the greats...

...but as the 'people's channel' turns 50, will financial pressures force it to abandon the quality programmes that helped to make its name? Melvyn Bragg is worried

Some of the most mem-orable as well as the most popular, some of the most spectacular as well as the most intellectually testing programmes on British television over the past 50 years have appeared not on the munificently and I believe properly subsidised BBC, nor on the efficient and inventive Channel 4, but on ITV, the freebooter, the entre- preneur, the despised arriviste when it was forced on the British public by Parliament 50 years ago. But the British public loved it and, despite some rather bad air days recently, the affection and support are still there.

ITV brought the world's greatest stars to the rather timid British hearth of the 1950s. Sunday Night At The London Palladium was anchored by British TV's first home-grown television celebrity, Bruce Forsyth, who was parachuted on to television from a music hall troupe in Eastbourne. He introduced Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Bobby Darren ... it was an American invasion feared and loathed by the Establishment but welcomed as a cultural liberation by the 84 per cent of the viewing audience which watched it. Within a year or so, ITV made the 20 top programmes in the country. And ITV continued to spotlight and make its own stars from Cilla Black, Jeremy Beadle and Chris Tarrant to Ant and Dec and the Pop Idol phenomenon.

ITV was unafraid to be the channel of the people. And it spent - for the times - outlandish money. Only ITV with its deep regional structure could have brought a feisty, fast-tongued, street slang, totally Non-U drama to the screen twice a week, called it Coronation Street, made the pub the hub and created the single greatest and longest-running hit in British and probably world television. ITV made classic drama popular - most remarkably Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel In The Crown. They also made popular drama classic as in Morse, A Touch Of Frost and Prime Suspect. They made one-offs like Cracker, still branded on the brain and still they go for goal as with Dirty Filthy Love.

But did I say intellectual? Yes. Weekend World, the John Birt-Peter Jay deep throat analysis of current politics, has never been bettered, nor has World In Action's relentless pursuit of the liars in the Establishment to their lair. John Pilger is still hot-foot. You might find this odd but for me one of the greatest intellectual contributions made by ITV was Disappearing World. Until then, when television's anthropologists had shown us "primitive people" it was they who spoke for them. As if these people could not be trusted to speak for themselves. So with the best will in the world, the primitive people always sounded primitive, even childish. By adopting sub- titles, Disappearing World at one stroke showed us that their intelligence was every bit as complex and thoughtful as our own. It changed a way of appreciating the past for ever.

ITN brought the first foreign correspondents to the News. It zapped around the globe looking for trouble. I could go on. I do. Am I cherry-picking? Of course. Who doesn't when a big anniversary comes around? That is when cherries come into their own. But ITV not only survived the most vicious early assault from the Establishment (it was likened to the Black Death), it also survived the early refusal of advertisers to believe that what had worked in America would work here. ITV was technically bankrupt after its first year. But its audience reach woke up the advertisers.

I believe the key to its uniqueness is its hybrid nature. No other commercial broadcaster in the world has been as successful commercially and, at the same time, equally as effective in what could be called the public service sector: documentaries, well funded news, classic drama, religion, children's programmes, the arts, the regions. This has been and still is its greatness. It is this key public service factor which is under all but unbearable strain and in danger of being lost. If it disappears, something will be gone never to return, not only to TV but to the national culture.

ITV devotes a remarkable 33 per cent of its programmes to public service broadcasting and, bluntly, it can scarcely afford to do that today, let alone for a foreseeably fundable future.

As the great god Coincidence would have it, in a couple of days', with the commercial television market is tougher than it has ever been, there will be a decision from Ofcom which could either wave on ITV as we have known it at its best, or point it towards an irreversible decline in public service commitment.

Ofcom, whose institution I supported in Parliament, is the body which takes overriding responsibility for media and broadcasting. It has brought thorough analysis and coherence to the loose and baggy monster of the British media.

ITV's problem is this. In 1990, a time of an advertising Klondike, the government slapped an excess tax on ITV1 and GMTV of £200m per annum. This is over and above corporation tax. It was bearable in a rich and restricted media world. Rich and restricted have gone. In 2004 BSkyB's revenues were around £3.7bn per annum, almost precisely that of the BBC. ITV1 earned £1.6bn.

Out of that income ITV has done something extraordinary. It has increased its programme budget over the decade from about 30 per cent to 50 per cent. A higher proportion of ITV's programme budget is invested in original UK-made programming than on any other commercial channel, very, very close to the spend on BBC1. One of the many obligations on ITV, for instance, is to provide regional and 27 sub-regional news services at an added cost of £100m, despite the drop in advertising and the roaraway increase in competing cable channels.

Yet ITV still has to stump up that £200m penalty payment imposed in wholly different times. On top of that the Government insists that ITV does yet more public service work - drive the digital switch-over by 2008, for instance. The BBC and BSkyB pay nothing at all. It is clearly unjust, archaic and increasingly punitive.

This supertax is, in my personal view - as an employee of ITV since 1977, as someone who has benefited from its commitment to public service programmes (a commitment in some areas often more dedicated than its rival, BBC1) - demonstrably unsustainable.

There is an escape route for ITV: the digital switch-over begins in three years' time. ITV could plan to go wholly with it. It could be a Get Out Of Jail Free card. For once it left its terrestrial base and became, as it would with its powerful array of programmes, the major digital player, none of these public service obligations would survive. An alternative is that ITV might submit to the present position but is forced to penny-pinch, especially on Public Service Broadcasting programming. From this perspective, the best and most immediate investment Ofcom could make in commercial public service broadcasting is via the licence fee settlement.

You might not think it matters all that much. But I would argue that ITV's contribution to the education and enlightenment of this country has been considerable and considerably underrated. As has ITV itself. BSkyB, rightly, because of the risks taken by Murdoch, his nerve, and the Government's need for satellite, was given a momentous amount of help by successive administrations; so was Channel 4, seen, correctly, as the emblem of capitalism controlled for the public good; and the BBC licence fee settlement now and I hope in future will continue to make it a very big and privileged player. ITV has been ignored. Its legitimate grievances have been unexamined. In a sense this could be the last revenge of an Establishment that never wanted it anyway.

I hope that in its pending judgement Ofcom has taken on board the cost to viewers and programme makers of, in effect, giving ITV little alternative but to divest itself of whole tranches of programmes which simply do not make commercial sense in the current cauldron. Apart from anything else, this would throw an unwanted burden on the BBC but most of all cut off ITV viewers from programmes much appreciated over the years.

If that were to happen it would be a terrible loss, I think. In the regions, in so many British production houses which fed off ITV, in documentary, news, arts, children's. ITV could become again merely "a licence to print money" but this time without being a channel which perpetuates the core British broadcasting tradition of public service. At its best, it has been a channel which has informed, educated and entertained vast numbers of the British public. A worthy and necessary rival to the BBC.

Melvyn Bragg presents 'The Story of ITV: The People's Channel', beginning on 26 June

DIARY

Cherie comes cheap

Who says Cherie Blair is a money-grubber? She has a 1,000-word book review in the latest issue of The Tablet for which she graciously accepted the princely sum of £60, considerably less than what a freelance sportswriter might expect for covering a football match.

A clerical error?

Whatever happened to the Piers Morgan magic? Could the new owner of Press Gazette really have sanctioned its cover-line this week: "This is the biggest story in the world: Former Observer industrial editor George Pitcher explains why he is to be ordained a deacon." Or could it be that Morgan is so daunted by the task of reinvigorating the ailing journalists' house weekly that he is about to enter a monastery?

Carry on Harri

More comings and goings among the BBC's political team. Respected reporter Guto Harri is quitting London to be the corporation's New York-based North America correspondent. With Andrew Marr leaving and Mark Mardell off to become Europe correspondent, it seems that none of them can be depended on to stay put.

Unkindest cut of all

We understand that the Telegraph Group is going to get rid of much of its magnificent cuttings library. The Telegraphs are trying to reduce office space because they are quitting one floor of their current allocation in the Canary Wharf tower. The cuttings library, one of the last (and best) in British journalism, is to come a cropper, with the Barclay brothers saying that in future journalists can use electronic libraries. These alas deal only in the recent past. Sometimes only yellowing newsprint will do.

Tate lover exposed

Among the Tate Modern cognoscenti at the Frida Kahlo opening last week was former Sun editor David Yelland. "I had to keep quiet about it then," he said. Yelland offered a more scholarly appreciation of the showthan that offered by the Currant Bun's art critic, one "Toulouse Le Plot". "Oh," cried Yelland, wrinkling his nose at the name, "that was terrible!" Who says a tabloid editor can't be a sensitive soul?

Get real, Kevin

Has Channel 4's director of television Kevin Lygo actually seen his schedules lately? Talking about Big Brother recently he said: "Sometimes I think it's like heroin addiction, but it's only 40 minutes a day for the summer - for a period of 10 weeks or whatever". Forty minutes a day? Last week alone the hours of BB and its spin-offs on Channel 4 amounted to 36 hours - and that doesn't even include E4.

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