Media: One of the walking wounded - David Elstein, a victim of the ITV shake-up, tells Sue Summers about his fears for quality commercial television

A year ago this Friday, David Elstein, Thames Television's director of programmes, delivered at the Edinburgh Television Festival what was by common consent one of the most concise and far-sighted analyses of British television for decades. Wide-ranging and outspoken, his speech attacked the Government for its 'spite' in dealing with ITV and castigated the franchise auction as Mrs Thatcher's 'national lottery'. The 'agonising' process of franchise renewal, Mr Elstein said, was 'a death on the rack to make up for Death on the Rock'.

Now he sits in his aquamarine office at Thames, counting the days until the company's Tower Bridge logo vanishes below the murky waters of its namesake river for ever. On 31 December Thames ceases to be London's weekday ITV contractor, continuing instead as an independent production and distribution company.

Mr Elstein makes a valiant show of not seeming too downhearted. 'I've been to one network scheduling meeting in the past three months because they're talking about the future and I'm not part of that,' he says. 'The lack of meetings is the more pleasant side, actually. A huge bonus.'

But friends agree that, despite his accustomed cool exterior, Mr Elstein was devastated by the loss of the Thames contract. Even while delivering his MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at Edinburgh last year, he knew his company had been massively outbid by Michael Green's Carlton TV. But he still believed the Independent Television Commission would invoke the 'exceptional circumstances' clause in the Broadcasting Act, saving Thames on the basis of its past record. Only afterwards did he realise that 'the exceptionality clause wasn't worth the paper it was written on'.

'The worst thing is not the effect on me personally,' he says. 'It's being faced with hundreds and hundreds of people who are about to lose their jobs because of a decision over which they have no control, and where you have been forced by legislation to choose between risking those jobs or keeping the company profitable.

'It's very, very upsetting for the ITC to have made a decision that leaves Thames profitable but puts perhaps 1,400 people out of work. They are the true victims.'

Many of the Thames staff were aggrieved that their board did not put in a higher bid for the contract. To do so, Mr Elstein says, would have tipped the economic balance of the company so far askew that most of them would have lost their jobs anyway. 'In many ways, the system was set up so that publisher-contractors could dislodge producer-contractors. Thames could have taken the view that it should get rid of all its staff ahead of time and bid higher. But that was no comfort - it just meant everyone losing their jobs in 1991 rather than 1992.'

Well dressed and quietly spoken, Mr Elstein, 47, belongs to a vanishing breed of senior ITV figures dedicated to the ideal of public service broadcasting. In his MacTaggart lecture, he spoke bitterly against the Thatcher government's willingness to throw independent television to the commercial wolf pack. The 10 months since the auction free-for-all have not dimmed his anger and resentment.

Many in the industry still believe that the government targeted Thames to lose its franchise. It had, after all, made Margaret Thatcher furious by screening Death on the Rock, the documentary which suggested that IRA suspects may have been illegally gunned down by British agents in Gibraltar.

Mr Elstein wryly contrasts his treatment as loser with that of TV-am's Bruce Gyngell. 'It was significant that Mrs Thatcher did not send Richard Dunn (Thames's chief executive) a telegram saying: 'We never intended you to lose your franchise.'

'This is the first time we've had a government so willing to take on its perceived enemies.'

Ironically, no sooner was Thames's death sentence pronounced than it enjoyed a critical hit. The three-part adaptation of Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was hailed as a return to the great days of ITV drama and is a favourite for next year's Bafta awards.

Mr Elstein doubts that ITV viewers will look upon its like again. Though hugely successful for a 'literary' drama series, its audience of eight million fell short of the 10 million that Thames's successor, Carlton, promises to deliver in peak times.

He has some sympathy for the new licencees, by implication even for the company that has replaced his own. 'How can you put people under such financial pressure and then expect them to deliver innovative drama and current affairs in peak time?' he asks. 'The days when quality ruled the roost have gone.

'Television has become more routine, less of an event; it's more neurotic, less stimulating. There will be more episodes of known popular programmes, fewer new programmes, fewer risks taken and fewer failures. The shift is inevitable, because ITV has been forced into a more commercial posture. And the audience may prefer it, for all I know.

'Maybe the future will offer viewers greater opportunity to exercise choice, even if that choice is quite narrow. The television of the past was geared to my own tastes, but perhaps the television of the future will suit the general public more. In the past, television was tilted towards the educated elite. Maybe it's right and proper that the population at large should exercise their buying power.'

The slim-line Thames barely ranks as a tributary, with its staff of 160 as opposed to the former 1,500. But in its new role as production company, the future looks solid enough. Mr Elstein has negotiated a pounds 29m production deal with ITV for next year, to continue making Thames classics such as The Bill, Wish You Were Here, This is Your Life, Minder, and Rumpole of the Bailey. There are plans to launch a satellite channel in partnership with the BBC, showing material from their combined huge archives.

Thames may even still have a future as a network, being the sole remaining bidder for the new Channel 5. But if it wanted more than a 20 per cent shareholding in either the new terrestrial or satellite channel, it would have to give up its independent producer status.

After years of feudal power as an old-style programme controller, will Mr Elstein be able to settle back into the life of a mere independent producer? His name has been mentioned, along with that of Charles Denton of Zenith and Granada's Steve Morrison, for the key new job of ITV central scheduler.

He is quick to pour cold water on the speculation. 'No one's offered me the job and I don't expect them to, even though I'm obviously qualified for it,' he says. 'I'd be too much of an outsider.'

He is believed to be committed to staying with Thames until the company's new character is established, which could take until the middle of next year. Afterwards, retirement from television altogether is an option. But ITV can ill afford to lose a thinker of such stature.

In his MacTaggart Lecture last year, Mr Elstein called on broadcasters to define what they valued in television and fight for those values before it was too late. A year on, he sees no sign of such a debate getting under way. 'The industry is obsessed by survival,' he says. 'When you are worried about the BBC Charter and the economics of ITV or independent production, the philosophy of broadcasting doesn't loom large in the consciousness, I'm afraid.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Database Executive - Leading Events Marketing Company - London

£23000 - £25000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Databas...

Recruitment Genius: Publishing Assistant

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Digital Account Exec ...

Guru Careers: Print Project Manager

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A Print Project Manager is needed to join one...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk