Obituary: Sir William Brown
Friday 03 January 1997
Educated at Ayr Academy, and Edinburgh University, Bill Brown was a natural public servant who worked all his life in commercial television; and he died shortly after retiring as Chairman of Scottish Television and Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council. He was as honest a man as ever lived.
He joined Scottish Television, as London sales manager, a year after the station went on air in 1957. He became managing director in 1966 and remained in charge till 1990, the longest serving chief executive in Independent Television. When he joined, Scottish Television (STV) was in the hands of Roy Thomson, who had discovered in radio stations in North America that maximising revenue (advertising) and minimising cost (programmes) was a sure way to a fortune. Thomson instantly spotted that, since STV was then prevented by the ITV system from making programmes and was forced by the big contractors to take the central supply, the formula would work here too. His franchise, he unguardedly admitted, was "a licence to print money". He had to go, and went on to own the Times and the Sunday Times instead.
By the time Bill Brown retired as managing director, STV had built on a sure financial foundation and expanded, as ITV bowed to the pressures that insisted that programme arrangements should reflect regional structure. The company now played a consistent if modest role - Taggart, Take the High Road - in programme supply to the network. In this evolution, Brown's wise and careful counsel counted for much. He twice served as chairman of ITV's federation, always held in high regard there by his colleagues. His insistence on public obligation, and his known integrity and fairness, ensured that STV kept its franchise at every competitive round, including the last, when a challenge at auction to the incumbent failed to materialise. No one of substance was prepared to set themselves up against him.
Under Brown STV never set the heather on fire, defying the Sassenach network. But he fought his corner well. Today, ITV has reverted to a central control of scheduling more draconian even than in the earliest days, and ownership is concentrated in even fewer hands. STV, so far, survives as a healthy independent entity.
In 1979, with a franchise round coming up, Brown commissioned a major film on a difficult subject from an inexperienced independent producer - myself. A Sense of Freedom dealt with the harsh prison experience of a violent criminal, explicit in detail, Glasgow-demotic in speech. This was not the safe and obvious route to franchise renewal. Yet Brown backed it, and its makers, all the way, even going so far - when Glasgow City Council, jealous of the city's image, became obstructive - as to take action in the High Court. Bill Brown listened; his calm polite manner dressed an inner firmness. When he saw his way clear ahead, and made his mind up, he stuck to it.
In the early 1980s, Brown served as one of ITV's quasi-representative directors on the board of the awkward fledgling Channel 4. While some in ITV muttered imprecations and made difficulties, Brown and his colleagues offered unqualified support.
His passion was golf, for which "ye maun hae a heid"; but Bill Brown was fond also of the arts, and a keen supporter of Scottish Opera at the Theatre Royal, next door to STV's studios. In his retirement he took on the thankless task of chairing the Scottish Arts Council, attempting to reconcile conflicting claims for adequate shares of inadequate bounty. He never complained, but was glad to get out in one piece.
Brown held honorary doctorates from Strathclyde and Edinburgh. He was appointed CBE in 1971, awarded by the Royal Television Society in 1984 their highest honour, the Gold Medal for Outstanding Services to Television and, last year, knighted - in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. Seeing his name in the paper with mine, I sent him the obvious one word letter: "Snap!" Not long after, a brain tumour was diagnosed. Prince Philip went out of his way to hold an investiture for him in Glasgow City Chambers.
Bill Brown took pride in his strong and lively Canadian wife Nancy, and his three daughters and son, and was cherished and supported by them. He will be more widely missed.
William Brown, television executive: born 24 June 1929; London sales manager, Scottish Television Ltd 1958-61, sales director 1961-63, deputy managing director 1963-66, managing director 1966-90, deputy chairman 1974-91; CBE 1971; director, ITN 1972-77; director, Scottish Opera Theatre Royal 1974-91; chairman, Council, Independent Television Companies Association 1978-80; director, Channel Four Co 1980-84; chairman, Scottish Amicable Life Assurance Society 1989-94; chairman, Scottish Television plc 1991- 96; trustee, National Museums of Scotland 1991-92; chairman, Scottish Arts Council 1992-96; Kt 1996; married 1955 Nancy Hunter (one son, three daughters); died 29 December 1996.
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