Curtain up on Carlton as Thames takes final bow: Celebrations and commiserations as independent franchise winners launch new stations to replace companies that lost the right to broadcast

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'IT feels wonderful, absolutely great. I am delighted,' Michael Green, chairman of Carlton Television, said. He was speaking at 12.04am yesterday, just minutes after taking over the lucrative 10-year contract for London, serving more than 11 million people. It is a prize he has coveted since 1985, writes Maggie Brown.

Mr Green, who is emerging as the most powerful man in commercial television, with shareholdings in Central, GMTV and ITN, was particularly pleased with his station's cheery welcome to viewers from a town crier, saying: 'This is Carlton, television for London.'

Then, businessman to the marrow, Mr Green ducked away from the conversation, back to the screen, saying: 'I want to see our first commercial.' It was specially arranged for the night, one of those launch tricks advertising directors love, an advertisement for the Vauxhall Carlton executive car.

While the technical handover from Thames, on the chime of midnight, went without hitch, it led into Carlton's first programme, a less-than gripping 90-minute new year special, hosted by Chris Tarrant, featuring music and comedy. One seasoned television executive yesterday described the programme as 'tacky'.

It seemed all the more so when compared with the 70 minutes of Thames Television highlights that preceded it. It was as if the ousted company was throwing down the televisual gauntlet by proudly reminding viewers of its contributions to popular culture: from Tommy Cooper to more upmarket offerings, A Voyage Round My Father, The Naked Civil Servant and Rumpole, exactly the kind of dramas now at risk in the new, more commercially-driven ITV.

An emotional-looking Richard Dunn, chief executive of Thames, who has had the terrible task of dismantling a successful television company, made a brief live appearance, thanking the artists and staff.

'I would like to thank you, our viewers. It has been a privilege to serve you,' he said. Then Thames flashed up its logo for the last time. It read: 'Thames, a Talent for Television.' Despite this track record, few Thames staff have found jobs at the lightly staffed Carlton.

Nigel Walmsley, chief executive of Carlton, said that before the handover he had received a telephone call from Mr Dunn, offering his good wishes. 'We hope to work together in future.'

At 6am it was time for GMTV to show its paces, though this was a limited opportunity because of the bank holiday, which meant children's programmes dominated. There was a plug for Disney World (Disney is a GMTV shareholder and supplies programmes on Saturday morning), although the company said this was a one-off.

Lis Howell, programme director, who had spent the previous day 'feeling hellish' and spent from midnight at the studios, said she was delighted. The 6am and 7am news programmes were authoritative bulletins, with live reports from an array of highly competent reporters.

The lead item was exclusive footage of the Princess of Wales and children frolicking in the sea, followed by new year reports from Moscow, Washington and London.

This was largely watched by inebriated partygoers and bored children, but provided proof, Ms Howell explained, of what GMTV could do. The presenters sat at a table, against a set of pink-patterned wallpaper (pink was a favourite TV-am colour) with an artificial log fire in the wall.

Christopher Stoddart, managing director, sounding hoarse but happy after a sleepless night, said that GMTV had sold 70 per cent of its January advertising, and more than pounds 50m for the year ahead.

The main launch, however, comes on Monday morning, when the weekday programme starts up. It is then that audience reaction is critical. GMTV has to hold on to TV-am's viewers to be in business.

(Photograph omitted)