Thames faces end of an era: Maggie Brown found sadness and bitter disbelief at Euston Road

IN THE foyer, Jane Critcher, a Thames receptionist, talks blankly about losing her job at the ITV company she regards as a family: she has worked there since its inception, 24 years ago. Rob Kirk, editor of Thames News, looks out over a depleted staff of eight and an empty studio. 'It's no picnic here,' he sadly says as he prepares to sign off for the last time tonight.

Jonathan Shier, director of sales and marketing, says all but 10 of his 120 staff selling commercial airtime will be made redundant: in-comer Carlton Television could have taken over its knowledgeable team - it has secured an increased pounds 260m of revenue this year - but preferred to build from scratch.

'I'm amazed how we've kept morale up. It's the wonderful nature of the Brits, when things gets tough,' Australian-born Mr Shier, who will be redundant from next month, said. Yet all speak with astonishment about the second slap in the face administered on Friday 18 December, when the Independent Television Commission rejected Thames's application to set up the new Channel 5, its last route back to broadcasting.

Thames Television has been running promotions all week pointing to its distinguished contribution to British television: the last 70 minutes of its airtime tonight will be a compilation of its finest programmes, from Benny Hill and Take Your Pick to This Week, Rumpole and Mr Bean.

'Our deeds are on the screen,' said Richard Dunn, chief executive, who may well see out his annus horribilis by appearing briefly, in the dying seconds of the franchise before midnight arrives, to say goodbye. 'It's a big thank you to our audience.' His executive suite, like much of the building is eerily silent.

There were 1,600 staff at Thames before the 1991 franchise auction, making programmes from worthy social action and educational programmes (catering for children was a Thames speciality) to popular drama (The Bill). Now there are 500. By February there will be 140. 'The sense of waste is palpable,' Mr Dunn said.

Thames's imposing headquarters on Euston Road, central London, has been put up for sale: it was to have housed Channel 5.

The slimline Thames, shorn of its advertising revenue lifeblood, will set up shop at its Teddington studios as a lowly independent programme producer and operator of the hit satellite repeats channel, UK Gold. It has sold pounds 30m of its best-loved programmes to the new ITV for 1993.

What particularly rankles is that the ITC took no account of Thames's track record in supplying shows the audience watched, when weighing up its application against the promises of Carlton, which is employing a quarter of Thames's staff, and is committed to buying in programmes. Mr Dunn is gloomy about what will happen next: bids have to be paid for, and shareholders and advertisers now come before viewers, he says. 'The nightmare is that the foxes are in the hen coop.'

The final factor feeding his bitterness is that Carlton has taken on so few Thames staff, at its lightly-manned headquarters in St Martin's Lane, on the fringes of Soho and Covent Garden. 'It's because we're no good,' Mr Dunn said with a grim smile.

Improved regional coverage was one of the key war cries of the successful franchise holders, in Carlton's case it will be London Tonight. The show, starting on Monday, will run for an hour between 6pm and 7pm every weekday, compared with Thames's half an hour on four days. But it will dislodge the soap Home and Away (audiences around 13 million), which moves to 5.10pm.

The interesting aspect of the new service is that Carlton and London Weekend Television have jointly set up the London News Network, which produces the show, on an annual budget of pounds 10m. This is recognised, even by Thames, as sensible.

Clive Jones, managing director of LNN, also runs a new pounds 4.5m transmission suite within the South Bank tower block. This nerve centre, staffed by 18 people, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and puts out the programmes of Carlton, LWT and Good Morning TV (GMTV), the new breakfast franchise (also run from the same building) on new equipment. This is one of the most graphic illustrations of the new economics governing ITV it is possible to find. Until now there have been three separate transmission areas, at Thames, LWT and TV-am. Watching a pilot of London Tonight this week proved disconcerting. The programme, structured after audience research, turns the usual news agenda on its head by demoting traditional fare - such as politics - to a later segment.

The programme I saw opened with the night's strongest human interest item - a security guard stabbed by a junkie's needle - plus 'teasers' about the people- oriented stories coming up lower down - screened to the thrumming beat of the theme tune.

The programme hardens up around 6.40pm when managing director Clive Jones, an old pro from TV-am and TVS, judges that the commuter starts viewing and wants stronger meat.

(Photograph omitted)

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