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Wednesday, 16 October, 2002, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
ITV's big break
ITV is now set to become a single media giant - yet just a few years ago it was a tightly-regulated group of 15 regional companies.
Critics feared it would be a vulgar influence on British life and Sir Winston Churchill feared it would be a "peep-show".
But the BBC's monopoly ended on 22 September 1955 when London broadcaster Associated-Rediffusion launched ITV's first night of programming.
To ensure quality, a new Independent Television Authority (ITA) would own the transmitters, and have huge powers in controlling the companies' output. This model held what was to become ITV together for almost 40 years.
The first show was an opening ceremony from the Guildhall, London, with the first advertisement for SR toothpaste.
Other first night delights included a "sparkling variety show" produced by the second ITV company to go on air - ATV - featuring Billy Cotton, Hughie Green and Harry Secombe.
After that first night, ITV gradually rolled out across the country, with names such as Granada and ABC joining the network.
But the clumsily-named Wales (West and North), flopped with viewers, found itself hopelessly in debt, and was forced to merge with its southern neighbour Television Wales and West (TWW) in 1964, after little more than a year on air.
Meanwhile other smaller companies such as Border and Channel flourished alongside the giants, with local programming proving as successful as network hits such as Coronation Street, Armchair Theatre, Double Your Money and Take Your Pick.
Despite the heavy regulation from the ITA, competition amongst the companies was fierce.
So ATV viewers were among the last to see ABC's The Avengers, while ABC blacked out its rival's Sunday Night at the London Palladium - replacing it with its own variety show from Blackpool.
Stars contracted to firms like ATV, controlled by talent mogul Lew Grade, helped the network into an early ratings lead over the BBC.
Egos were bruised in 1968 when new contracts were announced - TWW's chairman Lord Derby took his station off air early when it was replaced by Harlech, now known as HTV.
ABC and Rediffusion were to form a new company, Thames, for London weekdays, while London Weekend Television and Yorkshire also joined ITV.
But viewers in the Channel Islands had to wait until 1976 to appreciate it - it took that long for a colour transmitter to be installed.
Restrictions on broadcasting hours were lifted in 1972, and ITV responded with afternoon dramas, chat shows and children's programmes like Rainbow.
Another franchise shake-out in 1981 saw ATV - one of the giants of British broadcasting - forced to become Central after the Independent Broadcasting Authority decided it hadn't been serving its Midlands viewers properly, and should sell a proportion of its shares to local interests.
But within 10 years this system would be ripped apart as Margaret Thatcher's government changed the way franchises were handed out.
Rather than taking into account the quality of a company's application - or its past history - the licences would be auctioned off to the highest bidder instead, after passing a "quality threshold".
Thames was outbid by media company Carlton for its London licence. Many felt the government was taking revenge for the company's Death on The Rock programme, a 1988 investigation into the documentary into the 1988 shooting dead by the SAS of three IRA suspects in Gibraltar.
But breakfast service TV-am was also outbid, by GMTV.
Deregulation took hold after 1993, with new company Carlton buying Central and new outfit Westcountry.
Granada completed a hostile takeover of LWT, later adding Yorkshire and Tyne Tees to its stable.
Now most of ITV is in the hands of Carlton and Granada.
Media group SMG owns Scottish and Grampian, and only Ulster Television and tiny Channel Television still remain independent entities.
But all this boardroom activity could not stop a political row over the short-lived scrapping of News at Ten in 1999 - or a financial nightmare over Carlton and Granada's digital terrestrial service, Ondigital.
ITV Digital's collapse left egg on the faces of Carlton and Granada - and many clubs close to collapse.
ITV renamed its main channel ITV1 in 2001, the year it belatedly joined the Astra satellite used by Sky Digital. Digital offshoot ITV2 is now four years old, and Carlton and Granada took control of ITN's news channel in 2002, renaming it the ITV News Channel.
In October 2002, Carlton and Granada agreed the terms of a merger - finally paving the way for one ITV company to run its affairs.
The new ITV faces tough competition from a revitalised BBC - under the control of an ex-ITV executive, Greg Dyke - and could even find itself taken over by a larger, foreign target.
More competition means ITV's glory days are long gone - and the network's bosses know they will have to fight hard to regain the old "licence to print money".
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