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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 October, 2003, 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK
ITV: From Take Your Pick to Popstars
Ant and Dec
ITV's current faces: Ant and Dec
ITV's two biggest companies, Carlton and Granada, have been given the go-ahead to merge into a single media powerhouse. It is a far cry from the network's origins as group of tightly-regulated 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.

ITV's launch was good news for television dealers, as viewers needed to pay for a tuner to add to their sets.

The first show was an opening ceremony from the Guildhall, London, with the first advertisement for SR toothpaste.

ABC, Rediffusion and ATV logos
Rediffusion (1955-58)
ATV (1955-81)
ABC (1956-68)
Southern (1958-81)
Television Wales and West
Wales (West and North)
Thames (1968-91)
TVS (1982-91)
TSW (1982-92)
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.

'Licence to print money'

After that first night, ITV gradually rolled out across the country, with names such as Granada and ABC joining the network.

One boss, Scottish Television's Roy Thomson, famously called an ITV franchise "a licence to print money".

But it wasn't all plain sailing. The clumsily-named Wales (West and North) company went out of business after little more than a year on air.

But 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. Across the country, each company offered its viewers something a little different from its neighbours.

Lew Grade
ITV pioneer: Lew Grade was the power behind ATV
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.

Contract troubles

Egos were bruised in 1968 when new contracts were announced - Television Wales and West'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.

Coronation Street
Coronation Street has been a fixture since 1960
These new companies were among the first to show programmes in colour from 1969 - leading to ATV's famous "in colour" jingle which preceded series such as Crossroads.

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.

'Quality threshold'

Popstars winners Girls Aloud
Talent shows Popstars and Pop Idol have boosted ITV1's fortunes
But within 10 years this kind of intervention would become unthinkable, 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".

News of the new licences caused uproar.

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, an investigation into the 1988 shooting dead by the SAS of three IRA suspects in Gibraltar.

But breakfast service TV-am was also outbid, by GMTV.

Mrs Thatcher - a fan of boss Bruce Gyngell's no-nonsense management style - wrote to Gyngell sympathising with his plight.

ITV suits
Granada bought LWT, Yorkshire, Tyne Tees, Anglia, Meridian, and Border
Carlton bought HTV, Central, and Westcountry
SMG owns Scottish and Grampian
Ulster and Channel remain independent
Deregulation took hold after 1993, with 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 the merger partners united Carlton and Granada.

Digital disaster

But their first joint venture, the digital TV network, Ondigital, was a disaster. Not even renaming it ITV Digital could save it from collapse in 2002, thanks to a costly 315m contract to show Nationwide League football.

ITV Digital's collapse left egg on the faces of Carlton and Granada - and many clubs close to collapse.

But some parts of ITV remain independent - at least for the time being.

Nottingham Forest v Crewe
A costly football deal broke ITV Digital
Media group SMG runs Scottish and Grampian, while UTV controls Northern Ireland. Channel Television completes the network's line up.

ITV renamed its main channel ITV1 in 2001, the year it belatedly joined the Astra satellite used by Sky Digital. The following year, a new network-wide look was phased in, with regional differences being largely ironed out.

Digital offshoot ITV2 is now five years old, while the ITV News Channel is another recent addition.

The new ITV faces a tough battle to stay independent, with foreign media giants waiting to pounce.

Closer to home, an army of new channels is eating away at its audience, while the BBC's fortunes have improved under the control of ex-ITV executive Greg Dyke.

More competition means ITV's glory days are long gone - and the new company's bosses know they will have to fight hard to regain the old "licence to print money".

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