The best years of British television – the 1960s through to the early 1990s – were the happy consequence of an almost accidental structure. And the key was diversity within a very small environment.
First, there very few broadcasters: the BBC (with BBC Two from 1964), the major ITV companies and then, from 1981, Channel 4. With such a limited number of outlets, each was big enough to create its own distinctive identity.
Second, these players were in fierce competition, but only over programming, not finance. All had different sources of income: the BBC was funded by the licence fee, ITV by advertising, and Channel 4 by ITV (which then sold advertising space on the channel).
And third, the regional nature of the ITV franchise system tapped new talent in parts of the country hitherto ignored by the London-centric BBC.
Much of the running was made by ITV. It needed big audiences to satisfy advertisers and it took chances in pursuit of them. In 1966 Lew Grade, the head of ATV, authorised the making of The Prisoner, despite admitting he didn’t understand star Patrick McGoohan’s explanation of the series.
Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee warned that ITV would ensure that television became “cheaper and more and more vulgar”.
The commercial channels set new standards in drama (from Armchair Theatre and Coronation Street through The Sweeney to the 11-hour adaptation of Brideshead Revisited); in pop music (Oh Boy!, Ready Steady Go, The Tube); and in news: Robin Day’s reinvention of political interviewing at ITN, Granada’s World In Action.
Stung into action, the BBC – starting under Hugh Carleton Greene, director general 1960-69 – broke out of its comfort zone. It bought into cutting-edge comedy, from That Was the Week That Was to The Young Ones, and it adopted and advanced the commitment to contemporary drama, nurturing the likes of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale.
It also created the epic 13-part documentary series: Civilisation (1969), The Ascent Of Man (1973), Life On Earth (1979). And then there was the Saturday evening festival of light entertainment: The Generation Game, The Two Ronnies, The Morecambe and Wise Show, bookended by Doctor Who and Parkinson.
When ITV was first proposed, Labour leader Clement Attlee warned that it would ensure television became “cheaper and more and more vulgar”. In fact the BBC-ITV rivalry drove up standards on both sides.
The era ended in 1990 when the emergence of BSkyB broke ITV’s monopoly of advertising revenue, without adding any original programme-making. The same year, the Broadcasting Act transformed ITV. Some of the old companies lost their franchise and the process of turning the network into a single broadcaster began. As a final nail in the coffin, 1992 saw John Birt appointed Director-General of the BBC.