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Some things never change

Nobody in the know on such matters would be in the slightest surprised at the ‘news’ just announced that the BBC’s coverage of the Euro 2016 cup final out scored ITV’s by a 5 to 1 margin in the viewing ratings.

See here – as reported on the website of the DAILY MIRROR

Everyone who has ever worked in British television and media is brought up on the inescapable fact that – irrespective of production money spent or the quality, celebrity quotient or popularity of the presenters and pundits involved – when it comes to terrestrial broadcasting of what might be called ‘British national events’ (whether sporting, Royal, political or historical) the viewing public overwhelmingly chooses to watch the BBC coverage over that of any other broadcaster.

This fact was inevitable because when set up the BBC was the original and first ‘national broadcaster of record’, giving it an ever-lasting in-built advantage and stature. When ITV hit the airwaves in 1955, it was not only an upstart newbie but [horror of horrors!] it carried commercials, NOT the sort of thing that (if given the choice of an alternative) the average British viewer would wish to have interrupting his coverage of Royal weddings/babies or indeed the FA Cup Final …

Here is an example of the phenomenon in action:

In 1988 Thames Television made a current affairs documentary (Death on the Rock) which demonstrated that the SAS had effectively taken out an IRA cell intent upon causing a bomb outrage on Gibraltar in cold blood, rather than – as the Tory government had claimed in Parliament immediately afterwards – after following all international conventions as to formally challenging such people and giving them the chance to surrender.

Back in the day I worked at Thames Television which lost its London weekday franchise to Carlton Television in 1992 under the recently-‘politicised’ renewal system instigated by Mrs Thatcher, whereby ‘quality of programmes’ (both threshold and historic) counted for less than the money that each candidate was prepared to bid as an annual licence fee. Thames, which made 40% of all ITV peak time programmes, bid £34 million yet Carlton (which had never made a television programme) bid a fraction more and ‘won’ the prize.

The farcical aspect of the entire scheme was demonstrated with bells on by what happened in the Central Television area. Early in the bidding campaign process Central, under Leslie Hill, either found or worked out that it had but one credible/serious opponent bidder. So what did it do?

It behaved exactly as any sensible commercial organisation – what anyone with any common sense and a bit of nerve, even perhaps you and I, dear reader – would, that’s what. It talked to said competitor, ‘did a deal’ to buy it off – and ended up winning a renewal of its Central area ITV licence with a massive bid of … er … £2,000 (the minimum bid allowed under the Tories’ new franchising system)!

But that’s background information, folks.

I was working at Thames during that ill-fated franchise renewal process of 1992. During it the  ITV companies’ central administration commissioned some research into branding. In short, they were seeking the answer to the conundrum as to whether each of them might be better served in the franchise renewal process by sticking together and promoting ITV as a brand – or would they be better off splitting up and trying to promote themselves individually (e.g. as London Weekend Television, Granada, Thames, Ulster, Border … and so on)?

The results were damning and frustrating in the extreme. In effect there absolutely no point in any company acting individually. Why? Because people tuning to ITV were completely unaware as to which company made which programmes. For example, Thames made light entertainment shows by Benny Hill, Morecambe and Wise and  Mike Yarwood,; sit-coms such as Man About The House and Men Behaving Bady; dramas like The Bill, Rumpole, Minder and Reilly – Ace of Spies; and current affairs programmes like TV Eye. Yet ITV viewers in Manchester (local franchise holder Granada) believed that all those programmes were made by Granada!

It worked both ways – if you wished to look at it this way – because (naturally), in the London area, viewers believed that Thames made the Granada-produced Coronation Street!

However, the research findings were even more shocking than that. They reinforced the huge in-built ‘favourable viewer bias’ towards the BBC. In fact, whenever there was a programme of high quality made by an ITV company, the bulk of viewers assumed it had been made by the BBC.

Most galling of all, from Thames Television’s point of view, was the viewers’ attitude towards its controversial (SAS shooting in Gibraltar) documentary Death On The Rock. Because it was widely regarded as a serious and high quality programme, the survey showed that over 60% of viewers believed it had been made by the BBC and not by Thames at all!