Whenever the topic of homogenisation of the UK raises its ugly head, it’s only natural that the most visible examples out on the street tend to grab centre-stage – a conversation invariably dominated by the corporate chain-stores that render each shopping area in every town or city indistinguishable from the next. In a sense, this is the retail equivalent of the ‘Subtopia’ notion coined by architectural critic Ian Nairn in the 50s to describe the uniform dreariness of urban town-planning and its disregard for those who have to live amongst its end results. However, one overlooked element of homogenisation has crept upon the populace with far sneakier stealth than the Identikit shopping experience, and that has been with us for thirteen years now.
The Broadcasting Act of 1990 has had several far-reaching effects on the television landscape, but what it did to the nation’s sole commercial broadcaster prior to the arrival of Sky has perhaps served to alter the way in which the different regions of the UK are represented via the goggle box. It’s not so long ago that a holiday in a different part of the country to the one you knew as home would include tuning in to that region’s ITV station. It was a curious experience, like slipping into a parallel universe. It looked familiar, and yet it was distinctly different.
The original ITV formula of only the prime-time viewing schedule being networked meant that the majority of broadcasting hours were in the hands of the regional companies that made up the network; and they often played by their own rules. Imported dramas screened either in the afternoon or following ‘News at Ten’, such as Aussie soaps or US cop series, would be at different stages of their respective runs depending which ITV service you received. I recall a holiday down south in the early 80s, moving from the TVS region to the TSW one over a fortnight, and seeing the same episode of ‘Hill Street Blues’ two weeks running, an episode I’d already seen once before on YTV around six months earlier.
It wasn’t just the differences in imported shows, however; the same applied to the home-grown presentation. The on-screen graphics differed from region-to-region; some stations had in-vision continuity announcers and some (such as the old Westward company and its successor TSW) also produced their own opt-out children’s slots such as ‘Gus Honeybun’s Magic Birthdays’, a five-minute spot in which a puppet rabbit accompanied a station stalwart as he or she announced viewers’ birthdays. Even the national sport was regionalised, with each ITV company producing its own football programme on a Sunday afternoon, with the home teams local ones.
Whilst the big bucks of the so-called Big Five ITV companies were geared towards producing networked shows, one of the specifications in each ITV contract was that the franchise holders had to make a sizeable proportion of programmes exclusive to their own audience. Some of these were in the vein parodied by ‘The Fast Show’ character Bob Fleming – i.e. rustic country pursuits of interest to OAPs in the region and nobody outside of it – or shows that were eventually networked, such as Border Television’s ‘Mr and Mrs’ and even ‘Countdown’, which had a short run on YTV a year before the launch of Channel 4.
In those days, ITV was simply a generic name that wasn’t used much in the regions. Viewers would ask each other things like ‘What’s on ATV tonight?’ The regional station was seen as the alternative to the BBC and their on-screen identities were highly visible. Wherever you happened to be in the country, you were made aware which region produced the programme you were watching due to the short ‘ident’ that introduced it. Anyone over a certain age will recall Anglia’s silver statuette of the Black Prince on horseback, the nautical symbol of Southern and its gentle acoustic guitar jingle, the collected London skyline materialising from the river that represented Thames, the Yorkshire chevron and the pounding notes from ‘Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at’, ATV’s dramatic horns and three-colour dots that formed into its familiar logo and so on. Some of these idents were often more memorable than the programmes that followed them and remain engrained on the collective consciousness.
Before the intrusive incursion of breakfast television, many of the ITV companies even opened proceedings on a morning with a short travelogue film of the region, something that helped define the region as a location in its own broadcasting right even further. These films, most of which can be found today on YouTube, are now fascinating time capsules of a lost world, a world before UK plc. All this changed with the ramifications of the 1990 Broadcasting Act.
In the classic Thatcherite ‘free-market’ mould, the Act removed the barriers preventing the bigger ITV companies gobbling-up the smaller ones. Decades-old complaints that the IBA favoured the big guns when it came to prized networked slots were cast aside as the unedifying corporate cannibalism got underway. This began with Yorkshire Television acquiring Tyne-Tees in 1992 and continued throughout the last decade of the twentieth century so that by 2004 Granada and Carlton owned all the ITV franchises for England and Wales. With only STV in Scotland and UTV in Northern Ireland out of their reach, Granada and Carlton remodelled the ITV network along BBC lines, a national broadcaster with no sentiment for the regions.
This changed the nature of ITV forever thereafter. Regional continuity announcers and all regional programmes exclusive to the region that produced them (bar the weekday news magazine shows) vanished, replaced by a nationwide schedule transmitted from the capital. Gradually, each individual ITV franchise holder was renamed to reflect the changes. London Weekend Television and Carlton Television merged to become ITV London, Yorkshire Television became ITV Yorkshire, Anglia Television became ITV Anglia etc. The visual symbols that had represented the independence of the regions since ITV’s genesis in the 50s disappeared beneath the ITV plc logo, but more disappeared than just that.
When it comes to homogenisation of this country, one only has to turn the telly on to see it – or tune in to your one-time Independent Local Radio station; but that’s another story for another day.
© The Editor