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Thames Television
Based in London
Broadcast area Greater London and Home Counties
Launched 30 July 1968
Thames.jpg
The classic Thames Television ident (1969-89) featuring London landmarks
Closed 31 December 1992
Replaced Rediffusion, London
Replaced by Carlton Television
Owned by BET, Thorn EMI (1968-1985), Independent (1985-1993), Pearson (1993-2000), FremantleMedia (2000-)

Thames Television was a licensee of the British ITV television network, covering London and parts of the surrounding counties on weekdays from 30 July 1968 until 31 December 1992. It was both a broadcaster and a producer of television programmes, making shows both for the local region it covered and for networking nationally across the ITV regions. The British Film Institute describes Thames as having "served the capital and the network with a long-running, broad-based and extensive series of programmes, several of which either continue or are well-remembered today."[1]

Thames covered a broad spectrum of commercial public-service television, with a strong mix of drama, current affairs and comedy. The company's logo remains widely recognisable and was accompanied by a fanfare called "Salute To Thames", composed by Johnny Hawksworth.

After Thames was acquired by FremantleMedia it was merged with another Fremantle company, Talkback Productions, to form a new company Talkback Thames; consequently Thames no longer exists as a separate entity.

Contents

Formation

From launch in 1955 to July 1968, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) contract to provide programming on the ITV network for London on weekdays had been operated by Associated-Rediffusion. Geographical and structural changes in the network created by the ITA's 1967 invitation for applicants for new contracts for the right to broadcast on ITV (running from 1968 to 1974 and sometimes referred to as a 'contract round') meant that Associated British Corporation (ABC) lost both their contracts (sometimes known as franchises), serving the Midlands and the North at weekends, as these areas were to become seven-day operations.

Consequently ABC applied for both the Midlands seven-day operation and the contract to serve London at the weekend, preferring the latter. It was widely expected that the company would be awarded the weekend franchise. However, after an impressive application, it was allocated to the London Television Consortium, led by presenter David Frost (amongst others).

ABC was a popular station, whose productions earned vital foreign currency. Station management and presentation style were well-admired and it could have been controversial to dismiss that as a result of administrative changes. It was equally difficult for ABC to win the Midlands seven-day contract as the existing five-days contractor ATV had also applied and was a large earner of overseas revenue, having won the Queen's Award for Export in 1966.

The outcome proposed by the ITA was a "shotgun marriage" between ABC and Rediffusion, the resultant company being awarded the contract to serve London on weekdays. Control of the new company would be given to ABC, a move unpopular with Rediffusion [2].

Rediffusion had believed that their contract renewal was a 'formality' and their application reflected this complacency: The company had treated the ITA high-handedly in interviews [2]. In the early days of ITV the company had worked hard to keep the network on-air during financial crises that threatened the collapse of other stations, notably Granada [3]. It was reported that Rediffusion's chairman Sir John Spencer Wills felt the ITA owed his company a 'debt of gratitude' for this, a comment which particularly annoyed the Authority. During the interview process several members of Rediffusion management also appeared in interviews for applicants for other regions (principally the London Television Consortium) as well as the interview for Rediffusion, leading the ITA to question the loyalty at the company [4].

In programming, Rediffusion was originally considered stuffy but in the previous contract round of 1964, it had re-invented itself (dropping the name 'Associated Rediffusion' in favour of the more swinging 'Rediffusion London') to reflect the cultural changes of the time, and output altered accordingly.

Questioning the ITA's decision Rediffusion attempted to slow down the merger: Only the threat of giving the licence solely to ABC made it relent. To assist Rediffusion financially the ITA insisted that the new company have two sets of shares, voting shares which would allow ABC to have control (with 51%) and 'B' shares which were to be split equally between the two, thus sharing profits fairly. The ITA also ordered the new London Weekend Television to purchase Rediffusion's old studios at Wembley, instead of ABC's facilities at Teddington which they had wanted [5].

This assisted the new company as well: the ABC/Rediffusion marriage meant the new company had studio overcapacity. ABC still owned facilities at Teddington, Aston (co-owned with ATV), Didsbury and sales offices in central Manchester while Rediffusion owned Wembley and Television House [6]. The stake in the Aston studios was sold to ATV while the Didsbury site, used for a short period by Yorkshire Television until their own studios were ready, was sold to Manchester Polytechnic. The offices in Manchester were also sold.

The structure of the new company was also a problem. A merger between the two existing contract holders Associated British Cinemas (Television) Limited and Rediffusion Television Limited was impossible due to internal politics as was a merger between their respective parent companies Associated British Picture Corporation and British Electric Traction. The answer was a new holding company, Thames Television (Holdings) Ltd [6].

After some discussion as to the name of the new company - some directors favoured 'ABC London', while others suggested 'Tower Television' to reflect the Post Office Tower and the Tower of London - it was named Thames Television, after the River Thames. This name had been previously considered and rejected by London Weekend Television [7].

On Tuesday 30 July 1968 Thames began broadcasting to London, from the start of broadcasting on Monday until its handover to LWT at 7.00 pm on Fridays. (From 1982, the handover time was 5.15 pm). The opening week was disrupted by sporadic strike action[8]; the following week, the action had spread to all of ITV[9] and resulted in the creation of a management-run ITV Emergency National Service for some two weeks.

Thames' corporate base was originally at Rediffusion's former headquarters Television House, Kingsway, until the opening of the newly-built Thames Television House on Euston Road in 1970. The company's main production base was at Teddington.

Presentation

Classic "London Skyline" ident
Start of Thames ITV generic ident, 1989
Final Thames ident, 1990-92; the logo continued in use until 1997

Thames's station and production identification sequences (idents) provided the station with some fame. For many years these would be aired both in London, where Thames would broadcast during the week, and throughout the country, animated before, and as a static image after, programmes produced for ITV by Thames.

The first idents to be used comprised a plain screen with the words 'FROM THAMES' written in white in the Helvetica font, and a vignette that resembled the famous ident, containing famous London landmarks. Both were accompanied by the tune 'Salute to Thames' written by Johnny Hawksworth. The first ident was used to signify programmes made at Rediffusion's old studios at Adastral House, the latter shows that came from ABC's former Teddington studios.[10]

With the introduction of colour, the ident was remodelled on the vignette, this time using photographs rather than drawings. This ident was designed by agency Minale Tattersfield. It was originally shot by stop-frame animation on 16 mm film, then shot again on 35 mm film in 1976 and finally digitized on computer in 1984. All of these animations featured the same design.

This classic ident was finally withdrawn in the summer of 1989, ahead of ITV's first attempt at generic presentation. Before that, Thames celebrated its 21st anniversary with an ident that retained the London landmarks but contained them in a blue and orange triangle, pointing downwards, with three wavy blue lines to represent the river and the words 'THAMES XXI' in the orange part of the triangle. This ident used an orchestral version of 'Salute to Thames'. The triangle design was retained for the company's first ITV generic ident from September 1989 (as shown right).

A new ident was launched in 1990, featuring a redesigned triangle logo containing Big Ben, the British Telecom Tower, the dome of St Paul's Cathedral and Tower Bridge. Initially, this ident was used only before local programmes; a modified ITV generic ident featuring this new logo was used for networked shows until Thames learned of the loss of its franchise to Carlton in October 1991. After this, the former ident was used for all programmes.

Though Thames ceased broadcasting at the end of 1992, it continued to use the triangle logo for its first few years as an independent production company.

A special montage ended the station's last broadcast on New Year's Eve 1992. The montage, variants of which were also aired in the last days of the station's broadcasts, comprised clips of notable Thames programmes, and included short segments of some of the station's previous idents. It was played to the song "I Only Want To Be With You" by The Tourists, and ended with a modified version of the ident used at the time and an announcer reading the line "Thames, a Talent for Television". This was followed by the sounds and an image of Big Ben, a common practise for marking the start of the New Year, which was also the time that Thames's ITV franchise would end [11] but not before ITN showed their news report called Into The New Year.

Culture

Thames is often quoted as a prime example of a good commercial public-service broadcaster with shows covering all aspects of the spectrum and the largest producer in the network. Its shows achieved massive audiences and are still remembered many years later. This is sometimes attributed to the culture of the company, which could be claimed to be a continuation of that at ABC. This station was more highly regarded by the ITA (amongst others) than Rediffusion whose programming was seen as downmarket and whose management-style was viewed as high-handed.

The ITA ordered ABC's Managing Director Howard Thomas to be appointed in a similar capacity at the new station. ABC had majority control of the new company and the make-up of its board predominantly (and eventually fully) came from ABC. The use of ABC's studios at Teddington meant the workforce was predominantly ex-ABC (although those at Kingsway were ex-Rediffusion). However, with the inherited creative talent and facilities the opportunity bequeathed to the new station was enormous.

Thames also benefited from benign shareholders. There were just two shareholders at the company, these being the former owners of Rediffusion, British Electric Traction, and the owners of ABC, the ABPC, later to become (via mergers) Thorn EMI.

The two companies allowed Thames independence (although in later years there were accusations that they both treated the company as a cash cow). This allowed the station to establish separate divisions to focus on particular genres. Euston Films was established in 1971 by independent producers financed by Thames and specialised in drama output while Cosgrove Hall was employed to produce children's animation. The children's department also spawned the independent production company Tetra Films, which would later revive two classic Thames children's programmes for ITV - The Tomorrow People (1992-5, in association with Thames-owned Reeves Entertainment and also for Nickelodeon) and, less successfully, Rainbow (1994/96, for HTV).

Industrial disputes

Like most of ITV, Thames was beset by conflicts with trade unions, notably the Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) - indeed, the worst strike to hit the network originated at Thames. Failure to reach agreement on pay increases and shift allowances in the 1979 pay round resulted in technicians switching off power to the transmission facilities at the Euston Road centre on 6 August. After management restored power, the technicians walked out. Within four days the whole of the ITV network was off-air after the ACTT asked members at other companies to walk out in claim for a 15% pay rise. The network was off the air for ten weeks.[12]

In 1984 another strike was called, this time over the use of new cameras and editing equipment along with overtime payments for transmission staff. The technicians walked out for two weeks but the station was off the air for just one day as management and administration staff took over their roles.[13]

Arson attack

In April 1970, 25-year old unemployed advertising model Patricia Drew entered the main foyer at Thames' new Euston Road offices and threw a petrol bomb at the reception desk, causing minor damage. Drew was suffering a mental illness and believed David Frost was part of a government experiment to hypnotise people via television transmissions. Although Frost worked for the ITV weekend London contractor, LWT, she targeted the offices of Thames as she also believed Eamonn Andrews, the then-presenter of Thames' Today, the local news programme, was also part of the scheme.

Little comment was made on this story at the time and it only fully emerged after a journalist made a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act in 2005[14].

Controversy

Dallas

In 1985 the company made a deal with international distributors for US production company Lorimar to purchase the US drama Dallas, at that time transmitted on BBC1. This broke a gentlemen's agreement not to poach each others' imported shows. Thames paid $60,000 a show compared to the $33,000 of the BBC. The deal brought condemnation from the BBC and from other ITV stations, who feared the BBC would poach their imports, pushing up prices. The BBC delayed transmission of the episodes of Dallas that they already had, planning to broadcast them at the same time Thames broadcast their new purchases. Ultimately, pressure from other ITV companies (notably Yorkshire Television) forced Thames to sell them back to the distributor at a loss.

Morecambe and Wise

In 1978 Thames secured British entertainers Morecambe & Wise, the stars of the BBC1 Christmas schedules which overshadowed ITV programmes with 28 million viewers. They had worked with the BBC since 1968, after leaving ATV because it would not make their shows in colour. Thames offered them a film through the Euston Films subsidiary and clinched the deal. Their leading scriptwriter, Eddie Braben, did not initially move to ITV with them, and with Eric Morecambe's failing health, the shows never repeated the audiences they once had. Productions were delayed while Morecambe recovered from heart surgery. The film he and Wise wanted to make - Night Train To Murder - was eventually screened on New Year's Day 1985.

Benny Hill

In 1989, Thames sacked Benny Hill, a stalwart at the station since its launch in 1968. It was widely believed that he was dismissed because his shows were considered sexist. Thames' decision was taken on financial grounds: Hill made only 58 hour-long episodes in the 20 years. He stayed in the public eye by repeats and by re-edits of hour-long productions into a half-hour format. After 1980 half-hour compilations of the series began airing in the autumn and audiences fell from 20 million to 17 million. The show at its peak had 21 million but the last series of specials had nine million viewers.

Bill Grundy and The Sex Pistols

In 1976, the punk band The Sex Pistols uttered obscenities on the live show evening news programme Today. They were being interviewed by Bill Grundy. Grundy made it clear he didn't like their lifestyle. When singer Johnny Rotten uttered shit, Grundy asked him to repeat it. One band member, Steve Jones, called Grundy a dirty old man and a fucking rotter. Grundy claimed he had allowed bad language to show the Sex Pistols as they were. There had, however, been claims that he had been drinking; he introduced the group as ...being drunk as I am. The transmission was not stopped. There were 30 seconds to the end of the show and producers feared trouble in the studio if the show were halted. Grundy was suspended and Today ended soon afterwards; his career never recovered.

This Week: Death On The Rock

The most controversial act was the documentary "Death On The Rock", part of the current affairs This Week series. The programme questioned the authority of British troops who had gunned down suspected Provisional IRA members allegedly planning a terrorist attack on a British military ceremony on Gibraltar. The documentary was regarded almost as treason by many Conservative politicians, and by newspapers such as The Sunday Times.

Programmes

The station originally continued formats inherited from its parents. These included the variety show Opportunity Knocks, the last series of The Avengers and the detective thrillers Callan and Public Eye (all ABC). One of these shows was the comedy Do Not Adjust Your Set (Rediffusion) - nominally a children's show, but forerunner of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The Sooty Show, cancelled in 1967 by the BBC, aired on Thames's first day and after Harry Corbett's retirement in 1975 continued with his son, Matthew Corbett, until November 1992, a month before Thames closed down. The company took over This Is Your Life after the BBC dropped it. It ran for 26 years on ITV. When the show moved back to the BBC, Thames continued to produce it until it was axed again in 2003 [15]

Other Thames shows included This Week (known as TV Eye between 1979 and 1985), the drama The Naked Civil Servant, Rumpole of the Bailey, the game shows Strike It Lucky, Give Us A Clue and Name That Tune, the dramas Dodger, Bonzo and the Rest, Rock Follies, Reilly, Ace of Spies and Danger UXB, and the Benny Hill Show and Mr Bean.

The World at War was a history of the Second World War using unseen footage and interviews at hight level. The show, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, was commissioned in 1969, took four years to produce, and cost a record £4m (approx £32m at today's prices).

Thames produced a number of sitcoms including Father, Dear Father, Bless This House starring Sid James, George and Mildred, After Henry, Never the Twain, and Love Thy Neighbour, with its controversial take on racial issues. Less well-known is its adaptation of Andy Capp, starring James Bolam. Two of its more recent sitcoms found more success when they transferred away from ITV - Men Behaving Badly, which moved to the BBC in 1994 and Is It Legal?, which moved to Channel 4 in 1997. Both were written by Simon Nye and co-produced by independent company Hartswood Films. It also produced the children's show Magpie, intended as a rival for Blue Peter. Thames became a significant contributor to the ITV network and its shows (most notably The World at War and The Benny Hill Show) became worldwide award-winning successes. Unusually for a commercial broadcaster it also produced lavish versions of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In addition to its evening and peak time programming, Thames changed the face of daytime television in Britain. Afternoon Plus brought the art of intelligent interviewing to a wide and growing audience.

Thames' subsidiary production company Euston Films produced many of Thames' highest-profile contributions to ITV network programming. These included The Sweeney (1975-78), Minder (1979-94) and Quatermass (1979).

Ownership changes

In 1985, Carlton Communications launched a take-over bid for Thames after Thorn EMI and BET decided to sell. This was blocked by both Richard Dunn, Chief Executive of Thames, and by the IBA. Thames then proceeded to have a management buyout and were floated on the Stock Exchange. It is said that Carlton Chief Executive Michael Green talked to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the matter, which in turn may have helped to shape the 1990 Parliamentary Act which replaced the IBA with the Independent Television Commission and the change in franchise allocation procedures.

Franchise loss

In 1992, Thames lost its (by then renamed) 'Channel 3' franchise to broadcast to London during weekdays as a result of losing the silent auction used to renegotiate the expiring contracts (previous contract tenders had been based on merit alone - the record of incumbents against the potential of new applicants - with no cash element). The successful company was Carlton Television, a subsidiary of Carlton Communications and headed by Michael Green.

This occurrence was seen as controversial by many and highly significant by most given Thames's history within ITV, both as a long-standing franchisee within its own right; its heritage from the start of the network, through its founding parents ABC and Rediffusion London; the fact that it was one of the major contributors of content to the network; and due to the auction method used to conduct the new 'franchise round' - a significant change from previous rounds, brought about by the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

Consequently, the franchise loss became a subject of political debate, with changes brought about by the 1990 act being cited as the primary reason for an operation such as Thames being able to lose its licence to broadcast. That the then Conservative government had passed such an act, caused accusations of direct responsibility to be levelled on former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in particular, who had presided over its creation. Opinions vary on the matter of political motivations; some cite the documentary "Death On The Rock", which may have caused displeasure to the then government, whilst others link it to a more general ideological dislike of the way ITV had been run at the time, with 'excessive over-manning' and the fact that programme production was generally limited to franchise holders (sometimes critically referred to as barriers to entry) being seen as examples of why more commercial freedom and competition was needed within the network. An auction could be argued as being very much in the spirit of this style of thinking.

The amount that Thames offered to pay for its franchise was significantly less than the money offered by other companies, and although a 'quality of service' threshold was a part of the auction, this was not sufficient to save Thames. Since both Thames and Carlton were deemed to have passed the quality threshold, the franchise was awarded to Carlton for having submitted the higher cash bid. Some commentators consequently speculated that Thames had fallen victim to a 'government vendetta', whilst others felt that the auction had been won fairly.

In addition to Thames's departure from the network as franchise owners, it could also be argued that an equally significant part of the changeover was the fact that its replacement, Carlton Communications, broke away from the traditions of the 1968 and 1982 franchise rounds, in not acquiring and taking-over the bulk of its predecessors' studios, facilities, work-force and infrastructure (the studios at Teddington continued as independent facilities and are now part of the Pinewood Group). Instead, Carlton chose to commission the vast majority of its production content from third-parties; not only had ownership changed, but so too had the nature of a large part of ITV's operation. The 1990 act, again, could be cited as being responsible for this, with previous franchise rounds having specific stipulations preventing this from happening, whereas the latter act could be seen as encouraging this. Although Carlton initially stuck to its practice of outside-commissioning, it later acquired Midlands franchisee Central Television, and hence became one of the UK's largest commercial producers.

Final programme

On 31 December 1992, at 10:45pm, Thames' final programme as a broadcaster - a compilation of highlights from the station's output entitled The End of the Year Show - aired in most ITV regions (Television South being the main exception, since they had their own farewell show, Goodbye to All That).

The programme ended with a clip from a 1978 Morecambe and Wise special as the closing credits played. After the closing credits came a congratulatory message:

"Thames Television wishes to thank not only all the artistes who appeared in this programme, but also all those who participated in its first twenty-five years".

Following the programme, Thames signed off with a farewell announcement by chief executive Richard Dunn, a long montage of Thames' very best programmes through an edited-for-time version of The Tourists' cover of I Only Want to Be With You, and ITN's special report with Dermot Murnaghan entitled Into The New Year. At midnight when the chimes of Big Ben first struck, transmissions switched from Thames' headquarters in Euston Road in London, to the London News Network playout centre on the South Bank where Carlton Television launched. After 25 years, Thames Television had finally ceased broadcasting.

Life after the franchise

Shortly before the loss of its franchise, Thames partnered with the BBC to launch UK Gold, an archive channel dedicated to classic programming from the archives of both broadcasters. At the time, the total audience of satellite and cable television had grown to around 3 million - roughly equivalent to that of a small ITV company. The group later launched UK Living, a channel for women. Some years later, Thames sold their stake in the UKTV venture to the cable group Telewest.

After 1992, Thames continued to produce programmes for the ITV network and other UK and international broadcasters, a notable example being the long-running police drama The Bill. However the company radically changed: The offices at Euston Road were sold and subsequently demolished, the site having been re-developed as Triton Square and is now home to the registered headquarters of the Spanish bank Santander's British operation). The studios at Teddington were sold to a management buy-out team and are now part of the Pinewood Group, owners of both Pinewood and Shepperton Studios

The company itself changed hands a number of times: it was owned by Pearson Television in 1996, which is now FremantleMedia, part of the RTL Group; Fremantle also acquired TalkBack Productions and merged the two companies under the new name Talkback Thames in 2003.

See also

References

  1. ^ Elen, Richard G.. "Thames Television". Screenonline. http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/457866/index.html. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  2. ^ a b Cherry, S, ITV:The People's Channel, Reynolds & Heran, 2005, pp172-173
  3. ^ Black, P. The Mirror In The Corner - People's Television, Hutchinson, London, 1972, pp102-103
  4. ^ The players | Talk of Thames
  5. ^ Cherry s. ITV: The People's Channel, Reynolds and Hearn, 2005, p173
  6. ^ a b Taking Shape | Talk of Thames
  7. ^ Docherty D, Running The Show: 21 years of London Weekend Television, Boxtree, 1990
  8. ^ Graham, Russ J Lights Camera Inaction, Talk of Thames from Telemusications, 2005; accessed 26 April 2006
  9. ^ Graham, Russ J Everybody Out!, Talk of Thames from Telemusications, 2005; accessed 26 April 2006
  10. ^ Graham, Russ J; Clarke, Rory (2006-04-25). "Thames". Ident by Electromusications from Transdiffusion. http://www.transdiffusion.org/emc/ident/album/thames.php. Retrieved 2007-11-04. 
  11. ^ "The Ident Zone". MHP. 2000-04-06. http://www.meldrum.co.uk/mhp/identzone/misc.html. Retrieved 2007-04-11. 
  12. ^ Strike Out | Talk of Thames
  13. ^ Cherry, S. ITV: The People's Channel, Reynolds and Hearn, 2005, p196
  14. ^ Camden New Journal
  15. ^ It was revived once again, this time by ITV Productions and SMG Productions for ITV in 2007, hosted by Sir Trevor McDonald, but failed after one series.

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