For ITV’s 60th birthday, it wants a ‘U’ and a ‘TV’ please, Bob

The commercial television network that broke the BBC monopoly is getting on a bit

The duchess of Cornwall meets This Morning host Philip Schofield (second left) and co-presenter Holly Willoughby, during a visit to the ITV studios to mark the broadcaster’s 60th anniversary. Photograph: Emma Clark /Getty Images

The duchess of Cornwall meets This Morning host Philip Schofield (second left) and co-presenter Holly Willoughby, during a visit to the ITV studios to mark the broadcaster’s 60th anniversary. Photograph: Emma Clark /Getty Images

 

Happy birthday to ITV, 60 years old and looking it. If ITV hadn’t commissioned Press Gang, I might never have become a journalist. I blame it for a lot.

Fun fact for reporters about ITV: it was Lynne Reid Banks and the late Barbara Mandell of ITN (the news produced for ITV since its birth in 1955) who pioneered the use of the TV vox pop on this side of the Atlantic. In their honour, ITV should mark its 60th anniversary by sticking a microphone under the nose of the man and woman on the street to see what they think – about ITV, or anything really. Always ask the audience.

How to sum up the contribution of the UK’s “Channel 3” to broadcasting history? Here’s our Graham with a quick reminder. Can I have a ‘P’ please, Bob? Can I phone a friend? If it’s there, I’ll give you the money myself. And finally . . . It’s good, but it’s not right.

Independent Television, the commercial network of regional television franchises, was formed to break the monopoly of the BBC; and, just as it did in Ireland some 43 years later with the advent of TV3, the existing media establishment fretted, for the good of the nation, that the whole business would foster a vulgar, Americanised culture, devoid of the BBC’s finely honed elitism.

The BBC was worried by the competition, enough to schedule a pivotal episode of radio soap The Archers up against the launch of the first ITV contractor, which went on air at 7.15pm, September 22nd, 1955. Grace Archer was fatally injured in a fire that night, but it was the UK Television Act 1954 that really killed her.

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The ITV brand developed from the starting point that it was not the BBC. It was not the channel for the supper classes – you watched ITV and you had your tea. In 1960, the northwest England franchise holder, Granada Television, created the soap Coronation Street, which couldn’t possibly be considered a serious drama by the culture snobs – all of the best parts went to women, for a start.

Ghastly ITV also had the nerve to introduce advertising to British television, making it indirectly responsible for the tragic 1980s outbreak of housewives doing the Shake ’n’ Vac in a valiant bid to put the freshness back.

But the differences between the BBC and ITV are exaggerated too. The network that launched a succession of shiny-floor shows – New Faces, Opportunity Knocks, Pop Idol and The X Factor – also broadcast Prime Suspect, The Naked Civil Servant, Hillsborough, the original Upstairs Downstairs and Inspector Morse. These days the BBC leads the Saturday night entertainment wars with Strictly Come Dancing and ITV exports the most notable period drama, Downton Abbey.

Next year, the channel that wasn’t even around for the live broadcast of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation will be the one that shows her 90th birthday celebrations, in a palace-sanctioned move interpreted by the UK press as a “snub” for the BBC.

This more equitable divvying up of opportunities to fawn all over the royals doesn’t change the fact that whenever the same big event is shown on both channels, viewers choose the BBC: it beat ITV three to one on the last royal wedding and four to one on the last World Cup final.

In Ireland, when we consider the immense impact of British broadcasting culture on our own, we tend to think mainly in terms of the BBC. But ITV, being older than RTÉ Television, has always been an influence too.

Since 1959, the Northern Ireland regional iteration has been Ulster Television, aka UTV. Belfast-based UTV Media plc holds the ITV network franchise for the region and has an agreement to show “network programming” in agreed time slots on UTV “proper”. For UTV Ireland, which effectively usurped UTV in many Irish homes last January, it has a separate deal with ITV plc’s distribution arm, ITV Studios.

But UTV Media is not – at the time of writing – owned by ITV plc, the company formed from mergers between almost all of the other ITV franchise holders, notably Granada and Carlton.

Now ITV is in talks to buy UTV Media, which would put the future of UTV Ireland in flux and extend ITV’s foothold in Ireland further than ever. The deal will be done as long as – to quote another of its game shows – the price is right.

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