The Story of ATV

atvstory

By Lee Bannister

atv-16.tv50ATV, born in 1955, ‘died’ in 1981. ATV was truly the showbiz heart of the ITV Network from its very beginning, so much so that its influence continues to be felt to this day.

In the beginning there was the BBC. On television a single channel, nothing more. In the 1950s that all changed. Commercial Television was coming and show business impresario Lew Grade wanted to be a part of it. Lew founded the “Incorporated Television Programme Company” (ITP, later to be renamed as ITC – the “Incorporated Television Company”) and applied for a licence. The newly-formed ITA (Independent Television Authority) initially turned him down, concerned that his company would be too powerful in the entertainment industry. Instead the licence was awarded to the Associated Broadcasting Development Company (ABDC) under the control of writer Norman Collins. Various funding issues caused problems when ABDC were setting up, and so the ITA agreed to a merger between ABDC and Lew Grade’s company.

Initially going on air as ABC (Associated Broadcasting Company) the company ran the London Weekend commercial television licence, and would expand to Midlands Weekdays from 1956. Alongside Associated-Rediffusion, they co-produced the first ever ITV programme on 22nd September 1955. However soon after the launch the Associated British Picture Corporation, which was contracted to provide weekend ITV programmes for the Midlands and North from 1956, successfully sued for ownership of the title “ABC”, as they had run their cinema chain under this title for many years and wished to continue the brand for their TV service.

So it was that the combination of ABDC and ITC finally became what we now know as “ATV” – Associated TeleVision Ltd.

ATV’s head office was in Cumberland Place in London. Their Midlands facilities would be a joint venture with ABC Weekend TV. These facilities were built around a former theatre in the Aston area of Birmingham, and were christened as Alpha Television studios. The name “Alpha” arising from the letter A of both company titles and accompanied by a logo featuring elements from both companies’ designs. ATV’s separate administration offices were based in Edmund Street in the centre of Birmingham.

The ATV logo was borne out of Lew Grade’s admiration for the CBS Television Network of America. The CBS logo was a stylised version of an eye shape. Lew Grade requested that his ATV logo be something similar, hence the shadowed eye/double-eye design came into being. This remained throughout the company’s life, only altering very slightly in the 1970s when it could be seen placed within the shape of a TV screen.

ATV was very much the song and dance station of the ITV network, whereas a station like Granada, in the North, would appear more serious and concentrate on more quality factual programming. Together, all the ITV companies complemented each other in striving to produce a rich, diverse alternative to that which the BBC offered.

ATV, through Lew Grade, saw the opportunity of producing programmes for sale in the American TV market in exactly the same way as the ITV Network bought in a lot of programming such as ‘Dragnet’, so an American arm of ITC was created. ITC in America was the “Independent Television Corporation” and was initially an entirely separate entity to its UK cousin, before if became a wholly-owned subsidiary of ATV in the early 1960s.

This American connection opened up the door to the ITC classics of the 1950s and 1960s. Starting with “The Adventures Of Robin Hood” (which had begun production before any of the ITV franchises had even been awarded) and “The Invisible Man”, many series followed such as “The Saint”, “Danger Man”, “Ghost Squad”, “The Champions”, “Department S”, “Jason King”, “The Prisoner” and so many more.

ATV became so successful in producing these programmes for both domestic and international audiences, that it was given the Queen’s Award for Industry for its export success on a number of occasions.

In 1968 the ITV landscape was altered. Various companies lost their franchises, were re-organised, or had their broadcasting hours altered. The ITA decided that only the London region would retain a weekday/weekend split. ABC merged with Rediffusion to become Thames Television (for London Weekdays) and London Weekend Television was the new broadcaster for London at the weekends. ATV was awarded the full-time licence for the Midlands.

ATV took this opportunity to reorganise itself slightly. From now on the broadcasting business would become a division of the original parent company – Associated TeleVision Ltd. Therefore “ATV Network Ltd” was the new company set up to continue the ITV franchise, “ITC – Incorporated Television Company Ltd” (in the UK) continued to produce and distribute programmes for foreign sales while “ITC Entertainment Inc” in America remained as the division that actually distributed programming in that territory.

Over the years ATV utilised a number of different studios. In 1962 the former ‘British National’ studios in Elstree, Borehamwood, were purchased by ATV and remained in use for most of ATV’s larger network programmes until the early 1980s.

The beginning sequence of ATV's classic "Zoom 2" ident.
The beginning sequence of ATV’s classic “Zoom 2” ident.

In 1968 ATV purchased an area of land along Broad Street in Birmingham and created the ‘ATV Centre’ which was, for its time, the most advanced colour TV studios in the country.

Many programmes were made at the ATV Centre until it was finally decommissioned in 1997 and was scheduled for demolition which partly began in 2008. In 1968, though, this had meant the closure of the former Alpha studios (which later became local radio offices and studios) but the Alpha name was retained as the title of the new Alpha Tower, which was officially part of the ATV Centre complex (and featured in the 1973 Cliff Richard film “Take Me High”).

ATV went from success to success during the 1970s consistently producing quality entertainment for both the Midlands region and network/international production in all areas of programming interest. Lew Grade was knighted for his efforts, and would eventually become a Peer.

However, as the 1980s approached, the newly formed IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority – now with responsibility over Independent Local Radio) had noted that for all of its overseas success, ATV appeared to be neglecting its regional commitments somewhat. So, as the 1980 franchise round occurred, the IBA laid down strict rules as to what must happen after the new licence periods began in 1982.

Whichever company won, and it was made clear that this was by no means certain to be ATV, had to base themselves fully within their broadcasting region (ATV’s headquarters had always been in London, with their primary programme-making facilities in Elstree). Further, the Midlands region was intended to be split into East and West as the IBA felt that the East of this region had been under-represented until now.

ATV dutifully submitted a successful bid for their new licence under the name of “ATV Midlands Ltd”. In approving ATV, the IBA added further conditions to the licence. The company had to be reorganised. ATV was, by now, part of a large conglomerate. The original “Associated TeleVision Ltd” parent group had been succeeded by ACC – “Associated Communications Corporation”. The IBA decreed that ACC would in future own no more than 51% of the new licensee (the remainder to be sold off to local businesses within the Midlands franchise area), and most distressingly of all for the company, they were instructed that the brand “ATV” finally had to be dropped.

Reluctantly ATV agreed. They reorganised the company, as requested, and renamed the “ATV Midlands” company to “Central Independent Television”; the Birmingham Studios became the registered office; a new studio complex was planned for Nottingham; and 49% of shares were sold off (although, ironically, due to lack of local interest, these shares were eventually distributed to other large companies such as DC Thompson in Dundee and others). At board level, this all coincided with Lew Grade’s departure from the company.

ACC would retain the programme library of productions made up until the end of 1981 (with ongoing programmes at this point – such as Crossroads, Tiswas and Bullseye – being split between the two). ACC retained ownership of the Elstree studios which Central would be able to use until the new Nottingham production centre was up and running, after which the Elstree centre would be sold in 1984 to the BBC where it remains to this day.

Central became fully detached from ACC during the 1980s, then in the mid-90s was bought by Carlton Communications (who ran the London Weekday franchise from 1993). Carlton had been steadily buying stakes in Central since the late 1980s and ultimately merged with Granada in 2004 to form ITV plc.

ACC became known as the ITC Entertainment Group during the 1980s. It produced new product mainly through its American ITC Entertainment, inc., division, and continued to market elements of its ATV library in the UK and around the world. In 1995 it was taken over by PolyGram to become PolyGram Television, although when PolyGram was itself taken over by Seagram in the late 1990s (the then parent company of Universal Pictures), the Television division comprising of the ATV/ITC library was acquired by Carlton.

Therefore, once again, all ATV/ITC/Central and Carlton television programmes and films were owned by the same company. Although, sadly, and for all manner of reasons over the years, a lot of programmes from the 50s, 60s and 70s had been lost, wiped or simply not kept.

These days all that really remains of ATV is the logo, owned by a small subsidiary of ITV plc. The original companies are long since dissolved, although the company name “ATV Network Ltd” was resurrected by a London-based theatre group in the mid-00s, with its own network of regional offices.

ATV is one of the most fondly remembered of all the past ITV companies for its sheer flair in entertainment and programme production, something that will continue to be championed within the growing pages of ATVLand.net

Lee Bannister is Producer & Narrator of “From ATVLAND In Colour”, and Co-Producer & Narrator of “From Headlines to ‘Tight-Lines’ – The Story of ATV Today”.