One of the first jobs the Independent Television Authority and its gifted first chairman, Sir Kenneth Clark, had to do upon the ITA being founded in 1954 was to negotiate between two very different goals the Television Act had set for the fledgling broadcaster.
The first, and most obvious, was to ensure that as close to 100% of the population as possible could receive their channel’s output. The second was, technically, in direct opposition to this: the new system must not only compete with the BBC, but also within itself, in whichever way the ITA was to see fit.
The straightforward solution would be to licence two contractors in each area, broadcasting from different frequencies with competing programmes.
However, the shortage of available Band III frequencies meant that this would allow for a severely restricted number of transmitters – perhaps enough to cover the central areas of London, the Midlands and the North, but certainly not the valleys and mountains of Wales and Scotland.
Sir Kenneth Clark’s decision was therefore a compromise – each transmitter in the central areas would indeed have two contractors, but they would split a single frequency among them, with a weekday company and a weekend one competing in each area for the same revenue.
But the ITA continued to believe this was little more than a compromise and that the provision of a second service, perhaps by kicking the weekend company onto it and letting it go ‘head to head’ with the weekday one across the whole week was something to aim for.
After ITV’s tricky first few years and when the threat of bankruptcy that loomed over the pioneer companies had turned into the clichéd ‘licence to print money’, the idea of a second channel was even more appealing to the ITA.
This was not least because the easiest way to reduce the companies’ mega-profits was by introducing real competition to the market.
But the shortage of VHF frequencies that had caused the problem in the first place remained. Any new network would have to appear on a different area of the broadcasting spectrum. And, in 1964, one did. But this new service, authorised and encouraged by a Conservative government, was BBC-2.
However, in planning for the transmitter network to carry the new service, the Post Office had worked out a new checkerboard pattern of frequencies for each transmitter, leaving room for BBC-1 and the ITV network and, most importantly, an unused ‘Fourth Service (not allocated)’ frequency.
The ITA eagerly lobbied for these new frequencies to be awarded to themselves when the duplication of BBC-1 and ITV – and colour services, for that matter – began on UHF.
Before BBC-2 had even launched, the government promised the frequencies to the ITA, just as soon as they had been returned to power in the forthcoming general election.
But the Tories had, after more than a decade in power, become mired in the sleaze and ‘over-comfort’ that went with being Britain’s alleged natural party of government.
They had replaced the popular Harold Macmillan, who left thinking he was dying of prostate cancer but lived on into his 90s, with a man old enough to be the nation’s grandfather, Alec Douglas-Home.
Bankrupt of ideas and led by a man who look extremely old compared to the youthful and dynamic Harold Wilson, the nation narrowly turned them out of Downing Street.
The new Labour government was not as radical as the one that had last seen power 13 years before, but it did have many of the original ideologies that went with being a socialist party at that time.
Wilson’s government nationalised a few things here, made a few social reforms there, and set out a new, socialistic, agenda for broadcasting.
The most newsworthy of the time was the sudden end, after many half-hearted attempts, of the pirate commercial stations anchored off the coast.
This was part of a desire to restrict, as far as was possible, the growth of commercialism in the UK. The government publicly stated that the much-fancied spare UHF frequency would go to the BBC for a third network.
But the BBC, flushed with success, presented the minister with a realistic but massive bill for a third network and consequently a demand for a similar increase in the licence fee.
The government was now stuck. The ITA could not have the frequency, as this would be an expansion of capitalism. The BBC could not have the licence fee doubled – or more – for fear of the reaction in the country and the effect on the rate of inflation and subsequent demands for increases in wages, two things already beginning to get out of government control.
In the way of all governments caught between two arguments with nothing resembling a compromise in the middle, they simply prevaricated.
The BBC could have the frequency if it could do it with no increase in licence fee. The ITA could have it if they could get the profits of ITV down and the quality – which was probably good but perhaps a tad to populist for the more high-minded of MPs – up.
The ITA, given this hope but knowing that the profits could never be as low nor the quality high enough for the government was faced with running a franchise round in 1967.
Since the award of the second frequency in each area would make the result of the round impractical to continue with, the new contracts were awarded with a let-out clause – another round would take place should the ITA get the frequencies.
With the round over and the ramp-up of UHF and colour for ITV underway, the ITA began lobbying the government again, but to no avail.
The surprise change of government back to the Conservatives in 1970 promised more hope, but they had committed themselves to commercial local radio first and continued the policy of putting ‘a fourth channel’ on the back burner.
As Ted Heath’s government began running the economy into the ground and mishandling relationships with the unions in a way they hadn’t been mishandled for years, the fourth channel and the necessary capital spend by ‘a nationalised industry’ like the now IBA was anathema.
The IBA continued to lobby, but when the Conservative government asked the country in 1974 ‘who governs Britain?’ and received the resounding reply ‘search us’ from the population, the new minority Labour administration under Wilson was not looked to with much hope.
Once a second election brought an almost workable majority for Wilson, and with the long-opposed local commercial radio stations already firmly in place, a change of policy now seemed to be coming, albeit slowly.
A commission under Lord Annan began to study the options for the frequencies, but with terms of reference that were firmly public-service based. Many ideas were put forward, and as the Labour majority dwindled away, the Annan report took shape.
One of the first ideas to be put forward appeared in September 1976. The Annan Committee on the Future of Broadcasting held a ‘talk-in’ at Cambridge, and produced the idea of a Television Foundation.
The Foundation would not carry advertising, but would use sponsorship of its programmes to earn a living. Payment out of the licence fee and ITV’s already punitive levy should make up the rest of the income.
With a compromise between the two systems that in some ways resembled that of PBS in the US, the new network would be largely educational, with a dash of the BBC Third Programme and a garnish of the Open University.
This idea was accompanied by some, frankly bizarre, changes in the structure of broadcasting. A Local Radio Authority was proposed to take control of both BBC and ITA stations and merge them into something that also looked like the BBC Third Programme reborn.
A plan to abolish the post of Director-General of BBC and allow the governors as one large, unwieldy body to have day-to-day control over programming was also announced.
And, most oddly of all, it was proposed that the Canadian model of broadcasting be adopted, where the Canadian Radio-Television Commission both ran its own service and licensed all the others – the equivalent of the BBC governors also running the IBA.
The frank amazement that greeted these proposals meant that, when Annan issued his final report in 1977, much of the ‘revolutionary’ ideas had fallen away.
The government, now under Jim Callaghan, welcomed the sanitised report. Under the resulting White Paper, a new Open Broadcasting Authority was to be set up to provide ‘the third force’ in British broadcasting, breaking the duopoly of BBC and IBA, but not really rocking the boat.
A semi-commercial channel, with a strong public service and educational remit would founded in 1979 or 1980. Run by the new OBA, it would be specifically for minority groups – black people and women were mentioned specifically – and would provide programming not only aimed at these ‘minorities’, but also programmes made by them.
However, the exact details of funding for the channel – and for the OBA – were left vague. Labour’s 1979 manifesto promised the OBA and the new channel, but remained silent on how to pay for it.
The polls indicated that those who knew about these things – not necessarily a good sample of the whole population – would actively support a fourth channel that rejected the ‘usual fare’ put out by the existing three networks.
The Conservatives, busier than ever before knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, were eager for any new channel to be properly funded and under the wing of a nurturing regulator.
The IBA was to be that regulator, and the new channel was to be funded by ITV selling the airtime – and making up any losses out of its own pockets.
That also satisfied those elements of the press always eager to scream about excessive profits in ITV, without endangering the idea of profit-at-all-costs that would soon enough become the Conservative mantra.
That the new channel could also take some of the minority programming off ITV and thus increase ITV profits to offset the losses was even better.
The liberalistic Home Affairs spokesman on the opposition benches, Willie Whitelaw, managed to convince the leader of the opposition that a channel specifically for those outside the mainstream was a good idea.
Thus, when Labour’s (by then) minority administration finally foundered on the rock of one of the many no-confidence motions the Tories laid before it and an election was called, both sides were arguing for roughly the same thing for roughly the opposite reasons.
The Conservatives, with a workable double-figure majority, took power and honoured the commitment to ‘Channel Four’. With a renewal of the BBC charter and licence due – having been temporarily extended by the previous government to include a mention of providing programmes and potential finance to the OBA – and a new IBA franchise round in the offing, a grand shake-up of British broadcasting was about to occur.
The IBA, handed the reins of the new fourth channel, started the Channel Four Television Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary (the current Channel Four Television Corporation is, technically, a state-owned company constituted in a similar way to the BBC).
Premises were acquired, the transmitters prepared, a board of governors and a chairman – Sir Richard (now Lord) Attenborough – appointed and the channel’s first head, Jeremy Issacs, brought in with a wealth of experience from ABC, Rediffusion and Thames.
Just short of 30 years after Sir Kenneth Clark first proposed a second commercial service, Channel Four made its debut on screens on 2 November 1982.
That the channel would in no way resemble his original ideas was obvious. But his original claim on founding commercial television in the UK – that it could be a beacon of culture, education, information and entertainment, whilst still being something that made a profit – had been proved right when the organisation he founded threw the switch and brought a second commercial service to the nation’s airwaves.