ITV history 1955-1968

When ITV was created there was a flurry of activity as in large towns up and down the country, studios were constructed or converted from buildings such as cinemas to enable the new programmes to be made and broadcast. 

The four companies set up at the start of ITV were given an additional brief.  In addition to their local remit they had to make the big expensive programmes that would be networked over the whole country.  These included drama, comedy and light entertainment but also a significant proportion of current affairs, children’s TV, news and religion as ITV had a strict public service requirement in those days.

Three of the four big companies decided to have studio centres in or near London.  They were Associated-Rediffusion, ABC Television and ATV.  The fourth, Granada, was based in the north of England and constructed its main studio complex in Manchester.  This company always remained at arm’s length from the others and nobody at the time could possibly have predicted that fifty years later it would in effect be the only one remaining.

itv map 1958
A map of ITV’s coverage in 1958. In 1955 it was only London, ‘The North’ and the Midlands. This map was in a publication by ATV – hence they are the only company mentioned.

Associated-Rediffusion was formed by a combination of Associated Newspapers and another combined company – British Electric Traction Company (B.E.T.) and ‘Broadcast Relay Service’ who traded under the name ‘Rediffusion.’  B.E.T. was a very successful tram and bus company, believe it or not.  Perhaps not the obvious people to become involved in the early days of television but it seems that as a transport company they were worried that they might be taken into public ownership by the 1946 Labour government.  Therefore they diversified by taking over Rediffusion, whilst allowing that company to continue trading as a separate company.  Their considerable financial resources were to prove crucial in the first year of ITV’s activity.

Broadcast Relay Service, or ‘Rediffusion’ had been founded in the 1920s to offer their subscribers better reception than was possible with their own aerials.  They were, in effect, the first cable company – although of course in those days it was radio not TV.  They ‘re-diffused’ the radio (and later TV) signal – hence their name and logo.  Perhaps surprisingly, they were not initially keen to be involved in the new ITV venture.  In fact on 9th January 1953 their board agreed unanimously that it would not be in their interests for commercial television to be introduced.  However, they later reconsidered but only on the condition that it was in partnership with another company.  Associated Newspapers seemed to be the ideal partner.

The new company was called Associated-Rediffusion and their familiar spinning logo (sometimes known as the ‘adastral’) was used as a break bumper before ads were shown and was later copied by countless comedy shows.

This company is credited by some as having ‘saved ITV’.  For the first few months of operation all the ITV companies were losing huge amounts of money.  Fortunately, BET was wealthy enough to weather the storm and keep Rediffusion going. Associated Newspapers were horrified by the losses and got out of the business as soon as they could.  Within six months they had reduced their holding to only 10% of the company.  What a mistake.  Within a year or two the ITV companies were making so much money they hardly knew how to spend it.



The costs of running the new companies proved to be higher than anticipated and the advertising income far less.  Partly, this was because it was months before the Midlands and the North West had transmitters.  The transmitter covering Yorkshire took even longer to build.  Even then, only about half the population was covered.  Advertisers were very wary and slow to respond to this new market.

The early losses forced the companies to look hard at their costs.  During 1956 they made staff redundant and closed down unnecessary small studios only months after equipping them.  They also set up formal arrangements to regularly share programme time between each other, which originally had not been considered at all.  It had initially been assumed that the companies would be in strict competition and would sell individual programmes to each other on an ad-hoc basis.

As the weekday ITV supplier to London, A-R bore most of the burden of the early losses.  Had the company been as lightly financed as some of the others it is possible that they could have gone under and taken the whole of independent television with them.  Thus through financial adversity the ‘ITV network’ was created, dominated by the original big four companies. 

In fact, when ITV was first planned it had been assumed that within a few years, once the frequencies were freed up, each region would have several ITV companies broadcasting in competition with each other as was to be found in the US and some other countries.  There was no such thing as ‘ITV’ as a channel name in those days. Independent television was a concept, not a name, and the channel was commonly known in each region by its number (in London it was channel 9), the local company name or sometimes people called it the ‘ITA’ – the Independent Television Authority.