Beyond the watershed

A-R programming was not what it seemed

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Associated-Rediffusion is sometimes thought of as offering little more than mind-numbing game shows. But the truth was a good deal more complex, as Chris Bowden-Smith and Jim Johnson point out.

The political fight that surrounded the introduction of commercial television in the mid-fifties left the early contractors with a dilemma. It was essential to prove wrong the opponents of the new scheme by transmitting programmes that would appeal to all tastes and all social classes. The need to recoup initial investment, however, required a lowest common denominator approach to attract mass audiences and stem the inevitable early losses.

It was also necessary to persuade advertisers of the value of the new medium. Satisfying politicians, advertisers and two very different social classes of viewer was a daunting challenge.

The startling division then apparent in British society between what we now call ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ viewers is easily forgotten in today’s more classless society. Associated-Rediffusion found a novel way to reconcile these opposing forces.

After an initial year during which the scheduling was an unscientific jumble, they settled into a subtle viewing apartheid whereby the 8.55pm news from ITN would mark a sudden boundary between populist viewing in the early evening and more intellectually-demanding documentary and drama in the later hours. This set a trend that would continue to be followed by Rediffusion, London after the change of name, as shown by the examples on this page from 1964.

Associated-Rediffusion is now often unfairly pilloried by historians for over-reliance on quiz shows and entertainment for those of a less sophisticated palate. The truth is more complex than that, however. These early evening programmes raked in the cash that cleared the debts, underpinned the company’s success and funded a greater quantity of documentaries and heavy dramas than even the ITA required.

Television House, the headquarters of A-R in Holborn, Kingsway, was famed for its military ethos. The company, though dominated by businessmen, achieved a remarkable balance between the needs of commerce and those of show-business. The tension between these two broadcasting disciplines was never an issue at this company, whereas it was the very issue to almost ruin London Weekend some years later.

Associated-Rediffusion probably succeeded in satisfying the demands of the media elite, the politicians, and the middle-classes with their post-“watershed” schedules. Plays by Harold Pinter, the Angry Young Men of London’s West End, more commissioned programmes about Westminster from ITN than the regions took, and endless documentaries about heavyweight subjects demonstrated that A-R was indeed “the BBC with adverts”.

When the Pilkington report grumbled about the likes of ‘Double Your Money’ and ‘Take Your Pick’ dominating ITV’s weekday early evenings, A-R could only warn that this income was the source of the documentaries and plays that gave ITV its public service reputation.

And yet, A-R found itself consistently under attack in the press, in parliament and in the corridors of its regulator, the ITA.

This is happenstance – while ATV London was no better than the chattering classes of the time thought it would be, A-R was better and paid the price demanded by the British when something they create becomes the envy of the world – demanding better of it all the time.

As ever, this type of criticism is of a “don’t like the cut of his jib” style – unsubstantiated but loud.

A-R could not win. A-R drama was too highbrow, A-R popular entertainment was too lowbrow. The chattering classes demanded a constant supply of material that would please all of the people all of the time.

They got it – but never realised until it was gone.

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