ITV in Wales

When revolutions and popular uprisings occur around the world, the rebels’ very first target is never the parliament building, the civil service HQ, the airfield or the military base: it’s always the broadcasting centre – confirmation if it were needed that power in a modern society rests in control of the means of communication.  This is perfectly exemplified by Wales, where there is a precise correlation between the absolute powerlessness of the people and the absolute power of the London-run media monopolies. I have blogged about BBC Wales in the past (see, now I want to turn my attention to the solitary English language commercial TV operator in Wales: ITV or, as it calls itself following a fooling-nobody lip-service rebrand earlier this year, ITV Cymru Wales.

ITV has quietly chucked in the towel, curled up in a corner and died in Wales; and what’s revealing is that nobody noticed. Home grown programmes make up a derisory 3% of the ITV1 schedule, and half of that is the compulsory evening news slot. Immeasurable fathoms of Welsh life, experience, creativity and ideas thus go entirely uncovered within Wales, and because ITV Cymru Wales makes not a single programme for the ITV network Wales is rendered invisible to the rest of the UK across Channel 3 and the entire ITV digital stable.  The recent announcement that the company is to sell its Culverhouse Cross studios and move four miles east to a small prestige office at Assembly Square completed ITV’s transformation from programme maker to property speculator in Wales.  Having for years raked in rental income from leasing the many unused studios at the Culverhouse complex to small independents, they will evict the tenants to make way for lucrative housing and use the dosh to splash out a £¼ million per annum in rent for a luxury suite down the Bay so that wooden anchor Jonathan Hill can fawn to the mighty right on their doorstep.  The thought of making a programme or two with that £¼ million was not entertained at ITV Towers, Waterloo, where all decisions pertaining to Wales are made.

In retrospect, it can be seen that commercial TV in Wales was doomed from birth.  When the patrician and conservative Independent Television Authority (ITA) in England set up the service they refused to treat Wales as a whole and, mulishly going against the grain of all-Wales actualisation, insisted on dividing this small country in two by lumping south-east Wales with south-west England to create Television Wales & West (TWW) in 1958 while keeping the rest of Wales unviably separate under Wales West & North (WWN), formed in 1962.  Both were based in Cardiff within a few hundred yards of each other; TWW at converted Pontcanna Farm and WWN on Western Avenue.  WWN lasted just 16 months, becoming the only ITV company ever to go bust in 1964, and was duly absorbed into TWW (their old studios are now Welsh Joint Education Committee offices).  But this second chance to form a one-Wales service and merge the Bristol operation with its natural partner, Westward Television based in Plymouth, was also spurned by the ITA; TWW continued to be hampered by its obligations in England while being required to maintain the ridiculous partition of Wales by still running the former WWN area as a separate service under the banner TWW Teledu Cymru.

Despite the technical and logistical challenges of having to operate three distinct mini-channels simultaneously (for Welsh-speaking Wales, English-speaking Wales and Brizzle-speaking West Country folk), TWW couldn’t fail to be a financial success in the days of only two channels, no commercial competitors and no Welsh competitor of any description (BBC Wales was not set up until 1964). Kicking into an open goal, TWW instantly became Wales’ most popular station. In what now looks like a Golden Age of Welsh TV, but was actually no more than a so-so early stab at Welsh-specific fare, the company produced 15% of its schedule in-house and came up with a wide range of unassumingly assured programmes over its decade of existence.  Beaming out from the St Hilary transmitter high on the downs west of Cardiff, the likes of Land of Song, Discs A Go Go, Mr & Mrs, Camau Cyntaf, Abracadabra and Challenge built loyal audiences often reaching 700,000, while Rhondda raconteur Gwyn Thomas (1913-1981) became a major personality in many series of witty philosophising and Welsh navel-gazing.  Even such modest morsels are inconceivable from today’s ITV Wales, where the biggest audience (100,000) is gained by the nearest thing to entertainment on the channel: Chris Segar cracking nuts with a sledgehammer on interminable ‘consumer affairs’ strand The Ferret, fearlessly utilising his indecipherable drone to bore cowboy builders into submission on the rain-swept Prestatyn sea-front. 

TWW was confidently striding into the future with a big expansion of facilities at Pontcanna and basking in plaudits for its vivid and sombre live coverage of the Aberfan disaster fronted by a baby-faced John Humphrys. But in 1967 the ITA dropped a bombshell by revoking TWW’s licence to broadcast when the franchises came up for renewal – making TWW the first ITV company ever to have its licence withdrawn and the only one to date to lose a licence on non-financial grounds.  The views of Wales were not even sought let alone considered by the ITA, whose chairman was the vulgar autocratic Tory Charles Hill, Baron Hill of Luton (1904-1989). TWW bowed out with bad grace, taking the station off air prematurely in a hissy fit after concluding melodramatically with some bitter words of cold fury from chairman Edward Stanley, the 18th Earl of Derby (1918-1994). The franchise was given to Harlech Television simply because Lord Hill was wowed by the consortium gathered by Conservative peer David Ormsby-Gore, the 5th Baron Harlech (1918-1995), ostentatiously stuffed with big beasts of 20th century Welsh culture like Stanley Baker (1928-1976), Richard Burton (1925-1984), Geraint Evans (1922-1992), Harry Secombe (1921-2001) and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas (1908-1987).  Under instructions from London to trump nascent Welsh nationalism by Welshifying the franchise (TWW’s main shareholder was London’s News of the World), Hill was easily persuaded by the starry firmament of ladled-on Taffydom and the airy promises of artistic intent.  In short, English peer A schmoozed English peer B and they ganged up on English peer C.  Oh yes, nearly forgot, and Wales’ broadcasting landscape was transformed.  PS: The promises would not be kept.

For a third time the ITA refused to treat Wales as a separate entity, so Harlech, renamed HTV in 1970 because the Somerset epiglottis choked on that much-too-Welsh ‘ch’, was saddled with the same dual identity albatross (HTV Wales/HTV West) that had handicapped TWW. The cheap and easy option of becoming just another generic ITV channel was soon taken, with TWW’s earnest worthiness replaced by an archly modulated campness found nowhere else on Planet Earth apart from Cowbridge High Street on a Saturday afternoon.  All the continuity announcers and presenters seemed to have a double-barrelled surname, from Haines-Davies, Young-Jones, Powell-Reed and Dyddgen-Jones through to Heywood Thomas (upbeat Nicola, known laughingly by camera crews as ‘Miss HTV Positive’, was leftfield enough to get by without a hyphen). That said, HTV’s performance, like TWW’s, also looks staggeringly good in hindsight when its average 20 hours a week of in-house programming is set against the pitiful six hours a week produced by ITV Wales now.  Little did anyone know it, but Arthur Of The Britons and Paint Along With Nancy would be highwater marks for English language commercial TV in Wales.

After the 30-year-overdue founding of dedicated Welsh language commissioning channel S4C in 1982, HTV was simultaneously relieved of its bilingual obligations and boosted by the resultant boom in Welsh language commissions. The company flourished, particularly carving a niche in serious current affairs with Y Byd Ar Bedwar and Hacio, both still going strong on S4C.  The move from the outgrown Pontcanna studios to Culverhouse Cross took place in 1984 (the old studios were demolished and replaced by the housing of Fields Park Road), and HTV was beginning to put down significant Welsh roots – founding and publishing the indispensable Wales Yearbook* from 1990 for instance – until the UK’s market forces creed allowed the profitable company to be gobbled up by corporate giants United News & Media in 1996.  It was then tossed around between various multinationals as the ITV financial model came apart at the seams in a deregulated TV landscape of hundreds of channels before being bought by Carlton in 2002, when the HTV identity was entirely ditched in favour of the ITV1 brand.  By the time Carlton and Granada merged in 2004 to form ITV plc, freed of all but the bare minimum ‘regional’ obligations by Tony Blair’s toothless Ofcom, any pretence to a comprehensive Welsh service had disappeared.  This time there was a Welsh Assembly in Cardiff Bay – but again there was no consultation and again Welsh broadcasting was but a helpless straw in an uncaring wind.

ITV, having learnt absolutely nothing from the mistakes of the past, obstinately persisted in calling the station ITV Wales & West like it was still 1957 for a few more years.  And, when the penny finally dropped that it was all just window-dressing anyway and it would be quite safe to superimpose the word “Wales” on the feeds from London without causing pregnant women to spontaneously abort, it hardly mattered anymore, because by then productions and staff levels had been pared to the bone and next to nothing was left.  Wales is so thoroughly disrespected that London reckons we merit little more than the cheesy and shallow 25 minute evening news magazine – an excruciating must-miss in which woebegone anchor Jonathan Hill awkwardly plays footsie with Glamorous Blonde With Big Tits to whip up a bit of ‘sexual chemistry’ while the pair of them read alternate words from the autocue and make mock-appropriate facial gestures depending on the story (eg: ‘Child Grazes Knee In Garnant’ – furrow brow; ‘Charity Fun Run Raises A Fiver’ – nod approvingly; ‘Carwyn Jones Opens An Envelope’ – raise quizzical eyebrow; ‘Thousands Of Corpses Lie Rotting On The Streets Of Cardiff’ – shuffle stack of blank paper).  You always know a news programme is floundering desperately when the weatherman has to be bigged up to supply some ‘personality’.

Essentially ITV Wales has been reduced to a short-staffed newsroom – and that would go too if Ofcom would allow it. This accounts for the channel’s one saving grace: the persistence of a tradition of reasonable current affairs coverage (ie: slightly less bland than that of BBC Wales) with Sharp End and Wales This Week.  Other than that, there’s Fishlock’s Travels, which I am loath to criticise because it would be like shooting fish in a barrel, The Ferret, which I think I’ve mentioned already, and, and…that’s it.  No wonder the studios can be sold off: you won’t be needing them when you don’t plan to make any programmes.

To sum up, because the ad revenue wouldn’t be worth the effort, ITV plc refuses to do anything with the precious privilege of being Wales’ only commercial TV provider, and because, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales is not allowed to organise its own broadcasting affairs, Welsh television services have, incredibly, managed to shrink at a time when all over the rest of the world the digital revolution has seen services mushroom.  ITV has had 55 years to prove it is a fit and proper guardians of Wales’ commercial TV licence; 55 years in which over and over again it has proved the precise opposite.  The time is long since past for Carwyn Jones’ complacent government to develop a backbone, demand the devolution of broadcasting, and end the scandal of Wales being the only country in the world without an indigenous broadcasting sector for its majority language population.  And, finally, there could then be an amusing “And Finally” item worth watching.

* Now published by FBA in Aberystwyth