History of London Weekend Television, LWT

 

We chart the history of London Weekend Television from its origins as a glint in the eye of a big wheel in the BBC to its demise as an ITV regional on-air brand in 2002.


 


The 1960s: Early Promise

 

LWT co-founder David Frost

BBCTV star David Frost assembled a team of the bright, influential and wealthy to bid for the Independent Television Authority's recently advertised ITV franchise for London weekends. The incumbent station, ATV, was felt to be vulnerable due to its unchallenging and predictable output.

London Weekend won the franchise in 1967 after its 'dazzling' application bowled over the authority.

The new company promised more highbrow programming and a strong focus on the arts. The ITA wanted a real change in the ITV network to move it away from the downmarket shows that had led to recent government criticism. London Weekend's ambitious plans captured the mood of the moment.

lwt's studios at wembley

Broadcasting from Rediffusion's old studios in Wembley, North London (and from a leased office block nearby), the company burst into life for the first time at 7pm on 2 August 1968

Within minutes the debut programme We Have Ways of Making You Laugh was blacked out by an industrial dispute and London Weekend's showcase first night on air was ruined. 

Frank Muir's We Have Ways of Making You Laugh

There was much industrial strife at ITV in 1968 as unions flexed their muscles on behalf of members, many of whom were worried for their jobs in the midst of so many franchise changes.


Troubled times

London Weekend's  intellectual programmes turned off weekend viewers and, faced with a surprisingly populist, entertainment-led schedule from the BBC, other ITV stations panicked and showed their own entertainment programmes or cheap US imports in place of London Weekend's eclectic fare. 

Leading this charge was ATV, the midlands contractor that had formerly held the London weekend licence. Regional ITV companies ditched LWT's programmes and schedule and took ATV's alternative offerings instead. Advertisers complained about low viewing figures and revenue dropped at a critical time for the new station.

The press closely followed the LWT debacle.

With a hostile press, plummeting viewing figures, panicking ITV partners and reduced advertising revenue, the station's investors finally lost patience and removed managing director Michael Peacock. Most of his senior staff resigned in protest, leaving the station rudderless and without a senior management team.

LWT staff protest outside the Independent Television Authority offices in Brompton Road, London.

By late 1970, LWT was on the verge of bankruptcy. Disgusted by the boardroom shenanigans and worried for their jobs, London Weekend staff protested outside the ITA's London headquarters and demanded action. The press was never far away, gleefully reporting every detail of London Weekend's troubles.

ATV Plans a Take Over

Vultures circled the troubled station. Lew Grade, managing director of ATV, which had lost out to London Weekend Television in the competition to win the plum ITV London weekend franchise, approached ITA Director General Robert Fraser. According to Lewis Chester's biography of Grade, Lew suggested either a full ATV take-over of LWT or, at least, an arrangement by which ATV temporarily managed LWT. 

Grade always saw ATV's seven-day midlands franchise, awarded at the same time as ATV lost London weekend to LWT, as a consolation prize and he was keen to claw back ATV's London presence, seizing on LWT's problems to get ATV back on the air in the capital. Unknown to Grade, the ITA was privately considering a forced merger to save LWT but with Thames Television as the partner, not ATV.

Had Grade known this, he would have been extremely worried as a Thames-LWT merger or alliance would have threatened to eclipse his and ATV's influence in the ITV network.

London Weekend ident on monitor in monochrome

Steadying the Ship

The ITA wasn't keen on any merger and soon scotched its early overtures to Thames. A partnership with Thames would have flown in the face of the whole point of the London weekday/weekend split that was designed to prevent an over-dominant London station from calling all the shots in ITV. And a hook-up with ATV would have been unthinkable -- an admission of failure for the authority, which had taken a gamble on LWT and its promising programme plans. 

After looking at all the options, the ITA instead ordered LWT to appoint a managing director and senior staff capable of restoring confidence, or risk losing its franchise completely. If LWT failed to turn itself around, the franchise would be revoked and readvertised, warned the ITA.

Rupert Murdoch saved LWT from bankruptcy in late 1970.

Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch at this time bought up a stake in LWT for £500,000 and became a hands-on chief executive, wooing advertisers, redesigning schedules and encouraging more popular programming. 

Much of this more mainstream and popular content was already in the pipeline before the crisis hit, but the new management stepped on the gas.

Murdoch redesigned LWT's programme schedules

However, the ITA was always unhappy with Murdoch's role because he was a foreign national and the owner of tabloid newspapers. 

Murdoch's capital investment and management expertise had basically saved the company from the brink of bankruptcy, so he was understandably furious with the authority and what he saw as the cosy BBC/ITV duoply in the UK. 

Reasonable relations were restored with the ITA when Murdoch reduced his role in the company and brought in John Freeman as chairman and chief executive. However, Murdoch's legacy lived on. The station realised that survival was the first requirement before it could start making the sort  of programmes to which its original franchise application aspired.

On to the 1970s