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.
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 network and the station's ambitious plans captured the mood of the moment.
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. 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.
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 in place of London Weekend's eclectic fare. Advertisers complained about low viewing figures and revenue dropped at a critical time for the new station.
With a hostile press, plummeting viewing figures, panicking ITV partners and reduced ad revenue, the station's investors lost patience and removed managing director Michael Peacock. Most of his senior staff resigned in protest, leaving the station rudderless. London Weekend staff, disgusted by the boardroom shenanigans and worried for their jobs, protested outside the ITA's London headquarters and demanded action.
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 and suggested either a full ATV take-over of LWT or, at least, an arrangement in which ATV temporarily managed LWT.
Grade always saw ATV's midlands franchise as a consolation prize and was keen to claw back ATV's London presence. 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.
Steadying the Ship
The ITA wasn't keen on any merger and instead ordered the station to appoint an acceptable managing director, and senior staff capable of restoring confidence, or risk losing its franchise.
Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought up a stake in LWT and became a hands-on managing director, winning back advertisers and encouraging more popular programming.
However, the ITA was unhappy with Murdoch's role because he was a foreign owner of tabloid newspapers. Murdoch's capital investment and management expertise had basically saved the company from bankruptcy and he was understandably furious with the authority. Reasonable relations were restored when Murdoch reduced his role in the company and brought in John Freeman as chairman and chief executive.
By 1972 the station was on track with popular programming in peak-times, a becalmed staff and healthy advertising revenues. It also stayed true to its original promise of more arts programming, although this was generally off-peak and not always fully networked. A further morale-booster came with the building and opening of the station's swish new studio complex - Kent House on the south bank of the Thames.
LWT's studio building at Upper Ground on the South Bank is now a famous London landmark and home to ITV1, ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4. Kent House was built by contractors Higgs and Hill and was, in the early 1970s, the most modern and best-equipped studio complex in Europe. The whole building seems to sum up LWT's spirit - big, bold, and in your face - a larger than life presence at the centre of the city's entertainment and arts district. Click here to watch a video of the building of the studio centre.
In April 1972, TV Times published a fascinating feature in its London edition about the building of the new studios on the south bank. It includes a picture of Studio One under construction and a photo of announcers Alec Taylor and Peter Lewis. Many thanks to contributor David Sheldrick for finding this gem - click here to view in full. The article is copyright TV Times Publications, 1972.
Firm foundations for future success
By 1972, with a new studio complex, a united staff and management, and a porfolio of popular programming, London Weekend entrenched its position for the rest of the decade.
A relaxation in broadcasting hours regulations was a further boost and the company rode out the economic problems of the early to mid 1970s. Like all other mainland ITV companies, LWT experienced periods of industrial unrest but a pragmatic management and a staff who remembered only too well the problems of the early days ensured that disruption was kept to a minimum. LWT boosted its provision of serious news and current affairs programming, nationally and locally, and won plaudits for its drama, comedy, and entertainment output.
However, relations with the London weekday contractor, Thames, reached an all-time low. The companies were both fighting for advertising and LWT felt that the hand-over time of 7pm on Friday was unfair. LWT wanted a three-day/four-day split, extending its broadcasting hours to the whole of Friday. It lobbied the Independent Broadcasting Authority but to no avail.
At the height of the disagreement, LWT accused Thames of deliberately conspiring to hand-over a low audience on Friday. The relationship never fully recovered and for years LWT rarely acknowledged the existence of Thames while it was on air at the weekends or promoted Thames' or ITV's weekday programming. Instead, it poured resources into building its own local identity and pushing its weekend shows.
By the end of the 1970s, LWT was frustrated by the other ITV companies. The weekend was a difficult slot for ITV. Fewer people watched television at the weekends and lower ratings resulted in less advertising revenue. The BBC added to this problem by fielding a ratings-driven weekend schedule. As a result, most ITV companies made little effort at the weekend, using it as a dumping ground and saving their best programmes for the more profitable weekday slots. This put huge pressure on LWT - its alloted slice of network airtime was not enough to allow it to fill the whole weekend schedule with its own productions and, anyway, the cost would have been prohibitive. It was forced to fill the gaps with imports and films, much to the concern of the watchful Independent Broadcasting Authority. LWT tried to encourage the other ITV companies to earmark some of their big shows for the weekend, but it had little success until the 1980s.
The early years of the 1980s proved financially challenging for LWT as recession hit. This led to many productions being postponed or shelved and a change in focus for LWT which introduced a raft of 'people' programmes which were cheap to make and good for ratings. This gave rise to Game For A Laugh, and later Blind Date, Surpise Surpise, You Bet, Barrymore and Beadle's About.
Still frustrated by a perceived lack of assistance from other ITV companies for the tricky weekend schedule, and hamstrung by the number of network hours allocated to LWT-originiated productions, the company sought a solution to boost the weekend output. It made a deal with TVS, the south and south-east contractor, where Greg Dyke had just arrived as chief executive from TV-am. At the time, TVS was cash-rich and desperate to get a bigger slice of network action. (Because of its status as a regional company, TVS had no automatic access to the core national network).
TVS moved away from its original philosophy of niche arts and science programming and produced more 'LWT-type' weekend programming such as C.A.T.S Eyes, a Gentle Touch spin-off, and various light entertainment and game shows. This arrangement didn't last for long due to a massive financial crisis at TVS, but the deal allowed LWT to fill its weekend schedules with appropriate, domestically-produced shows and, to an extent, demonstrated the importance of this to the other ITV companies. A more long-term benefit of the deal was the move of Greg Dyke from TVS to LWT, where he began to prepare for the next franchise battle.
LWT's Local News Problem
Throughout the 1980s, LWT was criticised by regulators for its poor local news service (although highly commended for its regional public affairs programmes, and community and social action strands).
From the beginning, local news provision was an issue for LWT. The ITA and then IBA required all contractors to provide local news during the weekend, although at a much lower level than during the week. Most ITV companies broadcast just one or two short regional bulletins each day at the weekend.
The problem for LWT was that all the other ITV companies broadcasting at the weekends had the resources of their weekday news departments to fall back on, even if these departments were drastically reduced in size for the weekend shifts. LWT had no weekday news department, and to insist that it create one just for a few short weekend bulletins would have been financial folly and grossly unfair on the station.
The unsatisfying compromise was the London News Headlines and later the LWT News Headlines bulletin, which usually consisted of no more than LWT's duty announcer reading bought-in agency copy. The bulletin rarely included filmed inserts or reports and even visual stills were sparse. The bulletin was really an extended continuity announcement, often squeezed in before a film late at night. In the event of a major incident in the capital, LWT would have to rely on ITN staff to cover it (although it did have outside broadcast units to offer when not used by the sports department.)
The 1982 extension of LWT's franchise from 7pm to 5.15pm on Fridays presented an even bigger local news problem. The Friday 6pm local news slot on ITV in London had always been part of Thames TV's franchise, and viewers watched Today then Thames at Six and Thames News on Friday evening just as they did on the other weekdays. What would happen to local news on Friday evening when Thames was no longer broadcasting at that time?
The solution, cobbled together by the IBA, LWT and Thames, was another compromise. LWT launched The Six O' Clock Show local magazine programme to fill the slot in 1982. However, the news element of the programme was contracted out to Thames Television, which produced a 10 to 15-minute bulletin. When The Six O' Clock Show was off the air during the summer months, LWT aired the standalone Thames Weekend News bulletin. This produced the rather odd situation where Thames would formally hand-over to LWT at 5.15pm on Fridays and then less than an hour later, LWT would hand back to Thames for the local news. This was less than ideal for LWT, which was proud of its station identity and begrudged the Thames brand encroaching on its weekend patch. Viewers were puzzled, too.
In the late 1980s with the franchise round approaching, LWT decided to clear up the mess and took action to improve its local news service, contracting it out to an independent news provider, Screen News.
This led to the launch in 1988 of the Six O' Clock Live local news program on Friday evenings (without any help from Thames!) and much-improved LWT News bulletins throughout the weekend. This news sub-contracting arrangement was the first in ITV and also set a precedent for London News Network, which went on to provide a seven-day news service across the London region from January 1993.
Despite much lobbying from the incumbent ITV companies, the 1990 Broadcast Act signalled a major change in the way ITV operated. The plan was that franchises, previously awarded on merit and quality, would from now on be awarded automatically to the highest bidder. The idea was that the free market would dictate the winners and the large bids would provide some welcome revenue for HM Treasury. Relatively last minute lobbying had persuaded Culture Secretary David Mellor to amend the Act slightly so that applicants would have to pass a quality threshold - the award of franchises would not be solely down to money.
The auction of ITV franchises took place in 1991 and LWT was running scared, realising that its track record could be ignored by the regulator if a competitor stumped up enough cash to outbid it. Although there was to be major upheaval in the ITV network with the removal of heavyweight Thames Television, LWT's bid was successful and the company won a further licence period to run from January 1993. LWT kept its franchise with a daringly low bid of £7.6 million - its rival, London Independent Broadcasting, had failed the quality threshold.
But the 1990 Broadcasting Act allowed for more flexibility in media ownership and within months of starting its new contract, LWT was taken over by northern broadcaster Granada Television, which had launched a hostile take-over bid. Dyke left the company. On-screen, viewers noticed little difference after the take-over. However, this was the start of the consolidation that within 10 years would see a homogenous ITV1 identity and a single ITV company across England and Wales. Internal changes at Granada had also effectively handed control of the television company to Gerry Robinson. A rapacious cost-cutter, Robinson and his chief executive Charles Allen, embarked on a programme of redundancies at Granada and the stations which it owned, including LWT, Yorkshire Television and Tyne Tees TV.
The major change for London viewers after 1993 was the introduction of a seven-day news service for the capital, provided by London News Network, a joint venture between Carlton Television, which had ousted Thames in the weekday slot, and LWT. This led to a seamless news service throughout the week with no differentiation between the two contractors' news programming, and more hours of local news. The contract to provide this regional news service moved from LNN to ITN in 2004.
In the 1990s, LWT was split into separate production and facilities divisions - LWT Productions and The London Studios. After 1993, fewer companies wished to invest in their own dedicated studios and with space available on the South Bank, LWT became home to GMTV, London News Network and, later, This Morning. Transmission for Carlton, the London weekday contractor, also moved in to the LWT presentation suite, although the companies maintained their separate announcing staffs and identities. (This wasn't a new idea - ATV Midlands and ABC Television had much the same arrangement through Alpha Television Services [Birmingham] Ltd in the 1950s and 1960s, when the midlands franchise was split between them).
The end of the 1990s saw the gradual erosion of local ITV station identity with centrally-produced trailers and promotions for most ITV regions produced in London. LWT kept its own name and distinctive on-screen personality until October 28 2002 when the station was scrapped as an on-air brand in favour of the unified 'ITV1' identity. The South Bank studios became home to centralised, national transmission of ITV1, including all continuity and presentation for the entire network. LWT remained as a production brand for a short while, but with the merger of LWT's owner, Granada, and Carlton into ITV Plc, this identity was on 1 November 2004 scrapped in favour of 'Granada London' as the production brand. Since January 2006, productions made by Granada in London have been named 'ITV Productions'.
The ITV1 London Years
From 2002, Ofcom, the television regulator, gradually relaxed the public service broadcasting quota for ITV. In January 2009, it was announced that ITV1 London's regional programming would reduce to four hours of regional news and 15 minutes of non-news each week. Ofcom has signalled that it expects to remove all public service requirements from ITV1 by 2014, so regional television in London has an uncertain future.
Transmission, continuity and presentation play-out for ITV1 moved from the South Bank studios to Chiswick on 18 March 2009.
ITV celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2005 and this included regional programmes looking back at the companies serving each different ITV region. These opening titles are for the London region and include shots of LWT idents over the years.
On 30 September 2010, ITV indicated that it intended to sell its South Bank television centre, the former home of LWT, as well as its Gray's Inn Road building and move in to somewhere "more practical". No-one yet knows what will be the fate of this iconic television landmark building, but its decommissioning as a television centre will mark the end of the final chapter in the history of the once-great LWT.
Sources for Ultimate LWT's A History of LWT
Running the Show: 21 Years of London Weekend Television by David Docherty
The Dream That Died: The Rise and Fall of ITV by Raymond Fitzwalter.
All My Shows Are Great: The Life of Lew Grade by Lewis Chester
ITV Cultures: Independent Television Over Fifty Years by Catherine Johnson.
Independent Television in Britain: Vol. 4 by Bernard Sendall