Jim Grant describes the role of a Transmission Controller

The structure of ITV back then was, any one day of the week, because London had two companies – Thames during the week and London Weekend from Friday night through Sunday night – there were 15 companies in total, therefore, but 14 on the air at any one time, of which five were majors and 10 were minor companies. And the majors had a certain amount of sway, but the minors had a voice. And so you had to assemble your day’s transmission from your own stuff, the network contributions, commercials, trailers, promotions, all kinds of things. And that was the job of the transmission control team. There were two of them, a controller and assistant. It was a sort of editorial, operational type of job where whatever the viewer at home was watching on the screen, we were putting it there at the correct time and the correct sequence with no errors and no gaps, hopefully.

And the most routine aspect of the job was making sure the commercials were transmitted correctly, because obviously that’s where the revenue came from, so that was super important. And you had to make sure it was the right commercial, in the right commercial break, for its intended duration. If somebody paid for a 30-second slot, they were not happy if they were cut off at 28 seconds or whatever. So it was a question of patching together the day’s transmission. It had to be correct, it had to look seamless on the air, but it was like a swan. It looked good on the screen, but we were paddling like crazy below the surface to keep it all going. Some days were fairly routine. I once worked out that there were 15,000 critical pieces of information in a day’s transmission schedule. They all had to be correct. It was intensive work, but some days ran okay. But when we really made our money was in the panics and the crises, which were constant in those early days. I would say the first five, even say seven or eight years, were technologically very unsophisticated. There were constant breakdowns of equipment, either locally in Manchester or elsewhere on the network, that had to be covered.

There were news emergencies that had to be catered to, and those were decided by us, basically on a regional basis. A typical example would be, for instance, late at night, say 10:30 at night, 11 o’clock or something like that, there would be a news flash offered by ITN about, let’s say, an IRA atrocity in Northern Ireland. And typically, you would find Southern Television, Anglia, somebody like that would not be interested, not particularly germane to their demographic. Whereas Granada, obviously with Liverpool in particular, and Manchester had a huge Irish contingent and a lot of Irish interests. And so we would naturally want to use that newsflash because our audience needed to know it. So, at 10 or 11 at night, we’d be quickly cobbling together a news bulletin or something like that. It wasn’t done by ITN because it wasn’t being taken by the network as a whole. We would do it for our viewers.

The apogee of all of that was probably spring of 1982 with the Falklands War, which is sort of one bookend to the whole process. Really, the Falklands War was two or three months of crazy, chaotic, seat-of-the-pants transmission, where the schedule was perpetually disrupted and we had constant news flashes and stuff like that. And in the control room where – it was what you can imagine as a control room, 30 or so television screens, huge mixing desk, and about, I think there were nine telephones on the desk and they would ring all day long during that period, I mean, all nine phone ringing constantly. And I do remember one night, waking up in the night, in a cold sweat with phones ringing in my head. That was the closest I ever got to stress in that job. But then, nine years later there was the first Gulf War in 1991. And that was the other bookend, that was completely pre-packaged. It was ITN, basically packaging CNN coverage in a way that was like an entertainment product. It was just delivered to us. We had nothing to do with it. And so that really was an illustration of how the job became less forensic, less chaotic, more organised, more network based, more organised by somebody else. And so the particular thrill and excitement in our job tailed off. The things that we were good at were less and less required. And we became a much more… it became very routine. When things work well, there’s no interest in it. And I’d left by the time Princess Diana died, for instance, and well before 9/11 happened, for instance, but shamefully, I do remember on both of those occasions thinking, “Damn, I wish I was still working at Granada,” because those would have been just amazing days that we had, it was a tragic thing, but we had more professional satisfaction when things were truly horrible elsewhere. It was just exhilarating doing the news like that.

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