Steve Morrison discusses the changing nature of TV in the 1990s

There were basically two things that happened in the late 80s which were very, very important. The first thing was that when I was at the controllers’ group, there was a great deal of rivalry between what was called the seven-day companies, which were those that had franchises across the whole week, and the London companies, who were split into one five-day and one two-day franchise – it was really for and a half and two and a half. So Thames would have the weekday, and London Weekend would have the weekend, and they had the same franchise, split. And because they had split franchises and therefore were more commercially endangered than the seven-day franchises, they had the right to draft the schedule, but we had the right to offer what, in effect, were guaranteed programmes. So whether they liked them or not, they had to play them, and they would fight each other for the ones they wanted, and leave to the edges of the schedule those they didn’t like, but they had to play them.

But during the time I was director of programmes, which started in 1987 and went on to 1992, the regulator, which in those days was called the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), had a director who sat on our controllers’ group to keep order and stop us killing each other. And he initiated the idea that they would phase out guaranteed programmes, because guaranteed programmes were not bought on merit, they were related to the size of your advertising revenue. So if you were in a small geographical area, getting 11% of the network’s ad revenue, you would be entitled to make 11% of the programmes, minus exceptions – or plus exceptions – but generally that. And if you were in a very big area, you were entitled to make more of the programmes. So it was totally unrelated to merit.

So during my early period at the controllers’ group, I was approached by the man from the IBA, who was a very, very clever guy, David Glencross, and he said, “We’re going to phase out the programme guarantees, but you should go back and say to your colleagues at Granada not to be worried about this, because Granada is fitter at programme making than most of the other companies, and with the right application you are going to do well out of this. So I had just become the director of programmes, and on my first day I was asked across the corridor to a meeting with a managing director, Andrew Quinn, and this was in a climate when the government had passed a new rule that 25% of all programmes should be given out to independent producers not in the ITV companies. It had been agreed internally that the regional ITV companies, the smaller ones, were to get a bigger share of programmes, and now we were going into a situation where the bigger ITV companies’ programmes would not be guaranteed. So Andrew had had a chart drawn up in beautiful different pencils and colours over the next 3-5 years, suggesting that our make would go down, first by 25%, then by another 25%, so instead of making £37m worth of programmes a year, we’d be making, say, £20m. And he said, “This is inevitable, it’s going to happen, all these other quotas are opening up, which studio should we close in which order? And I’m afraid we’ll have to lose a lot of staff.” And I said, “No, Andrew, the loss of guarantees is the loss of our floor, but it is also the opening of the ceiling. So previously, we could only make £37m of programmes, now we can bid, we can compete on merit – although of course there will be a lot of politics and a lot of shenanigans – but we can now compete for other programmes that are not in our guaranteed make. I suggest we wait for a year before we sack a lot of people and close studios, and see what volume of programmes we are likely to be making.”

So the first programme that was put out into what was a contested area, what was called the flexi-pool, which was a kind of precursor for the BBC’s window of competitive competition, the walk, so in the area of programmes that were not subject to guarantees but had to be bid for on a merit basis, was the morning magazine. So there was 1.5-2 hours in the morning that was made up of educational programmes, and the same IBI executive, David Glencross, said to the controllers’ group, “Why are you running these half-hour educational programmes? They’re as dull as anything.” This came from the regulator. “As long as you have educational content in brief, in seven-minute bite-sized chunks,” as he called them, “Why don’t you put a wrap-around package around this time and make it into something more popular? Have a morning magazine with seven-minute educational strands.” So it was decided that this would be the first programme that would be competed for in the flexi-pool, and the daytime committee, which was chaired by a rival ITV company, Andy Allan from Central, would look at the pilots and choose one. So, of course, I said to my number two, David Liddiment, “This is our opportunity – we must strike and win this programme.” And we were sitting and discussing this all day during what was called the ITV Telethon, watching the studio in Manchester, where the Telethon goes on for about 24 hours, and presenters present it in shifts. And during this shift we were watching was a husband and wife team, Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan. And David and I looked at each other and we said, “Could this be the first married couple that presents a daily television programme? They’re both journalists, they’re not a confection, they’re both natural TV journalists and TV presenters, but they happen to be married – would they be suitable? Should we have them in this pilot?” and the second thing we decided, which we hoped would make a difference between us and the other competitors, was we weren’t going to do it in a studio. We didn’t tell anybody this, but we decided that we would do it on the Albert Dock, which had a backdrop of glass walls, and the dock in Liverpool, which would give it a totally different feel, and more of a sort of open air magazine feel, and we even built a huge rubber map on a dinghy of the whole of the United Kingdom, and the weather man would have to jump from Wales to Northern Ireland, across the sea, to tell us the weather. So it was quite different in look than all the other entries – I think there were three other ITV companies, including one of the biggest ITV companies, Thames, who put in a bid – and lo and behold, although we were not on the committee, we were not chairing the committee, the committee chaired by a rival ITV company chose us as the winner. This was actually an incredible turning point, because I then went back to the Granada MD and said, “We’ve just won a year’s contract to make a daily programme, so there’s going to be 40 weeks of five episodes, so that’s 200 episodes and 400 hours of television.” He said,, “Oh, that’s terrible – how are we going to make redundant staff, how are we going to start another studio when I told you that I wanted you to close down studios, and Granada group will be petrified by us putting on more overhead.” I said, “No – don’t put on an permanent overhead. What we’re going to do is we’re going to contract these staff for a 40-week run of contract, freelance, in Liverpool, what’s called ‘run of the show’, there’ll be no redundancy at the end if the programme is not continued, we’re going to lease the area around the Albert Docks and we’re going to put the set costs in the cost of the programme, which will be paid for by the network – so there is no investment by Granada, we’ve got nothing to lose, if the programme fails after a year, you haven’t added any permanent staff, you haven’t added any permanent studio, and if it succeeds, you have just won millions of pounds of programme business.” So, bless him, he let me do it, and off it went, and recently it celebrated its 27th – 27th! – year on the screen. It’s now transferred, after many years, to London, where it was made here, but This Morning is still going strong, after 27 annual series, in 2015.

So the world basically shifted from that moment, and by the time I actually retired from Granada in 2002, having become the director of programmes in 1987, we had moved our annual programme turnover from £37m a year to £537m. So in a way, this threat of removing our guarantees turned out to be the most wonderful expansionist opportunity that Granada had ever had. Now, during the guaranteed period, the quality of the programmes could be very high, because we weren’t making that many and we could choose to make what we want – but beyond the guarantees falling off, we were running a proper programme business, and we made glorious programmes like Prime Suspect and the like, but at the same time we grew the business almost 20-fold – not quite 220-fold, but from £37m to £537m.

And the second thing that went in parallel with this removal of the guarantees was this huge change for Granada, was after the 1990 Broadcasting Act, the ability to buy and merge and consolidate more franchises, more regional franchises. So we bought London Weekend Television, and I was asked to go from Manchester to London to become the managing director of LWT, then I became the chief executive of the Granada Media Group, and finally the chief executive of Granada PLC, the public company – but during that period, in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, we bought LWT, we bought Yorkshire and Tyne Tees, we bought Meridian, and we ended up in the end being two major conglomerates – Granada and Carlton – that eventually had to merge in order to form one unified ITV. So that policy, that philosophy, which as I described it to the Granada group executives, who were Gerry Robinson and Charles Allen, my strategy was, “Get into the London cockpit where the schedule is determined, because that is where the plane is driven.” And it has two pilots – Thames and LWT. You have to own one of these London franchises to be in that cockpit, so the one we chose was London Weekend, which was a very aggressive takeover, and therefore a very arduous time, when I was sent down, the barbarian from the north, to be the new MD of the city slicker licence, which was the London licence, and I had to win over the Melvyn Braggs and all the others, but we changed LWTs output; we concentrated on its strength, which was its entertainment, but added to it other programmes, and within a year or two we had turned that programme division into a very profitable one, and doubled the profits of LWT.

We then bought Yorkshire and Tyne Tees, which was the second half of my strategy, which was ‘strengthen your local neighbourhood’; be in the London cockpit, but strengthen where you are. So the north was combined between Granada, Yorkshire and Tyne Tees, and from there we then bought Meridian. So we ended up merging, Granada and Carlton ended up merging, and the two chairmen of Granada and LWT decided they didn’t need their best men at the wedding, so the chief executive at Granada, which was me, and the chief executive of Carlton, we both agreed to leave. I took early retirement and did what I had wanted to do for many years, which was form our own production business, but I have to say that.

Leave a Reply