The ITV System

The Independent Television Authority (ITA) was created in August 1954 to provide “for the period of ten years television broadcasting services, additional to those of the British Broadcasting Corporation . . . for so much of the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands as may from time to time be reasonably practicable”.

In accordance with the requirements of the Television Act 1954, the Authority builds, owns and operates the television transmitting stations. It selects and appoints the contractors to provide programmes for transmission from these stations. The contractors (more generally known as the programme companies) pay the Authority a rental related to the population coverage of the station or stations for which they provide programmes. They meet the cost of their ITA rentals, the cost of providing programmes and of their operations generally from advertising revenues. The Authority’s further duty is to ensure that the programmes provided are in accordance with the terms of the Act, and that the advertising transmitted is strictly controlled. Neither the Authority nor the companies draw any income from licence fees or other public funds.

The Nature of the System

The structure created by the Authority within the general framework laid down by the Television Act constitutes an entirely new combination of public and private initiative. In contrast to the unitary organisation with regional branches developed by the BBC, the Television Act requires the appointment of “a number of programme companies independent of each other both as to finance and control”. Moreover, Section 5(2) of the Act lays down that “It shall be the duty of the Authority to do all that they can to secure that there is adequate competition to supply programmes between a number of programme contractors independent of each other both as to finance and as to control”.

Only the existence of two directly competing companies in each service area could fully secure “adequate competition”. However, the frequencies which the Authority was granted were sufficient only to enable it to cover the whole country with a single network of stations. The Authority might have introduced direct competition in certain of its areas by building two stations, but only at the cost of leaving other areas without even one ITA service. The Authority therefore decided that while the limitations on its frequencies continued, it must use them to give national coverage by a single network.

Given one service only, the Authority had to choose the broad pattern of programme contracting which it would adopt. The fundamental choice was between a “unitary” system with a single programme company based in London providing programmes for the whole network of stations, and a plural system of separate programme companies for the individual areas of the country. There were sound social arguments for the appointment of separate companies to serve individual stations, and particularly for the communities outside London to be served by independently conducted programme companies rather than operated merely as satellites of a central group of London companies. The Authority, at the beginning of its life in 1954, therefore chose to adopt the plural form of organisation and has steadily pursued this policy ever since.


The adoption of a plural system did not of itself provide full competition to “supply programmes”, nor could it deny a programme company a local monopoly of viewers on the days for which it provided programmes. The Authority therefore sought from the beginning to introduce other competitive elements into the system. To avoid a London monopoly by one company there emerged the plan of enlarging the base from London to include, as well as the capital, the North and the Midlands and of appointing a total of four companies to serve this enlarged area. This was achieved by the division of the concession in each of the three areas into two parts, the weekdays and the weekends, and the creation of a mosaic of companies, stations, and days in a pattern which would support four independent companies.

The production of television programmes of national appeal demands large resources in the right places. It is no accident that networking – the supply of programmes for national use from some central source – is a common feature of broadcasting systems of all types in all the countries of the world. Effective television requires a high degree of specialisation in such programme categories as drama, light entertainment and variety, documentary programmes, sport, current affairs, children’s programmes, religious programmes and school programmes. And specialisation in any of these fields is practicable only when production is large enough to permit it. The distinctive features of Independent Television are not that it has a “network”, but that the supply of the main body of national programmes is provided by four separate companies, each of the four large enough to hold its own with the others, rather than originating from a single organisation; and that outside the most populous areas, programmes are provided by eleven smaller companies rather than by the extension of the geographical responsibilities of the four large companies and the creation of no further companies at all.

Fundamentally every one of the fifteen Independent Television companies is a regional company, the four largest no less than the remaining eleven; for each company is appointed to provide programmes for a particular area, and no company has any contractual rights or duties outside its own area. In each of the fourteen areas, the local programme company is responsible for providing all the programmes, whether these are produced by the company itself or acquired from other programme companies or other sources. Each local programme company as far as possible arranges its programmes into the pattern that best suits its region, subject always to conformity with the Authority’s directions in the matter of balance, quantity and quality.