The 1980 Franchise Battle

 

From wining the franchise in 1957 Southern had little competition in the following franchise rounds of 1964 and 1968. However, when the IBA advertised the new franchise to run from 1st January 1982 radical changes to the area were stipulated. The area was to be split into a "dual region", forming the South and South East region. The franchise application required a dedicated studio facility providing dedicated news and continuity for each part of the dual region and the IBA also took the opportunity to correct a previous mistake to the territory of the region.

When colour was introduced on UHF in the early seventies the Dover transmitter was limited to the same power output as the existing VHF service. This was a fait a complete as the proximity of the transmitter to other European countries prevented a higher output to avoid interference to other countries. However the UHF coverage was about half that of the VHF system and thus a further UHF site was required to serve the northern area of the VHF coverage located at Blubell Hill. But this was allocated to the London Contractors Thames and LWT and effectively shrunk the available audience to the eastern part of Southern's region. Hence Southern felt only obliged to provide an opt out service to the eastern part of it's region. However, for the new franchise period to run from 1982 the Bluebell Hill site was to revert back to the South and South East franchise together with the relay at Tunbridge Wells.

On the 8th May 1980 Southern Television submitted its detailed application to the IBA for the franchise including plans for a new studio complex in Maidstone for the south east area and plans for future programmes. By the closing date the IBA had received 8 applications for the area including James Gatward's ( South and South East Communications) TVS bid.

Once the closing date had passed a war of words broke out between the competing groups all aimed at Southern in an effort to sway the IBA's decision although Southern chose to remain silent and let it's past performance stand.

On the 29th December 1980 Southern Television learnt that it had been unsuccessful in it's application for the franchise at a meeting in the IBA headquarters attended by Frank Copplestone and the chairman David Wilson. In a letter to Southern Television they were informed that "despite Southern's achievements" they had awarded the franchise to TVS.

James Gatward's group were only hoping for a forced merger with Southern and were as shocked at taking the whole contract as Southern was at losing altogether.

Lady Plowden, chairman of the IBA, described Southern's loss as " a victim of the system". The whole industry was shocked by the decision that such a company could be axed after 22 years service and commitment to it's viewers. The decision prompted David Wilson, Southern's Chairman to write to the IBA demanding an explanation, the text of the letter as follows:-

 

Letter to Lord Thompson, chairman of the IBA from Southern's chairman David Wilson :-

I have delayed replying formally to Lady Plowden's letter of 28 December on order that we could consider the reasons and implications that lie behind the unprecedented step taken by the Authority when it, in effect, dismissed Southern Television.

Firstly I must express the sense of astonishment and, I must say it, of outrage and injustice felt by the staff, the Management and the Board of Southern. For the first time in the 25 year history of Independent Television a company has been summarily dismissed without previous warning or complaint, and we feel that we have the right to expect some form of comment from the Authority other than the expression of "gratitude for the many good things Southern has contributed to ITV" as Lady Plowden put it.

When the applications for the contract for the new South and south-east region were published we studied those of our rivals most carefully. Some, for various reasons, we did not consider to be strong opponents, others we felt should be taken more seriously. But throughout the long process that followed we did not feel it appropriate, or helpful to the authority in it's task, to make derogatory comments or innuendoes about other applicants, unlike some of them including the successful applicant. perhaps we should have done. Perhaps we should have expressed some professional doubts about a promise to produce regularly a total of 1,500 hours a year - far more than any ITV company has ever done. Perhaps we should have questioned the promises to produce programmes in virtually every programme filed - a wider spread of activity than is undertaken even by our largest companies. Perhaps we should have rebutted the innuendoes about the quality of our children's programmes, a quality repeatedly praised by the Authority - and we can certainly find no evidence that the promised performance of the successful applicant is likely to lead to any improvements in this field. Perhaps we should have questioned the expertise of the group that, after priding itself on it's professionalism chose a site for it's new studios, emphasising the advantages and the care which had gone into its selection, only to abandon it later in favour of the site we had recognised from the beginning to be far the most appropriate. We did not draw all these, and many other matters to your notice because we felt it right to put forward our own realistic and firm proposals, based on our record of complete fulfilment of all the promises we had made in 1967 when our contract was renewed.

When we were interviewed we were courteously, even gently, treated by the Authority. No sensitive areas were deeply or energetically probed, no strong criticisms actively pursued which would have given our representatives the opportunity to explain or rebut. We were not invited for a second interview. We must ask why, if the Authority was even contemplating the total removal of Southern, were we not, at our interview, pressed fully in vulnerable areas, and given the opportunity to meet any later charged in a second interview?

When we were told that our contract was not to be renewed we asked in what particulars we had failed. Lady Plowden said that it was not a question of failure, but that Southern was " a victim of the system". But the system was created by the IBA and was being implemented in a totally novel way.

We cannot believe that a decision of such importance affecting the lives and futures of hundreds of people, can have been taken purely on assumptions that a new group of people looked as though they might provide a better service, as against a company whose regional performance is acknowledged across the network as second to none, and which has made many notable contributions to the network and who, in the words of the IBA chairman, had not failed.

Surely, if there were any doubts it was wrong to destroy a long established and successful company, on the basis of a written document and one short interview.

The Authority performed an act of Arbitrary power based on a secret process of assessment, exercised without the opportunity for defence, questioning or appeal and we believe it had already been decided that there had to be at least one supreme sacrifice regardless of whom the replacement was to be. Using Lady Plowden's own words we have been "Victims". This can be no proper way to conduct affairs of this importance - it surely defies every concept of natural justice.

You referred to the remainder of the contract. It is our intention to maintain the quality of our service. If there should be any falling off in the overall service from the standards that our viewers have come to expect , it will only be as a result of this decision of the Authority, and will therefore be beyond our control.

C. David Wilson

Chairman, Southern Television Ltd.

 

And the reply from Lord Thompson :-

You ask for a public response to one of your letters. I will say no more publicly than this: it is wholly understandable that you should be distressed at the Authority's decision not to award your company the 1982-90 franchise, and that you regard this as the wrong conclusion of the full process of consultation and interviews which has taken place over the last two years. It would not be right to quote in reply to the views of those who agreed with the Authority's decision, nor to publish our rebuttal of general and particular points made in your letters to us. The Authority has a duty laid upon it by parliament, and has to discharge this duty in the public interest, however painful particular decisions may be to particular companies and people.

 

On winning the franchise, TVS expanded from a team of directors to a full company during 1981. Southern eventually agreed to sell their Southampton and Dover studios to TVS at the end of their franchise period.

Arrangements were also made for the existing Southern staff to be re-employed by TVS. By April 1981, TVS was working from Portakabins in the Southern car park at Southampton. During the last seven months of Southern's franchise it was agreed that TVS would make programmes using Southern staff and studios.

On the final day of transmission, the Southern star finally set at the end of a special programme to mark the company's achievements. After the screen was faded, the star appeared and started rotating and finally zoomed away into the awaiting galaxy of stars. The Southern jingle could be heard for the last time. One strange fact is that the programme finished at 12:45 am on 1st January 1982 with no official close down as was the norm.

Christopher Robby presenting Southern's final programme " And it's Goodbye from us"

 

During 1982 Southern Television was wound down after the completion of asset disposals and the sale of the programme library to Primetime, now know as Southern-Star Primetime who's address is:-

Southern Star Primetime

Seymour Mews House

Seymour Mews

Wigmore Street

London W1H 9PE

The news library footage was sold to TVS and in 1993 Meridian obtained the news library of both Southern and TVS.