TV-am was a TV company that broadcast the ITV franchise for breakfast television in the United Kingdom from 1 February 1983 until 31 December 1992. The station was the UK’s first national operator of a commercial breakfast television franchise. Its daily broadcasts were between 6 am and 9:25 am.
Throughout its nine years and 11 months of broadcast, the station regularly had problems resulting in numerous management changes, especially in its early years. It also suffered from major financial cutbacks hampering its operations. Though on a stable footing by 1986 and winning its ratings battle with BBC Breakfast Time, within a year further turmoil ensued when industrial action hit the company.
Despite these setbacks, by the 1990s TV-am had become the UK’s most popular breakfast show. However, following a change in the law regarding TV franchising, the company lost its licence. It was replaced by GMTV in 1993.
The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) announced on 24 January 1980 that in the next ITV franchising round it will offer a national licence for breakfast television. Eight applications were received and on 28 December 1980 the IBA announced that it had awarded the breakfast franchise to TV-am.
Although the initial launch date was set for June 1983, to avoid clashing with the 1982 launch of Channel 4, the IBA allowed the station to bring forward its start date to 1 February 1983 in response to the launch of the BBC service Breakfast Time two weeks earlier.
This hurried start affected the company in two ways. Firstly, ITV had failed in its negotiations for royalties and rates for advertising on the new Channel 4 and the breakfast service with the actors’ trade union, Equity. The union instructed its members to boycott the new station, which meant there was little or no revenue from advertising in the early days.
Secondly, it was believed that the BBC’s breakfast service would be highbrow, focusing on news and analysis, so TV-am had developed its new service to copy that. However, the BBC launched a lightweight, magazine-style programme that mimicked the style of United States breakfast television. With the launch of the BBC’s Breakfast Time brought forward at short notice this gave little time for TV-am to redevelop its plans.
TV-am was spearheaded by the ‘Famous Five’ who were not only lined up as presenters on the station, but were also shareholders: Michael Parkinson, David Frost (1983–92), Angela Rippon (1983), Anna Ford (1983) and Robert Kee. Esther Rantzen had originally been one of the station’s ‘star’ line up of presenter/shareholders, but pulled out in 1981 after the birth of her third child; she and the company agreed that the early-morning starts would present a problem in her raising her child. She had also been persuaded by the BBC to continue producing and presenting That’s Life! and conceded she did not want to give up the show, or worse, see it continue with another anchor.
There had been many difficulties for the other presenters in the run-up to launch. When the franchise was announced in December 1980, Angela Rippon’s contract with the BBC was about to expire, and was not renewed as a result of her new employment. This left her seeking freelance work before TV-am went on air. Anna Ford was dismissed by ITN, which had been part of another consortium bidding for the breakfast contract. ITN had presented Ford as their female programme anchor as part of their bid, unaware that she was planning to defect to TV-am. ITN heavily criticised her disloyalty and said that her dishonesty had made their bid seem ‘ridiculous’ to the IBA. ITN replaced Ford with Selina Scott, who herself landed a double blow to ITN when she defected to the BBC to present Breakfast Time towards the end of 1982. Michael Parkinson did remain with the BBC, who hoped to persuade him to stay as they had with Rantzen, but he finally left the corporation in 1982.
TV-am’s headquarters and studios were at Breakfast Television Centre, Hawley Crescent, Camden Town, London. Designed by Terry Farrell and converted from a former car showroom, Henlys Rover, the building included a number of large plastic egg-cups along its roofline facing Regent’s Canal; these egg-cups also served as the programme’s closing credits copyright year identifier, with all previous years also kept on-screen behind the current year.
Programmes originally ran from 6 am to 9:15 am, with Daybreak, then Good Morning Britain (neither related to the 2010 and 2014 ITV shows of the same name, respectively) filling weekday mornings. This was followed by a 10-minute interval before the start of the regional ITV franchises at 9:25 am. This interval gave British Telecom time to manually switch the broadcast signals from TV-am to each regional ITV franchise while the switching process was converted to allow automatic switching, which was introduced gradually throughout the network. From the end of May 1983 the IBA extended TV-am’s hours to 9:25 am to allow continuous programming, following which Good Morning Britain was reduced to a two-hour slot from 7 am to 9 am. The 9 am to 9:25 am section was relaunched as a female-orientated lifestyle magazine segment titled After Nine.
Although TV-am was a separate broadcaster occupying the ITV network channel during the morning, from the late 1980s the ITV stations extended their hours to 6 am to provide 24-hour television, handing over to TV-am at 6 am, which may have further fuelled the viewer’s technically incorrect impression that TV-am was a programming slot within the ITV schedule.
While the BBC’s Breakfast Time was successful, TV-am’s early ratings were disappointing. Its high-minded and somewhat starchy approach, summed up in chief executive Peter Jay’s phrase “mission to explain”, sat uneasily at that time of day, compared to Breakfast Time’s accessible magazine style, which mixed heavy news and light-hearted features (famously moving cabinet ministers, after a serious interview, to help with a cookery demonstration).
The first day of broadcasting included an hour of news in Daybreak, a short film and an interview with Norman Tebbit about the current level of unemployment, a live comic strip called The World of Melanie Parker, and Through the Keyhole.
Within two weeks of the launch the ratings dropped sharply. From the start of March, Daybreak was reduced by 30 minutes and presented by Gavin Scott
Good Morning Britain was moved 30 minutes earlier to start at 6:30 am, with Angela Rippon joining. A month after launch, the ratings fell again to just under 300,000.
The company’s weekend show presented by Michael Parkinson initially became the only success for the station, largely because the BBC did not broadcast on weekend mornings. The Saturday editions drew 1.5 million viewers.
A boardroom coup ensued on 18 March 1983, when Peter Jay stepped aside allowing Jonathan Aitken to become chief executive of the station, after mounting pressure from investors who had demanded changes. On the same day Angela Rippon and Anna Ford came out publicly to support Peter Jay, unaware he had already left. A month later both Rippon and Ford were sacked. A few months later, Anna Ford encountered Jonathan Aitken at a party in Chelsea; in a parting shot over the terms of her dismissal, Ford threw her glass of wine in the face of Aitken, saying of her action: “It was the only form of self-defence left to a woman when she has been so monstrously treated”. A couple of days later both Rippon and Ford started procedures to sue TV-am, by October, the case was dropped after reaching an out of court settlement.
A month later, cousin Timothy Aitken became chief executive of the station due to the IBA rules regarding MPs operating a television station. Parkinson ended up in lengthy talks with Aitken over the issues and the sacking of his two former colleagues, which resulted in him becoming a director of the company and joining the board of management.
On Friday 1 April 1983 (Good Friday) Roland Rat made his first appearance. Roland was created by David Claridge and launched by TV-am Children’s editor Anne Wood to entertain younger viewers during the Easter holidays, which boosted the station’s audience. Roland is generally regarded as its saviour, being described as “the only rat to join a sinking ship”. During the summer, when Breakfast Time hosts Frank Bough and Selina Scott were off, Roland helped take the audience from 100,000 to over a million.
In early April 1983, David Frost was moved to the Sunday slot, and was replaced by sports presenter Nick Owen to front the Good Morning show, with Anne Diamond joining from the BBC to become his co-presenter, six weeks later.
At the same time, Greg Dyke was brought in as director of programmes to help overhaul the station’s output. During April, the live comic strip, The World of Melanie Parker was axed.
On Monday 23 May 1983, TV-am’s new look started. Daybreak was axed, with Good Morning Britain extending to start at 6:25 am. Commander David Philpott was moved to present the weather at the weekends only, with Wincey Willis becoming the new weekday weather presenter, and a host of new features were introduced:
- History of Today by Jeremy Beadle
- An exercise spot with Mad Lizzie
- Cooking with a retired vicar called the Cooking Canon (Rustie Lee would later take over)
- Fishing correspondent, “Codfather” George Vella
- Nick Owen with Lynda Berry (later succeeded by Anne Diamond), reading out the newspaper bingo numbers.
By the end of its first week TV-am’s ratings had doubled to 200,000.
Its continued low audiences brought financial problems. The company was close to having its power supply disconnected – a London Electricity official arrived during a press conference with a warrant to cut off power for non-payment. On numerous occasions, the presenters failed to receive their monthly wages, while the local newsagent stopped supplying the station with newspapers due to lack of payment. The show spent the summer on the road, using the outside broadcast truck from various seaside resorts around the UK, and was presented by Chris Tarrant.
Australian business tycoon Kerry Packer took a substantial minority interest in the company, and in early May appointed his own chief executive, Bruce Gyngell, who was brought in to help make the company financially viable. Greg Dyke left with a few weeks of the appointment to take a new position with TVS. Ten days later, general manager Michael Moor also left the station.
Gyngell pursued the same lightweight, populist approach that Dyke had forged to establish the station’s viability, a model parodied later in a Guardian newspaper headline as ‘Snap, Crackle and Pap’. The station overhauled its children’s Saturday morning programme with Wide Awake Club, replacing Data Run and SPLAT as part of the cost-cutting by management.
The cost-cutting was brought sharply into focus in the Brighton hotel bombing on the Conservative cabinet in October 1984. The night before the terrorist attack, TV-am sent the production team home as it could not afford to pay for hotel rooms. When the blast occurred in the early hours, the BBC and ITN provided immediate coverage. TV-am’s response was limited to a caption of reporter John Stapleton reporting over the phone, while the BBC were showing graphic coverage of the attack. Trade union agreements at the time meant that technical staff at the local ITV station TVS could not provide cover for another commercial television company, and TV-am’s previous conflicts with ITN meant that the latter would not share its footage.
The whole affair earned the company a severe rebuke from the IBA, who told the company to invest and improve its news coverage, or it would lose its licence.
In an echo of the changes which had occurred in newspapers, Gyngell was determined to make use of technical developments in television in order to reduce staff and save money. He believed that the ease of use of modern broadcasting equipment meant that staffing levels could be reduced: ENG crews would no longer require a separate lighting technician (following a pattern familiar in Gyngell’s native Australia), and technical personnel could be virtually eliminated. This brought him into conflict with the broadcasting trade unions, but gained him support from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her government.
On 23 November 1987, technicians at the station went on a 24-hour strike. Management locked out the strikers, but stayed on air using non-technical staff to broadcast a skeleton service including (among other things) episodes of the American series Flipper, Batman and Happy Days; while secretaries manned cameras, Gyngell himself directed the show. Although shambolic at times, this schedule turned out on occasions to be more popular than former programming (although not what would have been allowed to broadcast under any other circumstances). In the hurricane-force storms that hit England in October that year electrical power to TV-am’s studios was lost and an emergency programme had to be transmitted from facilities at Thames Television’s Euston Road centre, using reports from TV-am’s own crews and those of ITN, TSW and TVS. All this notwithstanding, the programme continued to thrive. Eventually, Bruce Gyngell fired all of the locked-out technicians, replacing them with non-unionised labour from around the world.
In the years that followed, the station gradually found its feet again. By the early 1990s, operating with a significantly reduced staff, it was the world’s most profitable TV station in terms of turnover. During this period the station became the most popular breakfast television service in the UK, as the BBC’s Breakfast Time lost viewers. In 1986, the magazine-style Breakfast Time took on a more heavyweight approach, and in 1989 the BBC replaced Breakfast Time entirely with a more in-depth and analytical news format called Breakfast News, reminiscent of TV-am’s original format.
In 1990, changes in broadcasting law meant that commercial television franchises were no longer allocated on merit or potential, but rather through a blind auction, the results of which were made public on 16 October 1991. TV-am bid £14.3m, but was outbid by another consortium, Sunrise Television – renamed GMTV when it launched – which had bid £36.4m. Ironically, in the years following GMTV’s launch, the group approached the ITC to retrospectively obtain a reduction in this fee, reducing it to a level below TV-am’s original bid.
By February 1992, the first on-screen effects of the licence loss became obvious, with TV-am closing its in-house news service and contracting it out to Sky News for a one-off payment. Children’s programming also suffered, with fewer appearances of Timmy Mallet, though Wacaday would continue to appear during major school holidays until TV-am’s close. Another impact was the abrupt cancellation after just six weeks of the Chris Evans-hosted Saturday morning strand TV-Mayhem, which had initially been commissioned for a 40-week run, and its replacement with presented-out-of-vision back-to-back cartoons strand Cartoon World on Saturdays from 8 am (extended to 7.30 am later in the year).
Margaret Thatcher, whose government had introduced the change to the allocation of commercial television franchises (but who had by then been replaced as Prime Minister by John Major), famously wrote to Bruce Gyngell, apologising for being partly responsible for the loss of the TV-am’s licence. It read, in part: “I am … heartbroken. I am only too painfully aware that I was responsible for the legislation.” The letter was private but Gyngell made it public, which drew criticism from friends of the former Prime Minister.
The station’s final broadcast ended on 31 December 1992 at 9:21 am. Credits over a black-and-white still of the station’s cast and crew in the studio showed snapshot of their portraits as the screen faded ending with the caption: TV-am: 1 February 1983 – 31 December 1992.
This was then followed by a final commercial break in which there was no final appearance by the famous eggcups, although they made their last appearance on Wednesday 30 December 1992. Instead, the final commercial was for GMTV.
At 9.25 am the other franchise-losers, Thames Television, TVS and TSW, began their final day’s schedules and were replaced at midnight by Carlton Television, Meridian Broadcasting, and Westcountry Television respectively.
The next day of GMTV began at 6 am. While TV-am as an independent station had used an expensive, custom-built studio complex at Camden Lock, GMTV used studio space at The London Studios owned by one of GMTV’s shareholders, LWT.