History of Southern Television

 

Welcome to our section about the history of Southern Television

THE BIRTH OF SOUTHERN TELEVISION

In April 1957 the then regulator of commercial television, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) put out an invitation for applicants to run a new ITV service broadcasting to the south of England, an area which at that point had no contractor with ITV very much still in its infancy.

 

The ITA announced on the 22nd July the successful bidder was Southern Television. The company would have around 13 months to get ready to go to air.

The Southern Television company was controlled by Associated Newspapers, the Rank Organisation and the Amalgamated Press. Associated Newspapers already had interests in the television industry holding a stake in the London weekday provider Associated Rediffusion, the ITA put in a condition in the awarding of the franchise that Associated Newspapers would need to divest their stake in order to be allowed to be part of the Southern consortium. The structure of the new company appealed to the ITA as they felt this was a more stable approach to have multiple shareholders (there had been issues with previous franchise awards where individual companies were unable to come up with the required capital and dropping out).

This new area would be served by a transmitter being built at Chillerton Down on the Isle of Wight, Southern would rent the transmitter for an annual sum of around £200,000. A lattice steel tower was constructed on the Ogle Road telephone exchange to carry signals to the transmitter at Chillerton Down.

Southern started work creating studio facilities at Southampton. Due to their links with the Rank Organisation their chosen home would be a former cinema, The Plaza, on the banks of the river Itchen. The cinema was the biggest on the south coast with 2,134 seats. Conversion was undertaken by E. H. Burgess and Co to include three studios, production facilities and offices for Southern's administrative departments. The cost of the conversion would run well into six figures, a huge sum at the time.

Studio A at Southampton would cover 300sq ft. with a lighting gantry holding 62 circuits. A second studio, Studio B, was smaller and used for magazine style programmes while the third Studio C was used just for news programmes.

The conversion costs would be dwarfed by the costs of equipping the studios and other costs such as dry runs, staffing costs and the annual rental to the ITA.

Southern spent a large sum on advertising their new service involving adverts in the local papers and a series of four day exhibitions in seven of the largest towns in their region. Many people at the time did not want to go to the expense of getting their TV sets converted to receive ITV programmes (costing between £2 and £10 at the time) and Southern wanted to target some of the 185,000 homes in their region to get as many viewing from day one as possible to get more advertising revenue once the station launched.

 

SOUTHERN TELEVISION - ON THE AIR

Southern Television went on the air on the 30th August 1958, many local dignitaries attended the studios and crowds were gathered outside and on the bridge over the River Itchen watching the arrivals The opening of any new ITV station was a huge event back then (the small number of homes that did have a television set only had the BBC Television Service to watch previously).

The first night included a production called Southern Rhapsody, a musical number staring Gracie Fields and Lionel Blair. This would be the first of numerous programmes to be broadcast across the ITV network (many of the ITV companies provided a programme to be shown across the network on their first night).

Southern Rhapsody was also the name of the piece of music Southern would start their day with throughout its history, the music being composed by Richard Aspinal

   
  Southern Rhapsody
30th August 1958
Southern Television

 

Southern entered ITV at a good time, franchise holders in the existing regions had initially lost huge sums of money trying to make the network a success while struggling to create its audience, by the time Southern went to air ITV was becoming “a licence to print money". Southern also had the advantage of launching in the autumn when advertising revenue was at its highest. The company was expecting to recoup its initial outlay within a couple of years.

At launch the number of available homes receiving the new service was small at around 21% but by the end of 1959 this will have risen to 52% with around 1,425,000 viewers tuning in

In 1959 the ITA put out an advertisement for companies to apply to run a region covering Kent and the South East of England. Southern were successful in their bid and built a small studio in Dover to cover this area. Transmissions from Dover started in 1960.

One of the unique things about Southern was a mobile studio called The Southerner. The Southerner, which was originally called Winola, was a 70ft motor torpedo boat which had a top speed of 30 knots. The boat underwent major structural alterations creating broadcasting facilities including a control room, VTR machines and three cameras. The Southerner would be used to cover marine based events, an important part of life to those in the South of England and also providing coverage for the network. The boat naming ceremony took place on the 23rd July 1965.

One of the big news events covered with help of the Southerner was that of the Torrey Canyon disaster in 1967 where a major oil spillage caused an environmental disaster when it came ashore, devastating wildlife on the south coast.

By the late 1960s Southern had begun to outgrow their former cinema home and plans were put into place for the creation of purpose built studios, this coincided with the development of colour television becoming more widely available. The old Plaza was looking tired and would not take well to the conversion to colour. The announcement was made to the press in early 1968 with how the new complex would look.

The cost of these new studios would be a huge expense to the company. The studios would be partly built on reclaimed land from the River Itchen, a very costly process. The foundation stone was laid on the 6th July 1968 by Lord Aylestone and work on the new buildings continued while the old studios were still very much operational. The construction work could be slow at times as they needed to stop work while a programme was being recorded or transmitted live due to the noise and the vibrations making the camera shots rather wobbly. The work was due to be completed for a sum of £2.5M

The new studios were completed in 1969, with the new studios operational the old ones were stripped of equipment and lay empty awaiting demolition to allow further work to take place on an office block to house the administrative departments.

Several popular programmes would be made at Southampton and one of the first to be filmed in the new studios was the women only chat show Houseparty (women presenters only that is), this would become one of Southern's most remembered lifestyle shows along with Jack Hargreaves in Out Of Town (both running until the company's demise in 1981)

Southern would be possibly best remembered for its many children's programmes which were shown across the ITV network including, Freewheelers, The Flockton Flyer and the huge hit Worzel Gummidge. These and other Southern programmes would lead to big company profits which by 1974 had hit a record £2,635,752 on a turnover of over£12M, all this despite rising costs in the industry. They were also highly praised by the new regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), during the 1974 franchise renewals although the IBA did comment about a lack of local political programmes and a possible lack of local football.

Towards the end of the decade and the company was flying, it had nearly 600 staff and a turnover of £24M along with nearly £4M in the bank, huge sums at the time making it one of the most profitable ITV companies.

THE DEMISE OF SOUTHEN TELEVISION

 

As part of the 1980 franchise award the IBA redrew the transmitter map to provide a better service in some areas. One of these areas would be to the South East of England where the IBA decided to re-allocate the transmitter at Bluebell Hill which was at that time part of the London region. This caused much dismay of the London holders Thames Television and London Weekend Television (LWT) (in particular LWT who went on a PR campaign to serve their viewers better).

As part of this transmitter change the IBA abolished the South franchise creating a new franchise which would serve not only the south but also the south east of England. A condition of any broadcaster serving this new dual region would be a requirement to provide a distinctive individual service to both parts of the region.

At that point in time Southern Television had a small studio in Dover but it had made little sense for them to pool large resource in this small part of their much bigger region (they held the South of England franchise after all). The other part of the South East was part of the London region and they were not overly keen to provide much of a service here either.

This new region would a big area to cover but also predominately an affluent one and this was an attractive prospect to any prospective bidder as it could attract the big money with advertising revenue. Southern Television was also seen by others to be vulnerable due to the way the company was structured. Southern was controlled by three large shareholders, none of which had any real connection with the region they served, the company was run from London where most decisions were made and this structure met disapproval from the IBA.

Nine applications were made for the franchise and this would make it the most hotly contested region in the whole of the ITV network, no other area has generated that much interest previously or indeed since. Southern were slated in the press by many of the other franchise applicants, Southern were seen as vulnerable by others due to their structure and played on the poor service to the south east (although this was not strictly the fault of Southern). The company decided that it would not react, not retaliate as their record of programming would mean that they sail through the application.

Southern were in fact very blase about the whole thing they knew in their own minds they were going to win and this was quite clear in their franchise application. The application was minimal to say the least and the IBA were not impressed by Southern's arrogance and sent their application back to them to provide proper detail

   
Southern Television Franchise Application
1980
Southern Television
IBA Awarding the franchise to Television South
28th December 1980
Southern Television

Lady Plowden, the outgoing chair of the IBA announced the decision of the franchise awards on Sunday 28th December 1980. it was a decision that would be a huge shock to those involved. Southern had lost the region they had served since 1958 to South and South East Communications which would later be known as Television South (TVS). Other announcements were that Westward Television would lose the South West region to Television South West (TSW), ATV would be restructured and a new company called Central Television would run the midlands and that TV-am would be awarded the ITV Breakfast service (which would eventually start in 1983).

TVS was awarded an eight-year franchise to run the new South and South East dual region, the IBA felt that TVS gave a better proposal on how it was going to serve the two parts of its region. The TVS bid was new and exciting while that of Southern seemed to be more of the same in comparison and lacking ambition despite the plans for new studios to serve the South East.

The decision left Southern Television stunned as they had never expected to lose, they had been a solid and dependable broadcaster with a good track record, needless to say they were very unhappy with the decision. The decision was also a huge shock to TVS who had not really expected to win outright thinking their best chance would be a forced merger with the incumbent broadcaster.

Southern were fuming at the regulator, writing to the IBA demanding an explanation. The response they got was that while it appreciated that Southern were disappointed the authority had considered all applications and went for what they felt was the better choice.

Southern were angry with the IBA however most of their frustration was with TVS that they had applied for in the first place in a “how dare you apply for our franchise"¯ attitude.

TVS started setting up their service and approached Southern about buying their facilities, however the incumbant broadcaster was still licking their wounds and in no mood to get into discussions with the new company taking over. There was a stalemate between the companies for some time with Southern not wanting to give into anything asked for by the newcomers even though this would often be to the detriment of the company.

As it became clear Southern were not going to get anywhere with the regulator in staying on the air they considered re-inventing themselves as an independent producer and continuing to supply programmes to the ITV network. Even if Southern did continue as an independent (it didn't) they would need to downsize and they eventually they agreed to part with the studios at Southampton and Dover and received £11M from TVS for these. Southern also sold the news archives to TVS but decided to retain the rights to their other programmes which they would market themselves throughout most of the 1980s. Under a union agreement where members should not lose their position as part of the franchise changes TVS would also take on the majority of Southern staff both on and off screen.

Southern sold a plot of land at Maidstone which the company had wanted to use to build new studios for the South East had they won the franchise. The studios that Southern had planned to build would be similar in layout to the Southampton site but as this was not going to happen they sold up to TVS for a handsome profit. TVS started building their studios there in the spring of 1981 much to the same design as Southern had planned to.

By the time summer had come Southern and TVS were on talking terms (just) and TVS had set up camp in temporary buildings in Southern's carpark at the Southampton Studios (those temporary buildings would still be there when TVS lost their franchise eleven years later), there was also an agreement that TVS would hire Southern's studios and staff to produce the programmes the new company would provide when it went on the air in January the following year. This earned TVS the nickname Portakabin Television by disgruntled Southern staff.

 As 1981 drew to a close the final staff Christmas party was another opportunity for Southern to vent their anger about the way they have been treated. That November evening featured a speech from the chairman David Wilson who talked about how well Southern had done and its achievements and how bitter he was with the way they had been unfairly by the IBA (claiming the authority never read the application properly as it was the best proposal).

 

DAVID WILSON SPEECH - 1981

 

 
   
  Play Video
David Wilson
December 1981
Southern Television

 

That party also had songsmith Richard Stilgoe sing a satirical song called Portakabin TV¯ which poked fun at TVS and how everything they had promised was rubbish and eventually the company would see that Southern were so good they would keep everything the same.

 

RICHARD STILGOE PERFORMS PORTAKABIN TV - 1981

 
   
  Play Video
Richard Stilgoe Performs Portakabin TV
December 1981
Southern Television

We'e Portakabin TV and we can't believe our luck

To have got the bid from Channel to the sea

To be frank we thought the best would, for been to go for Westward

Or Yorkshire, or Even ATV

 

We are Portakabin TV, our approach is fresh and new

You won't see us making shows just cause they pay

There'll be no more 3-2-1, and Crossroads we will shun

Well at least for the first six months anyway

 

We are Portakabin TV Gatward, Boston and Blackstad

And on January 1st our flag unfuls

Our future is assured, we've a lord upon the board

And someone who once did Tomorrow's World

 

We are Portakabin TV and the South East of our patch

Is top of our list of priorities

It will be all systems go, in our Maidstone studio

Just as soon as we find out where Maidstone is

  

We are Portakabin TV and our paper's brown and cream

Not that nasty Southern TV white and blue

And we all say yours sincerely when we finish let us off

Hugs and kisses Brian Izzard just wont do

 

 

We are Portakabin TV and we promise we will change

Everything so all is new and vital

The show to alter most will be our nightly Coast to Coast

Which is really Day By Day with a new title

 

We are Portakabin TV and we're dropping lots of shows

I'm afraid to How we all must say goodbye

Because we don't know how but we do when it's now

But what people want knows not how but why

 

We are Portakabin TV, and all that's going to change

is the local television station's name

We would change it if we could, but Southern was so good,

we've decided to keep everything the same

 

The final day on the air was the 31st December 1981, the station launched in the normal way and there was no mention the station was going off the air but that would not last long.

 
   
  Final Morning Startup
31st December 1981
Southern Television

The evening came and the final edition of Day By Day which had been re-titled Day By Yesterday presented by Christopher Peacock and Cliff Michelmore. The show had a brief news segment from Peter Clark, Roger Livingston and Preston Witts but the majority of the show was looking at Southern. The programme looked into the archives of past versions of the show and talked to viewers in the region, scarecrow superstar Worzel Gummidge appeared promoting the stage version of the show and they also visit Jack Hargreaves along with the Scene South East crowd. There was also significant sections devoted to the Southern Christmas party and the show aired David Wilson's speech and the Portakabin TV song in full. The show ended with the Day By Day team sing a song about the show

The final show from Southern was called 'And It's Goodbye From Us' and was presented by one of their continuity announcers Christopher Robbie. This would be a big production and featured the Bournemouth Sinfonetta who performed the opening music, a specially composed piece called Southern Fantasia

 Many of the stars from various Southern shows (mainly Day by Day, Out of Town and Houseparty) attended. There were a few excerpts from Southern shows such as Star Treatment, Winston Churchill the Wilderness Years and music from Cleo Lane. Wilson's speech and the Portakabin TV song were aired yet again for those who missed them earlier in the day (albeit a shortened version).

 

The show ended with the Southern Fantasia music that had started the show, the camera panning over the Southern stars present in the studios (most of which were quite tired and bemused at this point), the lights faded and went to the endcap

 

THE FINAL MOMENTS OF SOUTHERN TELEVISION - 1982

 

   
  Play Video
The Final Moments of Southern Television
1st January 1982
Southern Television

At 12:45am on the 1st January 1982 the Southern star is sent spinning off into space over the stations jingle. Southern went off the air for the very last time

 

Southern Television - Off The Air

Southern did not die straight away and the company did still exist for a time marketing and distributing programmes from their archives. The archives were eventually sold to Primetime Television which became Southern Star Primetime. Some programmes have since been released on DVD and many do appear from time to time on satellite TV. The archives are now the property of Renown Pictures and many Southern programmes are being shown on their Talking Pictures TV channel on Sky.

Southern's former home at Southampton was used by TVS and later Meridian Broadcasting (who had taken over from TVS in 1993) until 2004 when they left for the smaller studios Meridian had always wanted. The studios were stripped with equipment being sold at auction before becoming a storage area for trucks. The buildings were later demolished and the plot stayed empty for a few years, the site is now occupied by housing.

The studios at Dover were in use by TVS for a few months while work continued on those they were building at Maidstone. Once TVS moved out the studios were eventually demolished and a car park was put in its place, the car park itself now having been replaced by housing.

 The next steps for The Southerner are unclear but it did eventually end up as a pleasure boat located in Malta. Ambra as it was renamed was in use until 2005 when it fell in to disuse and was broken up a couple of years later, deemed too uneconomical to repair.

The Southern Television name and identity are the property of Nic Ayling



 

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