Three decades of change, but dynamic media keeps moving

The media landscape has altered beyond recognition over the past 27 years but, while some things come to an end, you can’t stop progress.

So it’s goodnight from me, and it’s goodnight from him. As Nick Higham reported last week, we’ve been told to stop writing for Marketing Week. The BBC has tightened up its “conflicts of interest” guidelines and one consequence is that its correspondents must no longer write regular columns on media issues. 

This used not to be seen as a conflict of interest – indeed my BBC letter of employment specifically stated I could continue my Marketing Week column. But not now.

It’s 27 years since I first filled this page, and though you may feel I’ve been here long enough (and Nick thinks it’s the right time to quit), I wasn’t planning to go.

The media world is more dynamic now than it has ever been. Just look at ITV, where three of the industry’s leading names – Grade, Murdoch and Branson – have become embroiled in the past month. Or, in the digital broadband world, at the launch of BT Vision and Channel 4 On Demand and the Google takeover of YouTube.

Things were a bit quieter in September 1979, when I wrote my first column – though they soon warmed up. The timing was propitious. There was more change in the media world in the two years that followed than there had been in the previous 20, and the pace of change has escalated ever since.

Margaret Thatcher had come to power in May of that year, with the help of Charles and Maurice Saatchi. Marketing and advertising were taking on a new importance and the newly-launched Marketing Week had the media side of the story much to itself. The then editor of Campaign didn’t think his readers were interested in media. Media Week had yet to be launched. There was no Guardian media section.

In September 1979, both ITV and Times Newspapers were in the middle of lengthy strikes. ITV was off the air for almost 11 weeks and The Times and Sunday Times disappeared for 11 months, a reminder of the enormous – and restrictive – power then wielded by the unions.

There were just three TV channels, none of which broadcast all day, only one of which carried advertising. The newest was BBC2, launched 15 years before. Most people watched television together as a family because only 20% of homes had a second set. And if you didn’t like what was on, it was too bad because fewer than 3% of homes had a video cassette recorder.

In 1979, only one new national newspaper had been launched since the Sunday Telegraph in 1961 and that was the Daily Star (even The Sun was a relaunch of the old Daily Herald). All the nationals were still in black and white, though there were three colour supplements.

Even the magazine world was wary of launches. IPC’s “big four” women’s weeklies were in gentle decline and when Sir James Goldsmith invested millions in the ill-fated news magazine Now! he was widely ridiculed. The only major media innovation had been in radio, with the launch of the first legal commercial stations in 1973 – until the Wilson Government put the network on hold, with just 19 on the air.

But amid the stagnation there were signs of change. In 1979, Marketing Week revealed the potential of satellite television, dismissed as “pie in the sky” by most broadcasters and advertising agencies at the time. The growth and impact of satellite TV has been a recurring theme over the years.

The following year, I wrote: “Satellites have become something of a joke within certain sophisticated sectors of the advertising and marketing business. How can you persuade viewers to fork out several hundred pounds for a dish aerial and other equipment… when it’s proved hard enough to get them to push the BBC2 button that’s been around for years?” The then head of Cadbury Schweppes told me he thought such sceptics were dragging their feet – “I believe that satellite advertising is going to create a revolution for international advertisers that is on a par with the coming of television itself.”

The original four-channel Sky Television had still to be launched – let alone bought by Rupert Murdoch. He had his mind on other media.

In 1981, Murdoch bought The Times and Sunday Times to add to The Sun and News of the World, paving the way for his breakout to Wapping in 1986, which changed the whole newspaper industry.

In November 1982, Channel 4 was launched – the first new station for 18 years. Like buses, two more came almost at once, in early 1983 – TV-am and its BBC equivalent, Breakfast Time.

Since Nick revealed his frailties as a pundit, I should own up to one of my gaffes – those with long memories rarely let me forget it. In my Marketing Week column, I hailed TV-am’s “confident” start, concluding “Here is one medium that won’t need a re-launch” – even as the news pages were reporting that one was already in train.

The TV-am saga kept me in copy for years, right up to the moment its last managing director Bruce Gyngell revealed he’d had a letter from Mrs Thatcher, regretting her TV licence auction had resulted in him losing his franchise.

Was that really in 1991? Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun?

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