Media Maelstrom

The media is experiencing explosive growth. In the first of a two-part series, Torin Douglas, who wrote his first Marketing Week column 20 years ago, provides an eye-witness account of the past two decades and assesses the impact of media mani

What were you doing 20 years ago this week? The next BBC director-general, Greg Dyke, was on strike, along with other ITV producers and technicians; ITV’s Richard Eyre had just left the media department at Benton & Bowles to sell airtime for Scottish Television; and Rupert Murdoch’s entire UK empire consisted of two single-section newspapers. Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror, was still at school in September 1979, like many of today’s readers. And I was writing my first Marketing Week column.

It is easy to forget just how much the media world has changed in the past two decades. We rarely look back. Yet only by doing so can we fully comprehend the potential scale of the changes over the next 20 years.

This is not merely an excuse for nostalgia. Last year, management consultancy KPMG was asked by the Royal Television Society to forecast how different broadcasting might be by the year 2020. It too began by stepping back two decades to see how life had changed. And, when the New Millennium Experience Company wanted to enthuse us about the next 1,000 years, it created a TV commercial showing how much had been achieved in the last 1,000.

Twenty years ago this week, TV viewers had a choice of just two channels – BBC1 and BBC2. ITV was off the air, blacked out by an 11-week strike, an event almost incomprehensible in today’s post-Thatcher world. Many ITV viewers criticised the corporation for not beefing up its August schedules to give them more of the entertainment they were used to. Even so, September 1979 saw the launch of such undoubted hits as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, To The Manor Born, Question Time and Shoestring; a month later came Not the Nine O’Clock News and Testament of Youth.

ITV was not the only major medium missing. The year had begun with the Winter of Discontent, which helped propel Margaret Thatcher into power in May, on the back of the Saatchi slogan “Labour Isn’t Working”. Along with the grave diggers, hospital porters and other groups who’d gone on strike, the printers at The Times and The Sunday Times – then owned by Lord Thomson – walked out. The papers were closed for 11 months, enabling The Observer and Sunday Telegraph to double their sales – temporarily.

In 1979, the media unions wielded immense power, and they strongly resisted the technological changes which have transformed communications. ITV was not alone in its problems. The arrival at the BBC of electronic newsgathering – using videotape instead of film – was delayed by the broadcasting unions. So too was the launch of Newsnight.

But it was in newspapers that the new technology was most heavily shackled. Papers were still printed in black and white – employing hot metal and thousands of workers – and severely restricted in size (and sometimes in content, if the unions disagreed with the editorial line). Stoppages were frequent, separate sections almost unknown.

Just one national newspaper had been launched in the previous 18 years – the Daily Star, conjured up in 1978 by Lord Matthews, the new Express proprietor, not because the world needed another downmarket tabloid, but as a way of spreading the overheads of the eternally struggling Daily and Sunday Express. Even the soaraway Sun was a 1969 relaunch of a 1964 relaunch of the old Daily Herald, while the Daily Mail only prospered after being merged with the Daily Sketch and going tabloid.

In contrast to the ever-multiplying newspaper sections of 1999, there were just a handful in 1979, and only on Sundays. They included three colour supplements. Launched more than 15 years before, these exotic creatures had been the last big innovation in newspapers, yet the species was still to be found only in the broadsheets – when the mass-circulation Daily Mirror launched one it had proved a costly disaster.

Magazines were in similar doldrums. Despite the huge success of Cosmopolitan, launched in 1972, few publishers would risk launching titles. When Sir James Goldsmith invested millions in his ill-fated news weekly, Now!, he was ridiculed. The women’s market was seen as saturated, especially the weekly sector, where IPC’s “Big Four” – Woman, Woman’s Own, Woman’s Realm, Woman’s Weekly – were regarded as being in gentle decline.

No commercial radio stations had been launched for five years, because the Labour Party – which came into power the year after commercial radio’s launch in 1973 – had promptly frozen the medium’s development. Only 18 local stations were on the air and, not surprisingly, most were struggling.

As for television, even when ITV was functioning, there was much less of it – just three channels, the last of which, BBC2, had been launched 15 years earlier. Only one carried advertising, and they all broadcast mainly in the afternoons and evenings (schools programmes filled up the mornings). Most people watched TV together as a family, or not at all, because in 1979 only 16 per cent of homes had a second set. And if you didn’t like what was on those three channels it was too bad, because hardly anyone had a video recorder so you couldn’t catch up with programmes you’d missed, or buy or rent a film to watch.

Only two-thirds of homes had colour – a dozen years after it had become available. And to find out what was on TV a few days ahead, you had to buy two separate listing magazines, Radio Times for BBC programmes, TV Times for ITV. As for live football, there was the annual FA Cup Final – on both main channels, seemingly all day – and hardly anything else.

In 1979, the media world was stagnating, but there were hints of the mediamania to come.

In March 1979, Marketing Week carried an exclusive report (complete with a rudimentary “footprint” map) that Britain faced an invasion of satellite channels controlled from overseas (though cable was seen as the most likely agent of TV change). The issue was subsequently raised in Parliament by the former Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson, prompting the Daily Express front-page splash “TV pirates from space”.

In September 1979, William Whitelaw gave the go-ahead for Channel 4 – after years of political dithering – but it would not get on the air for another three years, nor bring the com-petition for airtime that advertisers craved.

Breakfast television, which would compete for advertising, wouldn’t arrive until 1983.

Yet by 1982, I was writing (in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times) that Britain was “on the brink of a media explosion”. In today’s multichannel, multisection world, the claim seems absurd, for the imminent boom consisted of: Channel 4, breakfast TV, the Mail on Sunday, Options magazine and half a dozen local radio stations.

But the expectation of upheaval was universal. At the Admap conference that year, entitled “Media in Ferment”, media directors predicted “a decade of dramatic change”. TV audiences would fragment, thanks to the new channels and the rapid growth of VCRs and video games.

The recent launch of new colour magazines in the News of the World and Sunday Express had added 15 million readers to the Sunday colour market. What no one foresaw was the ferocity of the ferment.

To appreciate it, fast-forward through 20 years to the present day:

…through 1982/3 and the disastrous launches of Channel 4, TV-am and the Mail on Sunday and their eventual, patiently-built success;

…through the turbulent year of 1986 and the assault by Eddy Shah and Rupert Murdoch on union power, the launch of Today, the Independent and multisection, colour newspapers;

…the subsequent launches (and in most cases closures) of the Independent on Sunday, Sunday Correspondent, News on Sunday, Daily Post, and London Daily News;

…Murdoch’s “30p Times” price war; and the takeovers of the Telegraph group, the Express group (again), the Mirror group (three times) and The Observer;

…through the 1982 launch of Sky Europe (to a few thousand homes in Malta), its takeover by Murdoch and 1989 UK launch on the Astra satellite, and the bloody battle (haemorrhaging “red ink”) and merger with BSB in 1990;

…through the launch of 24-hour news channels on TV (and radio) and other niche TV stations, specialising in sport, movies, children and music;

…BSkyB’s 1992 Premier League coup and its launch of pay-TV and the Sky Multichannels package;

…the ITV auction that saw Carlton displace Thames in 1993 and the 1994 takeovers that cost LWT, Central, Yorkshire and others their independence;

…through the launches of Prima, Best, Hello! and other magazines by European publishers, the sex-obsessed titles for young teenage girls, and the remarkable rise of the lads’ magazines;

…through the arrival of more than 200 commercial radio stations and three national ones, to the launch of Channel 5, the Internet and more than a hundred digital TV channels…

The explosion of new media has brought new choice to the public, created new jobs, and generated millions of pounds of revenue. It has also brought great change in other areas: politics, entertainment, sport, and the reporting of events.

The battle for viewers, listeners and readers – and, in many cases, advertisers – has also forced the media to look for new ways to attract audiences.

Bigger headlines, brighter colours, bolder graphics, blonder presenters, shorter soundbites, cruder language, louder music and ever more sensational subjects and treatments – backed by million-pound prizes, price cuts and promotions – have led to widespread accusations that the press and broadcasting have “dumbed down”.

Critics of the trend cite the demise of News at Ten and the rise of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the changes to Radio 4, and an obsession with sex and trivia in the tabloids, which has seeped through to the broadsheets, displacing – among other, more serious matters – the reporting of Parliament.

Yet, compared with 20 years ago, there is also far broader coverage, often in greater depth, of politics, literature, business, sport, music and the arts, education, the social services, film, cookery, gardening, fashion and entertainment.

The question now, as we enter the digital age, is how people and organisations will cope with the explosion of extra choice? Are there simply too many TV channels, radio stations, newspaper sections, magazines and Websites to handle?

Lifting the lid on the royals

In 1979, the nature of the media – not just the scale – was different.

Newspapers were more deferential to politicians and the royal family. The News of the World and other tabloids gleefully exposed people’s private lives, but the establishment were still, to a large extent, off-limits. Even after coverage of the Profumo affair, Princess Margaret’s relationships, and Watergate, it seemed inconceivable that the most intimate sex secrets of Cabinet ministers, princesses, the heir to the throne and the President of the US would be splashed all over the front pages – broadsheets as well as tabloids – and the airwaves.

There was a different attitude to marketing and advertising. In 1979, they were widely regarded as commercial “black arts”, to be supped – if at all – with a long spoon. Their sub-species – market research, sales promotion and public relations – were equally suspect, while direct marketing and geodemographics were scarcely dreamed of. Tradesmen might need such techniques to sell packaged goods – and some commercials, it had to be admitted, were amusing (though no one admitted to being influenced by them) – but the notion that public services and political parties (let alone stocks and shares) should be “sold like soap powder” remained controversial.

Saatchi & Saatchi was demonised (to its immense publicity and profit) for its “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign. Television sponsorship was taboo, as were commercials for sanitary towels, lotteries and charities. It was illegal to own more than one ITV licence. And owning a newspaper as well as a TV company – should it ever come to pass – was seen as the last nail in the coffin of freedom of speech.

Next week in part two: media into the next millennium


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