The past often acquires a golden glow. On closer inspection, the golden glow usually turns to rust: the old reality turns out to have been just as banal and boring as the present one. But occasionally, things in the past actually were better than they are in the present. One example is ITV, the biggest and oldest commercial television station in Britain.
Thirty years ago, ITV used to boast that it was superior to every other commercial television network in the world. Amazingly, that boast was true. Commercial television everywhere else had failed to solve the problem identified by Fred Friendly, the CBS executive portrayed by George Clooney in the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. Friendly left CBS in disgust in 1966, after the network decided to broadcast an episode of The Lucy Show instead of a programme questioning the merits of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Not longer afterwards, he noted that “because television can make so much money doing its worst, it often cannot afford to do its best”.
In Britain, however, ITV appeared to have found a way out of commercial television’s cul-de-sac of cheap, unchallenging but enormously profitable junk programming. While ITV certainly created its fair share of forgettable dross, it also produced an astonishing range of high quality programmes. There were at least two current affairs documentaries in prime time every week: World in Action and This Week both often addressed pertinent political and social questions, and occasionally uncovered serious incompetence, wrongdoing or lying by members of the Government or other powerful institutions. News at Ten was recognised as a serious competitor to the BBC’s news, both in the depth and the breadth of its coverage. The drama on ITV was of a quality which has been rarely, if ever, surpassed by anything on television since: Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown were the two most celebrated examples, but there were many others.
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