Under the original ITV system the UK was divided into regions and the three most densely-populated regions were subdivided between weekdays and weekends. These divisions were then offered as franchises to programme companies which were both broadcasters and production companies, with the companes in the most densely-populated (and commercially lucrative) divisions producing most programmes. The programme companies would then exchange programming (either simultaneously or time-shifted) to form a national service. There were no national commercials; even to this day, commercials on ITV1 are sold on a region-by-region basis.
The reason for this seemingly overcomplicated arrangement was to prevent any individual company obtaining a monopoly on commercial broadcasting. The British authorities had seen the American commercial system in action and they didn't like it. One thing they insisted upon was that commercials should be clearly distinguishable from programmes.
The first ITV regions to go on air were London and the Midlands in 1955. Subsequent regions came on-line one by one but it was not until 1962 that the network was completed with the addition of the North and West Wales region.
ITV initially broadcast on 405-line VHF. During the 1960s some commercial companies proposed the introduction of colour on the 405-line system, but the BBC insisted that colour should wait until the higher-definition 625-line system became standard. ITV eventually introduced PAL colour on 625 in 1969, simultaneous with BBC ONE and two years after BBC TWO.
Originally each contracting company was only responsible for its own franchise area (although the contractors for the "Big Four" franchises (London Weekday, London Weekend, Midlands, and North of England) - after 1968 the "Big Five" franchises after the split of the North into the Northwest and Yorkshire franchises, were responsible for the production of the great majority of networked programmes), and the ITA, and later the IBA rigorously prevented the owners of one franchise from owning more than a small share of the franchise-holders in other areas. From the 1990s, however, the restrictions on companies holding multiple franchises were lifted and as of early 2003 all the companies awarded franchises in 1991-1992 have since been bought by either Granada or Carlton, with the exception of the contractors for Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Channel Islands. Carlton and Granada have twice, to date, attempted to merge to form one company dominating ITV, or Channel 3 as it was officially renamed in the early 1990s (few people ever refer to the network as anything other than ITV). On 7 October 2003 the UK Government announced that it would not prevent Carlton and Granada from merging (the current plan gives Carlton 32% of the merged company and Granada 68%) subject to safeguard for SMG (Scottish Media Group, holders of the STV and Grampian Television franchises), UTV, and Channel Television.
Although still the major force in British commercial television, ITV's share of the TV viewing audience has been falling for years, particularly since the start of competition by satellite television, and more recently digital terrestrial television. There is also a general perception that ITV is dumbing-down. Serious documentary and current affairs programmes are seldom to be seen in prime time, but there seem to be a lot more "reality" shows. However, the major documentary series The World at War, which was made by Thames Television for ITV in the 1970s, was recently rerun...by the BBC! In its defence, the network does continue to show its major strengths in the fields of sports and drama shows.
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