Greenwich Cablevision was half-owned by Canadian business interests and had Maurice Townsend as its managing director. By January 1972 it has 12,000 subscribing households, each of whom paid 15 pence per week to access its cable television service. This had originated in response to difficulties in receiving a terrestrial television signal in the Greenwich area, which were caused by the location of the high point of Shooters Hill between Greenwich and the terrestrial transmitter at Crystal Palace. The company placed a television mast on a recently constructed high-rise block nearby and relayed the received terrestrial signal by cable to many local homes.
The move from being a relay service to a local television station that broadcast content not provided by the BBC or Independent Television Authority (ITA) broadcasters came after it lobbied Christopher Chataway, the then Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. It was already providing cable access to ITA terrestrial channels that were otherwise not available in the London area, such as Southern Television and Anglia Television, but Townsend expressed a desire to develop "a video platform for local people". There was a commercial imperative to seek new markets because improvements in the coverage of terrestrial transmitters were boosting the quality of reception of such signals and thus reducing the demand from consumers for cable relay services.
The revised terms were conditional upon it providing high-quality local, community-oriented programmes and continuing to operate without public funding. It had been and remained barred from showing advertisements or seeking sponsorships, and it was also prohibited from showing films. As with some similar early cable operators in the United Kingdom, Greenwich Cablevision was hoping that the incumbent Conservative Party government would in due course provide a legislative environment that permitted pay TV services to develop.
Greenwich Cablevision was the first of five stations to commence locally-oriented cable broadcasts following the granting of the experimental licences, with the other awardees being based in Bristol, Sheffield, Swindon and Wellingborough. These licences were intended to expire in 1976 but their span was extended to 1979 after the election of a Labour government in 1974.
With a subscriber base now standing at 14,000 and a staff of seven, Greenwich began its revised operations in July 1972, working from a former shop in Plumstead High Street. Its chairman, Timothy Dudman, noted that "People like to see themselves and their friends on TV - it is natural and this, combined with a strong local interest, should make for good viewing." Initially, the in-house programming comprised a magazine-format current affairs show presented by Jillie Murphy, a local woman and former fashion writer. Called Cabletown, it had similarities with the Nationwide terrestrial programme, was broadcast daily for an hour in the evening and then repeated the following morning. Later efforts included a Saturday night show called Greenwich Meantime that provided early career breaks for the comedians Jim Davidson and Hale and Pace, and a series called Your Song that featured a broadcast of community hymn-singing.
The company had estimated in 1972 that it needed 17,000 subscribers from its 20,000 connected households in order to break even, and that it would then be able to consider adding a further 14,000 households to its cable network. Townsend's concerns regarding local programming were more inspired by a desire to increase the number of people taking up the company's service than by the spirit of localism and democratisation as embodied by Michael Shamberg and other media activists of the time. The services provided by Bristol Channel and Swindon Viewpoint favoured the latter emphasis and aimed to involve their viewers in production of their output. However, by 1975 only Greenwich Cablevision, Sheffield Cablevision and the Swindon broadcaster were still operating; the others among the initial five licensees had been unable to survive in the constrained financial framework, which had also prevented them from increasing the price of subscriptions.[a] The various broadcasters had wanted permission to seek subsidies from local councils, to use their spare channel capacity to sell CCTV monitoring facilities and to show sponsored material. Instead came a government decision in 1975 to allow them to carry advertising. This concession followed pressure from the Annan Committee which feared that the entire experiment might collapse before it had time to review evidence of their impact. At that time, the New Scientist commented that the additional revenue would be insufficient to offset the operating costs especially since the small audiences and often "dull or amateurish" programming would deter advertisers. Earlier in that year, Greenwich had cut its locally-generated programming to two hours per week, while the Swindon operation refused to countenance advertising, believing that it was contrary to their public service ethos.
Writing in The Guardian, columnist Peter Fiddick considered the decision to extend the licensing period from 1976 to 1979 as no more than governmental procrastination, putting off the time when politicians would determine the outcome of the experiment. He said that "the commercial decision the cable interests are having to take is whether continuing to shell out on the community experiments in the public interest will in the end, after Annan and all that, bring the multi-channel pay television, full-colour advertising backed, share of the mass audience business that is the real goal."
Life after closure
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When the full time operation closed the service was taken over by volunteers. A new studio was constructed in two converted garages under a tower block in Plumstead, atop of which was the Cablevision receiving aerial. One garage contained the single camera studio, while the other housed the control room. There was a large glass window between the control room and studio so presenters waiting to do their spot could keep an eye on proceedings. Although paid-for advertising was not allowed the service did run a card advertising service whereby an automatic card sorter would show a continuous programme of postcard adverts. Unfortunately the machine used for this service was very unreliable and the card sorter would often get jammed.
The volunteer staff produced three programmes a week - each an hour long. Meantime went out on Saturday mornings from 11.00am and contained local news, film reviews, financial advice, sports reports etc. Sunday mornings were time for Sangam, a programme aimed at the large Asian population in Plumstead, while on Sunday evening there was a general interest magazine programme with items of local interest, hobbies and normally a phone in quiz with cinema tickets and the like as prizes.
The service ran on for several more years but it was obvious that it could not continue indefinitely as the equipment was becoming very problematic. Some equipment was sourced from Swindon Viewpoint on loan, but when that had to be returned the situation became desperate.
A couple of interesting events took place during the volunteer time. The first was the introduction of a cable radio station, 'Greenwich Sound', which operated from a third garage which the TV station had used as a store, and the second was the introduction of a breakfast TV service using early colour portable cameras, which pre-dated BBC Breakfast by a week.
- Although Allen and Miller state that only the Greenwich and Swindon broadcasters were still operating in 1975, contemporary news reports indicate that Sheffield Cablevision did not cease broadcasting until 2 January 1976.
- Hanlon, Joseph (13 January 1972). "Sneaking in local TV". New Scientist. p. 60.
- Moran, Joe (3 September 2013). "The bizarre world of 1970s hyper-local TV". BBC. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
- Rennie, Ellie (2006). Community Media: A Global Introduction. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 83. ISBN 9780742574465.
- Moran, Joe (2013). Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV. Profile Books. pp. 214–215. ISBN 9781847654441.
- "OK for local tv". New Scientist. 27 January 1972. p. 205.
- Pownall, Garry (13 July 1972). "AV view". New Scientist. p. 104.
- Walker, John Albert (1993). Arts TV: A History of Arts Television in Britain. Indiana University Press. p. 167. ISBN 9780861964352.
- Maddox, Brenda (13 March 1975). "Wrong life line". New Scientist. pp. 618–619.
- MacManus, James (2 July 1972). "Carry on cable". The Guardian. p. 11.
- "In brief". The Catholic Herald. 20 July 1973.
- Allen, Rod; Miller, Nod (2002). "Panaceas and Promises of Democratic Participation: Reactions to new channels, from the wireless to the World Wide Web". In Henwood, Flis; Miller, Nod; Senker, Peter; Wyatt, Sally. Technology and In/equality: Questioning the Information Society. Routledge. pp. 52–53. ISBN 9780203134504.
- "Lack of funds closes local TV". The Guardian. 2 January 1976. p. 6.
- Fiddick, Peter (6 January 1975). "We are facing the need for a political decision". The Guardian. p. 8.
- "Local television in 1970s Britain". BBC. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
- Dutton, William H.; Blumler, Jay G. (October 1988). "The Faltering Development of Cable Television in Britain". International Political Science Review. 9 (4): 279–303. doi:10.1177/019251218800900402. JSTOR 1600759. (subscription required)
- Negrine, Ralph M. (1998). Television and the Press Since 1945. Manchester University Press. ISBN 9780719049217.
- Negrine, Ralph M. (1980). "Community television - a community service or a television service?". Journal of Educational Television. 6 (3): 90–91. doi:10.1080/0260741800060306.
- "Transcript excerpts from a video interview with Maurice Townsend" (PDF). Rewind. December 1974.