Southern went on air at 5:30pm on Saturday 30th August 1958 with the first playing of Southern Rhapsody (the station theme used to begin each day's transmission up until 31st December 1981). The first presenter on air was continuity announcer Meryl O'Keefe (later to become a BBC announcer) - her first on-air announcement was followed by an outside broadcast link-up fronted by Julian Pettifer (later an award-winning war correspondent) and a regional news bulletin read by Martin Muncaster. Other opening night programmes included a Filmed Playhouse drama entitled The Last Reunion, a preview programme called Coming Shortly, an episode of the American crime drama Highway Patrol and most notably, a networked opening night programme entitled Southern Rhapsody, starring Gracie Fields.
The company was launched as Southern Television Limited and the title Southern Television was consistently used on-air throughout its life. However, in 1966 during the application process for contracts running from 1968 the company re-named itself Southern Independent Television Limited, a title which was used until 1980, when the company reverted to its original corporate name.
Notable programmes produced by Southern Television over the years included the flagship regional news magazine Day by Day presented by an able team of presenters including Barry Westwood and long-serving weatherman Trevor Baker; Out of Town, a countryside programme introduced by Jack Hargreaves ,who would later join Southern's board of directors; How, a children's science programme also featuring Hargreaves along with Fred Dinenage, Bunty James (later replaced by Marian Davies) and Jon Miller; Freewheelers, a children's spy series; Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years and Worzel Gummidge, starring Jon Pertwee as the eponymous walking scarecrow.
Generally, the company produced more networked children's programmes than adult programmes, scoring a particularly strong seller internationally with an adaptation of Enid Blyton's The Famous Five. Also worth noting was the children's programme The Saturday Banana, hosted by Bill Oddie (then at the height of his fame as one of The Goodies) which saw the placing of a twenty foot high fibreglass banana outside the studios, supported by its peeled 'skin', they also produced the children's game show Runaround which was hosted by Mike Reid.
The station was noted for its enlightened classical music broadcasting, including studio concerts by the local Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 'Music in Camera'. From 1972 Southern Television broadcast up to two operas from Glyndebourne each season some of which have since been issued on DVD.
The station's original studios were a converted cinema in Northam, Southampton. With the advent of colour in 1969, the company moved to purpose-built new studios next door to the existing site, built on land reclaimed from the River Itchen.
The studios at Northam were sold on to TVS in 1981, and sold again by TVS to Meridian Broadcasting in 1992. Meridian relocated to new facilities in 2004 and the site at Northam stands empty, awaiting demolition with the site expected to become residential accommodation.
The company also had production offices and a studio in Dover, to serve the eastern part of its region. The studios were opened in 1960 at the same time as the ITA's VHF Dover television transmitter went into operation. The studios on Russell Street were mainly used for regional news production although some non-news programmes including the rural affairs series Farm Progress and the nightly Epilogue were also produced from Dover.
During Southern's tenure as the franchise broadcaster, the company strived to produce dedicated opt outs for the South East area of the region. Although it was not made known publicly, Southern's South East news team in Dover produced separate bulletins for the area as an opt-out into the Day By Day programme. A dedicated South East bulletin was also broadcast after News at Ten. More well known to South East viewers was Scene South East, a weekly magazine programme which replaced Day By Day on Friday nights. Its popularity led to the introduction of a shorter Scene Midweek programme on Wednesdays. Local commercials specific to the region were also broadcast to the Dover transmitter only, via a technical gallery at the Southampton studios.
Dover-based presenters and reporters included Mike Field, Malcolm Mitchell, Arnie Wilson, Jill Cochrane, Pat Sloman, David Haigh, Donald Dougall and Mike Fuller.
After Southern lost its franchise to TVS, the studios were used to produce the successor's regional news programmes for the South East - Coast to Coast and TVS News. Once TVS's studios in Maidstone were opened, the Dover studios were closed in 1983 and demolished a year later. The site is now a car park.
Unique in ITV and reflecting the area's maritime history the company converted a Second World War motor torpedo boat into a floating outside broadcasting unit named Southerner. The company had sales offices at Stag Place, London and Oxford Street, Manchester.
Southern's failure to win a renewal of its contract in the 1980 bidding session was met with anger and disbelief by its board of directors. Although the Independent Broadcasting Authority gave its standard reason for these decisions (which was that the competitor offered a better mix of programmes and greater investment), it was believed the station's non-local ownership may have swayed the balance against it.
Another factor may have been the company's very conservative (and possibly dull) nature and that, with a new decade dawning, the south of England would be a radically different area (which it turned out to be); it was felt that Southern's application was, understandably, more of the same reliable formula, which in time would not have reflected the possibilities for the area. Yet another possible factor was the incumbents' complacency: its original application was a mere 16-pages long. Tactfully the IBA invited them to re-submit, this time asking them to go into more depth with their plans.
The winning bidder was Television South (TVS), who spent months trying to persuade Southern to sell its studios; until it finally succeeded, TVS was forced to use portable offices (known as Portakabins) in Southern's car park. Finally, Southern agreed to lease its studios for the production of TVS programmes and sell them to TVS outright at the end of 1981. The handover was tinged with acrimony on behalf of Southern, who appeared to take their anger at the decision out on TVS, rather than the IBA who had made the actual choice. In their final programme, And It's Goodbye From Us, a song was featured, deriding the incoming TVS as Portakabin TV (composed and performed by Richard Stilgoe), and mocking them for choosing Maidstone as a production base in the newly-enlarged dual region (failing to mention that Southern themselves had already purchased the site in Vinters Park, Maidstone, for a planned studio complex - if they had won the 1982 franchise - and had sold it on to the TVS consortium at a considerable profit).
Southern's final programme, And It's Goodbye From Us, ended at 00:43 on 1 January, 1982. The programme closed with a medley of songs "to suit the occasion" sung by Lilian Watson and performed by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta under conductor Owain Arwel Hughes. The show's presenter, long-serving continuity announcer Christopher Robbie, signed off from Southern Television with the words:
"Goodbye songs from Lilian Watson because ... it's goodbye time. We said at the start that we'd come to celebrate, and I think we had. We've enjoyed remembering, and I'm sure you won't forget. So, with a final farewell smile from those Southern people who've become to many of you, true friends, it's goodbye from us."
Afterwards, the camera panned to show many of the on-air talent and company executives standing (rather solemnly) as their names were displayed on-screen and the "Southern Fantasia" (composed especially for the show by Jonathan Burton) played in the programme's (and Southern Television's) final two minutes. When the piece came to a climatic end, the illuminated logo signs and lights on the set were gradually turned off, fading to the Southern Television Colour Production slide (being shown for the final time), which dissolved into the starburst logo, spinning away into an animated starry sky. The acoustic guitar jingle played for what would be the final time with a deep extended echo, and the screen slowly and silently faded to black. There were no closing or shut-down announcements, no suggestions for viewers to switch off their television sets, nor even the customary playing of God Save the Queen. The transmitters were simply, and abruptly, shut down. Southern Television had ceased its broadcasting after twenty-four years. Exactly eight hours and forty minutes later, Television South began broadcasting to the South and South-East of England.
In August 2008, ITV Meridian commenorated the 50th anniversary of Southern Television's first transmission with special reports on Thames Valley Tonight and Meridian Tonight (South and South East editions) alongside a half-hour programme presented by Fred Dinenage.