3.2. The Age of Television
On 2 November 1936 Alexandra Palace Station was formally opened and the broadcasting run for two hours daily at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m..“Great Britain was the first country to establish a public television service; and was in 1938 still the only one where television could be regularly received in the home,” proudly announced the BBC. (YB 1939: 36) The major landmark in the history of British television came in 1937 with the Coronation of King George VI which marked the first BBC’s live broadcast and has been followed by many other social, sport and cultural events. “The 1938 Exhibition,” informed the Year Book, “was dominated by television. Twenty -two firms (there had been sixteen in 1937 and two in 1936) exhibited television sets and most of them had two or three models. Commenting on the part played by television at Radiolympia, a leader- writer in The Times felt able to say that it demonstrated that `this country leads the world in television'.” (1939 28) By the beginning of 1939 there was a broadcasting every day in a week from Alexandra Palace and licences grew to 23,000 with an optimistic estimate they would climb to 80,000 until the end of the year. This did not happen since 1st September brought about the end of the first television era and for six years television in Britain was out of the picture.
The reinstatement of the service after the war was under the competence of the Hankey Committee and already on 1 October 1946 was announced that “the decision of the government on the future of television having been made known, the BBC will implement it with the least possible delay. (YB 1946: 11) However, the BBC’s approach to television in the months and years immediately following the war was surprisingly indifferent. Director General William Haley lacked interest in the development of the new medium and still hold tight to the Reithian view of radio as the one and only broadcasting force. Seaton notes that in the words of one BBC producer, the Corporation regarded radio as “the father figure, established and responsible”, while television was no more than a “spendthrift tiresome adolescent.” (159) Asa Briggs even makes a direct connection between the position of the Forces Programme during the war, the Light Programme after the war, and the BBC mass television, arguing that each of them was highly popular by the people but considered rather an unfortunate necessity by the BBC. (60)
Simply put, television was within the BBC initially treated as a mere extension of the Light Programme: something that was expensive but marginal in the respect to the ethos which had been cultivated within the BBC since Reith’s reign. On the other hand, the Corporation firmly believed that the control of television broadcasting output should remain in the same hands as that of sound broadcasting and strictly refused any mention of competition. The result of such a twofold approach was that the 1950s policy of the BBC sought to keep television in order rather than support the new medium’s development. Nevertheless, Seaton argues that because television was not considered as important as radio broadcasting, there was a greater freedom that allowed its programme makers to show more initiative that would not likely pass the strict eye of controllers within the radio. (159) The shift in the dismissive attitude towards television can be first spotted in 1952 when Ian Jacob became Director General. In the Year Book issued the same year, Jacob confirmed that television had become an integral part of the BBC, stating that “in British Broadcasting it has been consistently sought to ensure that intelligence shall be made up of information, entertainment, and education. Whether the matter is aural or visual (and it should not be overlooked that Television is aural as well as visual) the responsibilities are identical.” (9) What definitely confirmed Jacob’s words about the rising status of the television was the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 that was watched by approximately 20 million TV viewers. By that time had been set up Beveridge committee assigned to conduct an inquiry into the organization and affairs of the BBC and above all its monopoly status. The Beveridge committee was highly critical of the Corporation and did not sympathize with “Reith’s legacy of benevolent, high-minded despotism.” (Seaton 156-157) The BBC abruptly responded to the accusations and issued a memorandum on Monopoly and Competition in Broadcasting:
The good, in the long run, will inescapably be driven out by the bad. It is inevitable that any national educational pyramid shall have a base immeasurably broader than its upper levels. And because competition in broadcasting must in the long run descend to a fight for the greatest possible number of listeners, it would be the lower forms of mass appetite which would more and more be catered for in programmes. Any effort to see whether some of that appetite could appreciate something better would be a hostage to fortune. It would be far too dangerous; the winner in that race being the loser in competition." (qtd in Paulu, British Broadcasting in Transition 18)
This defence proved ineffective. After the fall of the Labour government in 1951, the new Conservative government granted the BBC a new licence but also incorporated modifications in its monopoly status. As a result, it was decided that the BBC would be still responsible for all radio broadcasting, but it had to share television service and the new commercial Independent Television Authority was created by Act of Parliament in July 1954. (YB 1955 21-22) Although the new service was, “by some genius of euphemism,” as Seaton pointedly remarks, named Independent Television, the ITA was independent only in a sense that it was not organized by the BBC. (158) Otherwise, it was subjected to the same policy controls and the government also regulated advertising procedures. Briggs summarizes it as follows:
As far as the constitution of the ITA was concerned, the language of the Act of Parliament of 1945 that created the new Authority was borrowed language that had related previously to the BBC. It obliged the Authority to ‘inform’ and to ‘educate’ as well as to ‘entertain’. (4)
The ITA received a strict set of guidelines from the Government, which insisted on high quality of the programmes and also stated that the amount of advertising should not be so great as to lessen the value of the programmes. That brings us back to the Corporation. “The introduction of commercial television in September 1955 did not, in the Corporation's opinion, alter in any way the BBC's obligations to the public,” proclaimed the BBC. (1957) However, the research from 1957 shows differently; the BBC’s share of the audience fell as low as 28% and there was a 79:21 preference for the commercial channel. As a general rule, new things are initially more attractive and exciting than the ones people are accustomed to and these figures are thus not very surprising. After all, the report issued in 1959 showed that in the period from January to March 1958 it was estimated that each day approximately 14,500,000 adults watched BBC Television and 9,000,000 watched ITV, while great number watched both programmes (YB 1959 122) This implies that once the viewers had had enough, the majority got back to the BBC or at least oscillated between both according to their preferences. Moreover, Seaton notes that both the BBC and ITV “soon discovered the comforts of competition” and that there was a certain security of being dependent on the enemy’s programming. (161) For instance, it turned out that documentaries and current events programmes achieved the biggest audience only when they were broadcasted at the same time. As to the rest of the output, while the commercial television would concentrate on entertainment, more serious programmes were usually left to the BBC, with the result of the audience being in the same proportion as the Light Programme in comparison to Home and Third Services combined, approximately 70 percent to 30. (Seaton 162) The biggest disadvantage of the ITV’s image was that “despite the essential ‘Britishness’ of the ITA, commercial television continued in many minds to be identified with ‘Americanization’,” writes Briggs. (28)
ITV was influential in developing a new format for the news. In comparison to the BBC’s bulletins read by an invisible announcer and accompanied by still photographs, ITV attracted the audience by using journalists as news-readers, allowing them to write their own material and read it in front of the camera. The success provoked the BBC into improving its own presentation of news. In 1954 the BBC set out to not only tell but also show its viewers the news. The News Division was widened for the Television News Department, which had the same access as the sound radio side of the division always had had to the central organization for gathering, editing, and broadcasting to the world the news from all over the world. (YB 1958 70) In 1958 the direction of news and of all topical programmes was brought under a Directorate of News and Current Affairs, which provided overall co- ordination and editorial direction of the topical output, both in sound radio and television, and aimed at securing the most efficient use of programme resources, both human and material, in the news and current affairs field. (YB 1959 44)
What can be concluded is that even though the introduction of commercial television was by some, including John Reith, likened to the arrival of the Black Death13, the fact was that the competition contributed to challenging the BBC in its pre-war conservatism and forced the BBC to improve its programmes and news presentations. To sum up, the introduction of commercial rival had seemingly no long-term effect on the overall number of viewers. Moreover, as it was stated in the second chapter, ITV was not the first rival the BBC had to challenge, since foreign commercial radio stations were the competition for the BBC already in the early 1930s. All in all, the Corporation had already begun to change before commercial service started and ITV only provided “a stimulus for the maturing of a national television service.” (Seaton 166)
4. British Broadcasting under Review
The fourth chapter covers the span of two decades, the 1960s and the 1970s, in relation to the further development of the Corporation. The 1960s were still heavily influenced by the impact of commercial service on the broadcasting in Great Britain, as will be seen from the report of Pilkington Committee. The report from 1962 praised the BBC for providing good service and criticized ITV for low standards, which led to several changes in the structure of British broadcasting. The detailed information concerning the content and consequences of the Pilkington report are therefore described and analyzed in the first part of this chapter. The second part examines three main issues which the BBC was addressing during the 1970s. Firstly, the BBC revised and redefined the original aims and duties of broadcasting and officially detached itself from Reithian authoritative and paternal ideology of broadcasting. Secondly, independence of the organization was widely discussed in relation to the increasingly more frequent disputes with the Government. Thirdly, the Corporation was, especially in the first half of the decade, facing the financial crisis, which negatively influenced the overall output. This part of the chapter is based mainly on the BBC Hand Books from that period, since they include many compelling articles and often also surprising statements on the BBC policy. The overall aim of this chapter is to show how all of the above mentioned factors influenced the importance of original Reithian values within the Corporation.
4.1. The Pilkington Report
In the conclusion of the last chapter it was said that the late 1950s and the early 1960s were the years of change in the structure of British society. Television was one of the main factors causing such change. In his fifth volume about British broadcasting, historian Asa Briggs describes the 1960s as a “controversial decade,” which began with the appointment of Hugh Greene as Director General, whose role was “as significant in BBC history as Reith’s role during the formative 1920s.” 14 (prefix xix) Briggs further points out that “What mainly distinguished this time from others in the history of broadcasting was that the BBC itself as an institution— with Greene as its Director-General— considered it necessary to align itself with change and to spotlight its own preoccupations with it.” (10) This was an apt description, since the 1960s was an era of technical innovation, mainly because of introduction of colour TV and satellite. A lot of BBC programmes that were first broadcast at that time, for instance Doctor Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, achieved cult status. Regarding the standard of programmes in general, Johnson and Turnock refer in their book ITV Cultures to the period between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s as ‘golden age’ of British television drama, when television production was of a particularly high quality. This was “primarily associated with the single play, often produced within larger anthology series, most notably the BBC strands, The Wednesday Play and Play for Today.” (Johnson and Turnock 3)
On the other hand, Seaton reports that by that time some people had already perceived television as harmful:
The growth of a mass television audience and the setting-up of a commercial service were seen as agents of a revolution that was eroding class distinction and increasing social mobility. Television has more often been seen as a destructive than as a creative force. [...] many regarded it as a threat to traditional ways of life, and hence to the basis of traditional political loyalties. (168)
With regard to this thesis, it could be further claimed that television boom also posed a threat to traditional principles and values established by Reith. To this conclusion came the Pilkington committee in their report published in June, 1962.15 The main role of Pilkington Committee was the same as of its predecessors; to examine the development of broadcasting and suggest future improvements. Seaton writes that “in fact they did much more, producing a report which judged the nation’s culture.” (170)
Because Pilkington was the first committee set up after the introduction of ITV, it was not surprising that the nature and consequences of competition were closely examined. After all, the television was at that time one of the factors shaping the moral attitudes and values of people. Accordingly, the report “attempted to establish the criteria for producing – and judging – good broadcasting.” (Seaton 170) The end result of this approach was as follows:
Our appraisal of the BBC performance did not lead us to expect that the Corporation’s constitution and organization would by faulty in any fundamental way; and this our examination confirmed. By contrast, our examination of independent television showed that its failure to realise the purposes of broadcasting derived essentially from a fundamental fault. (Pilkington Report 1962: 31)
The Committee’s criticism of commercial television was based on the assumption that ITV failed to provide fair balance of serious and light programmes. Interestingly, it was not the triviality of the subject matter alone but rather “the way a subject matter is approached and the manner in which it is presented.” (Pilkington 34) On the other hand, good broadcasting, as is obvious from the excerpt above, was in committee’s view synonymous with the constitution of the BBC and its purposes originating in the 1920s under Reith’s authority. “Pilkington retained its pristine objections to commercial television, judging it by Reithian standards and refusing to allow it any of its own,” writes Andrew Crisell. (110) Crisell is not the only one who refers to Reith in relation to the conclusions of Pilkington report. Sir Robert Renwick16 expressed in his letter to ATV shareholders similar view on the unfair treatment of ITV:
The Pilkington Committee had tabled a biased report which has one apparent objective – to destroy in one vicious blow the whole structure which has given the public the programmes they enjoy and it its place to set up a second monolithic State institution. This is Lord Reith all over again. (in Briggs 301)
It is possible to draw a certain parallel between Reith’s view on the duties of public service and the committee’s views on the same subject. As it was stated in the first chapter, Reith wrote in his autobiography that “In earliest years accused of setting out to give the public not what it wanted but what the BBC thought it should have, the answer was that few knew what they wanted, few what they needed.” (144) Simply put, public service had a right, perhaps even obligation to choose the content of broadcasting. Allowing people to decide for themselves would, according to Reith, inevitably lead to lower standards and abundance of light entertainment. On the contrary, the Committee expressed a view that broadcaster had no right to decide for its audience, which was in this case meant as a direct attack on populism of ITV:
To give the public what it wants is a misleading phrase: misleading because as commonly used it has the appearance of an appeal to democratic principle, but the appearance is deceptive. It is in fact patronizing and arrogant, in that it claims to know what the public is but defines it as no more than the mass audience, and it claims to know what it wants, but limits its choice to the average of experience. (in Seaton 113)
This means that while the Committee praised the BBC for good broadcasting, it indirectly attacked the very same principle the Corporation was initially based on.
The main problem with the Committee’s defence of an old broadcasting system is that the world has changed since Reith ran the BBC. Reith’s principles were based on the fact that the BBC had a legal monopoly and it was thus bound to serve the whole British public. By the time Pilkington Report was published, the commercial television had been established. The BBC began to realize that if it wanted to keep its position, entertaining people was as important as informing and educating. “Most people, for most of the time, chose the escapist, the diverting, or the trivial,” Seaton writes and adds that “the report endorsed the BBC’s popular music policy when this was clearly out of touch with what people wanted to hear, as the success of the pirate stations soon demonstrated.” (174) It is true that the BBC was still patronizing is some aspect but it was becoming more responsive to the needs of public, giving it also what it wanted, not only what it needed.
Another fact proving that the committee did not take into consideration actual preferences and tastes of audience can be found in the Year Book from 1963. It contained data considering the number of viewers watching both BBC and commercial television programmes, and showed that ITV was slightly more popular than the BBC:
During 1960 -1, viewers with a choice had on the average divided their time between BBC, and commercial, television in the proportion of two to three (40 per cent to 60 per cent). In the October December quarter of 1961 this ratio changed to 45 per cent to 55 per cent, and for January March 1962 became 48 per cent to 52 per cent. (23)
To sum up, the report’s failure stems from its disapproval of popular and entertaining programmes and from blaming ITV for everything that was wrong with British television, judging the broadcasting by Reith’s principle of constant overestimation of the audience, which was no longer true even for the BBC.
What was then the impact of the report on broadcasting in Britain? The BBC commented that the Committee's recommendations concerning the BBC “have been taken by the Corporation as vindication of its policies.” (1963: 7) It also proudly stated, perhaps too proudly considering the facts presented previously, that
It was particularly gratifying to the BBC that the Committee strongly endorsed the principle of public service broadcasting on which the foundations of the BBC were laid forty years ago, and the BBC welcomed the recommendation of the Committee that `the BBC should remain the main instrument of broadcasting in the United Kingdom'. (9)
On the other hand, ITV as well as the British press found the criticism too harsh and biased. Television critic Jack Tinker mentions this in the book The Television Barons: “The venom of Pilkington's condemnation of ITV's standards and populist policies surprised even the hard-core anti-ITV faction which had held out so volubly in Parliament and elsewhere against the introduction of commercial television in this country.” (27) In relation to this, Johnson and Turnock observe that the report astonished the opponents of ITV to such measure that they eventually started to support ITV: “The publication of the report saw a shift in focus as much of the British public and press leapt to the defence of ITV against what were seen as the ´elitist´ judgements of the Committee and the due favouritism accorded to the BBC, which received little criticism in the report.”17 (22)
If the report accused ITV of low standards, why did it not accuse the BBC of paternalism and ignorance of changing public taste? As Julian Petley shows in his paper dealing with the consequences of the Pilkington,18 various newspaper and magazines across the whole Britain expressed this view very openly and more or less directly criticized the BBC. The Sunday Times argued that “only a bigoted few would wish us back in the days of monopoly BBC television” and that the best way to provide quality broadcasting is through “more competition, with effective control of errors and excesses in the national interest, but without dictation of programmes in the interest of some arbitrary judgement of public needs. (in Petley 9) Finally, Sunday Pictorial wrote that “Turning ITV into a parallel BBC and giving the BBC another service would eliminate all serious competition. The BBC would once again become over-complacent, over-governessy. We would all have our heads bored off.” (in Petley 11)
These protests did not have any impact on the White paper published by the Government a week after publishing the report. The Paper summarized the main points and accepted some recommendations but also rejected the proposals for structural reorganization of ITV. This summarizes Crisell by stating that “Politically the Pilkington Report was a dinosaur,” which was very much the reason why the government had no intention to follow all its recommendations. (112) However, the Paper directly addressed standards in television programmes while avoiding any remarks specifically aimed at ITV. The Government stated “it is impressed with the criticisms made against violence and triviality in television generally. The Government’s aim is to encourage higher standards all round, on all television programmes, both B.B.C. and I.T.A., and it proposes to discuss the question with both these bodies.” (7)
The Television Acts of 1963 and 1964 approved of some of the proposals. Firstly, the Corporation was given the permission to start a second television channel. Secondly, the BBC was also allowed to increase the hours of radio broadcasting. Thirdly, the report ordered ITV and ITA to change its structure, which surprisingly did not lead to restrictions but, on the contrary, to bigger autonomy.19 As a result, the effect of the emphasis on responsibility of broadcasting had, at least judged by the Committee’s standards, a positive effect on the ITV:
Indeed, over the 1960s the ITA: Annual Report and Accounts included a section devoted to ‘The Development of Serious Programmes’ across the ITV network in order to demonstrate that the channel’s provision of information, educational and critical programmes had grown since the publication of the Pilkington Report in 1962. (Johnson and Turnock 23)