British television is impossible to pigeonhole. Eminently capacious, it has increasingly been open to multiple goals, forces and programming approaches. It has responded to new demands more often by accretion and absorption than by re-direction. Though shot through with public service principles, these have periodically been retuned to chime both with shifting social needs and with more pragmatic imperatives. British television has simultaneously pursued intrinsic communication purposes (enriching viewers, serving society) and extrinsic ones (organisational survival, earnings, power).

It also tends to be taken seriously. For many Britons, broadcasting is a social pillar that closely affects the well-being of other key institutions--not only the crown, Parliament and the church but also sport, education, theater, the arts and film. Much valued, much debated, often officially enquired into, and much criticised, it is treated as both a national asset and a national scapegoat. Its present and future condition are therefore thought to matter greatly. In 1990s television, however, the British way of managing the tensions of continuity vs. change is being severely tested.

Television in the United Kingdom has historically been a highly regulated public service system that has periodically admitted, while striving to contain, commercially competitive impulses. Three of its four core terrestrial channels still have public service remits (BBC-1, BBC-2 and Channel 4) and the other significant public service requirements (Channel 3 of Independent Television). Whereas BBC-2 and Channel 4 have predominantly catered for minority and specialist tastes (each attracting around 10-12% of viewers), competition for larger audiences has been waged between BBC-1 and ITV's Channel 3 (with the latter usually gaining a somewhat greater share).

Although until recently the notion of "public service" was nowhere explicitly defined, it was widely understood to embrace purposes of programming range, quality, and popularity with the general viewing audience. Other emphases have included: universality of reception; reflection of national identity and community; provision of a civic forum; special regard for minorities; respect for children's all-round personality and development needs; due impartiality in coverage of controversial issues; avoiding offense to law and order, taste and decency; and the editorial independence of program makers within the overall regulatory framework.

The sway of the public service idea helps to explain many past programming strengths of British television: ∑ Heavy investment in news and current affairs, including treatment of election campaigns as transforming civic events. ∑ An impressive tradition of children's television, including a wide range of entertainment, information, drama and animation, not only on Saturday mornings but also on mid-afternoon weekdays on BBC-1 and Channel 3. ∑ Provision of a very wide range of drama in format, subject matter and cultural level. ∑ Leading soap operas frequently laced with explorations of significant social issues and moral dilemmas. ∑ Vigorous documentary strands, especially on BBC-2 and Channel 4. ∑ The cultural patronage role of arts coverage, including BBC funding of a chorus and five large orchestras and commissioning of feature films by Channel 4 and BBC-2. ∑ Well-resourced programming in natural history, popular science and technology. ∑ Investment in a wide range of educational television (for schools, further and adult education, the Open University and prime-time public awareness campaigns), social action programs, public access programs and programs for immigrant communities.

Three organisations have been central in the governance of British television. First, government responsibility for broadcasting is lodged with the Department of the National Heritage (succeeding the Home Office in 1992, which had previously taken over from the Postmaster General). This appoints the members of all regulatory bodies, oversees policy development (sometimes jointly with the Department of Trade and Industry), and initiates legislation and debates in Parliament.

Second, a Board of 12 Governors is required to direct the British Broadcasting Corporation in the public interest. The BBC is a large organisation of approximately 25,000 employees and a £2 billion annual income, the bulk of which comes from a licence fee that is levied on every household with a television set. Fixed by negotiation between the BBC and the government, the level of the fee has broadly kept pace with the retail price index since the mid-1980s. The BBC's obligations are outlined in a Charter and Agreement, the present terms of which will run until 2006 (although BBC finance will be reviewed in 2001). For the first time, these spell out in some detail both its public service programming role and the Governors' supervisory duties as well as authorising BBC involvement in commercial activities. The Governors appoint the BBC Director-General and, in consultation with him, other members of a Board of Management. Traditionally, Management decided most matters of BBC policy and programming with the Governors serving more as a sounding board and ultimate authorizer, commenting only after the fact on individual broadcasts of which they approved or disapproved. From the 1970s, however, the Governors became increasingly active and in the late 1980s were even a spur for fundamental organisational reform.

Third, all advertising-financed television is under the jurisdiction of the Independent Television Commission (known in previous incarnations as the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the Independent Television Authority). Its writ runs over Independent Television, a federal grouping of 15 regionally-based companies, plus companies of national news and breakfast television, which jointly schedule the nationally networked portion of Channel 3; Channel 4, a non-profit "publisher-broadcaster" (commissioning and scheduling but not making programs), which is legally required to be innovative and to cater for different interests and tastes from those served by Channel 3; Channel 5, a new terrestrial service that will cover approximately two thirds of the country from 1997; and cable and satellite services originating in the U.K. The ITC will eventually be responsible as well for any channels of digital terrestrial television that may be introduced.

The ITC's duties are set out in the Broadcasting Act of 1990, and its 12 Members are appointed by the government. The main tasks are to franchise the commercial television companies by a process of first tendering for and then auctioning the licences and to enforce the licence conditions thereafter. The act posits a "quality threshold", which all applying companies must cross before being admitted to the auction itself, at which the highest bidder would normally be the winner. Since 1993, when the new Channel 3 licensees took over, the ITC has been a relatively resolute regulator, holding the companies to their obligations (through directives, warnings and fines as necessary) and annually reporting on their programming performance.

Three further features of the system should also be mentioned. First, the opening of Channel 4 in 1982 encouraged the growth of a large sector of some 900 independent program-making companies of diverse sizes and production specialisms. This was strengthened by the Broadcasting Act of 1990, which obliged all terrestrial broadcasters to commission at least 25% of their output from such sources, and will be further boosted by many commissions from Channel 5.

Second, elaborate codes of practice have been evolved to cover a wide range of matters on which programs could cause offense. The ITC has drawn up four such codes--on program sponsorship; advertising standards and practices; advertising breaks; and the Program Code--for their conformity to which the ITV companies are required to introduce effective compliance procedures. The BBC has developed a 300-page booklet of Producers' Guidelines, oversight of which is vested in a four-person Editorial Policy Unit. In addition, for the specific areas of violence, sexual display, taste, decency and bad language, the government in 1988 established a Broadcasting Standards Council to issue a Code of Practice that all broadcasters must take into account and in light of which viewers may submit complaints.

Third, public expectations of broadcasting and options for its future development have been shaped in the past by a series of comprehensive reviews by independent Committees of enquiry appointed by the government. (Their main reports are listed in the suggestions for Further Reading accompanying this essay.)

In recent times, however, all these structures have been buffeted by both internal and external pressures to change. Within British broadcasting, technological developments are paving the way for new program-delivery systems, multi-channel expansion and intensified competition for viewers' attention. Television finance is becoming much tighter, as production costs escalate (responding to competition for top performers, programs and sporting events) beyond the general inflation rate. External markets--as arenas of sales, imports, co-production and international rivalry--are becoming more salient. To cope, revamped organisational structures, program commissioning strategies, scheduling practices, accounting systems and managerial skills are all required. In commercial television the rules on concentration of ownership are also being relaxed to encourage the emergence of "national champions" in global markets.

Admittedly, adaptation to change has been eased by the relatively slow diffusion of multichannel offerings to the British audience. Although cable franchises cover 70% of the population, not all are up and running, and only one in five households passed have subscribed. Satellite television, provided by BSkyB (40% owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International Corporation), has been more successful, gaining over 3 1/2 million subscribers to packages of up to 28 channels, and profiting especially from people's willingness to pay extra for premium sports and movie channels. But with cable and satellite services in only about a fifth of British homes and attracting an overall audience share under 10%, the multichannel revolution is seeping into British television instead of taking it by storm.

Nevertheless, around broadcasting, the values, expectations and ways of life of British viewers are also changing. The advance of consumerism breeds a more choosy and critical audience. The advance of social complexity multiplies sub-group tastes and identities and fragments moral and political opinion. Leaders in many spheres face waning respect for and growing scepticism toward their claims and credentials. The brokerage role of programming between elite perspectives and mass interests has been disrupted.

In these conditions, British television resembles a large ocean-liner, fashioned by a master ship-builder and serving many classes of passengers in a host of compartments, which is sailing through ever stormier seas that may--or may not--tear it apart! How did it get that way? From its inception British television has progressed through five overlapping phases.

First, up to 1955, development of the medium was subordinated to the needs of radio. Having provided sound broadcasting since 1922, the BBC inaugurated the world's first television service in 1936, shut it down during World War II, and reopened it in 1946. In the early post-war years, however, television enthusiasts waged an uphill battle against those in higher BBC echelons who saw it as a cultural Trojan horse--committed predominantly to entertainment, brash and childish, not very civilised, and conducive to audience passivity. The balance began to shift in 1952, first, after the appointment as Director-General of Sir Ian Jacob, who realised that television had to be taken more seriously, and secondly, with the striking success in June of that year of the televising of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth--as a spectacle with great symbolic impact, audience reach and appeal.

This phase came to an end through a characteristic political development, one that aimed to reconcile a cultural mission for broadcasting with chances to exploit the advertising potential of television and to upgrade the claims of popular taste. The Television Act of 1954 authorised creation of a new advertising-financed service, to be called Independent (not "Commercial") Television, in competition with the BBC. Although the Beveridge Committee enquiry (1951) had recommended renewal of the BBC's monopoly, the incoming Conservative Government of 1951 adopted a minority report that proposed "some element of competition" in television. Bitterly fought inside and outside Parliament, the government had to concede crucial safeguards against rampant commercialism: no sponsorship; only time spots of controlled length and frequency would be sold to advertisers who would have no say in program content; and creation of a new public corporation, an Independent Television Authority, to appoint the companies and supervise their performance in light of requirements specified in the act.

A second phase followed from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s of vigorous but creative competition between an insurgent ITV and a threatened BBC, which, though it aroused doubts, fear and dismay among some at the time, is now widely regarded as having advanced the medium's programming powers and viewers' all-round enjoyment. From the outset, ITV set its cap at neglected mass tastes, especially for entertainment, while cultivating a more informal and accessible presentation style and celebrating what one executive termed "people's television". After experiencing a dramatic loss of viewers (down to a 28% share at the nadir), the BBC fought back hard all across the programming board.

Many achievements ensued. Since ITV was based on separate companies in London and other parts of the country, British television catered for the first time to diverse regional interests in addition to metropolitan ones. Television news was transformed--with named news readers, pace, incisiveness and eye-catching pictures. Inhibitions on political and election coverage were shed. Saturday afternoons were devoted to coverage of top sporting events. A host of memorable children's programs were developed. New forms of television drama were pioneered. New comedy stars (e.g. Tony Hancock, Jimmy Edwards, Charlie Duke) were born, served by high-profile writers. The BBC created an early evening topical magazine, Tonight, the sprightliness and irreverence of which broke sharply with its traditions. Yet the flag of authoritativeness was also flown in its weekly current affairs program, Panorama, a new arts magazine, Monitor, and an in-depth interview program, Face to Face.

In this phase, the British concern to blend potentially opposed impulses in its television system remained strong. For its part, the BBC had to become more competitive and seek a larger audience share to sustain its claim to licence fee funding and its status as Britain's national broadcaster. But this was not to be its sole aim and was to be achieved through high standards of quality across a broad range of programming. Endorsing its record, the Pilkington Committee enquiry (1962) recommended that the BBC be awarded a second channel (BBC-2, which opened in 1966). Finding that ITV programming had become too commercial, trivial and undemanding, the Committee proposed stronger regulatory powers and duties for the ITA. The next Television Act accordingly instructed the Authority to ensure a "proper balance and wide range of subject matter having regard both to the programmes as a whole and also to the day of the week on which, and the times of day at which, the programmes are broadcast" as well as "a wide showing of programmes of merit." The ITV companies were also obliged to submit their program schedules for advance approval to the ITA, who could direct the exclusion of any items from them.

In much of the 1960s and early 1970s, a third phase ensued, as hierarchical and consensual ties loosened and traditional institutions were criticised more often in the name of modernisation. Broadcasters became concerned to portray the different sectors of a pluralist society realistically in both fictional and factual programs and to be more probingly critical themselves. For Hugh Greene, BBC Director-General from 1960 to 1969, public service implied putting an honest mirror before society, reflecting what was there, whether it was "bigotry...and intolerance or accomplishment and inspiring achievement". He also believed broadcasters had a duty to take account of changes in society, the challenges and options they posed and where they might lead. He even regarded impudence as an acceptable broadcasting quality (a far cry from founding father John Reith's stress on dignity). Illustrative of this spirit were hard-hitting satire (That Was the Week That Was), anarchic comedy (Monty Python), more forceful political interviewing, series set in Northern towns (Coronation Street, The Likely Lads), realistic police series (Z Cars), social-issue drama (Cathy Come Home) and socially conscious comedy ('Til Death Us Do Part, featuring a Cockney racist, and Steptoe and Son, featuring a rag-and-bone man and his son).

In a fourth phase throughout much of the 1970s, British television increasingly acquired the image of an over-mighty subject, attracting unprecedentedly sharp criticism and pressure to mend its ways. On balance, more of the fire was directed at factual than fictional programming. In 1971, politicians of all parties had been outraged by a BBC program about Labour in Opposition, Yesterday's Men, deploring its flippant tone, lack of openness when interviewees were briefed about the intended approach, and questions put to ex-Prime Minister Harold Wilson that seemed beyond the pale (e.g. about earnings from his memoirs). Thereafter, the political establishment became more assertive of its interests, more organised in their pursuit and more vocal in its complaints. Spokespersons of other groups also voiced dissatisfaction over stereotypical portrayals and limited access. Traditional moralists (like the members of Mary Whitehouse's Viewers' and Listeners' Association) were deeply unhappy about what they regarded as increasingly permissive depictions of sex and violence in programs. Media sociologists chipped in with a series of studies purporting to undermine the pretensions of broadcasters to impartiality and objectivity and to demonstrate how news coverage of social conflicts supported the ideological status quo. Other critics perceived a middle-ground convergence in BBC and ITV output that excluded unconventional perspectives and opinions. Behind these otherwise different reactions, there was also a shared concern over the difficulties of holding broadcasters to account for their policies and performance.

Structural responses to this chorus of criticism included some tightening of editorial controls; creation by the BBC of a Community Programming Unit to help groups to present their ideas on their own terms in a new strand of access broadcasting; and establishment of a Programme Complaints Board by the BBC to consider complaints against producers of unfair representation and invasions of privacy. The most important outcome, however, was the creation in 1982 of Channel 4 with its brief to be different, experimental and heterodox. Although commercials would be sold on the channel, pains were taken to avoid competition for advertising with ITV. Its budget was therefore fixed by the IBA on the basis of funds it levied from the ITV companies, who were allowed to sell (and keep the revenues from) its advertising. Thus, a viable source of funding would be tapped, the Channel would be guaranteed sufficient resources for its tasks, and its innovative efforts would be insulated from advertisers' conformist pressures.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the fifth phase of British television has been dominated by issues of structure and finance. In this period, all British broadcasters have had to adjust to a new and less supportive political mood--one that regards television more as an industry than a cultural agency and its institutions as badly in need of a shake-up. A tide of radically revisionist commercialism was unleashed, which effected major changes but was also resisted and curbed at key points.

The curtain-raiser was appointment in 1985 of the Peacock Committee on Financing the BBC to consider alternative sources of revenue to the licence fee, including advertising and sponsorship. Its 1986 report condemned the existing system as a cosy and overly "comfortable duopoly", lacking financial disciplines to keep costs down in both the BBC and ITV; it defined the fundamental aim of broadcasting as increasing through competition "the freedom of choice of the consumer and the opportunities available to offer alternative wares to the public"; and it proposed that "public service" in British television be scaled down from a full-blown to a market-supplementing model. Yet the Committee also counselled against the sale of commercials by the BBC, since competition for advertising would narrow its range of programming. But although the government accepted this last recommendation, it drew heavily on the Committee's rationale for its policies to overhaul British television.

The government promoted change at the BBC by conveying its expectation of far-reaching reforms, appointing a forceful Chairman of the Board of Governors (Marmaduke Hussey) who shared its priorities and implying that the terms of the next BBC Charter (to take effect in 1996) were at stake in the process. Led by Director-Generals Michael Checkland (from 1987) and John Birt (from 1991), the BBC's managerial structure was overhauled. Overheads were cut, axing more than 2,000 jobs. Most important from the government's standpoint were two steps. An internal market (known as Producers' Choice) was introduced in relations between program producers and providers of technical facilities. And an aggressive policy was adopted of BBC entry into international markets of multichannel television, program sales and co-production. Nevertheless, the BBC also undertook a fundamental review of the meaning and implications of "public service" in multichannel conditions, the results of which appeared in Extending Choice (1992) and People and Programmes (1995). Concentrating mainly on future directions and roles, the former proposed three priority purposes: "informing the national debate"; "expressing British culture and entertainment"; and "creating opportunities for education". More attuned to the modern choosy audience member, the latter stressed themes of relevance and accessibility and the need for program makers in all fields to take greater account of popular interests, tastes and attitudes.

New conditions have made it more difficult to classify and give an appropriate label to the British television system. The public service element remains pervasive but is less influential and stable than formerly. Significant elements of competition have been injected but have not been given their full head. The British pattern is nowhere near the U.S. model--an essentially commercial system with a marginal public service to pick up its slack. Neither is it even a compartmentalised half-and-half system, pitting a ratings-sensitive sector against a quality-sensitive public service sector. What seems to be emerging in Britain is a thoroughly mixed television system. Competitive populism is advancing everywhere in it, but public service is nowhere denied. The impulses are not segregated in separate camps. Instead, they are commingled in every service, albeit in different balances and gradations--with social responsibilities most influential in the programming of BBC-2 and Channel 4, next at BBC-1 and least so (but still a presence) at Channel 3.

Three further features dominate. First, the BBC is still a major force in British television, now officially confirmed as such by the government, but is also a rather torn force. Charged with multiple tasks and a focus of numerous expectations, the BBC is having to ride many horses at once. For its raison d'Ítre in a multichannel system, it must offer distinctive programs (ones the market will not supply), though to justify its claim to licence fee support from all viewers in the land, it must engage in head-to-head competition with ITV for the mass audience. Although the government says that as the U.K.'s main public service broadcaster, its primary role should be making programs for the domestic audience, it also urges the BBC "to increase its income from its commercial activities" (to contribute to U.K. exports, to ensure that a distinctive British culture is spread in world markets and to generate more income for program making). It must reconcile its reputation for quality, responsibility, seriousness and high standards with recognition of the fact that when people have a lot of choice, excellence and authority may not be enough to bring home the bacon. It must keep the creative juices flowing within a framework of much closer budgetary and managerial control. It must reconcile its tradition of editorial independence with demands for increased public accountability.Time will tell whether this can be accomplished. In high policy terms, however, one BBC endeavour to do so should be noted--in its present emphasis on yet more extended broadcasting range. The thrust for each main area of production is to offer a full mix of programs from the demanding to the easy-to-take, the more esoteric to the most popular. "Distinctiveness" may then be satisfied at one end (say, with lavish classic serials or extensive election coverage), while mass appeal can be sought elsewhere (even by inserting programs into the schedules that would not have previously made it to the screen, such as chat, game and blind-dating shows).

Second, in Britain's gradually emerging multichannel system, the force of audience competition, even if still controlled, is reshaping everything it touches. Competitive scheduling has become more concerted and aggressive on all channels. Initiative and power have shifted to the schedulers, to whose more formed requirements creative staffs must tailor their work. Their audience targets and expectations have become more definite; audience research and other data are being articulated more systematically to their needs. Calculations of costs-by-viewers-reached are playing a bigger part. Competitive bidding between BSkyB, the BBC and ITV for coverage rights to major sporting events has heated up, and Parliament has keenly debated proposals to guarantee access for terrestrial channels against exclusive satellite deals. When Channel 5 opens in 1997, able to counter-program against the established services, all these pressures will be exacerbated.

One consequence of such a situation is that the competition for viewers becomes more of a struggle to be noticed. More favored are strategies of immediate attention gaining and qualities of pace, impact, brevity, the arresting, and personal stories with which ordinary people can identify. A new-found populism has come into vogue--with talk shows, studio audiences, phone-ins (even e-mail-ins!), after-discussion polls, clips from viewers' home videos and camcorders all on the increase. Overall, more money and screen time are being devoted to program promotion. Even Channel 4 (so successful in selling its own advertising that its safety net will be phased out) has not been immune to these tendencies. Though praised by the ITC for fulfilling its remit with "general distinction", some of its recent output has appeared to equate innovation with outrageousness and sensationalist taboo-breaking.

Third, both continuing commitment and increasing uncertainty attend some of the programming areas on which Britain's public service tradition was based. The presence of two well-supported and widely viewed lesser channels--BBC-2 and Channel 4--sustains the production bases of minority genres that might otherwise go to the wall. Nevertheless, some of those genres are now under a degree of strain:
∑ Children's television--despite a continuing commitment to range, relying more on animation and on licensing products from program spin-offs.
∑ Documentaries--treatments tending to focus less on socio-political issues and more on slices of popular life in modern society.
∑ Current affairs--still impressive for extent and breadth of significant issues covered, but party politicians appear less often (except in Sunday morning interview programs).
∑ Arts programming--some strands have been moved out of peak time and popular culture is receiving more attention.
∑ Soap operas--scheduled in the early evening, some of these bear heavy competitive responsibilities, with more episodes per week scheduled and more melodramatic story lines plotted.
∑ Other drama--more reliance on high-profile stars and actors and an increase in serials based on crime, law and order, hospital settings, emergency services and urban grittiness.

Of course evaluations of such a mixed and fluid system will vary. It is less "priestly" and sometimes more flashy than in the past. Some observers perceive a gradual erosion of standards of quality, and some top writers and producers have complained of more bureaucratic interference in the creative process. As evidence that British broadcasting is artistically still in fine shape, however, others point to the recent appearance of such outstanding programs as: Pride and Prejudice (classic serial), The Borrowers (children's serial), Our Friends in the North (socio-political drama), Have I Got News For You (inventive comedy quiz), Rory Bremner Who Else? (satire), Newsnight and Channel 4 News. Even if the world is spinning away from public service as it used to be conceived, British television still differs greatly from U.S. television in important ways:
∑ Its network news bulletins are models of solidity.
∑ It has no tabloid magazines, heavy on emotion-packed tales (such as A Current Affair).
∑ It does not treat children predominantly as mere excitement-loving consumers.
∑ Its resort to violence in programs is measurably less.
∑ It has not killed off the documentary tradition.
∑ It continues to support drama of social relevance.
∑ Advertising on the main commercial channels is limited to seven minutes per hour, and product placement is strictly prohibited.

-Jay G. Blumler


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