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,
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
∑ 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.
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
∑ 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.
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