Not open all hours 

19 January 2015


Why ration screen time?

Restriction of broadcasting hours, as if the mass medium compared with drug-taking as a social evil, is one of the absurdities of our system. Lord Renwick, chairman of the Associated Television Corporation, therefore had good sense when he appealed for freedom.

The Labour Government made its views on this subject only too clear. They were that if Independent television increased its hours, it would therefore also increase its revenue. BBC-1, it was argued, would have to match this, hour for hour, without any corresponding increase of income and the poor old licence-payer would, in due course, have another shock.

I do not myself believe that the BBC would lose any large part of its audience if it failed to keep pace on BBC-l with all the ITV output, and in any case the Corporation already has the immense advantage of BBC-2 with its alternatives.

The Conservative Government, it may be assumed, will not be so hostile to the idea of increased profits for the 15 ITV companies. The history of broadcasting suggests that hours will be steadily increased.

But unless a second ITV network is created, which would be quite feasible technically if accepted politically, programmes an be extended only into daytime or the witching hours. The big imponderable is: What use will be made of extra time?

Catering more effectively for women is an obvious need, regular breakfast television will surely come. As a sop to public conscience there will probably also be more time devoted to educational programmes. It is apparent that the television audience is allergic to direct indoctrination with programmes labelled “educational.”

– L Marsland Gander, The Daily Telegraph, 7 September 1970


A lovely hint of the Daily Telegraph’s inherent sense of paternalism comes through in this editorial piece by L Marsland Gander.

The Television Act 1954 doesn’t itself set a daily or weekly hours limit on broadcasting, but it does continue to empower the Postmaster-General (PMG), a political position, and the General Post Office (GPO), a government department, to do so.

And PMGs took to this power with gusto right from the start of radio broadcasting in 1922. It would do no good for the masses to be sat idling about listening to the radio all day every day. Limits on broadcasting hours meant there would be no entertainment when people were meant to get up – no lounging in bed listening to the wireless for you – and radio would have to be off air by a reasonable time because you need to be bright and awake in the morning ready to report for a hard but rewarding day’s work at the factory.

Television was clearly even worse a time-sink than radio had been thought to be: while having the radio on while you’re at your workbench or lathe is no bad thing for productivity – especially with a few stirring tunes thanks to Music While You Work – having a television on was quite the opposite. You would be distracted. If the programme was good, you might be late for work. Horror of horrors, you might find a programme of such interest that you threw a sickie. And then where would we be? In economic ruin all round, clearly.

Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson, leader of the Labour party 1963-1976

For Harold Wilson’s 1964-1970 governments, there was more to the restriction of broadcasting hours than the (actually rational and true) argument presented here that every extra minute on air made ITV more profit while costing the BBC more money (the BBC’s income being fixed while ITV’s was flexible). The Labour party had been adamantly opposed to the introduction of commercial television in the 1950s, promising to abolish the fledgling system if elected in 1959. That promise was gone by the time they were elected in 1964, but the visceral dislike of commercial broadcasting remained – the harrying off the air of the off-shore “pirate” commercial radio stations being one of the main things Wilson’s 1960s governments are remembered for today.

By restricting broadcasting hours, the Labour government was ensuring that ITV was kept in its place. A punitive levy on turnover was also imposed, making sure that Lord Renwick, and everybody else involved in ITV, was screaming in pain.

In June 1970, Wilson was riding high in the opinion polls and called a general election. With his 12.4% opinion poll lead, he was confident of victory. On the day, a swing of 3.4% to Ted Heath’s Conservatives swept the Tories back into power with a useful majority of 31.

Edward Heath

Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative party 1965-1975

Heath’s first year was spent attempting to impose the same type of economic and societal reforms that Mrs Thatcher would repeat in the early 1980s. Heath’s government was was surprisingly libertarian and neoconservative at first, and by the time of this Telegraph article, the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (the cabinet position of Postmaster-General having disappeared in 1969 when the GPO was reformed into the publicly-owned Post Office Corporation), Chris Chataway, was about to announce an experiment with broadcasting hours.

He told parliament that he was prepared to increase broadcasting hours from 50 a week to 53½, apparently just to see what broadcasters did with the extra time – a measly ½ hour a day – and what effect it would have on ITV’s income and the BBC’s expenditure.

The results must have been acceptable to the ministry, as a little over a year later his successor, John Eden, felt able to disclaim the powers to control hours and allow television and radio to set its own times.

With that change, from November 1972, much was expected of broadcasting. Breakfast television was bound to start; overnight services for shift workers seemed likely; and the daytimes would be filled with wondrous new quality programming.

Alas, at that point the pain of Heath’s monetarist reforms had got too much for him and the older guard in his cabinet. The reforms, as they would do again in 1980, tanked the economy. Heath rowed back from them and began a miserable few years of economic, social, political and industrial strife that would ruin him politically and eventually cause him to go to the people and ask “who governs Britain?”, receiving the answer back “search us, guv” as the February 1974 general election produced a hung parliament.

In the meantime, any plans ITV may have had for breakfast and overnight programming were shelved in the face of a massive advertising recession, the Three Day Week and general uncertainty nationally. They would come, but not for a decade or so more.


You Say

3 responses to this article

Kevin Tennent 20 January 2015 at 11:58 pm

‘every minute on air made ITV more profitable’. Really? Every minute on air increased their costs, and advertising income was not guaranteed. This may have been the reason for ITV being cautious about bringing in breakfast TV so early – after all, even the early TV-AM advertisers were rather cautious in approach.

Kif Bowden-Smith 22 January 2015 at 12:52 am

I think the point of the original remark was the politics as espoused by the authorities and not the financial reality. More hours leading to more profits was the automatic assumption of the Labour politicians of the 1964-70 period and their harsh treatment of ITV was very much based in disliking its existence, which they had fought against in the Commons in 1954. So they sought to prevent its expansion at every turn, both as to increased hours and a putative ITV2, which the The Post Office and Tories had had in mind in 1964 but Labour kicked into the long grass on coming to office.

It was their (then) belief that cash profit from broadcasting was not a good thing that led them to use the reasoning outlined here. Whether that was the financial reality is a red herring, as Labour was merely seeking plausible sounding reasons for restricting ITV’s growth.

Joseph 4 March 2015 at 10:42 pm

Here in the United States, television broadcasting began mostly as an evening activity (with some daytime programs for a sports or special event).

Thanks to a very close 1948 Presidential election, those network stations that did exist that early stayed on the air all night on election night (most TV stations in 1948 signed-off around 11 P.M.) and well into the next day. But apart from special news events, all-night TV broadcasting in America would remain the exception rather than the rule for many years to come.

By 1951, many American stations were on the air from noontime until midnight (or even afterwards).

In 1952, NBC-TV launched the early-morning “Today Show”, and most NBC affiliates were on the air for seventeen or eighteen hours a day (7 A.M. to Midnight or 1 A.M.) Monday through Friday. Within a few years, most stations that were affiliated with any of the networks (ABC U.S., CBS, or NBC) were on the air 18 or 18 hours a day.

A handful of TV stations had 24-hours-a-day broadcasting (or close to it) by the early 1970’s. By the mid 1980’s, most network stations, and even some stations without network programming, were broadcasting 24 hours a day on a regular daily basis.

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