The old BBC: early difficulties and the Sykes Committee 

13 January 2017

MORE: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7]

Reprinted from the BBC Year-Book 1930, published in November 1929

oldbbc-yearbook19301923The programmes for the first few months of 1923 show developments of considerable interest. Apart from a progress which is as constant as it is rapid, there are indications that difficulties were encountered at the outset of a very disconcerting nature. In the first place, nothing in the way of news appears in the programmes before 7 p.m., and then only the Bulletins provided by the four News Agencies approved by the Postmaster-General in December 1922. This arrangement held until December 31st, 1926, and was not one arrived at in negotiation by the Company, but was largely dictated by the terms of the original licence. Secondly, the frequent appearances in the studio of artists from the theatres and music-halls came practically to an end in April 1923, while Broadcasts from theatres, excluding operatic performance, practically ceased, numbering as they did ten in February, March and April, and only five in the remaining eight months of the year. A third point is not so obvious, but it is the complete absence from the studio programmes of certain concert artists owing to barring clauses in their contracts with booking agencies, and the refusal, until the autumn of 1924, of the great concert-giving organisations to co-operate with the B.B.C. in any way. From its earliest days, therefore the Company was opposed by theatrical, musical, and booking organisations in such a way as to impose an almost comprehensive ban. There were, however, certain exceptions to this policy of exclusion, most noteworthy perhaps being the British National Opera Company, whose performances have been broadcast from theatres both in London and the Provinces at frequent intervals since January 8th, 1923, when the first “outside broadcast” was undertaken, and Mozart’s “Magic Flute” relayed from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. A special tribute here is due to the B.N.O.C. artists themselves who, in these opera relays and in many studio programmes, had the courage and foresight to resist these attempts to boycott the B.B.C.

With regard to copyright, the Company was able to conclude working agreements with the Performing Right Society and the Music Publishers Association, whose repertoires included the majority of musical works required for the programmes; and in most cases where these bodies were not concerned individual negotiations were concluded successfully. Even here, however, the dead hand of the ban followed the Company; for example, none of Rudyard Kipling’s works were available for broadcasting, nor, until 1926, were any selections from operas by Gilbert and Sullivan.

In addition, therefore, to finding its way along an unexplored and difficult path, the B.B.C. met with opposition in many places where that path ran near land already inhabited.



1923The method by which the B.B.C. revenue was derived has already been outlined as being a dual one, money being obtained partly from the broadcast receiving licences issued to listeners, and partly from royalties on sets sold by British manufacturers. On July 27th, 1922, the Postmaster-General had stated that provision would be made under which amateurs who constructed their own receiving sets would be allowed to use them, the view then held by the Post Office being that if an applicant were sufficiently skilled to make his own apparatus, he would have sufficient knowledge to make proper use of an experimental licence which was free of the restriction inserted in the broadcast receiving licence as to the type of apparatus to be used. On the strength of the P.M.G.’s statement, firms began to place on the market ready-made parts, both British and foreign, and the resulting home-assembled apparatus paid little or no contribution to the B.B.C. and was considerably cheaper than the approved complete sets. This at once caused the B.B.C. a considerable loss in revenue, and the point was raised as to whether people making such sets were really entitled to the status of “experimenter” and the consequent issue of an experimental licence. In response to representations by the B.B.C., the Post Office, in January 1923, agreed to issue experimental licences only to persons with unquestionable qualifications, applications from other persons being held over for further consideration.

An impasse was reached when the B.B.C. claimed that while rigorously carrying out their part of the agreement, the Post Office was not fulfilling its duties with respect to the licence question. The Post Office, on the other hand, held that it had become practically impossible to enforce the existing regulations and take action against the large number of persons who were using home-made sets without a licence, there being, in fact, no licence which the Post Office could issue applicable both to the person and the set.

THE FIRST BROADCAST OF BIG BEN, FROM A NEIGHBOURING ROOF. (Shortly afterwards the microphone was fixed inside the clock tower itself)

THE FIRST BROADCAST OF BIG BEN, FROM A NEIGHBOURING ROOF. (Shortly afterwards the microphone was fixed inside the clock tower itself)

The Postmaster-General, in view of the very serious situation which had arisen, appointed a Government Committee under the chairmanship of Major-General Sir Frederick Sykes, on which the B.B.C. was represented, with the object of investigating thoroughly the whole question of broadcasting as now exemplified in practice. This Committee first met on April 24th, 1923, and in thirty-four meetings examined thirty-two witnesses representing the various interests directly concerned, and took written evidence from several other sources.

Their report was submitted in August 1923, confirmed the policy and achievement of the Company, and recommended that the scheme under which the Company had been formed and was then operating should be considerably modified. The Committee considered that while the broadcasting service should not be operated by a Government Department, it should be entrusted to a body working under a Government licence and responsible to the Postmaster-General, who should have, to assist him in the administration of the service and to advise him on important questions, a Broadcasting Board established by statute. With regard to the actual point which had created such an urgent situation, they recommended that one single licence be substituted for the existing experimental and broadcast licences, that this licence cost 10s., and that as much as 75 per cent. of the proceeds go to the B.B.C., subject to a sliding-scale under which the payment per licence would decrease as the number of licences increased. The Committee was unable to make any recommendations for the protection against foreign competition of the manufacturing industry, and further recommended the discontinuance of the derivation of revenue by the Company through royalties from this source and the admission as shareholders of British wireless dealers or retailers. It further advocated the removal of certain restrictions on the Company as to broadcasting hours and wave-lengths, an extension of the news service, and the admission, in return for a broadcast acknowledgment, of provided programme material. Lastly, it recommended that as its scheme called for alteration in the existing agreement under which the service was maintained, the B.B.C. be given an increased share in the necessary licence fees and an extension of their own licence (until December 31st, 1926), provided that they agreed to the immediate application of the scheme and certain alterations in their Articles of Association, but with the retention of the limitation of Dividends.

The Postmaster-General found himself unable to put into immediate operation all the recommendations of this Committee, but their report resulted in the following steps being taken.

The Company was empowered to accept programmes provided by other concerns who wished to obtain publicity through the medium of broadcasting. The hours during which programmes might be broadcast were extended considerably and this, coupled with an increase in revenue, permitted of midday and afternoon transmissions. The dependence of the B.B.C. on the wireless trade was reduced, and a date fixed for the ultimate disappearance of all revenue from this source (July 1st, 1924). Four wireless licences were instituted to meet the existing situation, and 75 per cent. of all revenue therefrom was allocated to the B.B.C., the four forms of licence being as follows:—The Experimenter’s 10s., the Constructor’s 15s., the Broadcast 10s. and the Interim 15s. The first and third forms were those already in existence, the second was to apply specially to the enthusiast who wished to make his own set and who had to sign a declaration that he would not wittingly use foreign components and material, and the last was designed to meet the case of the enthusiast who had already constructed his own set, and which did not comply with the previously existing regulations with regard to origin of material and the B.B.C. stamp. With the disappearance of the payment of royalties to the Company in 1924, one single form of Receiving Licence was substituted for the Broadcast, Constructors, and Interim Licences costing 10s. This licence was substantially the same as that issued to-day, and all stipulations as to the origin of sets and material was omitted. Although coming somewhat later, this move was a direct outcome of the Sykes Committee’s report.

Lastly, the Company was empowered to extend the existing service, from the eight stations originally planned, by the erection of lower-powered Relay Stations in other populous districts, and thus approach more nearly the ideal of bringing the entire population into easy range.



MORE: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7]

A Transdiffusion Presentation

Report an error


BBC Yearbook Contact More by me

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Friday 17 May 2024