The Act and the Authority 

22 June 2017

Originally contributed to the Autumn 1955 number of Progress, the Unilever house magazine

You cannot make much sense out of the Television Act of 1954, or out of a recitation of the functions of the Independent Television Authority which it created, if you do not read them in the context of the controversy that raged during the years 1951-54 about the future of broadcasting in Britain.

Until the passage of the Television Act, private individuals in Britain were forbidden to conduct broadcasting services of any kind. There was nothing in the law of the land to prevent them from producing newspapers and magazines or publishing books, making films or running theatres, or indeed setting up in any of the great civilising activities which hold modem societies together by communication. But broadcasting had been finally organised as a public monopoly by a Conservative Administration in 1926. No one, or hardly anyone, thought this bad at the time, or even surprising. This monopoly lasted for nearly 30 years, and then another Conservative Administration decided to dissolve, not of course the B.B.C., but the system of monopoly, and not in sound, but in television only. Though the first decision to nationalise an entire major medium of communication was quietly accepted, this later decision to allow private enterprise access to part of it was strenuously resisted.

The opponents of monopoly, saying that, as they understood it, this was a free country, claimed that this resistance was odd: inconsistent with any definition of the essential democratic process you might like to give. There could be no argument about it, they said. You could enter in your own way into any of the other means of communication: but not broadcasting. The fact that it became the policy of the monopoly not to behave like one, but instead to conceive of itself as the servant of a free community, they felt to be beside this particular point. Monopoly was a question of institutional fact, and the fact was the same whatever the policy. Nobody else was allowed to have a go. Though they would scarcely have claimed among its merits either felicity of language or nobility of thought, they found the Television Act, for all its oddity, one of the documents of English freedom.

The growth of ITV coverage on VHF up to 1963

If — to put it mildly — the Act was not everywhere seen in exactly this light, it was probably due more than anything else to the fact that no one could discover any way of finding an income for the new broadcasting companies except from the sale of time to advertisers. Books and newspapers, and seats in cinemas, concert halls, and theatres can be sold. No one yet knows how to sell a television programme — that is, to charge a consumer for it. So a simple marketing fact became for many people independent television’s greatest liability: unavoidable and complete dependence on advertising revenue.

This seemed to many people to make nonsense of any fine talk about freedom, to tarnish the shining language of liberal argument. This they continued to feel even when it was pointed out that the newspapers and the magazines of our country depended for at any rate half their revenue on the sale of advertising space, and that the most famous of all our newspapers was not less dependent than others. Much of the criticism of the Television Act might never have got above the intellectual level of funny talk about toothpaste advertisements. But beneath this knockabout rubbish about advertising was a wide and uneasy feeling that it could not be right that the propulsive force behind a great medium of infinite possibilities should be a demand only for its advertising opportunities; that the influences that would enter the opening in our national life created by the Act would not be the same that shaped the older means of communication.

To this the advocates of the Act generally replied that it would seem to them very nice indeed if television could have a source of income directly arising from viewers, even if the programmes did carry advertising. They could afford to carry less of it, which no one would much mind. But it seemed to them that to resist forever and ever any form of independent broadcasting because it must be financed by the sale of advertising was, to say the least of it, to turn the baby out with the bath water. However much a bad thing advertising might be — and what was in fact so wrong with it anyway? — it was surely not such a bad thing as the prevention of entry into the operation of broadcasting services.

But this was not how the opponents of the Act saw the balance of argument, and they were not assuaged by the very important provision of the Television Act which prohibits the sponsorship of programmes by advertisers, the television company then becoming the mere distributor of programmes, as if it were a magazine not filling its columns with articles of its selection but with material supplied by advertisers. This system we are not to have: and I do not doubt that there is a better way of going about the business of television than sponsorship, which turns programmes into an unrelated succession of advertising decisions when they ought to express the coherent policy and outlook of a group of people conscious that what they have in their hands is a social responsibility, a life-changing force for the direction of which they are responsible. Anyhow, that is what the Americans are more and more feeling themselves: it is the direction in which American television is growing out. And this is the system with which we in Britain are to start. An advertiser cannot supply programmes; he can only buy advertising time in which, in a recognisable advertisement, he can commend his product, precisely as he does in a newspaper.

Against this broad general background, what are the main responsibilities of the I.T.A. itself? (A radical way of asking this question would be why there is an I.T.A. at all, for there is no Independent Press Authority or Independent Book Authority or Independent Film Authority.)

Easily first and easily foremost, the I.T.A. must design the institutions of free television in this country, and then step by step introduce them. Technically, these institutions could take two forms. It would be possible to create in London a private enterprise counterpart of the B.B.C. — that is, one national organisation owning and controlling a dependent network of linked transmitting points extensive enough to cover the country. At each transmitter there might be delegated authority to introduce some local material, as local stores in a chain might sell local specialities, but the control would be centralised in one management and direction in London. If the necessary frequencies were allotted to the I.T.A., it might be possible to set up a second and similar combine, producing a second programme.

Reading the Act and the Debates, one has the impression that this was originally thought likely, except that somehow or other two or three different companies were to take turns in putting on programmes in London and radiating them over the country. What no one seems to have though of—though the example of our press was under our noses and of North American television well within our range of perception—was that there was available, if you preferred it, an entirely different form of organisation. Under this different form, each station would not be a centrally managed dependency, but would be independently owned and managed by a separate company, whenever possible a local one. This independent company would determine the conduct and the content of the programmes from its transmitter, just as a genuine local newspaper controls its own contents or the independent local store what it stocks.

Physically, all these independently conducted stations would be linked together for the supply of programmes. This physical link would in fact be technically identical with the physical connection between stations under one central management. The supply of first quality or even reasonably good programmes is so limited in relation to television’s terrifying rate of consumption that arrangements must be made to spread it over the widest area. Anyhow, consumers want the best that is going. Hence there develops a system under which the companies most favourably situated produce network programmes—programmes which other stations subscribe to take—while these other stations maintain their own real identity by adding local material and local news, much as a provincial daily will carry international and national news on its main news pages, but a lot of local material on its inside or away pages.

If this system is to work competitively, the smaller stations need a choice of at least two sources of network programmes. We hope they will find these two sources in London and the North in the first years of our system. If we open a second London and second Northern station, and the North holds its end up, as I think it will, they will have four network programmes sources. The adoption of this policy of the independent ownership of a fairly large number of regional stations, ranging from the largest in London to, say, the Isle of Man, one of the smallest, became the keystone of the Authority’s plan.

For simplicity’s sake, I have spoken of local ownership of stations. This is not strictly accurate. Under the Act it is the Authority that must own the actual transmitters and work them, and it is the Authority which hires from the General Post Office the links between them. But it is the programme companies who produce and supply the programmes from their studios. The Authority owns the printing presses, as it were: the companies provide the contents of the publication.

Having chosen in principle an independent and diverse system and not a unified centralised one, the Authority had to turn principle into plan. It is the Authority which decides where and when to open stations, and then chooses the company to provide the programmes. This selection of the companies is the second of the Authority’s main responsibilities. It is by any test a formidable and indeed tremendous responsibility, because it means that the Authority must decide not merely who shall be allowed to produce television programmes, but also who shall not.

There is of course no such comparable system of selection and refusal in any of the other means of communication. It is a pity that it has to happen in a free country: but it is made inevitable by unconquerable technical factors. The number of newspapers which a country will support is determined in the end only by the number of newspapers which the public is prepared to buy. But the number of television stations is determined by the number of frequencies available for the transmission of programmes. There is simply not enough room for everyone, and so a choice must be made. In Britain we have a particular restriction because the country is so small, but the selection of some and the rejection of others is a feature of television everywhere. Canada, Australia, and the United States, to take three democratic countries, all have to do it.

The third responsibility of the Authority is transmission itself. As has already been mentioned, the I.T.A., though it is not responsible for the production of programmes, is to own all the transmitting stations and is responsible for their operation. It also rents from the Post Office the network lines along which the programmes can travel from one station to another. This means that the Authority has a big and expanding executive responsibility over the whole field of television engineering. In this respect our legislation differs from that of other free countries in the Commonwealth and that of the United States. In Australia, Canada and the United States the television companies themselves own the stations and transmit from them. There is therefore no capital restriction on the rate at which stations can be brought into existence if the companies have the necessary financial resources. Under the Television Act the companies cannot own any stations at all, and the maximum loan provided for the Authority by the Act is barely enough to provide for the first io stations. Beyond that the Authority must construct new stations out of the income from the rentals paid to it by the total of companies in existence at any moment of time. There is plainly a limit to this income, and the question will doubtless arise before very long whether the rate of station growth should not become faster than is possible under present financial arrangements.

Fourthly and lastly, there is the very difficult problem of the Authority’s responsibility for programme standards. Part of this field is relatively simple, because the control can be exercised by regulations that have statutory force in the Act or contractual force in pursuance of it — for example, the total time that may be given to programme transmissions or to advertising, the prohibition of the use of the programmes as a means of expressing the opinions of the companies themselves on the issues of the day (a restriction from which the owners of other means of communication are free) or the opinions of any political party except insofar as the companies wish to take the full series of B.B.C. political broadcasts or present such opinions as part of a programme balanced in itself. But the rest of the field is far from simple. The Authority is responsible for seeing that the programmes are of high quality and are balanced; and these are matters of the Authority’s opinion.

From the provisions of the Act itself two different sorts of guidance can be extracted as to how the Authority is supposed to ensure these standards. From some passages you might assume that the Authority was expected to concern itself closely with programme content, from others that it was expected to leave programmes to the programme companies, exercising only a broad supervision. And certainly the Act makes it very difficult for the Authority to produce programmes itself, which is the only certain way in which the Authority could secure the transmission of programmes of its own choice. Perhaps the common sense of it is this. The Authority has one moment of supreme and lasting influence over programmes: when it decides who will produce them and who will not. After that, its influence on programmes, if it is at all required, will depend on the relations established between it and the companies. The Authority sees them as partners to be trusted, not as agents to be instructed. Once appointed, they must do the job. In the end I am sure the longterm governing decisions of the Authority will more than anything else determine the broad shape and general quality of British independent television, but day-to-day programme decisions are for the companies to take, and day-to-day programme standards are for them to establish. It is, after all, on the basis of their ability to take such decisions well that the Authority appoints them.

About the author

Sir Robert Fraser (1904-1985) was born in Australia, emigrating to the United Kingdom in 1927. He was a writer at the Daily Herald and stood, unsuccessfully, for parliament as a Labour candidate in 1935. He joined the Ministry of Information upon the outbreak of World War II, and rose to become Director-General of its successor, the Central Office of Information. He was the personal choice of the ITA’s chairman, Sir Kenneth Clark, to become the first Director-General of the Authority in 1954 and remained in post until retirement in 1970. He received an OBE in 1944 and was knighted in 1949, both for his services to government communications.

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