High Policy in Principle and Practice 

29 June 2017 tbs.pm/12730

Originally contributed to the Financial Times of 21 September 1955

What is appearing among us is the beginning of a system of free television. When I use the word free in this sentence, I mean what everyone means when they speak of a free press. If the British press were to be organised in the same way as we have until now organised sound broadcasting and television in this country, then the whole of it would be brought as a Press Corporation under the control of ten or so Governors of the Press appointed by the Government, all journalists except freelances would be employed by this Corporation, and, however remote and humble, be placed somewhere on a line of command running down from these Governors.

There would be some provincial newspapers, but their managers and editors would be appointed by these Governors, to whom they would remain answerable. These regional editors would have permission to print some material not supplied by the Press Corporation from its central office, but the permission might at any time be restricted or cancelled.

Now I am not for the moment concerned with the question whether the policy of such a Corporation might prove coarse, oppressive, and tight, or civilised, liberal and elastic, any more than a political philosopher, concerned with the difference between self-government and authority, would feel it relevant to this difference whether the authority was enlightened and urbane or dark-minded and ironhanded. It is not a question of conduct. It is a distinction of principle.

Of course, we live in an imperfect world, and in television, for a man of democratic turn of mind, we live also in a world of maddening technical limitations upon the realisation of free institutions. It is known that the I.T.A. wishes to bring into existence as many television stations as possible, and to place these under independent and, again wherever possible, regional or local control. It seems to me that if there were about 50 independent television companies in Britain, and at least two in competition in most of the 20 or so “television areas” into which Great Britain naturally divides, it would be a pretty fair realisation of the democratic idea. This would compare with rather more than 120 daily newspapers. The number will seem small to an American eye, for there are already nearly 450 television stations in the United States, and no one company is allowed to control more than five. So there is nothing out of the way in a figure of 50 for Britain.

And in terms of coverage the arithmetic just about does itself. The coverage of a television station in Band III is roughly a circle with a radius of 30 to 50 miles. We shall need about 20 stations, say 12 in England, three in Scotland, two in Ireland, one in the Isle of Man, and one in the Channel Islands, to give one service to 90 per cent of the population. There would then in these areas be a choice of two programmes — the B.B.C. national programme on Band I and the programme from the I.T.A. station on Band III.

If we went only so far, then the I.T.A. station would have a local commercial monopoly. To provide a competitive system, the I.T.A. must open at least a second station in these twenty areas, or in all but the smallest of them. That makes 40 or so stations. To push the coverage up to 97 or 98 per cent, which the B.B.C. will soon accomplish, might take another 10 stations in the gaps between the 20 areas. That makes the democratic fifty.

But now we must face the smudges imposed on this clear mirror of principle, and the obstacles placed in the path of this plan, by the technical facts of life. Freedom in the other media of communication is not seriously limited by a shortage of the physical means of distribution. But you cannot distribute a television programme unless you are allocated a channel. There are not enough channels to make it possible to allow free access to the medium. Hence it comes about — and very disagreeable it is — that even in free countries permission can be given only to some to enter the television field, and to others it must be denied.

Now the actual long-term technical limitations, within which the I.T.A. struggles to introduce the institutions of free television, are roughly these. At the moment, the B.B.C. has in its hands, over and above its extensive use of sound broadcasting frequencies, of which some would be very suitable for television, the five channels of the powerful and envied Band I — envied because on Band I you can distribute your service further than you can on the shorter range of Band III. The I.T.A. has no certain reason for assuming that it can count on more than four of the eight Band III channels to pit against the B.B.C.’s five Band I channels. On four channels the most the I.T.A. can secure is an 80-85 per cent-coverage, compared with the 97-98 per cent coverage which the B.B.C. will achieve on Band I.

In terms of stations, this would mean only the first 20 or so, which I have listed above, each with its own independent area of distribution — that is to say, no one anywhere will have more than one available I.T.A. programme, each station will have a monopoly in its own area, competition will be almost absent, and up to a fifth of the population will not be able to see an I.T.A. programme at all.

The I.T.A. is claiming the rest of Band III — and so is the B.B.C. With four more channels in the I.T.A.’s hands, the situation would be transformed. The number of stations could be doubled, direct competition between two stations and two networks could be introduced over much the greater part of the country, two I.T.A. programmes would be available to most viewers — a choice of three programmes is now a commonplace in the United States, New York has seven stations, and Australia is beginning with a three-programme system — and coverage could be raised to well over 90 per cent.

Guided by this philosophy and in any case enjoined by the Television Act “to do all that they can to secure that there is adequate competition to supply programmes between a number of programme contractors independent of each other both as to finance and as to control”, the Authority found itself at once confronted with a formidable initial difficulty. There was a simple and obvious way to secure competition: to establish from the start and simultaneously two independent stations in London, two in the Midlands and two in the North, these being the three areas which select themselves, by virtue of their density of population, as the first areas for the new programmes. But this road was effectively barred to the Authority because the necessary channels were not made available. Two channels only were at that time offered, and on such a basis nothing more was possible than the creation of one station in each of these areas.

The Authority thought for a long time whether or not it could properly place each one of these stations under the control of one company. It was in no doubt that efficiency and responsibility pointed towards the policy of “one station, one company”, and it might perhaps have based its first decisions on that administrative truth if only it could have counted with any certainty upon its ability to open a second station in London fairly soon after the first. But there was no promise of the allocation of further channels in terms that could alone make this possible.

So the Authority came to the conclusion that it must discover some workable device by which two companies could share a single station. In the end it hit upon the plan of what came to be called the 5:2 division—that is to say, the division of a station between week-day programmes and week-end programmes, which struck it as the one temporal division that corresponded with any sensible editorial division.

But this was not the end of the problem. For it was highly doubtful, to say the least of it, whether any company could pay its way with week-end programmes alone. It was this press of considerations that led the Authority to the present “mosaic” of appointments — Associated Rediffusion with the London week-days, Associated Television with the London week-end and the Midland week-days, Granada TV Network with the week-days in the North, and Associated British Cinemas (Television) completing the picture with the Midland and Northern week-ends.

While, of course, it would be true that on any one day in any one area there would be only one I.T.A. programme which viewers could see and in which advertisers could buy time, it seemed to the Authority that the forces of competition would be unleashed within this mosaic. First, viewers would be able to make and express comparisons between the relative attractiveness to them of the week-day and the week-end programmes. This would be true of all three areas. Secondly, the two companies in any one area would be in competition for the support of advertisers, who could distribute their advertising appropriation between the two companies in whatever proportion they thought would give the best results. Thirdly, the Authority decided to open what came to be called a “competitive optional network” between the three stations along which it would be possible for any one company to buy programmes from, and sell programmes to, other companies at work on the same day in other areas.

These three factors together — competition for reputation in each area, competition in the sale of time in each area, and competition between the companies in the supply of programmes to one another—seemed to the Authority to break the dilemma of monopoly in the opening phase.

So much for the Authority’s first pre-occupation — the introduction of the institutions of a system of free television in conditions of galling technical rigidity.

Its second great pre-occupation, of course, was the quality of the programmes themselves. Up to a certain and valuable point, the Authority can determine the shape of the programmes by the use of the powers and the acceptance of the duties given it by the Act. But, in the nature of things, this influence tends to be of a negative kind — the control of advertising and of hours, for example. Of a similar kind is the power of the Authority to prevent political partiality in the programmes.

These powers are not entirely negative and indeed they have already found one creative expression in the establishment by the programme companies of the Independent Television News Company as a common service, under the direction — it was a spontaneous suggestion they made themselves — of an editor-in-chief appointed only with the approval of the Authority. The advisory committees which the Authority is enjoined to appoint under the Act will also work creatively as well as negatively — the advertising committee, which has already given with great expedition and efficiency quite invaluable practical aid, the religious committee, which has begun in the most promising way, and the children’s committee, which has just been appointed.

But in contemporary practice, and in the last resort, the programmes will reflect the standards and the judgment, the tastes and the sense of responsibility, of the companies chosen to produce them. They must in turn watch their audiences, please them, or go bust. This is free television in a free country and people will get the television they want, as they get the press — and the government — they want.

To say that is not to disown the function of leadership. There will be leadership by the companies and the Authority, just as the press and the government lead as well as follow. And by the selection of the companies the Authority has in its sole and formidable discretion a decisive original influence over the kind of programmes that will be produced.

But the real point to grasp is that what begins to-morrow is not a centrally directed programme produced according to criteria, exacting or lax, or standards, excellent or base, laid down at the centre by Government-appointed Governors or staff responsible to those Governors, but programmes that will reflect a point of rest, as the press reflects a point of rest between the sort of papers publishers and editors wish to produce and the sort of papers readers are prepared to buy.

It remains to say a final word about the prohibition of sponsored programmes. It has never seemed to me to make much sense to get over-excited, in a great manufacturing and trading nation, about the alleged horrors and enormities of programmes sponsored by those with goods to sell. The system has produced, in the United States, what many judge to be the best television programmes in the world. Mr. Gerard Fay, of the Manchester Guardian, said in his famous newspaper last April that he “found American television, taking the very bad with the very good, infinitely better than ours”. And there cannot be so much wrong with programmes that have called into existence 36 million receivers in seven years — getting on for three times our set density per head of population in half the time we have had television — and keeps them in use for five or so hours a day.

But here we have judged that we should try to find what we all hope will prove a better basis than sponsorship for television programmes. Fully sponsored television programmes would, of course, to take yet another analogy from the press, be similar to a magazine in which advertisers would not merely buy space — “spots”, as television calls them — but to which they would supply the whole of the editorial contents, the stories, the features, and the pictures, claiming in each case credit for their excellence. We have based our television programmes on the editorial conception — that is to say, the programmes are chosen, produced and presented by the programme companies, and time is sold to advertisers, just as in a magazine space is sold. I do not think there is anything particularly noble about this conception, any more than I think there is anything particularly degraded in sponsorship, but I think it is for us the right conception.

Television programmes should not reflect an unrelated succession of advertising decisions, but the coherent policy and outlook of a group of people aware that what they have in their control is one of the four great formative moral influences of our time, the others being our homes, our schools, and our newspapers. Of course, the prohibition of sponsorship is almost an obsession of the Television Act, but only babes in the wood could believe that the Act has answered for good and all the question of the relationship between advertising influence and the nature of the programmes, about which we used to hear so much in relation to the press itself.

But the editorial conception has great power, and the programme companies are themselves devoted to it, as befits people who have spent their lives running newspapers, making and showing films, presenting theatrical productions, and making sound broadcasting programmes. The power of the conception on men of self-respect and intelligence is nowhere being demonstrated more visibly at the moment than in the United States, where it has already wrought a significant change in the face of American television. Here it has come at the start and, I think, come to stay.

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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