A Year Before 

20 July 2017 tbs.pm/12743

A speech given to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising at its Annual Dinner in October 1954

The ideal of free television in this country already owes much to you. In what will come to be regarded as the crucial debate whether television programmes would be produced, presented and sponsored by advertisers, or whether they would be produced — as has now been decided — by independent television companies, you gave the right advice. The twig was bent that way, not the other, and so the tree will grow. Free television should now evolve on principles that will place it beside our free press, our free books, and our free arts, as a normal part of the equipment of our free society. For this was, in essence, the great decision — to rest the future of television, as far as initial physical shortages of transmitting stations permit, on the same foundations as those of a free press, to give freedom to individuals to offer TV programmes to the public, as newspapers and entertainment are offered; to give freedom to the public to see the TV programmes of their choice, as they are free to buy the newspaper of their choice, to read the book of their choice, to see the play or the movie of their choice; and to make this freedom subject only to such control as the shortage of stations, the nature of the new medium, and British caution in handling the birth of so great a power upon its future suggest as wise.

So I repeat — if we have come out of this prolonged debate on the right side, on the side of freedom, in respect for our main national traditions and in thoughtful regard for the national future, we have been helped towards that happy conclusion in no small degree by advertising statesmanship. I think you can be proud of it. I also think that your attitude has contributed greatly towards the almost astonishing outflow of good will towards free TV from all quarters which is now carrying us along—a demonstration so typical of our country once a decision has been taken. Encouraged as we may be by this, let us not be so feckless as to forget that many of the best and most public-spirited and most thoughtful of people still think we are all very wrongheaded about this issue. I do not agree with them, but I respect them. I know what they fear.

So much for the principle. Now what about the pattern? As technical factors and the national resources allow, the number of stations will unfold and the number of independent companies grow with them, until we have an actual working pattern in its main shape very similar indeed to that of the press — national stations, a fairly small number of them, independently controlled and reaching with network programmes the whole country and corresponding roughly with national newspapers and periodicals (but not all, I would hope, with their main base in London), local stations under independent local control with local circulations, corresponding with our vital provincial newspapers and magazines, and specialist stations controlled perhaps by educational foundations or universities or trusts of some kind or another or just by enthusiasts, corresponding with the best of our specialised periodicals. Of course, a TV station isn’t only to be compared with a newspaper or periodical — it is weekend supplement, theatre, and cinema as well. And all its revenues come from the sale of time. But the analogy will hold.

And who knows? By the time this system has grown a little, some device may be available by which the television companies will no longer have to draw their entire revenues from the sale of advertising space in their programmes, any more than newspapers draw all their revenue from the sale of space in their columns. And that would be a good day for everyone — most of all for the companies, but for everyone, because it would bring such an inflow of strength and opportunity with it. It is just one of the boring facts of our time that you can sell a newspaper and a magazine and a book and a seat in a cinema or a theatre, but you cannot sell TV programmes.

The consequent reliance on advertising revenue has never seemed to me a fact of such overwhelming importance that, in order to take account of it, we should turn our backs on the greatest of all our national beliefs — the belief that people, not always, but in the end, do best when they are free to choose for themselves. That would surely be turning the baby out with the bath water. Of course the medium is terrifying in its power. So is the printing press. But after all we are the oldest and most practised free people in the world. We must trust ourselves in this new medium, or else we had better get out of the business of telling the world about the blessings of liberty. We had better say we have had second thoughts about the meaning of our last 300 years.

There is of course a danger in the dependence of free TV on revenue from the sale of advertising space, just as there are dangers in many of the facts of life, and we had better be clear about what it is. It is not so much that programmes will be pushed downwards into the lowest but thickest stratum of circulation — it is more that programmes may be pushed, as it were, sideways towards the range of subjects and types of programmes with which advertising feels it has affinities and away from subjects — religious faith and political affairs and the fine arts are plain examples — with which advertising associates less closely or not at all. Not so much the level of programmes may be in question as their balance.

About the actual advertising itself, why should one be all of a tremble? Advertising will be an asset to the programmes of independent television, not a liability. And it had better be. If it is a liability, it will be for the only too simple reason that people don’t like it, and if people don’t like it it will stop for the also only too simple reason that it won’t pay anyone to go on with it. But it will be an asset, worn as a bright feather in the cap of free TV, not as a soiled choker round the throat. Some of the most popular programmes will be advertising programmes, some of the most useful programmes will be advertising programmes, some of the most entertaining programmes will be advertising programmes. Why should it not be so? People who look at advertisements and read them in newspapers or magazines are not a captive audience. They read the advertisements because they find them interesting and because they often enjoy them — and they will look at them in TV programmes for just the same simple reason.

Indeed, let me go on to say that I can think of no subject about which there is more weary nonsense talked than about advertising. The idea that advertising is inherently degrading has always seemed to me ludicrous. As a point of view for a great nation that lives or dies by selling goods or failing to sell them, it crosses the imbecile and verges on the suicidal.

Let me finish with two points, one little, one not so little. The little one is this. Whether you like it or not, the first day of independent TV is judgment day for you. You will be right out in the open, and you will be watched as you have never been watched before. The public will be making up its mind about advertising. So it is a lucky break for us that British advertising has never been more brilliant. These are vintage years. But if you have ever charmed, enchanted, and entertained, please do it when independent TV begins. Don’t let it be one of advertising’s off days. And this is the larger point. We will all — companies, advertisers, the Authority — be seeing independent TV as part of the apparatus of a living democracy, not just as part of a medium schedule. We will see it as one of the four great civilising influences of our country—our homes, our schools, our press, our TV—not just as a means towards sales. It will be a means towards sales all right. Its selling power will sweep like a torrent through the commercial life of the land. But if that was all it was, it just wouldn’t be worth the bother. It is in fact part of that great process of the wide communication of knowledge and sympathy which began with the printed word and on which, when all is said and done, the progress of civilisation depends. Except that it is also fun, and that the Authority I work for inspires and deserves my devotion, that’s the only reason I can think of why I find myself in it.

I have sometimes wondered whether there could not be found some national cause, something deeper in the national life even than industry and commerce, to which the intelligence and conscience of advertising could be manifestly geared — some cause. Well, here it is.

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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