The Great TV War: a TV ‘Light’ could save the BBC 

5 January 2021

ITV versus BBC . . . ITV versus BBC . . . ITV versus BBC . . . ITV versus BBC . . . ITV versus BBC . . .



Daily Herald masthead

From the Daily Herald for 16 December 1958

EVERYONE is murdering the BBC’s TV service. Yes, everyone — we, the viewers, director-general Sir Ian Jacob and his Board of Directors, and the Government.

And we’re the worst offenders of the lot.

After nearly 100 years of compulsory and free education, our tastes are unashamedly lowbrow.

We have raised rock ‘n’ rollers, screaming, jerking vocalists and over-developed girls to the rank of gods.

We are Dotto-minded.

We are supposed to have little critical faculty. We tolerate plays, movies and TV shows which an American or Continental audience would howl off the screen or stage

But the fact remains: ITV is successful because it is giving us what we want.


Ian Jacob

SIR IAN JACOB – In love with radio

So, if the BBC wants to be successful, we must become more critical and more discerning. Then we shall get programmes of a higher quality from ITV and appreciate what we get from the BBC,

But why should we do this? When we sit down in front of the telly we expert to be entertained — not educated.

Well, in my opinion, if we do not do this, then the BBC, in last desperate fling, may bring its standards down to the level of ITV.

Sir Ian Jacob and his Board have a fetish about radio. They are in love with it and, I am sure, subconsciously are hostile to TV.

Every now and again through their public relations office, they send me figures seeking to prove that more people listen-in than view.

Look at this tricky bit of work which you will find in the BBC’s handbook published on Wednesday.

“Some 14½million adults estimated to watch BBC TV each day while an average of 22million listen to BBC sound radio at least once a day…” (the italics are mine).


This is really cunning. What Sir Ian means is that if a person listens to the news summary for, say, a couple of minutes once a day, but is glued to his TV set for the whole evening, he is counted in this 22million.

The Government mulcts the BBC of about £5½million a year of its licence revenue. It should give the BBC this money.

Then there would be other save-the-BBC recommendations:

• The BBC should be given the third TV service.

The present BBC TV service should be turned into a cultural and educational one, exclusively confined to schools programmes, serious plays, documentaries, travel and political and similar features.

• The new service should be the equivalent of the Light Programme. A completely new kind of staff, higher-paid than the Home TV staff, should be recruited – and ruthlessly dismissed if they are not satisfactory.

No security but plenty of money for them – if and while they last.


Thus, at last, BBC TV would no longer have to try to satisfy two masters – highbrow and lowbrow – as it now has to, dissipating its strength.

The TV Home and TV Light programmes should have completely different bosses as well as staff.

The BBC’s Home Radio services and its TV services should be completely separate – with never the twain meeting or transferring.

The Radio Service should have its own director-general.

The BBC claims it could set up another TV service without the viewer paying another penny – if the Government gave it a bigger share of the present licence revenue.

Finally, I believe with Paul Adorian, boss of a great ITV company, that this country can support four TV services and that ITV should be given the fourth one.

But only on the condition that they, too, keep their present service as an ITV Light Programme and turn their second one into an exclusively cultural and educational service.

This would help the BBC, give ITV a change to compete with the BBC TV Home programmes and give viewers a splendid, all-round TV service which the world would envy.

For not a penny more than we pay now.

The following section is commentary from Transdiffusion's expert writers

Russ J Graham writes: Somehow I knew, just knew, that Philip Phillips would follow up his piece on ITV versus BBC yesterday with something completely barking.

These type of suggestions, which are to be found everywhere in the press from 1927 onward to today, are always so Pollyanna in their views as to how easy the problems they have perceived would be to solve if only they were in charge.

In the case of Phillips, there a nugget or two of gold buried deep in the, erm, mud of what he writes. The idea of a BBC-2, where much of the highbrow and niche programming could go is a good one that in many ways came to pass, although the idea of turning BBCtv into BBC-2 and moving the entertainment to the new channel is ridiculous.

It seems to be based on the idea that, since the BBC can do a second channel for no more money, they can also do it instantaneously throughout the country and get it on to everybody’s sets immediately. That new transmitters (and new broadcasting frequencies – UHF) would be needed, and thus new aerials and converter boxes or new TVs in each home, dooms this idea from the start. Not enough people are watching the BBC because it’s too highbrow, so make them go over the top highbrow and have viewers stranded for years waiting for the entertainment to become available again in their region. Uh huh. The “BBC TV Home service” would be dead long before that came to pass, and viewers would be locked into ITV unlikely to spend money on getting “BBC TV Light”.

Then the opposite is suggested for ITV – they keep their popular programmes and shove the other stuff on to their new Channel 4. Well, yes, that happened to a degree, but in 1982 when everybody already had the sets required and after a massive investment in transmitters. In the meantime, back in 1958, “ITV Light” would be going head-to-head with “BBC Home” for years, and winning hands down every single time. Worse, the one thing that was driving up standards on ITV was competition from the BBC. With that removed, “ITV Light” would rapidly descend into American-style trash TV.

Then there’s the bonkers idea of splitting the BBC into the British Television Corporation and the British Radio Corporation. Who would that benefit? In countries where that has been done – New Zealand and France spring to mind – the result was neither better television nor better radio. In New Zealand’s case, the result was palpably rubbish television and radio, filled with populist nonsense, for years. The industry over there has only recently begun to recover. In France, it had no effect on output at all, leading eventually to TF1, the equivalent of BBC-1, being privatised in order try to shake some life into the sector. That didn’t work either.

Finally, my little socialist heart is broken by the “[n]o security but plenty of money for them – if and while they last” idea for the staff of the BBC TV Light. This will not produce great television. This will produce a lot of headless chickens, running around TV Centre in a permanent state of panic, fearful that a single flop will see them down the Labour Exchange as soon as the TAM ratings are in. This is largely how the American networks have always been run, and the revolving door of producers and programme directors has not noticeably done anything to improve network television over there.

You Say

2 responses to this article

ramones1986 7 January 2021 at 9:14 am

Well, I thought the privatization of France’s TF1 was a pretty daft idea; restructuring could be more viable.

In summary, (the late) Philip Phillips’ two-part column series is a “bull’s eye” on the decade ahead, but in the wrong interpretation of the word.

Clement Lafontaine 10 January 2021 at 7:50 am

The breakup of the moribund ORTF into radio and different TV organisations permitted different editorial sources for broadcast news which had been under state government control for all programming especially news broadcasts, and used as such a tool by President Charles de Gaulle, most evident during the protests of 68.

By comparison the BBC has almost effectively combined radio and TV news into one unit (at Broadcasting House in the City of Westminster) which can now relay the latest bulletins issued from the prime minister’s office, the government secretaries, and the ruling party HQ with maximum efficiency, uniform style of presentation, and minimal deviation from its intended purpose in guiding citizens by helping to adjust their attitudes and thoughts in a positive manner.

The privatization of TF1 was the plan of the “great socialist” President Mitterand (who in earlier years had staged an assassination attempt against himself, and who also personally authorized the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior ship in NZ) aided and abetted by Jacques Chirac.

One of the arguments put forward for privatization was that it would generate income for the government first with the sale (3 milliards de francs was in fact obtained from Bouyges, the largest civil construction corporation in France) and then as a tax on the profits.

According to some sources Mitterand had regrets and was considering renationalizing TF1 in 1988 but the political reality of the ascendancy of neoliberalism made this out of the question.

As part of the liberalization of the TV markets, Mitterand also allowed the introduction of the fourth terrestrial service (Canal+) as an over the air subscription TV service with the proviso that it had to show a few hours of unencrypted (FTA) programs at various times of the day.

It was surely just a coincidence that the founder of Canal+, André Rousselet, was a close personal friend of President Mitterand.

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