A Shared Medium 

13 September 2021 tbs.pm/73700


ITV 1972 cover

From ITV 1972, published by the Independent Television Authority

Television has to be shared; it has to be more directly shared than any other varying thing in this land – apart from the weather. Your books, your travel, your work, and even your newspapers are shared with some others, who may well be like-minded people with yourself; only television is shared with most others.

You can therefore be sure of one fact as you watch Independent Television: that millions of people who differ from you in every possible way are sharing what is offered. The eye on the world which stands at the corner of your living-room is the eye used by millions.

There is an old Greek legend in which three women had only one eye between them. They had to take turns. They had to pass it around. No doubt each was impatient at times, because she could not have her own personal view of things; no doubt each felt that her own interests got too little attention, as the possessor of the eye gave a running commentary and left out many important details; but no doubt there was gain also, as each learnt to be more tolerant of the quirks in a shared humanity.

Television is shared because frequencies are few. The sharing tells us more than we can otherwise learn about our fellow men. The result is sometimes to unify us – to underline what we have in common with other people. But at other times it may tend to divide us: we marvel that others have tastes and interests and standards so different from our own. Like many communal arrangements, the sharing of television irks us at times; but it has benefits too in bringing us alongside a range of people from whom we should otherwise be remote.

Brian Young

Brain Young (1922-2016), Director General of the Independent Television Authority 1970-1983

There is a broad practical advantage from sharing. Generally speaking, the more watchers there are, the more can be spent on what is watched. The minority programmes, which cost more than can be recovered, are subsidized by the programmes watched by many millions of viewers. It is on this basis that ITV can provide a variety of programmes without charge. Indeed, the viewers of ITV are in the position of people who pay for their gramophones but get all their records free; and this is only possible because the records (or, in our case, programmes) are presented to so many people together that advertisers pay to fill the gaps between them with their messages.

What would happen, then, if frequencies made it possible for every viewer to choose between ten or twenty channels? For most of us, that seems like an ideal situation, with the chance of switching to whatever we want. Yet programmes, unless they are to be cheap and inferior, are costly things. The minority programmes have to be paid for. If we do not pay for them by also watching majority programmes, the whole operation will cease to be free. So one benefit of sharing is that the sheer number of viewers who come together for their mixture of entertainment, education, and information, makes possible a free service, now for the many and now for the few.

The minorities that we ourselves belong to are interesting and important; the other minorities, many more in number, may vex us if they occupy a channel which we think of as our own. It is natural therefore that, in peak time, television provides less for minorities than a specialized book or magazine might. Television must, however, always be widening the range of programmes that a majority will want to watch; and ITV is proud of having turned what were once regarded as minority programmes into majority fare – documentaries, drama, regional magazines, News at Ten, World in Action, This Week, Aquarius, and so on. Much that we see is familiar in its style, for most of us like what is familiar. But some must be new and must require our perseverance, or else we stagnate. Part of what every viewer watches will seem to him too stereotyped and unoriginal; part will seem unfamiliar and over-demanding; both kinds of programme must be tolerated, along with what is liked, if a shared medium is to work.



So a feature of Independent Television in Britain is that a balance is preserved between what you like already and what you may come to like. This balance depends, of course, on what the income makes possible. But, within that constraint, the ITA is charged with the task of seeing that ITV, as well as being popular, performs a public service. Those with knowledge of commercial broadcasting in other countries are often surprised at the similarity between ITV which relies on advertising and BBC-1 which relies on a licence fee. They expect one channel to please large numbers of people, and the other to perform a public service. When they find that both channels do both, they first think this confusing: but, on reflection, they usually take the view that our system is better for unity and for stimulation. Sharing may plunge the highbrow into a common pleasure at one moment, and the lowbrow into something he had not expected to like at the next moment.

A map of the UK

The ITV network in 1972

A shared medium is also a powerful medium. What it says reaches a huge audience – and can only be a part of the truth. So the enthusiast will complain that the world was given a superficial picture of his subject; the radical will complain that millions of minds are absorbing a picture of events that is too conventional; the traditionalist will complain that the life lived in television dramas is (in the Victorian lady’s words) ‘very different from the home life of our own dear Queen’. There is no way, in a shared medium, of ensuring that the screen’s truth is every viewer’s truth. But very great pains are taken to balance the output. And those who, while remembering how wide is the range of people with whom they share the programme, still feel that errors have been made can of course make their case to the Authority or to the companies. The Authority’s practice is to consider carefully every letter of complaint it receives. In serious cases (especially if someone feels that he or his views were unfairly treated on the screen) there are ways in which the complaint can be investigated and judged by those who were not involved in the original decision to transmit. The Authority’s involvement before (and not merely after) a programme is shown, together with its powers to make its disapproval felt, give it a stronger effect than a Press Council can have. Nevertheless, the procedure mentioned above gives a chance, within the system, of appealing to fresh judges against any decision.

Choice is important to the viewer, even though he recognizes that the biggest mass medium of all has to be shared. It is therefore annoying when, on one or two occasions, exactly the same event appears on ITV and on BBC. A big national event or a great sporting fixture is likely to produce this difficulty, for neither Independent Television nor the BBC can easily ignore it. The two organizations ought here to co-operate. They ought more often to take turns to show the big event. Though many benefits have been brought to tv by competition, here is an area where we should co-operate and not compete. We hope and believe that in the end this co-operation will come to pass. But meanwhile the viewer’s interest in this must be guarded in other ways. So we have decided not to give total coverage to the 1972 Olympics; rather than flood the screen with simultaneous sport, we are offering a service of ‘highlights’ each evening. Channels should give choice.

To give greater choice, Independent Television needs more elbow-room than it has at present. Whatever the virtues of a shared medium, there are serious disadvantages when what has to be shared is also rationed. We need more hours available for broadcasting during the day, and, later on, we need a pair of complementary channels giving real choice for majorities and minorities in the evening. Only with these can ITV provide a fully rounded service to viewers, by networking more of our regional offerings, by experimenting with programmes that can gradually win the loyalty of a majority, and by catering more for some tastes that will always be minority tastes. The strait-jacket of a single channel with limited hours is too restrictive; the wide jungle of time and channels into which North America is plunging seems to me too loose. Somewhere between the two lies the best that can be offered to viewers by a free service of broadcasting. Nothing less than the best should satisfy us.



You Say

1 response to this article

Paul Mason 15 September 2021 at 6:26 am

Brian Young lived long enough to see the digital multi channel era. It’s a shame there isn’t a 2002look back by Mr Young. Quantity doesn’t mean quality.

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