The future of television: A third channel – the question 

25 December 2021

[PART 1] • [PART 2] • [PART 3] • [PART 4] • [PART 5] • [PART 6] • [PART 7] • [PART 8] • [PART 9] • [PART 10] • [PART 11]


Line drawing by John Farleigh

From the Daily Mirror Spotlight on the Future of Television, published in 1958

“WHAT is the future of television?” wrote Mr. Spike Milligan. He replied to his own question: “I find it almost impossible to arouse any kind of enthusiasm for a Medium so young that it is for ever wetting its nappy.”

But this lusty, incontinent infant demands attention. It grows so fast that it wears out Charters and Acts of Parliament long before they have run their allotted span. It progresses so nimbly that it is for ever one jump ahead of the statistics.

Eleven years ago there were 80,000 viewers in the whole of Britain. At the start of the B.B.C.’s present ten-year charter there were five million. Today there are twenty-two million. Over thirteen million of those are watching a second television service that did not even exist when the B.B.C.’s charter began. By 1960, after less than five years on the air, commercial television will be reaching 90 per cent. of the population.

The growing child is a growing child no longer. It is a growing adult.

What next?

By 1960 when the I.T.A.’s present programme of expansion is complete, the Television Act that controls commercial television will have another four years to run.

By 1960, when the B.B.C. will have been covering 98 per cent. of the population for several years, the B.B.C.’s charter will have another two years to run.

And by 1960 the way will be clear for Britain to go ahead with its third national television programme.

The future of television depends upon many questions. Is the B.B.C. doing its job? Is the I.T.A.? Are the programme companies? Is TV going uphill or downhill?

But all these questions will resolve into one: Who gets the third television programme?

And that is one of the most important questions in British television today.

There are those who would reject the notion of a third television programme going to anybody. These are the people who regard television as a one-eyed monster, two-station television as a two-eyed monster, and three-station television as the most goggling nightmare of them all.

But television is more than the “idiot’s lantern” of highbrow whimsy. It is a strident, urgent voice in the chorus of mass communication. It has a key part to play in the arts, in entertainment, in politics, and in the whole pattern of social life. Television must expand — but it must expand in the right direction.

Who gets the third television programme?

It is not a question that the Government seems disposed to answer.

While television races ahead of the times, Britain’s policy for television plods contentedly several years behind it. The present Government shows no inclination to tackle the future of television before the B.B.C. charter comes up for renewal. The Labour Party, although more interested in television than it has been in the past, is still not interested enough.


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The problem is a technical one.

Britain’s television at present operates on two wavebands — Band I and Band III.

Band I is fully occupied by the eighteen transmitting stations of the B.B.C.

Four channels of Band III are occupied by the I.T.A. The other four — at present occupied by business radio service, mobile taxis and experimental stations — are being cleared for television.

It will be on these four channels that Britain’s third national television programme will operate.


A map of the UK with BBC transmitters and regions highlighted


The B.B.C. has for long had its eye on Band III. It has expressed its need for it succinctly enough in its annual handbook: “If the B.B.C. is to have elbow-room to carry on the long-term policy of cultivating minority appeal, a second television service is essential.” As long ago as 1952 the B.B.C. put before the Television Advisory Committee a plan whereby it would have hogged the whole of Band III for its second service. If it had got its way there would be no question of a third television programme today.

There are two other wavebands available for television — Bands IV and V. But many difficult engineering problems have to be solved before these wavebands can be developed, and in any case Bands IV and V cannot be picked up on existing sets.


A map of the UK with ITA transmitters and regions highlighted


So whoever is allocated the rest of Band III will be operating the last new television programme for a long time to come.


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Both the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Independent Television Authority have applied for permission to operate the third television programme.

But in February 1956 the Postmaster General declared that consideration of any additional television service was being deferred for two years. When the two years had passed it became apparent that the Postmaster General was being optimistic, for the Government’s intention now is not to decide the question until the B.B.C. charter is renewed — which need not be until 1962.

That means that the development of Britain’s television services will remain stagnant for several years.

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This series of articles is produced in the belief that the future of television should be decided now. Television is too vital a force in modern life to be placed on a shelf marked “Do not disturb until 1962.”

Who gets the third television programme? To decide this question it is necessary to know something of the ownership, financial prospects and structure of commercial television, something of the finance and future plans of the B.B.C., and something of the attitude and intentions of the politicians in whose hands the future of television rests. It is this information which this series first of all sets out to give.


[PART 1] • [PART 2] • [PART 3] • [PART 4] • [PART 5] • [PART 6] • [PART 7] • [PART 8] • [PART 9] • [PART 10] • [PART 11]


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