The future of television: Background to television 

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

“The B.B.C. is very conscious that . . . with the beginning of the competing programmes in September, 1955, British Broadcasting entered a new phase.”

— B.B.C. Annual Report 1955-56

Glancing idly through the “Appointments Vacant” column of The Electrician one day in 1922, John Reith noticed the following announcement:— “Appointments are invited for the following offices: General Manager, Director of Programmes, Chief Engineer, Secretary…”

Reith, along with 54 other people, applied for the job of General Manager of the B.B.C. He posted his application, addressed to Sir William Noble, chairman of the Broadcasting Committee, in the letter-box of his club. Then he got out “Who’s Who” and turned up Sir William’s name.

After that he recovered the letter from the box and added this postscript:

“I, too, am an Aberdonian. No doubt you knew my people.”

It was Lord Reith’s influence, and at the same time the lack of it, that was mainly responsible for the coming of commercial television to Britain.

Under Reith the particular growth of humbug, sanctimoniousness and complacency that is the B.B.C. took root, blossomed and flourished. There was the Reith Sunday (5.30 p.m. Recital, 6.0 p.m. Religious poetry of the 17th century, 9.05 p.m. Hastings Municipal Orchestra) that collapsed only under the competition of Radio Luxembourg. There was the occasion on pre-war television when the B.B.C., sure of its own monopoly, could broadcast two plays by the Habima Company of Tel-Aviv entirely in Yiddish. There was the B.B.C.’s blithe indifference to its audience: the statement on Listener Research (now Audience Research) that “even if it revealed that a majority of the public were opposed to a policy which was being pursued by the B.B.C. in a particular matter, or disliked a service of broadcasts which was on the air, that would not in itself be considered a valid reason why the policy should be reversed or the programmes withdrawn” — which led the Beveridge Committee into Broadcasting to retort that “though the purpose of broadcasting is not to please as many listeners as possible, broadcasting without listeners has no purpose at all.”

These attitudes were imported direct from the Scottish manse into the B.B.C.’s post-war television service. The American Life magazine guyed the B.B.C.’s air of superiority and amateurishness perfectly: “I see our programme has ended about ten minutes before we anticipated it might. We will try to fill up the void with the overture to Die Fledermaus.”

But another attitude, that should have been inherited, was not.

This was Reith’s tremendous technical drive, the zeal for getting on with the job that built Empire broadcasting and enabled him, in the early days of radio, to build twelve provincial radio stations in as many months.

This drive was completely absent in the B.B.C.’s handling of post-war television. The Birmingham television station was supposed to have been opened a year after the re-opening of the London station. It did not, in fact, open for three and a half years. To the B.B.C.’s plea of capital development restriction an impatient radio industry, with some heat, retorted that transmitting stations could be built, if need be, in a Nissen hut. The idea does not seem to have appealed to the B.B.C. Nor does any other idea for hastening the pace of television development. It was not until four years after the resumption of television that the B.B.C. appointed a Director of Television Broadcasting.

The question of the B.B.C.’s monopoly had been pondered by many committees over a number of years. In 1943 a television committee considered the idea of commercial television and decided that to come to a conclusion would be premature. In 1949, when the radio industry was pressing for commercial television, the Beveridge Committee considered the whole question of broadcasting policy. In 1952, despite the B.B.C.’s vehement arguments in favour of monopoly, a Government White Paper came to the conclusion that “in the expanding field of television, provision should be made to permit some element of competition.” In 1953, the Memorandum on Television Policy set out the outline of commercial television as we know it today.

There was a succession of television debates in both Houses of Parliament, against a background of frantic lobbying from those interested in keeping the monopoly and those interested in ending it. The Times commented dolefully, “There are enough influences at work degrading public taste to forbid adding another,” and Lord Reith described the threat to the empire he had built up as “a maggot in the body politic of England.” Committees sat late into the night fashioning safety regulations from the smallest type; ideas were modified, amendments mooted, new clauses assiduously hammered on anvils of gloom. Prophesies of ruin and of the salvation of broadcasting were made; statistics were quoted, even where there were no statistics; precedents cited, even where there were no precedents; the argument touched the keener heights of hyperbole and hypothesis. The misunderstandings, and there were many, were not clarified by certain noble lords who stubbornly described television as “the wireless” from beginning to end of the debates.

In this aura of apprehension and misapprehension, promise and compromise, of clouded issues, red herrings, trailed coats, turned cheeks, and predictions of great doom, commercial television was born. It went on the air at 7.15 p.m. on September 22, 1955, and 53 days later it had earned its first million pounds.



The B.B.C., its thirty-year monopoly of the air-waves broken for the first time, did not come well out of the new arrangement.

As it broods away the years of its ten-year charter, this once omnipotent Corporation has many wounds to lick.

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The B.B.C. was running a popular programme called “In the News,” featuring Sir Robert Boothby, Michael Foot, A. J. P. Taylor and W. J. Brown. It was vigorous, outspoken stuff, and naturally offended the tamer elements of the political parties, who finally asked that this erratic team should be substituted by “safe” speakers.

The team had been appearing three times a month; gradually their individual appearances were cut down to two a month, and then to one a month.

This was the B.B.C. “balancing” its programme.

“In the News” does not now exist.

Messrs. Boothby, Foot, Taylor and Brown now appear regularly on I.T.V., in a programme called, appropriately, “Free Speech.”

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To add to the B.B.C.’s mortification, when Mr. A. J. P. Taylor began broadcasting a series of lectures on European history for I.T.V., his audience was, in homes with a choice, often larger than that of the variety programme which the balanced B.B.C. put out at the same hour.

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Mr. Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, gave an interview on I.T.V. to Robin Day. The interview was not rehearsed, and Mr. Macmillan was put through a searching interrogation in the course of which he was forced to commit himself on the future of his Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, gave an interview on the B.B.C.’s Press Conference. Mr. Francis Williams, a regular member of the Press Conference team and a Socialist, was not invited to appear. The team, usually four, consisted on this occasion of three members, who even The Times referred to as “a restrained group.” The interview was on the subject of the Prime Minister’s Commonwealth tour, and was generally agreed to be dull.

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The independent television news bulletins blew a draught of fresh air into the obituary-lined galleries of the B.B.C.’s news-room. Tribute to this new force in television newscasting was paid by Mr. Hugh Carleton Greene, B.B.C. Director of Administration, in the draft notes for a speech in Germany :—

“It might well be claimed that our television news programmes in particular have benefited from the stimulus of competition — but one cannot be sure that they would not have attained today’s standard even without competition.”

On second thoughts, however, these words were struck out of Mr. Greene’s speech.


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The “no doubt you knew my people” attitude in the B.B.C. was not confined to Lord Reith. Quite seriously, a former Director of Programmes wrote in his memoirs about his first day at the B.B.C.: “I knew no one there, save my brother, then Chief Engineer.” The Times carried this report of an interview with Sir Arthur fforde, the B.B.C.’s new chairman : “Almost everyone he spoke to, he said, pretending to be awed, seemed to be a former president of the Oxford or Cambridge Union. He had been at school with Mr. Val Gielgud, and a previous chairman, Lord Simon of Wythenshawe, had also been a Rugby man, but the place was far from being a preserve of the school. One of his own sons went to Bryanston.”



When commercial television came to Britain, nearly five hundred of the B.B.C.’s staff, went over to one or other of the new contractors. And there, at least, they did not have to fill in the famous “Application for Staff Appointment” form which, as well as asking whether the applicant is subject to fainting or fits, wants to know what schools he went to, the name of his university college tutor, details of all his previous employment in chronological order, and “the name of any Senior Officer under whom you have served who would be able to speak for you from personal knowledge.” On such a record the services of, say, Mr. Lew Grade, one of the talented but not over-formal administrators of Channel Nine, would have been lost to television.


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In livening up its programmes to meet the competition of commercial TV, the B.B.C. hit on a successful formula with the daily magazine programme, “Tonight.” Old B.B.C. hands were astonished to hear that the editors of this programme were actually rejecting material because it did not come up to their standards. This was a new trend in B.B.C. policy.

One evening “Tonight” staged a TV interview with a murder suspect. It was possibly an error of judgment. Instead of accepting responsibility for the programme the B.B.C. broadcast a public apology putting all the blame on the producer of “Tonight,” Mr. Donald Baverstock:—

“The B.B.C. wishes it to be known that one of the items in last night’s television programme, ‘Tonight,’ should not have been broadcast. In the great majority of cases, producers of programmes are responsible for taking decisions in matters involving matters of policy or taste, and it is their duty, when in doubt, to refer to the head of department or more senior officials. In this case no such reference was made, and the B.B.C. regard this as a serious error of judgment.”

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And then, of course, there was the case of Malcolm Muggeridge.

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The attitude of the B.B.C.:—

“Few would question the desirability of refraining from anything approaching vulgarity or directing attention to unsavoury subjects. Beyond that lies a wide range of debatable subjects, which, while in no way within our province to decry, we certainly do not feel justified in aiding and abetting.”

— Lord Reith, “Broadcast Over Britain.”

The attitude of the I.T.A.:—

“Neither the Authority nor the companies would wish to claim that all the programmes were at all times and in every respect entirely free from offence to every shade of opinion. An over-zealous attention to the susceptibilities of minorities amongst the viewing public could only have robbed the programmes of their vitality.”

— I.T.A. Annual Report, 1955-1956.

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Extract from a speech by Sir Robert Fraser, Director-General of the Independent Television Authority:—

“In homes able to choose between them, Free Speech has an audience seven times bigger than the Brains Trust, Youth Wants to Know twice as big as Press Conference, This Week twice as big as Panorama. We get as high a rating for Free Speech as the B.B.C. gets for Vera Lynn, a larger audience for Roving Report than the B.B.C. gets for Tony Hancock, and This Week usually has a higher rating than any B.B.C. programme of any kind whatever.”

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Extract from the B.B.C.’s Annual Report:— “A second television service is essential if the B.B.C. is to have elbow room to carry on the long-term policy on which its value to the nation largely depends.”

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Not surprisingly, the combination of civil servant, nanny, butler, schoolm’am, aunt and repertory theatre vicar that is the B.B.C.’s television service was no match for the brash and urgent impetus of commercial television. Wherever the new service sprang up, quick as a mushroom, sets were rapidly converted. Wherever there was a choice between programmes, six and sometimes seven out of ten watched commercial television.

I.T.V. made many mistakes, many errors of judgment; it limped before it could walk. There was a moment of brief success and then a short period, a lull, a truce, when both advertisers and contractors withdrew to count their dead; then the new service rallied. In a fantastically short period commercial television had integrated itself as part of the national pattern of life. It had produced one of the most astonishing success stories of modem times. And it was ripe for new triumphs.


[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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