The future of television: Divine Right 

27 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. came to pass silently, invisibly; like a coral reef, cells busily multiplying, until it was a vast structure, a conglomeration of studios, offices, cool passages along which many passed to and fro; a society, with its king and lords and commoners, its laws and dossiers and revenue and easily suppressed insurrection; where there was marriage and giving in marriage, and where evil-doers and adulterers were punished, and the faithful rewarded. As many little rivulets empty themselves into a wide lake, all their motion lost in its still expanse of water, so did every bubbling trend and fashion empty themselves into the B.B.C.”

Malcolm Muggeridge in “The Thirties.”

The Governors of the B.B.C., in dedicating Broadcasting House to Almighty God, prayed that “the People, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”

For over thirty years, the people did not have much choice. Lord Reith, a firm believer in what he called “the brute force of monopoly,” rejected out of hand the notion that there could conceivably be anything more beautiful, more honest or of better report than the British Broadcasting Corporation.

It was only after the malcontents had begun to murmur and gather together that the Corporation, alarmed, began to admit the need for an alternative path of wisdom and uprightness. But it was determined that the gatekeeper of both paths—the high road and the low road—should be one and the same.

The B.B.C. made public its intention of starting a second television programme in June, 1953, as part of the ten-year plan that was to carry it to the end of its present charter.

Two years later, as an afterthought, the Corporation applied to the Postmaster-General for the allocation of frequencies in Band III “to enable work on the provision of transmitters for a second service to begin” (and, incidentally, to bag as much as possible of Band III before the I.T.A.). The B.B.C. was surprised when the Postmaster-General gave an evasive answer; even more surprised when he finally declared that the whole question of additional television services was being held over.



Undeterred, the B.B.C. went ahead making what it called “certain preliminary technical preparations” against the day when it would have its second programme. And skilfully, it began to put about the impression that the matter of the additional channel was, apart from irritating formalities, already decided in its own favour. The B.B.C.’s handbooks and annual reports are peppered with confident allusions to this mythical “second programme.”

Thus the B.B.C. Yearbook for 1956: “The introduction of a second Programme is essential if the B.B.C. is fully to achieve its aims and fulfil its Charter obligations; and it is with this in mind that the Television Service considers it a first priority. The alternative B.B.C. Programme is planned to start before 1959, but the date is dependent upon Government decisions on the allocation of wavelengths.”

The B.B.C. Annual Report for 1956/57: “The allocation of the Band III frequencies necessary for the B.B.C.’s second television programme still awaits a decision by H.M. Government. The Corporation attaches importance to an extension of this band so as to allow of national coverage for two programmes within the band, possibly more.”

Of late a note of quiet desperation has entered into the B.B.C’s plan for an extra channel, and it has taken to making patronising, sweeping and often impertinent assertions. “All who are concerned to see an imaginative and intelligent development of this medium must look forward to the time when two alternative programme services, centrally planned, can be offered to the public for their choice. The B.B.C., which hopes to be in a position to provide these services…” — B.B.C. Yearbook, 1958.

But within the burrows of the B.B.C., this fanfare of confidence is marred by undertones of doubt, apprehension and in some cases acute schizophrenia. The Corporation’s territorial ambitions are not shared by all its servants.

One faction takes the view that the I.T.A. should have the next channel, indeed as many channels as it pleases, so long as it leaves the B.B.C. alone with the licence money. The B.B.C., free from any obligation to a mass-audience, would then, from its expensive backwater in Shepherds Bush, be able to operate its television service as a sort of visual Third Programme. It was probably this group that Mr. A. J. P. Taylor had in mind when, in a spirited piece of pleading recently, he argued that the B.B.C. should be closed down.

A second faction, which shows symptoms of shock following the impact of commercial television, is not sure what it wants, or what it is doing, or what it expects to do in the future. An important contribution to the confusion of this group was made by Mr. Gerald Beadle, Director of B.B.C. Television Broadcasting, in a now celebrated speech to the Radio Industries Club. Mr. Beadle said that to the B.B.C. the average audience was of no real importance, that it measured its successes and failures to a large extent by whether or not it achieved the appropriate audience for each programme; that the B.B.C. did not, however, have a “holier-than-thou” approach; that any additional revenues which may come to the B.B.C. in the next few years would be devoted mainly to “satisfying the requirements of an educated democracy in the making” but that Mr. Beadle’s I.T.V. friends were not to be misled into the hope that the B.B.C. was going out of the entertainment business.

Understandably, the B.B.C. was embarrassed by Mr. Beadle’s speech and, unsuccessfully, tried to create the impression that his remarks had been misrepresented. No official denial was made, however, for on closer examination it proved that Mr. Beadle had said nothing to deny.

The third faction in die B.B.C. believes, with Lord Reith, in the Divine Right of Broadcasting. It believes that the Corporation is entitled, by natural selection, to perpetual, exclusive and unquestioned enjoyment of the airwaves. Commercial television it regards, now indulgently, now angrily, as the product of some madcap plot, ill-starred and ill-conceived; the error has been made but will not be repeated; the B.B.C. will not be robbed of its inheritance again. This, of course, is the official view and, the B.B.C. being what it is, the only view that matters. So deep is the Corporation’s sense of purpose in this respect that its last annual report goes so far as to conjecture that all who want to see “intelligent” development of television must live for the day when the B.B.C. runs two services.

The italics are ours. The B.B.C. does not go in for italics.

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BBCtv batswings device


Only once has the B.B.C. completely bared its heart on the subject of competition.

That was in the final, violent argument it put up to the Beveridge Committee in 1949 against the ending of the monopoly in broadcasting.

Here the B.B.C. paid tribute to its own independence, impartiality and integrity and continued:

“By standards is here meant the purpose, taste, cultural aims, range and general sense of responsibility of the broadcasting service as a whole.

“Under any system of competitive broadcasting all these things would be at the mercy of Gresham’s Law. For, at the present stage of the nation’s general educational progress, it operates as remorselessly in broadcasting as ever it did in currency. The good, in the long run, will inescapably be driven out by the bad. It is inevitable that any national educational pyramid shall have a base immeasurably broader than its upper levels. And because competition in broadcasting must in the long run descend to a fight for the greater possible number of listeners, it would be the lower forms of mass appetite which would more and more be catered for in programmes. Any effort to see whether some of that appetite could appreciate something better would be a hostage to fortune.”

What did this patronising outburst mean? That the good of the B.B.C. would “inescapably” be driven out by the bad of the I.T.A. And that the Corporation, in self-defence, would be driven to a long junket of jugglers, dancing girls, conjurors and comedians to keep in business.

Unhappily for the B.B.C., these windy, woeful predictions have simply not come true.

The year before commercial television started, the B.B.C. devoted 2.8 per cent. of its television time to opera, music and ballet. By last year that figure had been increased to 3.9 per cent.

The year before commercial television the B.B.C. devoted 1.2 per cent. of its television time to religion. By last year that figure had been increased to 1.8 per cent.

The year before commercial television the B.B.C. devoted 15.4 per cent. of its television time to talks, demonstrations and documentaries. By last year that figure had been increased to 21.9 per cent.

As for the “lower forms of mass appetite”: light entertainment was increased from 11.4 per cent. to 13.8 per cent. Sport was decreased from 15.6 per cent. to 13.4 per cent.

The figures are the B.B.C.’s.

But whose is the law? Not Gresham’s, unless Gresham is working in reverse.

Yet it is on the completely fallacious Gresham’s Law argument that the B.B.C. bases its claim for a second television programme. It wants one programme to throw to “the lower forms of mass appetite,” another programme “to see whether some of that appetite could appreciate something better.” In other words, a television light programme and a television Third.

How would the British Broadcasting Corporation operate its two television stations?

The B.B.C. recently chose Sunday night — a big variety night on independent television — to begin an excellent series of plays under the title “Television World Theatre.” The audience figures were quite respectable. Over nine million for The Government Inspector, five million for Woman of Troy, eight million for Captain of Koepenick, five and three quarter million for The Cherry Orchard, and four and a half million for Henry V.

This is the kind of thing that would presumably go out on the B.B.C.’s “highbrow” television service. It would be seen by an appreciable minority but — considering a total audience of over twenty million — a minority just the same.

On its other channel the B.B.C. would be free to do battle with commercial television by putting on light entertainment. So, while putting Volpone on the one channel it would be putting variety on the other.

But here is the unfortunate thing.

The six out of ten people who prefer I.T.V. programmes to B.B.C. programmes also prefer I.T.V. variety to B.B.C. variety. A Gallup Poll in December showed that 74 per cent. of audiences free to choose thought I.T.V. variety better than the B.B.C.’s.

In other words, the B.B.C.’s. television programme appeals to a minority.

If the B.B.C. had two television programmes it would appeal to two minorities.

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The B.B.C. has qualities peculiar to itself.

It has a brilliant staff of technicians. Much of the swift technical success of commercial television can be credited to the pioneer work of the B.B.C. Its staff is loyal. Many of its producers, underpaid and hampered by stodgy planning, are completely dedicated to their work. In sound broadcasting, it holds — again in spite of unimaginative direction from the top — many impressive trophies. Its wartime broadcasts were admired throughout the world. Its reporting is accurate and unbiased, if dull. Even the much criticised and now truncated Third Programme has considerable achievements to its credit; for musicians, poets and serious dramatists, the Third took for a while the place of the rich patron in encouraging work that would otherwise never have found a market.

But one secret has eluded the B.B.C. It has had twelve years to build up, develop and improve its television programmes against I.T.V.’s two and a half. In this time it has never found the formula for mass audience appeal, because in its heart it despises the mass audience.

The B.B.C. wants two channels not so that it could fight commercial television on its own ground. It wants them to prevent commercial television from fighting the B.B.C.


[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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