The future of television: The answer 

28 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

When in doubt, appoint a Royal Commission.

But this is a temptation the Government must avoid when thinking of television.

Television has been tried. It works. It works so well that any lengthy inquiry into it would be obsolete before the minority report was dry.

Television is an active medium, demanding action. It is a bold medium, demanding boldness.

Who gets the third television programme ?

The choice is between the B.B.C., the I.T.A. and A.N. Other. They are presented in various guises and disguises; a B.B.C. suddenly transformed to carry advertisements for Murraymints and Omo; an I.T.A. grown independent of independent television, producing its own programmes on the side; a completely new public corporation conjured out of the airwaves to confound both B.B.C. and I.T.A. There is one vacancy. But many applicants.

Consider first, then, who should not be given the third television programme.

It should not be given to the B.B.C. to operate on public money.

The B.B.C. could produce another television programme only at heavy cost to the public either through increased licence fees or through large and regular state grants. Even with two programmes it would still appeal to the minority—and not necessarily a qualitative minority.

It should not be given to the B.B.C. to operate on advertising revenue.

The notion that the B.B.C. should pay for an additional television programme by carrying advertising is one that appeals to many people but not to advertisers, who would be putting up the money. Unless it could capture a constant television mass audience — and the secret has so far evaded it — the B.B.C. would simply not get advertising. It would then doubtless appeal for a state subsidy for its second programme.

Some of the more cynical pundits of commercial television believe that it would be very good for I.T.V. if the B.B.C., or some other state organisation, did operate competitive commercial television. They believe that this government agency would give such appalling service to advertisers that they would be driven back to I.T.V., and the present programme companies would still get the bulk of the advertising.

This is a ruthless, though perhaps realistic, conception.

It should not be given to the I.T.A. to operate in competition with its own programme companies.

Such an idea is, for one thing, completely out of harmony with the function of the I.T.A. which, among other things, is to “police” the commercial television system. It could not be batsman and umpire at the same time. Furthermore the I.T.A. would have to create an organisation suspiciously similar to the B.B.C. to produce its own programmes. It would be expected to act as an antidote to the brasher elements among the programme companies and it would probably settle down as the minority programme of commercial television.

Thus its income from advertising would always be in peril and it would probably have to ask for state funds.

It should not go to a new public corporation.

Such a body could only be a duplication either of the I.T.A. or of the B.B.C. The expense and administrative work of creating a third staff, a third headquarters and a third set of studios would thus be pointless.

This leaves the programme companies.

They are not perfect by any means. Nor is the Authority that governs them. Nor is the Television Act that decides their function.

But starting from scratch this combination has, in less than three years, produced a new television network for Britain. It could do it again.

It has these advantages over any of the alternative organisations that have so far been suggested. It could do it more speedily, more efficiently, and at no cost to the viewer or to the state.

Britain’s third television programme should go to commercial television.


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The very first White Paper on commercial television promised that the Independent Television Authority’s methods of working, contracting for programmes and regulating advertisements would be open to revision at any time and certainly to review before 1962 when the B.B.C.’s Charter expires.

The I.T.A. should be reviewed directly it has fulfilled its programme, i.e., in 1960. Any modifications needed should then be made and the I.T.A. given the job of organising a new national television network.

Certainly commercial television will be criticised heavily before it is given any extension of its powers.

The I.T.A. will be criticised for not exercising enough control over the programme companies. (It will probably be found on closer examination that the I.T.A. keeps a tighter hold on the reins than is generally realised.) It will be criticised for its attitude on “natural breaks” and on advertising magazines. (But even the critics disagree on advertising magazines. Some Labour M.P.s hold that they are a form of sponsorship, and illegal; other Labour M.P.s argue that if television must be commercial this is the handiest way of swallowing the advertising pill.) The programme companies will be criticised, as television companies public or private have always been criticised, for the quality of their programmes.

Commercial television must face this examination squarely and where the criticism is justified it must be prepared to tackle its own shortcomings.

There has been a great deal of sincere — and often justified — criticism of children’s television.

Sir Robert Fraser is the author of an ingenious defence, on evil-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder lines, of so-called “violence” in children’s programmes. However, as Geoffrey Gorer has pointed out, “When a baby is born into a household which owns television, it is likely to be exposed to the set, if not from birth, at least during the first months of its life.” The responsibility of the programme companies towards children who grow up watching television cannot be over-emphasised.

Most of the criticism has been against films showing scenes of violence. The programme companies originally had their own individual systems of vetting children’s films. Now, however, a committee has been set up by the Television Contractors’ Association so that a common standard can be maintained.

Much of the hostility that commercial television sometimes arouses is probably caused by the general air of hurry and impermanence caused by different programme companies having to share the same channel. This will probably disappear when, with a third television programme, each company is able to operate all the week through.

The I.T.A.’s intention has always been that the different programme companies should be distinctive and individual, each differing from the other as do, for instance, national newspapers.

To a certain extent that is what has happened. The character of, say, Granada is distinguishably different from the character of Associated TeleVision. But it is difficult for a programme company to make a lasting impression when every few days it must pack up its belongings and disappear because it is another programme company’s turn to use the wavelength. This “five days on, two days off” arrangement often gives the impression that Band III is living out of a suitcase.

An additional programme for commercial television would mean that six big programme companies would each have a permanent home. Once settled in to enjoy uninterrupted tenancy of a particular channel, the programme companies would have the chance to develop first continuity and then character. Commercial television would become less hurried in its approach, more permanent, more individual, and perhaps more agreeable to its critics.




The B.B.C.’s role in television has not been defined since broadcasting was an absolute state monopoly.

Its duties, as expressed in its charter, are to inform, educate and entertain. Since the arrival of commercial television the B.B.C. has taken upon itself an extra duty and that is to appropriate vast sums of public money for the purpose of fighting I.T.V. An example of this is its assumption that if I.T.V. extends its programme by an hour the B.B.C. must spend a million pounds a year following suit.

Naturally the programme companies expect keen competition from the B.B.C. But there is no reason why the B.B.C. should become the tame parrot of television. Or why it should expect a subsidy for its own vanity.

Before its charter is renewed the B.B.C.’s role in a three-programme system should be reviewed and re-defined. The B.B.C. must be told quite clearly that its large income is to be devoted to the genuine needs of television and not to an expensive game of tit-for-tat.

The suggestion that the B.B.C. should break up into separate corporations for sound, overseas broadcasting and television is impracticable because of the great cost and duplication of staff, engineering and administration that would be involved. But B.B.C. TV, which has inherited all the bureaucratic archetypes of sound broadcasting, could well become more autonomous. It could make a start by appointing a separate Director-General for Television.*

* The B.B.C.’s original charter specified that there should be one Director-General. The Beveridge Committee recommended that this particular clause be altered. Since 1952 it has been possible for the B.B.C. to appoint more than one Director-General. (In 1942, possibly irregularly, it did have joint Directors-General. The B.B.C. took the additionally unusual step of appointing a man who had had some experience of broadcasting.)


The Government announced two years ago that it had deferred a decision about the third television programme until February, 1958.

February, 1958, has now come and gone. The Government should now make its proposals known.

These proposals will probably be implemented, modified or rejected by a Labour Government.

The Labour Party Executive should immediately form a committee to inquire into the whole field of television.

Labour should do its best to get over the antipathy to television that so many M.P.s have. It should remember, too, that the commercial television audience contains a large proportion of the Labour vote.

Technical Development

The technical development of television is outside the scope of this series. Even so, two major questions have got to be decided as part of Britain’s future television policy.

One is the question of colour television. The other is the question of the British line-standard. The two questions are connected.

The quality of the British 405-line standard is coarse by comparison with other standards and is regarded by many countries as technically obsolete. There is a strong argument for switching to the continental 625-line standard, although to do this would mean taking television out of Bands I and III — which are too narrow for 625 lines —and moving it onto Bands IV and V. A good time to move onto the 625-line standard would be when Britain went over to colour television.

But an American colour system has been adapted by the B.B.C. to suit Britain’s present 405-line system. If British television goes into colour on the 405-line standard it can — because of the terrific cost involved — say good-bye to the prospect of ever going onto the superior continental standard.

Four hundred and five lines — or six hundred and twenty-five? There must be a decision on this question before television can plan its future.

❉ ❉ ❉

The fate of Britain’s third television programme will not be decided in a single meeting or a single speech. The allocation of this precious channel will not be a peaceful thing. The argument will begin again. The cupboards will be ransacked for skeletons and old red herrings will be skilfully re-tinted. The last crop of predictions having fallen mostly on stony ground, new prophesies of disaster will be made.

This time, however, both sides will have actual facts to go on. And if the facts are called, commercial television will win the argument.

The public is on the side of commercial television. So are the statistics. So — to put it bluntly — is the money. So, by some compound of skill, luck and instinct, is the spirit of the times we live in.

None of these factors would count for very much if the programme companies could not be trusted with this restless medium. But they have shown in these crammed and hectic months that they can be trusted.

Commercial television has been a short time growing up, but it has grown up strong and healthy and responsible. And now it is ready for new responsibilities.


[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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