Turning Listeners into Viewers 

5 May 2022 tbs.pm/75860

ERNEST C. THOMSON reviews the progress of the BBC’s Television Service



BBC Empire Broadcasting masthead

From ‘BBC Empire Broadcasting’ for 14-20 May 1939

BRITAIN leads the world in television. It sounds like a catchword — one of those comforting slogans for which the advertising agents pay big money. But slogan or not, it is true.

The BBC has been running the world’s first high-definition television service for two-and-a half years. America, the second country to embark on a regular television service, is only just starting. Since November 1936, when the BBC service started, technicians and entertainment kings all over the globe have watched with growing intentness the activities of a band of pioneers in a derelict amusement palace in North London. Not that the BBC’s corner of Alexandra Palace is derelict. Far from it. In a reconstructed tower of concrete, above which straddles a tapering lattice mast with a unique and futuristic beauty of its own, Gerald Cock, BBC Director of Television, and four hundred and fifty people are concerned with the unprecedented task of radiating living pictures and sound.


A camera points at massed troops

Televising last year’s ceremony of Trooping the Colour from Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall


A Hundred Thousand Viewers

In 1936 there were perhaps a hundred television receivers in the service area; today the estimate is nearer 12,000, with a potential audience on big occasions of a hundred thousand ‘viewers.’ Between seventeen and eighteen hours of ‘living’ entertainment, distinct from film, are provided weekly — no easy matter when we consider that in film production, which is the nearest parallel, a studio does well in a week if it turns out fifteen minutes of ‘screen time.’


A clergyman looks into a camera lens

The Most Rev. M. P. McAdam Harding, D.D., Lord Archbishop of Rupert’s Land, gave a short talk in a recent ‘Picture Page’


The official service area of the London Television Station is still within a radius of thirty miles of the transmitter, owning to the necessity of using ultra-short waves, but in point of fact many viewers get satisfactory pictures as far away as Brighton (60 miles [97km]), and one hardy experimenter with an outsize aerial enjoys the programmes in the island of Guernsey, 200 miles [322km] away.


Four men point guns at a camera

The television camera faces the firing squad. One of the most successful experiments in television drama was ‘Condemned to be Shot,’ in which the impression was given that the viewer was the leading character


But what do they see? When the viewer first buys his set he doesn’t really care. All he cares about is that, by the manipulation of two or three knobs, he performs a miracle. Those listeners who remember the early days of broadcasting will recall the thrill of just picking up sounds out of the ether. Television is a bigger thrill than that.


A camera captures a ballet

The Russian Ballet recently gave a performance of ‘Les Sylphides’ especially for the benefit of viewers


After it has been switched on, the receiver may take a minute to ‘warm up.’ Then vague, indeterminate shapes begin to chase each other across the screen. The ‘brightness’ knob is adjusted, and as the screen begins to glow with a soft white light, the shapes are suddenly resolved into steady images of people and things. The viewer has snatched a living picture out of the air.


A courtroom scene

Another recent television success was a performance of Captain Edward Wooll’s drama ‘Libel’


The accompanying sound is then tuned in, and here it should be mentioned that television sound is better than that on the ordinary broadcast wavelengths. Limited in their range, the ultra-short waves afford a grand compensation in their exquisite sound quality, ranging in frequency from far below the lowest note on the piano to far beyond the top of the keyboard. Speech loses any suggestion of the mechanical, and a violin note, with its full complement of harmonics, is rich and ‘round.’ But the miracle of television is not enough. When the first novelty has worn off the viewer begins to take a lively interest in the programmes, for his receiver has cost him anything between £22 [£1,600 today, allowing for inflation -Ed] and £80 [£5,750], depending upon the size of picture. This varies between 3⅜ in. by 4 in. and 12 in. by 10 in. The more expensive sets also include an all-wave radio set or radiogram.

Advert for television demonstrations

Thanet Advertiser, Friday 10 February 1939, page 10

The main items in the BBC programmes are outside broadcasts and studio plays, in that order. ‘O.B.s’ by television are in a class by themselves, challenging every other form of entertainment and news ever invented. Using two mobile television units, which roam London and the neighbouring country, the BBC gives its viewers ‘actuality’ programmes in their own sitting rooms. Without a moment’s delay, viewers see events as they happen. They were the first people in the country to see the French President and Mme. Lebrun arriving at Victoria Station for their State visit, on March 21, and being greeted by the King and Queen. Every week brings ‘headline’ events to the home screen and, in addition, the mobile units visit theatres and music-halls to bring an evening’s entertainment direct into the home.

Meanwhile the two studios at Alexandra Palace provide between two and three hours of entertainment every day. Full length plays, many of them transplanted direct from the West-End stage, are the most popular items, and outstanding successes of the past few months have included Traitor’s Gate, The Royal Family of Broadway, Condemned to be Shot, and Libel.

Variety and vaudeville, illustrated talks and demonstrations, 4’Friends from the Zoo,’ fashion parades, and orchestral features — all have their devotees in the television audience, but if there is one programme which rallies everyone to the television screen it is ‘Picture Page,’ television’s topical magazine. Edited by Cecil Madden, it consists of screen interviews with ‘people in the news,’ Empire and Colonial visitors to London and, indeed, anyone with a story to tell or an interesting exhibit to show.

A year ago television was still in the teething stage, but in the last few months the child has suddenly grown up.

To use the slogan of the British radio trade: Television Is Here. You Can’t Shut Your Eyes To It!


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