This ‘fading out’! 

2 June 2022

Is it right or wrong to cut a programme short when it overruns its allotted time?

The question is discussed by CHARLES SIEPMANN, Director of Programme Planning, who explains and defends the present policy of the BBC. This article originally appeared in ‘Radio Times,’ the BBC’s Home programme journal, and we are reprinting it because the points raised by Mr. Siepmann apply equally to the BBC’s Empire Service



BBC Empire Broadcasting masthead

From ‘BBC Empire Broadcasting’ for 26 February – 4 March 1939

MANY listeners seem to be troubled, even indignant, about ‘fading out,’ the practice of cutting off a programme which overruns its allotted time. They seem to suspect a catch, as if they and their kind were being deliberately singled out for maltreatment. Many seem to believe that certain types of programmes enjoy ‘most-favoured-nation’ treatment and that we pounce on others with a consistent and malicious glee.

There isn’t in fact any malice about it, and no section of listeners is singled out for special punishment. It’s listeners by and large whom we’re trying to protect by a kind of self-denying ordinance here in the BBC.

There’s no point in concealment or evasion, and here, quite honestly, are the facts about what we do and why we do it.

Until fairly recently there was no regular policy of fading out. A programme which overran just did so, and programmes which followed, for which many listeners were waiting eagerly, started so much later. Often when a serious overrun took place, subsequent programmes had to make good the loss, or part of it, by cuts, to avoid a snowball development in unpunctuality throughout the evening.

No One Was Amused

But it was annoying. Often, through someone else’s fault, a succeeding programme was spoilt. That seemed unfair — to the producer and to the listener — and we had many protests (particularly about the News) over this frequent unpunctuality. No one was amused when, owing to inaccurate timing, a sonata recital or a dance band or a talk held up, sometimes by many minutes, a News Bulletin for which millions were waiting, sometimes in real excitement or anxiety, and no one thought it funny when their favourite programme started six or seven minutes late.

We developed a bad conscience about it, knowing, as we did, that more often than not the overrun was due, in some degree, to someone’s incompetence. So we adopted our present system and it works like this:

All departments are asked to time programmes two minutes short of their advertised allotment. That allows engineers to work the complicated system of ‘flicking’ studios in which the next programme takes place. It allows, too, for a small margin of error in the timing of each programme. Programmes are never faded out before the hour at which they are advertised to stop. Producers have, therefore, two minutes’ grace, though in the interests of Control Room they are asked not to abuse it.

Normally, then, a programme is faded out if it exceeds its full allotted time. But exceptions are made, the spirit rather than the letter of the law is honoured. Engineers work on a list of exemptions daily provided for them by the Director of Programme Planning.

What do we exempt, and why?

First, we provide, when we can, for programmes of exceptional and widespread interest. Next, we consider programmes the development of which gives particular significance to the finish. To cut off a mystery play or a thriller the solution of which is in the last line would be absurd and a disservice to listeners. It is only done if some overriding consideration (e.g., the starting time of a subsequent programme, say a speech by the Prime Minister, over which we have no control) makes a cut the lesser of two evils. We don’t, if we can help it, cut off a boxing match just as a knock-out is imminent. Daily we try to use discretion and to weigh the sometimes complicated relative interests of different sections of our public.

Again, there are considerations of taste which have to be weighed seriously. Certain types of programmes, particularly serious music, have special claims on us. A symphony isn’t all bits and pieces. No serious work of art is that. It is a complete organic whole, and its beauty or interest lies in its complete performance. The same is true, say, of ‘Scrapbook,’ of some Theatre Orchestra productions, and of quite a number of light programmes, the construction of which is in any way close-knit. The question is always one of the comparative advantage which listeners will derive from a cut or an overrun. The factor of taste is important.

We regret all cuts, but some more than others, and a remnant few seem indefensible on any ground. But just as there are some programmes so close-knit that a cut would ruin them, there are others that do not form an indivisible whole. This is particularly true of many light programmes which are loosely knit, composed of, say, a series of tunes or acts, programmes less exacting of concentrated and continuous listening.

Irritating as any fade-out is, it isn’t surely possible to hold that the same offence is done to a dance band if its last tune is faded out as if a symphony or an important speaker gets cut off. The claims of taste and good manners, as these apply to any given programme, while not always paramount are, as it seems to us, proper and right.

It may seem as if the listener to light programmes were being singled out for special victimisation. In fact that isn’t so. Serious music and talks and plays are faded out from time to time, where the advantage of the bulk of listeners seems to justify it. Many variety programmes are frequently on the exemption list.

Mistakes have been made in fading out, and there will always be a risk of offending the enthusiastic listener to a particular programme who has only himself to consider, whereas we daily have our whole audience to provide for and protect against abuse.

No Favouritism

But let it be clear that no programme department is exempted without question, gets permanently ‘most-favoured-nation’ treatment. Nor is any department victimised deliberately or consistently. Everyone is asked to co-operate, and the effect over six months has been remarkable. Aware of the disservice to listeners of a programme that overruns and is faded out, departments have perfected means of avoiding that comparative disaster.

The result has been better all-round timing, a more efficient service to listeners, and increasingly rare occasions when the necessity to fade out occurs. The system is worked not rigidly, but with discretion, and it seems at least the better of two alternatives, of which the other is permanent unreliability of service.


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1 response to this article

Arthur Vasey 12 June 2022 at 9:41 am

It’s also happened the other way – events have under-ran, creating a gap in the schedules – the Eurovision in about 1983 under-ran by almost 45 minutes- it’s usually scheduled to be over by 11, but often goes on till nearly midnight – in that year, it had ended at about 10:15, leaving a gap in the schedule, which the BBC filled with an episode of Taxi – some afternoon matinées, despite a slightly later than billed start, still finished about ten or fifteen minutes before the start of children’s telly – so they would shoehorn in a Bugs Bunny or Popeye cartoon or something from Warner Brothers or Mr Magoo!

I heard somewhere that Radio 3 took a live concert feed by the Boston Pops Orchestra directly from an American radio station via a satellite link, rather than fly a sound crew and announcer over, they were able to just broadcast a feed from an American classical music station which plays commercial breaks, but puts the music first – after all, who wants to hear an advertisement for a local car dealership in the middle of a Rachmaninov concerto (I’m not well-versed with classical music) – nevertheless, the concert under-ran by about ten minutes – the announcer must have been having a port and lemon in the BBC bar or in the loo – either way, he didn’t get back quickly enough – and Radio 3 listeners were treated to the delights of an American commercial break!

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