The history of television 

3 November 2022


From Television & Radio 1985, published by the Independent Broadcasting Authority in December 1984

Isaac Shoenberg, one of the pioneers of electronic television, was so moved by a successful British demonstration in the early 1930s that he walked proudly into the control room and said, ‘Well, gentlemen, you seem to have perfected the biggest time-waster of all mankind. I hope you use it well!’

How television has been used so far and how it may be used in the future is the theme of Granada’s major 13-part series, Television. To collect as much evidence as possible, filming has taken place in many countries and continents: in Brazil, France, Germany (East and West), India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, the Philippines, the USA and USSR, as well as Britain. In these countries, and with the help of their television organisations, programmes of all kinds have been filmed in the course of preparation and production: Indian villagers creating their own local drama, a ‘musical’ outside broadcast in the rainy Indonesian countryside, a ‘Samurai’ drama in Japan, light entertainment programmes in Milan, Paris, Rome, Nashville and Rio. In East Berlin we see viewers watching West German television. In Moscow we see the preparation and transmission of the main daily Soviet News programme, Vremya, and its simultaneous reception in places as far away as Siberia and Tashkent.


Courtesy of Советское телевидение. ГОСТЕЛЕРАДИОФОНД


News and current affairs have been covered extensively, and the importance of television news is one of the main themes of the series. Fred W. Friendly, indisputably one of the world’s most distinguished practitioners in this field, says of the Vietnam war: ‘The war was an electronic war. This country will never be the same again’.

This series is not a historical survey in a chronological sense, though fair attention is paid to the early pioneers and the ways in which the shape and content of programmes have been affected by technical development. There are 19th century cartoons in which television is treated as something inevitable – by Du Maurier in Britain and Robida in France. In one of Robida’s cartoons viewers are seen watching, by ‘live’ television, the horrors of war.


A man stands next to a flying-spot camera trained on a dummy's head

A reconstruction of how Baird conducted his original television experiments.


The series also reflects the international ‘television race’ of the 1920s and 1930s, when pioneers in many countries were working, quite independently, on similar lines. Several of them appear in the series from Britain, France, Germany, the USA and USSR. How many viewers know that the Berlin Olympics of 1936 were shown on television, or that television programmes were transmitted in Paris during the German occupation?

Today, of course, television is different, and down the years its importance – and perhaps, though more disputably, its social and political power – have increased. It is the main source of news in many countries. It has attracted new dramatists, developed new techniques, and made it possible for millions of people to watch, ‘live’ and simultaneously, such events as the Olympic Games, the Royal Wedding, a space flight and a moon landing. It is used to teach villagers in Third World countries how best to handle their agriculture, it has taught us about wildlife and anthropology, and it has introduced opera and ballet to many who had never seen them before. All these points are discussed by those who work on such programmes, and illustrated by extracts from the programmes themselves.


Two almost identical scenes from a play

Scenes from one of the first BBC plays at Alexandra Palace (The Chance of a Lifetime) recreated for Granada’s Television in 1984 by Royston Morley, who directed the original production.


Television has also become increasingly controversial. How does it relate to politics? What about censorship, or the much-debated connection between television and sex and violence? In many countries light entertainment has moved dramatically from the familiar music hall tradition to situation comedy and satire. This series, openly and honestly, analyses these areas of dispute, and considers the issues with extracts from programmes and the opinions of those who have been concerned with their production or, as public figures, have spoken and argued forcibly in the global television debate.


Two men film a satellite dish

The Indian space satellite dish at Ahmedabad, the base for India’s pioneering satellite experiment of 1976 to relay television to villages.


This is surely the appropriate time to make and transmit such a series. We are all in the middle of a television revolution far bigger than anything faced by John Logie Baird in the 1920s – video cassettes, video discs, cable, the dramatically extended possibilities of ‘live’ television across the world – all of which is considered and analysed in the last programme of the series.

The importance of television is indisputable, and many people, all over the world, would today accept the view expressed several years ago by Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore: ‘I may be its slave, but television is my lamp’.


Filming on a beach

Filming in Brazil.


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