Those extra TV buttons could mean less choice 

30 November 2022




Ariel 60 BBC Years masthead

From Ariel special edition for August 1982

What sort of BBC will we have built by the year 2000?

I can’t answer that with any certainty, but as I have been given the job of digging the footings, I do need some vision of the future.

One thing is certain: broadcasting is emerging onto a highly competitive stage, and the traditions of public service broadcasting — the pursuit of excellence, maintenance of real choice and equal availability to all — are at risk.

The protection and strengthening of those traditions over the next decade will present broadcasting management with its most significant challenge.

In television the viewer seems to have things going his or her way. Choice is extending. But where is the choice leading? To the fourth channel shortly, and breakfast television, hired pre-recorded video cassettes and in some districts, a cable channel.

Where next? To two Direct Broadcast Satellite channels in 1986, and to developments of cable perhaps before then. Then to foreign DBS channels, not necessarily exclusively in foreign languages, whereby our friendly neighbourhood cable man might offer us a bewildering range of exotic international signals.

And that’s only watching television. The TV set may already have been monopolised by two teenagers playing Space Invader video games. If not, it is only a matter of time before their brother is using it for his sweet shop home computer accounts, their sister is doing her mail order shopping on it, and their mother is tapping out a hesitant electronic mailed letter to her cousin in Halifax.

Our homes could look like radio dealers’ windows as more sets are acquired to reflect these options. It is a potentially erratic and changeable world through which we must plot a course for public service broadcasting. One thing we can be reasonably certain of. It will not be technology that slows us down. With the faith of the scientifically illiterate, I have total confidence in our engineers to invent anything at all if it is given sufficient priority.

So how is the viewer likely to react to buying the equipment for this new technology, and how much will he pay? What price teletext? Most rental companies will probably offer it as standard, before very long. Can he afford DBS? With aerials and convertors starting at £200 [£785 now, allowing for inflation – Ed], but declining in price like pocket calculators, he is unlikely to turn it away.

Bill Cotton

Bill Cotton, the BBC’s Director of Development and Director of TV Programmes

Stereo? A convertor to his set to feed good quality sound into an existing hi-fi system…

And so it goes on. Large flat screens, high definition television of 1200 lines or so. A cable that brings in burglar alarms and theatre ticket bookings as well as television. The list seems endless. Even the telephone with the picture.

When you’ve spent a lifetime practising the authoritative voice to bank managers, gas board officials and other captains of industry, how can you survive when they can see you are a gentle bespectacled lover of peace with a tendency to baldness!

But all these developments have their price, and that is what will determine the rate of much of the progress.

That too is what can be lost sight of in some of the technological euphoria that surrounds certain aspects of the question. Not only how much will it cost, but how will that cost be extracted from the viewer?

We have grown up with a licence fee. We hear beguiling voices telling us that advertising-supported services are free — until we reach the supermarket check-out desk! There is evidence that people will pay twice the cost of a licence to augment the range of public service radio and television by just a limited range of films on a cable channel.

Subscription channels exist in America, and “Pay as you View” for a particular programme is on the horizon here. Already the viewer pays as he views if he opts for a prerecorded cassette in a video shop. Alternative pricing is beginning to exist.

But now to the worrying side. If audiences fragment and turn to a wider range of choice so that fewer and fewer watch any one programme, who can sustain the wide range of subjects which is the richness of the schedules we presently enjoy?

It would be iniquitous if the viewer found himself assembling his own range of programmes, comparable to a network schedule, but having to do it from a collection of sources at many times the cost of a single licence.

And would the range of choice survive? Sport and popular entertainment, at a price, certainly, but how many of us would have found pleasure in antiques before Arthur Negus showed us how to? What following did snooker have before Pot Black? Who would have considered Mastermind a popular venture? Or Last of the Summer Wine?

Many channels can give an illusion of choice without necessarily sustaining the reality. Twelve cowboy films is a greater choice than one, but if they are at the expense of nothing on antiques, nothing on minority sports, or cooking or scientific discovery or ballet — then the deprivation may be greater than the opportunity.

So how can the BBC respond in the next decade or so? What is the plan behind the footings we are digging?

Our answer lies in some diversity, but the BBC will continue to stress the need for quality and range in its programmes on the networks.

The BBC has applied for, and has been allotted, two DBS channels in 1986 through which it can distribute additional programmes throughout the United Kingdom and, with the subscription channel, the BBC is experimenting with additional forms of revenue collection as well as with a new form of programme scheduling.

Some of these avenues may lead to more specialised programmes rather than to a wider range, but the BBC can bring its reputation for quality to bear on them all.

The range of programmes, the service to minorities, the integrity of information, the range of opinions exposed — all these need time to develop and the support of an audience which endorses them.

Provided that support remains for the networks, and with it the commitment to fund such a public service, the new outlets become assets which extend real choice and enrich the mixture of broadcasting by building on the best features of the last 60 years.

But if the distractions of the new choice erode the viewership for the networks to the point where economic investment in high quality programmes for the British viewer is no longer possible, then we may be forced to look on those first 60 years as a flirtation with excellence which could not be sustained.

And that, in my view, would be a pity.


Sir William ‘Bill’ Frederick Cotton CBE (1928–2008) was Head of Light Entertainment, Controller of BBC-1 and Managing Director of Television at the BBC during his long career. He retired in 1988, then became deputy and later full chairman of Meridian Broadcasting from 1992 to 2001.


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