Push-button television 

13 May 2023 tbs.pm/79258

 

Cover of Ariel

From Ariel, the house magazine of the BBC, for March 1957

Six and a half years ago I stood outside Calais Town Hall watching a small group of BBC men trying the neatest trick of the week. They were endeavouring to send television pictures across the English Channel to pioneer international television. ‘They’ll never do it’, I said, being knowledgeable about such things. With the aid of microwave links and crossed fingers, they did. On an August night in 1950 British viewers saw France on their screens for the first time in a direct relay. The seed of an idea had been planted, an idea which in Fleet Street’s argot came to be known as Eurovision.

In Cannes at the beginning of February this year I joined the company of a larger group of men watching the germination of that seed. They were the programme chiefs of the countries concerned in the Eurovision network. They were discussing plans for a Whitsuntide hook-up which would take BBC viewers and those of ten Continental countries on a push-button tour of eleven European countries. This will be Eurovision’s most ambitious project since it began hesitantly outside Calais Town Hall. In 1954 eight countries presented different programmes to each other at selected intervals; now eleven countries are to combine in one programme.

Don’t ask me how it will be done technically. I have long ago given up trying to understand even how my picture gets from Crystal Palace. If the engineers tell me that we shall see pictures from Italy or even the South Pole, I have learned to take their word that it will happen. I discovered the other day that in these Eurovision relays (and probably even with the Grove Family, for all I know) ‘crushing can occur in the lower part of the sawtooth’, that ‘black crushing can be evaluated in a similar fashion to white crushing’ and that the aforesaid crushing can be expressed as

EE' divided by FG, then times by 100

Now that is something I didn’t know before. And it must be a considerable relief to all programme chiefs that the engineers on both sides of the Channel responsible for our Eurovision relays know such things.

So, sawteeth permitting, we shall be visiting ten other countries without passports, visas, baggage troubles and garlic. The men in Cannes seemed to talk about it as a matter of course. And nowadays the steps that have led to this great project, like all history, are inclined to look a little dusty. Yet the biggest Eurovision thrill I ever got was that first wavering picture from Calais, when I knew that international television could be done in spite of differing standards. I won’t say you’ll find Calais engraved in my heart, but it is an imperishable memory.

 

Six people behind desks with telephones, microphones and loudspeakers

In the Technical Control Room during the televising of the Winter Olympic Games at Cortina d’Ampezzo. L. to R. sitting: Dr Brunner, Österreichischer Rundfunk; Mr Maas, Nederlandse P.T.T.; Dr Corsaro, Radiotelevisione Italiana; Mlle Taillan, Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française. Standing: Mr J. T. Dickinson, Chief Engineer, European Broadcasting Union; Mr E. H. Woods, BBC. [Photo: Godefroid, Brussels]

 

The architects of Eurovision were Cecil McGivern and Jean d’Arcy, his opposite number in France. After Calais they began to shape international television. There were programmes from Paris in the middle of one of France’s worst thunderstorms. There was a week of programmes from eight countries which took us to Rome for the first time, so that we could explore St Peter’s and see and hear His Holiness the Pope broadcast a special message. Then came the BBC’s order for a permanent Eurovision link with the Continent.

Eighteen months ago the first part of this permanent link—that from London to Dover—opened. Since then viewers have seen around 100 relays from Europe, made up of special programmes, ‘multilaterals’ and inserts into home programmes. The Olympic Games from Cortina, Prince Rainier’s wedding from Monte Carlo, and the Hungarian refugee programme from Traiskir-chen on the Austro-Hungary border will be remembered. Among the other places that have been visited have been:

  • Lausanne
  • Arnhem
  • Berlin
  • Milan
  • Cologne
  • Brussels
  • Antwerp
  • Rotterdam
  • Leiden
  • Munich
  • Aachen
  • Amsterdam
  • Lugano
  • Westphalia
  • Zurich
  • Geneva
  • Venice
  • The Rhine
  • Vienna
  • Garmisch-Partenkirchen
  • Oosterbeek (Holland)

These broadcasts have been accomplished through the co-operation of the European Television services. What I would like to see is the BBC’s own Eurovision Roving Eye, stationed on the Continent to do BBC programmes and thus also cut out the need for converting the picture to 405 lines. That is not yet possible. But in the meantime, and thanks to European co-operation, a good record has been set up for a system which began only six and a half years ago with a picture from Calais looking a little like a blancmange.

 

A diagram showing lines between cities

Part of the new map of Europe showing most of the United Kingdom links in the Eurovision network.

 

Today there is a new map of Europe scored with the lines of the Eurovision network. There are two- and three-lane television highways connecting the countries. That map looks a little like a Clapham Junction signalman’s nightmare now. What it will look like in ten years’ time I hesitate to think. Perhaps like a cross-section of an uncrushed sawtooth.

 

George Campey was a Television Publicity Officer

 

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Liverpool, Friday 9 June 2023