The BBC and the Pilkington Committee 

16 June 2023


Ariel cover

From Ariel for November 1960

The terms of reference of the Pilkington Committee have already been given in Ariel. Broadly speaking, the Committee is to consider the whole future of broadcasting in the United Kingdom except the External Services. The following article examines what are likely to be the main issues which will come before the Committee and defines briefly the BBC’s policy towards them.




Two fundamental points affect sound broadcasting: whether the further development of sound is to be stopped now that television is widespread; and, if the answer to that question is no, whether the BBC is to be permitted to carry out the further developments it has planned.

The Present Situation

The BBC has over many years established and developed its present comprehensive sound service. In the BBC’s view, this service is valuable to the nation and grounds do not exist for establishing competitive services.

Expansion of the Present Service

The BBC wishes to extend the hours of broadcasting considerably. The differing tastes of the sound audience can only be satisfied by the continuing choice of at least three programmes and this choice should be available for the greater part of the day.

Local Broadcasting

With the completion of the major part of the VHF transmitter plan, it becomes possible to develop local broadcasting, that is, a service in centres of population where a community of interests exists. The BBC’s service of local broadcasting would reflect and encourage many kinds of local activities: politics, commerce, entertainment, social groups, and industry. Each station would have a high degree of autonomy to develop the kind of service best suited to the area it was serving. The station manager would be able to draw on the networks for some of his material. The local service envisaged by the BBC would be fuller and more comprehensive than that which any of the rival claimants could offer.

The BBC has already put to the Post Office proposals for erecting low-power transmitters in many of our cities and towns and for launching a limited experiment as a first step.

Local broadcasting would be developed on VHF. Medium waves, even if available for this purpose, could not be used after dark because of the interference they would cause. VHF would suffer no such restrictions. One home in five now has a VHF set, a proportion which is likely to rise, particularly if given a stimulus by the introduction of local broadcasting.




The Television Advisory Committee, on which the BBC is represented and for which it has done much work, has recently reported to the Postmaster General on the technical aspects of television in the future. It suggests that the present 405-line standard will not be adequate for the next twenty-five years. Accordingly, it recommends a change to 625-line, which is one of the standards widely used in other countries. The BBC would support the adoption of the 625-line standard which would result in a better picture for the viewer, particularly when the larger-sized screen becomes more common. The change would also help the BBC in its export of programmes to overseas markets.

However, before line standards can be changed, a decision has to be taken that television is to be extended from the present VHF Bands I and III into the UHF Bands IV and V. The T.A.C. has pointed out that the use of the UHF Bands is a necessary prerequisite to the changing of line standards or the provision of more than three programmes.

Third Television Service

A third television service of near national coverage could be accommodated in Band III on a 405-line standard. Alternatively, the remaining channels in Band III could be used to strengthen the existing services. In the BBC’s view, the latter choice should be made, since three-quarters of a million people are still without any kind of television service at all and the problem of a Welsh television service has not yet been solved. People who live in the more populated areas have access to many amenities. The BBC considers that it would be inequitable to provide them with a third television service while more isolated areas go without any television at all.

Nevertheless, if Band HI is to be used for a third service, the Corporation wishes to provide it. The Corporation would then be able to increase its provision of serious, cultural, and information programmes, cater more fully for regional needs than is possible at present, extend educational broadcasts, and provide more opportunities for experimental programmes. The Corporation’s policy would be to offer a planned choice of two alternative services, each of which would contain a balanced proportion of light and serious material.

The same programme policy would apply equally if it were decided to open up Bands IV and V to television in this country as they already are in a number of other countries.

A Third Authority?

The suggestion that there should be a third television authority has been put forward with other plans for the future control and organization of British broadcasting. The suggested new authority would operate on public service lines for strictly educational purposes. The BBC regards this as an unsatisfactory suggestion. Apart from the wastefulness of setting up a third system, it could relieve the existing authorities of some of their responsibility for providing balanced programmes. It would also undermine the BBC’s position as the main instrument of broadcasting, a concept to which tribute has been paid by successive Governments and Broadcasting Committees. The BBC’s influence at home and abroad would be seriously weakened.

Colour Television

The BBC is ready to provide colour programmes in Band I on 405 lines and to extend them to Bands IV and V on 625 lines when the time comes. These programmes would draw on six years of research and experimental transmissions on 405 lines. The studios at the Television Centre have been designed for the introduction of colour at any time, and the problem of providing a compatible system for reception either in colour or in black-and-white has been solved. What is now needed is a colour receiver which can be sold at an economic price.



The cost of the full development of the BBC’s services in Sound and Television would be met by the full proceeds of a combined licence of about £5. This would cover:

  • the introduction of a new television service in Bands IV and V;
  • colour television;
  • the expansion of sound broadcasting on the networks;
  • the establishment of local sound broadcasting.

The present combined licence is £4 [£71 in today’s money, allowing for inflation -Ed], £1 [£18] of which is Excise duty. The daily cost to the viewer is slightly more than the cost of his morning paper. If the licence went up to £5 [£88], the daily cost would still be less than 3½d. [~1.5p in decimal, 27p with inflation], which is not as much as the price of a popular Sunday newspaper.

The suggestion is sometimes made that even this light burden could be eased if the BBC were to supplement its income by accepting advertisements. The BBC, however, believes that the licence fee system is the best guarantee of independence and that the best way of strengthening public service broadcasting, the need for which has been seen more and more clearly in recent years, is to will the necessary means.





Jeremy Rogers adds:

Looking through this list of BBC policy and comparing them with the corresponding output of the Pilkington Committee it is easy to see that they got pretty much what they were looking for. This was no accident but a result of preparation measuring up their wants against the terms of reference and what might be reasonably be achievable.

Some identified shortcomings in operations and new services to counter them were not pursued as these might have undermined the general ‘public service’ framework they were working within.

For example, the lack of a popular music service had been identified internally two years earlier as an issue needing addressing for the future, but this was not taken up in evidence with local radio instead being the main expansion offered.

This approach meshed very well into the core way that the Pilkington Committee operated in that they first defined what they saw as their ideal broadcasting system and measured the BBC and Independent systems against this. As their position might be summed up as a very pure public service viewpoint the BBC although not escaping criticism came off relatively unscathed in this comparison.

Indeed, regarding radio, the biggest regret expressed was concerning the BBC moving away from fully mixed radio networks which had started through the Second World War and was never restored afterwards.

By contrast ITV despite carrying a public service remit not only didn’t really fit in with the idealised model of broadcasting as the Committee saw it but was not a monolith and separately submitted evidence from the Independent Television Authority and all contracted companies pointed in different directions without a consensus. This meant for example that the support for a separate Educational TV channel was not being pushed to the same degree as the BBCs opposition to it.

One main aspect where the BBC didn’t get its own way with the Pilkington Committee or ultimately was the technical aspects of colour television. Pilkington did not express a preference for a colour system standard seeing it as an issue for a Technical Advisory Committee but did recommend that the existing Band I & III 405-line services should not provide colour programmes prior to the standards being settled for Band IV & V.

This delay would eventually kill off this possibility with the duplication method of switching to 625-line operation being adopted and colour only in Band IV & V.



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