Television in Britain 

29 December 2023

A speech by Gerald Beadle, C.B.E.
Director of BBC Television Broadcasting
February 1960



Mr. Gerald Beadle, Director of BBC Television Broadcasting, was recently invited to address a New York audience on the question of television in Britain. The following are some of the points he made in his address:-


To anyone concerned about Television as a social force I recommend Britain as a field for study especially just now. It has two powerful networks, one operating on the public service system, the other on the advertising system. There is no third network to confuse the issue. It is a straight contest between two powerful groups. I believe much depends on the result not only for Britain but for television generally in the Western world. Neither system is likely to ruin the other, but one of the two will in the end come to be regarded as the more acceptable to an educated democracy.

The contest is not over yet. I expect another two or three years to pass before the issue becomes quite clear. The British advertising network is compelled by financial considerations to adopt a style of programming designed to attract a large, steady, predictable, average audience. Their programming is the vehicle for the advertisements so it must have a kind of steady consistency about it which gives confidence to advertisers.

And it must slant itself towards that section of the population which has the most money to spend on advertised consumer goods. In other words it must make its principle appeal to the housewife, either directly or through her younger children. In my own country most of this spending power lies with the women. The programming formula is well thought out, I personally think it’s a hit monotonous. But it works. It attracts advertising revenue. And the stockholders do well out of it.

The BBC’s formidable task

Gerald Beadle

Gerald Beadle announcing on the BBC West Region in 1947

The wholly different financial status of the BBC leads to a wholly different style and policy of programming. The British people as individuals pay annual fees for their radio and television. This creates a relationship between the BBC and the people which is more like the normal relationship between a business and its customers. For the BBC the customers come first. They are individual men, women and children, with varying standards of education and taste and an age range between infancy and 100. We have no financial temptation to favour any particular section. All the people are equally important to the BBC, We have set ourselves the task of satisfying the diverse needs and interests of every substantial element of the population. It is a formidable task.

I believe it is true to say that at the level of intellectual interest and artistic appreciation, there is no significant difference between the tastes of men and women. But at the more ordinary levels there is quite a difference. Women, on the whole, lean towards drama, serials and competitions with prizes. Men tend to lean more towards news, sport and relaxing entertainment. Of course there is a lot of overlapping but these tendencies are fairly well known. So it will not surprise you when I tell you that the BBC with its equal concern for the male sex is well ahead of its advertising competitor in news coverage, in coverage of sport and in Show Business, The special requirements of children and young people are also of very great concern to us and much is done to meet them.

Now let me for a minute turn away from entertainment and towards education and culture. It is no good attempting to use television to force down people’s throats something they don’t want. On the other hand I am convinced that great developing peoples like the British and the Americans have a real thirst for information, for knowledge, for ideas and for artistic appreciation.

Television is a superb medium for gratifying all these needs. I guess that before very long Television Services everywhere will come to be judged by this standard more than by any other.

But it is not easy to present these things in forms acceptable to large numbers of viewers in their homes. The ability to do it well and successfully is the art of the professional producer.

About half of the BBC’s Prime Viewing Time is devoted to programmes of information, of ideas and of important works of art. The competing advertising network does not altogether neglect these things, but it devotes a much smaller proportion of its prime time to them. Therefore if you take as a self-evident truth the proposition that entertainment is always more popular than thought and cultivated taste, you will assume that the BBC is deliberately making a present of the mass audience to its competitor. The BBC would be prepared to let its average audience go down to one third, maybe even one quarter, of the total rather than lower its professional standards or reduce its high proportion of intelligent programmes. But in fact this has not happened. After nearly four and a half years of competition there are substantially more British viewers turning to the BBC each day than to the advertising network, I don’t know whether this state of affairs will last, whether the ratio will swing more or less favourably for the BBC, but I can say with certainty that the BBC will maintain its standards whatever happens to the ratio.

Achieving the mass audience

The BBC has always been able to pull in the majority mass audience whenever it has set out to do so. Take last Christmas Day. Both networks devoted themselves to entertaining the public. The audience ratio as between the two networks was 66:34 in the BBC’s favour. Both networks reported the recent General Election. The audience ratio was 74:26 in the BBC’s favour. These figures do not allow for the BBC’s slightly larger station coverage.

I hope that I have shown you that a Public Service Television network with a high proportion of intelligent programmes and with an annual revenue of $52 million can hold its audiences and in many respects more than hold them in competition with a commercial network with a lower proportion of intelligent programmes and annual earnings of $160 million.

There is no short cut to success in public service television as there is in commercial. The road to success for a public service network is long and straight. It involves fidelity to principles, and the highest possible professional standards in all types of programming. It is a policy which takes a long time to mature.


Three women and two men

At the official opening of the BBC Television Centre in 1960: Gerald Beadle welcomes Lady fforde (back to camera). On the left is Mrs Beadle, and on the right Lana Morris and Ronnie Waldman.


The influence of television

The experience of one country is seldom applicable to another. Our two countries have gained much by studying each other’s methods. But neither has, or ever will, copy the precise methods of the other. Our circumstances are different in so many respects. But I hope we can one day arrive at a basic philosophy of television which holds good everywhere, I regard television as an industry in its own right, taking a pride in the perfection of its own products and devoting itself to the needs of its customers – the people. Whenever it is used as a mere channel for the sale of other people’s goods or the propagation of particular ideologies it becomes something less than its true self. It becomes an instrument for promoting things which have no real relevance to television as such, and the results cannot be permanently satisfactory. That television has been given this inferior status in so many parts of the world is something which I, as a member of the Industry, regret.

Next to the home and school I believe television to have a more profound influence on the human race than any other medium of communication. It deserves to be taken very seriously indeed.


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Liverpool, Monday 20 May 2024