Britain’s experiment with Commercial TV 

10 June 2024

E. R. VADEBONCOEUR, president and general manager, WSYR-AM-FM-TV Syracuse, just back from an extended visit to England, describes the set-up of British commercial tv, expected to begin operations this fall with three stations and four program contractors, in a report to be delivered this week to the NARTB board. Excerpts from the report appear below.



Broadcasting/Telecasting masthead

From Broadcasting-Telecasting for 24 January 1955

THE START of a limited commercial television operation in England at a date still to be determined next fall will mark the most important development in British broadcasting since the first transmission of radio and television in England. It is no overstatement to say that only the inauguration of radio broadcasting, first, and of television broadcasting, second, outrank this experiment of tremendous social and commercial implication which will begin in the autumn of 1955.

In a solid month of talking with British educators, clergymen, broadcasters and hundreds of citizens of all types and levels of viewpoint, it became clear to me that commercial television in Britain was not finally decided by the Act of Parliament which created the Independent Television Authority at all. The fate of commercial television in Britain still hangs in the balance and the performance of commercial television in its first stages under the supervision of the ITA will decide whether it should continue in Britain or end quite abruptly. There is not the slightest doubt that there are enormously powerful factions who never were reconciled to commercial television in Britain and who make no secret of the fact that they would like to end the experiment and would throw their weight toward doing so at the first reasonable chance.

For an American commercial broadcaster, the first step in commercial television in Britain is certainly exciting. Commercial television will open with three transmitters, located in (1) the London area reaching a population of 14 million, (2) the Midlands area at Birmingham reaching a population of 10 million and (3) the North area located at Manchester reaching a population area of 14 million. The commercial possibilities are enough to stagger the imagination of an American broadcaster with memories of the single-market situation in this country during the freeze. These three commercial transmitters will reach, combined, approximately 38 million people in areas where the BBC broadcasts have built up a set population which gives a ready-made market to the commercial telecaster. There will be nearly four million television sets working in this area by next fall and commercial television will undoubtedly stimulate enormous new sales.

Once commercial television under the ITA is operating properly in these three first areas, the ITA must then turn its attention to other areas of the United Kingdom for the next step in commercial television development. It is already agreed that the fourth transmitter must go into Scotland. The chances are that a fifth television station will have to go into Wales. There may be other requirements in the United Kingdom, too, such as a transmitter for Northern Ireland which does not now have even BBC television, so it looks as though the three big transmitters serving the three great unduplicated areas of 38 million people in England will be perhaps the richest commercial television monopoly in the world for several years, perhaps as many as five.

ER Vadeboncoeur

E.R. “Curley” Vadeboncoeur

Operation of commercial television in Britain this fall will break down to this format:

The ITA will construct, own, operate and control the television transmitters and by this method will have complete control over commercial television programming. The ITA will use the towers already in use by BBC at the point where ITA transmitters will be established. The ITA will pay a rental, still to be determined, to the BBC for use of the towers.

All commercial television programs will be originated and produced and fed to the transmitter under contract by operating companies called program contractors, [who] will have to construct, equip, own and operate their studios. They will have to finance completely their program operations. This is the significant dividing line in duty and in authority. The program contractors will have full responsibility for producing all programs, subject to approval by the ITA, which is responsible in turn to the Postmaster General, but all these programs must be fed through the transmitters which the ITA controls.

The first three transmitters have been made available to four program contracting firms: the Broadcast Relay Service and Associated Newspapers, the Associated Broadcasting Development Co., the Kemsley-Winnick Group and the Granada Theaters. These four companies represent principally newspapers and theaters.

The manner in which the four program contractors will share three transmitters follows a pattern of newspaper operation and economics. The entire operation of newspapers changes on Saturdays and Sundays, as against Monday through Friday. The Authority decided to follow this pattern in breaking down the time on the stations. The result is that the London station will be operated by the Broadcast Relay Service and Associated Newspapers Mondays through Fridays [and] by Associated Broadcasting Development Co. on Saturdays and Sundays. The Birmingham station will be operated by Associated Broadcasting Development Co. on Mondays through Fridays and by the Kemsley-Winnick Group on Saturdays and Sundays. The Manchester station will be operated by the Granada Theaters Mondays through Fridays and by the Kemsley-Winnick Group on Saturdays and Sundays.

Since these first four program contractors were selected, a very interesting new development has occurred. The Television Act lays very heavily upon ITA responsibility for careful balance of news. As a result. ITA has decided that news shall be a separate category for program contract purposes and that a program contractor will be appointed exclusively for news [who] will handle all the news to be broadcast on commercial television.

This will result in a fifth program contractor and further sharing of the three transmitters before operations begin next fall.

The contract fee, or license, or whatever the financial consideration for a program contract may be called, has not yet been determined. Neither has the duration of these contracts been determined. ITA and the contractors are now negotiating, and have been for several months, but it may be sometime in February before it is decided what a program contractor shall pay ITA for the right to broadcast commercially over ITA transmitters. ITA, after initial costs and aside from a modest annual sum which it may receive from the government, is charged with the responsibility for financing itself. Obviously, it will have to come as close to financing itself as possible from the fees to be charged to the contractors. It will be interesting to see what these fees will be. Presumably, they will be pretty high.


Kemsley Winnick

Artist’s impression, based on the Kemsley Newspapers logo


As to the duration of the contracts, ITA realizes that a large investment is involved and that a program contractor who constructs studios, contracts for talent and personnel and takes on advertising contracts will have to be assured of a reasonable life expectancy. Therefore, the contracts will probably run for five years in this first batch.

While the expression “Free Television” is certainly reasonable and justified, there is still a very great difference between the American concept of “Free Television” and the British concept of it, as it appears in this first experimental step. The Television Act provides for a considerable amount of control by the Authority over advertising and program matters. For example, under the Act it would be impossible for a sponsor to purchase a program packaged by an advertising agency for him and to telecast that program as being presented by the sponsor. The following quotation from the Act services to illustrate the point:

“Nothing shall be included in any programs broadcast by the Authority whether in an advertisement or not. which states, suggests, or implies, or could reasonably be taken to state, suggest or imply, that any part of any program broadcast by the Authority which is not an advertisement has been supplied or suggested by any advertiser….”


Independent Television Authority logo

Independent Television Authority

Apparently, a sponsor who wishes to attract a certain type of audience, or a high volume of audience, could produce and present a half-hour program into which he could insert his advertising messages, but he could not claim any credit for the program nor could the advertising announcements be integrated in any way. While there is no restriction definitely laid down as to the amount of commercial which may be carried at any given time, the controlling factor for the insertion of advertising messages seems to be the expression “at natural breaks.” However, this wording is probably susceptible to many interpretations.

I asked Sir Robert Fraser [ITA director general] how he felt the Authority would look at a program produced in the format of a vaudeville show. This program might be an hour long. It might have ten acts, each doing a turn six minutes long, [or] 15 acts, each doing a turn four minutes long. Would the break between each act be a “natural break”? He felt it was possible that this might be considered to be correct, although he had no set opinion on it because the question had not arisen before.

In practice, it is going to be quite possible to insert a reasonable number of commercial announcements in any of the program formats which can be foreseen, but the Television Act certainly is directed at preventing sponsors from controlling programs. It may not be possible to prevent a sponsor from producing and telecasting through the program contractor a program of the type he wants, but if the Act is interpreted with any degree of strictness, the sponsor’s only benefit will come from clean-cut announcements within, but not linked to, the program.



To an American broadcaster, some of the restrictions placed upon commercial television at its outset in Britain will seem pretty severe. For example, the Postmaster General has the authority to forbid the advertising of any goods or services he may determine to be undesirable and he may also issue instructions against methods of advertising which he does not feel should be employed. The Postmaster General is also the final authority, in consultation with ITA, as to eventual rules covering the “interval which must elapse between any two periods given over to advertisements” and as to types of broadcasts into which advertisements may not be inserted. One flat prohibition already appearing in the Act will ban commercials by or for any religious or political group or cause and any commercial with any relation to an industrial dispute.

The Act also provides that the Authority must include in its contracts with program contractors provision for the contractor to submit to the Authority in advance of broadcast, scripts and particulars of programs, including commercials and other full details. Contracts also must reserve to the Authority “power to forbid the broadcasting of any matter, or class or description of matter.” The contracts also will provide power for the Authority to “require that nothing shall be broadcast without previous approval of the Authority.”


A man reads a letter. He stands in front of a bust of the Madonna and Child

Kenneth Clark, chairman of the ITA, in 1955 – Cecil Beaton

Further restrictions in which British commercial television will differ from American commercial television appear in the provision for advisory committees on advertising, religion and children’s matters. The committees on religion and children’s matters will be the same as those now advising the BBC. However, the advisory committee on advertising will be a completely new one because, obviously, the BBC has never had any such committee. Under the Television Act this advisory committee will guide the Authority and program contractors in standards of advertising such as “exclusion of misleading advertisements” and provide the Authority “a code of such standards of conduct.” The recommendations of this committee are binding upon the Authority, and the Authority’s agreement with program contractors, in turn, makes these recommendations absolutely enforceable.

Furthermore, the Postmaster General and “any other Minister of the Crown” may order the Authority to broadcast any announcements he feels necessary or expedient “in connection with his functions.” This is not a matter of making a request, as in the case of government officials of the United States, but is an absolute right of the Postmaster General or Minister, as I read the Television Act.

“Non-exclusivity” provisions in the Television Act again mark a considerable difference between the new British system and the present American system. These provisions give the Postmaster General power to prevent the Authority or one of its contractors or the BBC from gaining exclusive rights to any important sporting event or other type of special event. For example, if a program contractor tried to buy exclusive rights to the Grand National or the Wimbledon matches, the Postmaster General would have the right, if he so desired, to step in and order that equivalent rights be given to the BBC so that it might televise the event over its own service. That, of course, would put it up to the promoter to determine whether he wanted the event telecast by two or more telecasters and would remove the promoter’s control over the amount of telecasting of the event. It would also put the program contractor in the position of having bought or otherwise obtained a valuable property which is no longer exclusive with him. In effect, this is almost certain to prevent any exclusive broadcasts of any important sports or special events on commercial television.

The BBC is also protected in the Television Act by provisions which prevent the commercial television system from competing with BBC in the field of sound only; this is in spite of the fact that BBC television does some programs in sound only.

One departure from the newspaper pattern is going to be quite noticeable because in England advertisements for gambling are acceptable as newspaper advertising. This is the one really important source of newspaper revenue which is already sure to be barred from commercial television. However, virtually all other goods and services advertised in newspapers will probably be permitted on commercial television.


You Say

1 response to this article

Harald Stelsen 9 July 2024 at 5:43 pm

“Northern Ireland which does not now have even BBC television”

[In modern parlance this would be described as blatant “fake news”.]

This article was published on Monday, January 24th, 1955 written by the author who was “just back from an extended visit to England”.

The BBC Television Service in Northern Ireland debuted on Friday, May 1st, 1953 from a temporary transmitter at Glencairn, due to road access at the already planned and obtained site at Divis not yet being available.

A fortnightly news magazine “Ulster Mirror” started on Friday, November 26th, 1954 for the BBC Television Service in Northern Ireland.

Subsequently on Thursday, July 21st, 1955 transmissions for Northern Ireland started on VHF channel 1 (35 kW ERP) from the Divis transmitter site.

The first program of the Independent Television service from Associated Rediffusion was broadcast two months later from Croydon on VHF channel 9 (60 kW ERP) on Thursday, September 22nd, 1955.

The Independent Television service from Ulster Television did not begin until Saturday, October 31st, 1959 on VHF channel 9 (100 kW ERP) from the Black Mountain transmitter site, which was four years and two months later than the Divis transmitter commenced broadcasting the already established BBC Television Service for Northern Ireland.

So why did the author of the article write this false statement?

Was it an attempt at discrediting the public service remit of the BBC and to suggest that private enterprise would provide something that the state broadcaster was not providing even though it was?

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