British public service broadcasting has survived the test of time and is now over eighty years old. To understand its longevity we must consider its initial conception, the challenges it has faced and the changes it has undertaken over the years. The political and societal changes that Britain has undertaken are reflective of how the face of public service broadcasting has changed. That is, it can be argued, that the political leanings of a democracy are expressed by the majority and therefore mirror the mood of the public. And because public service broadcasting is overseen by ruling government, it also reflects the ideology of the majority, ensuring its continued success.
The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) began its life as a private company in the December of 1922. It was granted a licence to begin broadcasting in the January of 1923. The company was founded predominantly by the radio equipment industry and practically at its conception found it was in dispute with the Post Office over Licence fees. Consumers were required to buy the licence, through the PO on purchasing a BBC wireless radio, but managed to evade payment by buying the cheaper”…experimenters’ or home constructors’ licences” (McDonnell 1991 p.10) or did not purchase one at all.
The BBC wanted the Post Office (PO) to take action on consumers who did not pay the licence fee and to increase the fees of the alternative licences. This provoked the Postmaster-General into the development of a departmental committee-The Sykes committee. Headed by Major-general Sir Frederick Sykes, it compromised of Members of Parliament and associates of the BBC, Post Office and radio manufacturing industry. Their task was to review “the whole question of broadcasting- not merely the question of licences…” (ibid p.10).
James McDonnell (1991) argues that one member of the committee’s opinion was found favourable by the majority- John Reith. Reith believed that broadcasting should not remain in the private sector and that a company with “…such potential power over public opinion and the life of the nation ought to remain with the State…” (The Broadcasting committee: Report [Cmd 1951]). The committee proposed that the broadcasting should be treated as any ‘public utility’ as the ‘airwaves’ were a public commodity.
It discarded the suggestions of commercial monopolies and direct State control, opting for the Post Office being granted indirect management via the issuing of licences to broadcasting stations. Reith became the British Broadcasting Companies first director-general from 1923 to 1926 and put to work his ideology of public ownership. In 1927 he became the director general of the newly formed British broadcasting Corporation (Born 2005).
Reith’s image of public service broadcasting was of a system that would provide Britain with a social, moral and political skeleton. Reith did not consider the public a good judge of what broadcasting should deliver, he felt that societies taste was questionable and their demands not necessarily be catered for. He believed it should be a source of entertainment, but that entertainment should not be its chief purpose; it must also be informative and educative and promote democracy. He did not want the state to be controllers, however he did want public service broadcasting to develop a political role, hoping to make society more knowledgeable (and therefore interested) in political process.(ibid 2005).
Reith’s philosophy was constructed with four points firmly at its foundations: The company should be funded by consumers via the licence fee and its purpose was not about making a profit. It should be available to anyone who wanted to engage its services. It should preserve its status as a monopoly; thus withstanding commercial and political forces. Additionally it must provide and maintain high standards of programmes, offering listeners the finest possible service. A status, that can be argued, has remained unchanged to the present day (Briggs & Cobley 2002).
In 1934, the question of how to provide a television service was given to the government selected Selsdon Committee. The Committee decided the BBC, whose broadcasting policies, moral and social ideals were favourable, should be given the task of managing this new form of communication. The idea of raising more revenue through advertising was dismissed, the committee deeming expenses being met by the existing licence fee scheme. The government acknowledged the committee’s findings and the BBC continued to be the nation’s sole broadcasting company. The BBC television service was the first in the world and began transmissions on the second of November 1936 (Crisell 2006).
The BBC remained largely unchanged until the Second World War; despite various committees being appointed by government to discuss its political capacity. The war fortified the BBCs character as a national institution. However, questions were also raised over its monopoly status, and some feared it was “…an unacceptable restriction of freedom in peacetime.” (McDonnell 1991, p.19). It was felt by some, that the BBC’s charter (which ran out in 1946) should not be renewed without a public enquiry. The newly elected Labour government dismissed these ideas and renewed the Charter in 1946, offering no chance of debate.
This disgruntled former Director -General of the BBC, Sir Frederick Ogilvie, who sent a letter to The Times challenging the monopoly status. He claimed that the monopoly diluted the BBC’s strength and that freedom of British citizens was under threat. This became the first direct challenge to its monopoly status. However a Government white paper in 1946 stated that by remaining a monopoly, could the BBC continue to offer an even-handed range of programmes. It did reduce the number of years it was to be renewed from ten to five years (McDonnell 1991).
In 1955 the monopoly of the BBC was broken. A new commercial television channel was launched; Independent Television (ITV). It was decided that a public body should be put in charge of overseeing this new enterprise. The Independent Television Authority (ITA) was appointed by government; to make sure that ITV offered high quality programmes. Also, like the BBC its licence should be up for 10 yearly reviews.
The new company’s revenue was to be raised through advertising, which was to be stringently policed. Although, ITV mirrored many of the BBC’s qualities, it was not a public company and was owned by entertainment moguls, who brought a fresher approach to the medium. Many felt, that the ITV offered a more socially reflective class of programmes, arguing that the BBC failed to recognise the changing socials structure of British culture. On the other hand, some believed that the BBC was producing more outstanding programmes than its ‘rival’. Indeed audience figures did not reflect that people were defecting to the BBC for ITV and the ITV did not initially increase overall viewing figures. (Born 2004)
Rather than weaken the BBC’s position, competition from the ITV offered viewers a choice. The new duopoly had done little to weaken the status of the BBC; although there were detractors of both companies. Some felt that the BBC did not cater to the youth market and that the quality of ITV programmes was questionable. It was not only the youth that were unhappy; in 1969 a lobbying group (the76 group) was formed in the House of Common, promising to stand for the views of professional employees of both channels, who were troubled by the future of broadcasting.
The group wanted a royal commission to be set up to assess the administration of British broadcasting, when the current charters ran out in 1976. In the May of 1970, the (Labour) Government yielded to pressure and announced an inquiry to be led by Lord Annon. However, in the General Election of eighteenth of June 1970 Labour lost to the Conservatives. The new Prime minister (Edward Heath) postponed the committee indefinitely. Leading to frustration from the campaigners (Brown 2007).
The questions group 76 raised, continued to be debated quietly and they fought hard for a fourth channel, to be independent form either the BBC or ITV. The advent of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 government provided them with the opportunity to launch this new channel. Presenting the channel as an ideal of Thatcher’s ‘free market’ principle, Channel 4 was launched in 1980 (ibid 2007). The BBC however continue to hold the majority of audience figures and this channel, like the ITV was offered as a complimentary service, catering to minority groups and offering a platform for independent film makers.
Satellite and cable television services were the next challenge faced by the BBC. Under Thatcher’s rule, the satellite and cable industry had a stumbling start. The question of finance could not be agreed upon (or interest raised) and early attempts failed. But in 1990 Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB began to take off. Its early conception offered only limited programmes and showed mainly films and American imports and did little to weaken the position of the BBC (ibid 2007).
Consumers, pay for these services on a contractual basis, and are only available to those who can afforded them. By the arrival of 1997’s Labour Government, lead by Tony Blair, the cable and satellite market was steadily growing and widening the range of its programming. In the last ten years, a new technology has advanced, Information Technology and provided internet access to the majority of homes in Britain, where viewer can download television programmes to watch on their home personal computers (Briggs & Cobley 2002).
Rather than be left behind, the BBC has reinvented itself over the years. It has continued to reflect the ideology of the majority, whilst, it be argued remaining its integrity. It has faced many challengers, but remains a public company, still funded by the licence fee and independent of direct state control. The BBC has recognised new advances in technology and now offers digital services, enabling it to offer minorities a voice and inclusion in society. Because of the way it is funded it continues to be available to anyone on the purchase of the licence fee and helps to unite society regardless of class, race, social position, political leanings, age or gender.