How did commercial television influence broadcast journalism in the UK in the second half of the 20th century
By Atina Dimitrova
More about the duopoly of the BBC and ITV...
There is every likelihood that commercial television changed the British broadcast landscape in the second half of the 20th century entirely. First of all, prior to commercial TV, the British media was familiar with a single public service system – the BBC, funded with licence fees. Television Act 1954, however, introduced the first commercial TV network in the UK – ITV, financed by advertisement revenue. The new channel challenged the BBC’s monopoly. Secondly, this competition involved both radio and TV stations. The publicly funded radio and TV channels needed to introduce lighter content so as to attract a wider audience. The commercial ones, on the other hand, had to use more hard news because they wanted to be a praiseworthy rival.
To begin with, the Churchill government wanted to introduce a second TV network in 1955 whose source of revenue was advertising, as Seymour-Ure (1996: 65) outlines. Before that, the BBC was at its peak of popularity and prestige at home and abroad when TV broadcasting was resumed after the Second World War (Seaton, 2010: 152). The new channel obliterated the monopoly which led to many discrepancies in public opinion. Seaton also reveals that although the change was opposed by the Labour Party, trade unions, most national newspapers etc., the ruling government succeeded in implementing it.
The new media landscape was endorsed by the duopoly of ITV and the BBC. The primary change was people’s opportunity to choose. As Crisell (2002: 83-85) explains, people “craved diversity” and there were many who thought that the BBC’s monopoly “discouraged efficiency and denied choice”. Secondly, ITV was also a journalistic outlet which “challenged the middle-class orientation” of the BBC (Conboy, 2011: 32). The third main change was the newly outlined need of regionalization of broadcasting as Selwyn Lloyds’ report presents (cited in Conboy, 2011: 30). Moreover, most probably the most vital change of this era was the necessity of British TV to accept competition and compromise between “highbrow and lowbrow, educated and uneducated tastes, entertainment and education” (Tunstall, 1987: 32). Each of these two channels experienced the need to conceive new concepts, both in lighter and more serious content, so as to attract audiences.
As far as the first change, diversity, is concerned, what ITV introduced in the ratings war, were widely accessible dramas and American made-for-TV series, give-away shows, spectaculars and televisual news coverage (Crisell, 2002: 104). ITV’s news programmes were different from the BBC’s, because the former relied on popular American strategies (Conboy, 2011: 30-31). Conboy also mentions that Independent Television News quickly exploited scoops and pioneered vox pop interviews. He recapitulates that there was a certain amount of aggression in their interviews and “professional pride in asking probing questions”. With these innovations, commercial TV challenged the BBC’s conservatism.
In terms of the newly presented lack of class hierarchy, thanks to the new channel, commercial TV confronted the “narrow-minded, middle-class professional bureaucrats who had little sympathy for working class interests” (Seaton, 2010: 154). This, inevitably, is linked to the point about regionalization. ITV had ambitions to trigger a social change in the quality of regional news, as Conboy (2011: 31) points out. In relation to that, local radio had an important role too. The second half of the 20th century was full of varying fortunes for this medium. TV was radio’s first rival and the BBC’s coverage of Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 symbolizes that the televisual effects superseded the radio (Crisell, 2002: 75). However, soon the radio needed to face the commercial rivals’ pressure too. It resulted in 160 commercial stations by 1995, as Seymour-Ure (1996: 80) states. The BBC, though, reached 38 local stations. Furthermore, by 1995 another commercial radio extended twice the number of the BBC Radio 3’s listeners (Seymour-Ure, 1996: 79). Meanwhile, Seymour-Ure also observed that BBC Radio 1 and 2 continued losing their audiences. This reveals that commercial broadcasting was powerfully determined to change the British media.
Undoubtedly, all these changes led to the main one – competition between licence-funded and advertising-financed broadcasters. And, of course, with the passage of time, there were more channels to be introduced, which made the situation even more complicated. Among the things commercial TV introduced, so as to be a creditable rival, was making its news coverage really televisual. When the BBC was producing materials more suitable to sound broadcasting, ITN “used an unprecedented quantity of film in its bulletins to give viewers a better perspective” (Crissel, 2002: 98). ITN “set new standards of rigour, enterprise and pace for TV news,” Robin Day concluded (in Conboy, 2011: 31). Moreover, LBC News Radio, launched in 1973, provided high quality current affairs (Conboy, 2011: 28). So there was a distinct move to high standard programmes from commercial broadcasters.
On the other hand, the BBC responded to the competition. The BBC created a 40-minute news magazine, Tonight, for early evening current affairs programmes (Conboy, 2011: 32). Hard news was combined with light entertainment and music. What is more, as Tunstall (1987: 40) points out, the Conservative government in 1960 set up the Pilkington Committee to scrutinize the media landscape. In 1962 it denunciated the commercial TV. So when it was time for the Committee to decide which channel to receive the third one which was about to be introduced, after the critics towards commercialization, the BBC won the third channel. The BBC2 was launched in 1964. Crisell (2002: 121) lists its successful experiments. The Great War, an archive compilation in 26 parts, led to immense interest. Late Night Line-up pioneered the “talk show” – it was an open-ended critical review of the current production of the BBC. Moreover, That Was the Week That Was, launched by the BBC, was the first satire show in Britain. Its highly topical content became an instant success but suffered some loss of quality. What is more, BBC radio experienced its greatest moment in the 1950s and 1960s when it presented comedy shows (Crisell, 2002: 74). Therefore, these facts lead to the conclusion that the BBC gradually tried to use light entertainment in agreement with its usual serious coverage in order to attract viewers. In relation to this, in 1995 the BBC even commenced a new channel, funded by advertising – the BBC World with 24-hour news service (Seymour-Ure, 1996: 72).
Tracing back the history of all these innovations, it would be fair to conclude that the honours for the two main channels were evenly spread. This competition was not that much about eliminating one of them, but mainly about changing the media world in Britain completely with mutual efforts. For example, the BBC2 was the first European network to start colour transmissions in 1967 (Crisell, 2002: 120). This helped the BBC a lot financially, because the switch from monochrome to colour led to a higher revenue from more expensive licence fees (Crisell, 2002: 132). ITV did not have any financial benefits from this. In addition, in 1959 the ratio between the BBC’s and ITV’s viewers was 70:30 in favour of the BBC, as Tunstall (1987: 41) shows. Plenty of the BBC’s comedy shows were more enduring than ITV’s because of the former’s unsurpassed dialogue (Crisell, 2002: 101). He also outlines that in drama the BBC persisted long after ITV’s influx because of the BBC’s classic plays, adaptations of novels, detective stories and original series. What is more, even in the areas where commercial radio made progress, the BBC rapidly responded with other alternatives. For instance, BBC Radio 5 Live contributed sport and news coverage, as Conboy (2011: 28) states.
Commercial TV, on the other hand, achieved many things as well. For instance, Tunstall (1987: 39) shows that people who could receive both channels, were “switching in epidemic proportions from the BBC to ITV”. He also outlines that in 1957 the ratio of audience share was 75:25 in favour of ITV. So commercial TV altered the BBC’s dominant role from the very beginning although the BBC found ways to survive. Although the BBC had 13-14 hours a week coverage of current affairs and ITV had only 5, the later presented it with more liveliness which was a welcome change (Home Office, 1977: 92). The Home Office also concludes that the “BBC has yet to recognize how greatly in need current affairs is of revivification”. ITN’s News at Ten, for example, changed the concept of news bullentins’ length. They used to be 12-15-minute long, but ITN presented for the first time on British television 30-minute “carefully crafted and produced journalism packages” (Conboy, 2011: 33). Moreover, since 1972 the proportion of serious programmes rose from 25% to 34% (Home Office, 1977: 147), which plenty of people had expected for many years. What is more, the Home Office also presents that according to the hours of output each year, the commercial companies became the largest producers of television anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the government noticed the vast range of programming that occurred thanks to this rivalry and increased transmission from 50 to 60 hours per week (Crisell, 2002: 104). This provided ITV with the opportunity for extra revenue from more advertising. The move, however, brought the BBC only extra expense, as it had to produce more programmes. An additional strength of the commercial rival was Scottish TV, one of the biggest ITV contractors. The owner was the Canadian news magnate Roy Thomson. His phrase that having a commercial TV franchise in Britain was “like having a licence to print your own money” became emblematic for this new era (cited in Crisell, 2002: 108).
As the data shows, there are plenty of achievements of each model of funding. Of course, the commercial TV was a good addition because people did not need to pay to receive ITV’s offers of big prizes with its shows like Double Your Money and Take Your Pick, as Crisell (2002: 102) presents. On the other hand, the BBC’s moral rectitude is emblematic of the British media. Although “commercial TV had won the lion’s share of the audience, the BBC retained a cultural superiority” (Crisell, 2002: 109). It can also be argued that the public service model of funding will always be essential because the BBC continues producing high quality, expensive programmes, although they might be only for the minorities. The BBC does not “discount certain interests or tastes merely because they are shared by a small number of people” (Crisell, 2002: 115). What is more, it was not only about the BBC and ITV. The network has gradually grown. The three-handed competition between the BBC’s two channels and ITV looked like BBC1:BBC2:ITV, respectively – 40:10:50 (Tunstall, 1987: 40-41). This competition was stable. However, even after the arrival of Channel 4, the second commercial channel, the BBC was victorious because of the preservation of C4’s remit (Scannell, 2001: 28).
This rivalry, though, shows that the channels compete by “providing a broadly similar programme service with a roughly equal share of audience” (Scannel, 2001: 18). Therefore, the British media was broad enough to accept all these channels and their innovations even though at some point their aims were relatively similar. The media landscape was influenced by a wide variety of comments because of this. However, even people who “distrusted the tone and character” of the BBC, as the Liberal economist Beveridge showed in his report, preferred the Corporation’s licence to be renewed than the dominance of commercial TV (cited in Seaton, 2010: 153). Even after the coming of very crucial challengers like Channel 4 News, which rapidly developed an audience of around a million a day throughout the 1980s, the BBC remained one of the most authoritative sources of journalism worldwide (Conboy, 2011: 38-41).
To recapitulate, commercial TV came as a refreshment for the BBC, widely thought to be too conservative. The BBC’s monopoly is over, which was a welcome change for many people who thought the Corporation was “stiff and stuffy”, as Robin Day concludes (cited in Conboy, 2011: 31). Something, which did not change, though, was the government’s dominance in terms of the source of revenue. Tunstall (1987: 37) outlines that both kinds of funding are susceptible to changes in the national economy, but they are also dependent on the government. It controls the BBC licence fee increases and it has the right to make decisions about raising ITV’s advertising rates. The essential point, however, is that both ITV and the BBC treated the competitiveness confidently. As Seaton (2010: 157) presents, they observed with care each other’s performance and wanted to make the best of the dependability on their rival. Therefore, they introduced some techniques like showing their documentaries and current events simultaneously. This proved to be helpful for achieving maximum audiences.
The BBC was no longer the sole domestic broadcaster, but it has always been very influential. Although there were examples like the one when contributors from the BBC’s weekly current affairs programme, Panorama, were lured from ITN (Crisell, 2002: 100), the BBC continued being a leading factor. Commercial TV, on the other hand, excellently understood public desires for diversity, based on more entertainment and was a very persuasive rival. These two approaches towards broadcasting in Britain explored the changes and adapted to them by making competition beneficial for each side.
Conboy, M. (2011) Journalism in Britain: A historical introduction. London: Sage
Crisell, A. (2002) An Introductory history of British broadcasting. 2nd edition. London: Routledge
Curran J., Seaton J. (2010) Power without responsibility. 7th edition. Abingdon: Routledge
Home Office (1977) Report of the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
Scannell, P. (2001) “Public service broadcasting: The history of a concept” In: Goodwin, A., Whannel, G. (ed) Understanding Television. London: Routledge, pp. 11-29
Seymour-Ure, C. (1996) The British Press and Broadcasting since 1945. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell
Tunstall, J. (1987) The media in Britain. London: Constable and Company Limited
Author of two novels published in Bulgarian. Photography lover. Journalism student at City University London