The Weird and Wonderful World of British Broadcasting – Part One


Hello, I’m Matthew and I’m mainly going to be writing about Doctor Who (which starts its fourth series here in the UK tonight) and also about some of the many British TV programmes which are relatively unknown in the US, but which are worth investigating.

To complement these posts, however, I’ve also written a six-part guide to British TV, explaining how it came to be the way it is and what makes it different to US TV. And, without further ado, this is…

Part One: The BBC

In the beginning was the BBC, which was originally a private company set up in 1922 to exploit the technological marvel that was radio. It didn’t run advertising and was instead funded by a license that all owners of mains-powered radios had to get from the General Post Office (roughly equivalent to the US Postal Service, except that they also ran the telephone network, until the early 1980s). In 1922, the license fee was ten shillings a year (a shilling was a coin in Britain’s pre-decimal currency, there were twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound; in today’s decimal currency, introduced in 1970, ten shillings is fifty pence, or half of one pound – at current exchange rates, that’s roughly one dollar). In 1927 the BBC was incorporated by Royal Charter and changed its name from the British Broadcasting Company to the British Broadcasting Corporation. This meant that it became publicly owned, and effectively an arm of government (although it is largely autonomous).

The BBC started experimenting with broadcasting television (a field of technology in which a British inventor was a pivotal figure) in 1932 and launched a television service in 1936. Transmissions ceased with the outbreak of World War II and resumed in 1946. The centre of television production at this time was Alexandra Palace in North London; and it was with the televised showing of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in June 1953, that television really broke through into people’s lives. Both the coronation and Alexandra Palace feature heavily in the Doctor Who story, The Idiot’s Lantern, the title of which was vernacular term for television at around this time (a more modern British term is “the goggle box”).

With the resumption of television broadcasts in 1946, a combined television and radio licence was introduced – in addition to the radio only licence that had been in place since 1922. Thus the principal that everyone would pay a flat yearly fee for a service without advertising was extended from radio to television. By 1971 television was so widespread that the requirement for a radio licence was abolished and the BBC funded its radio and television services from the television licence alone.

In 1946, there was only one television channel, run by the BBC, so it was clear that you were paying an annual fee to the corporation that provided your entire TV service. This situation changed in 1955 when the commercial network ITV was launched. This new network wasn’t funded from the licence fee, but instead relied on income from showing advertisements – the same funding model as that used by all the major US networks.

It was with this that the seeds of the licence fee debate were sown: if you owned a television, you had to pay for a licence; but now that ITV was also broadcasting it was possible (although not likely) that you were paying for a channel that you never watched. This debate has intensified as more and more channels have become available and the BBC‘s share of the audience has decreased, but the TV Licence remains compulsory (non-payment is a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up £1,000 – but usually lower than that) and currently stands at £139.50 per year. The existence of the licence fee is confirmed by the renewal of the BBC‘s Charter, and the current charter runs from 2007-2017, at which point the licence fee will be up for debate once more.

To get an idea of what all this is like, imagine the US Government taking $280 a year (or $26.66 a month) from everyone who has a TV and giving it to an amalgamation of PBS, HBO, CNN and The Discovery Channel to run a couple of free-to-air broadcast channels and a bunch of cable channels and seven national radio stations, all of which are commercial free. The BBC is a bit like that.

In Part Two, I’ll be talking about how ITV came into being.