The Weird and Wonderful World of British Broadcasting – Part Two

ITV Logo

Continuing my series about how TV works in the UK and what makes it different to US TV.

In Part One, we learned about the establishment of the BBC, which is funded by a compulsory licence fee and, until 1955, had a complete monopoly on television in the UK. However, in 1955, ITV was established and now I’m going to talk about how this was done – and how, again, this was very different to the US model.

Part Two: Commercial Television

In the US, pretty much from the beginning, you had three commercial networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) who were in competition with each other and who built their networks through a system of affiliated local stations. In the UK, in 1954 (when the legislation that introduced commercial television was passed), you had a single public corporation that produced all the programming and owned and ran all the transmission equipment.

Now the UK is much smaller than the US (it has one fifth of the population and one fortieth of the area, being a little bit smaller than Michigan) and everybody is much closer together (there are 637 people per square mile in the UK, as against 80 in the US*) so it is much easier for a single company or organisation to build a network that covers the whole nation.

The 1954 Television Act established the Independent Television Authority or ITA, which was tasked with building and operating the transmission network, awarding franchises to television companies and overseeing standards. The idea in all of this was that UK commercial television would avoid becoming as “vulgar” as US television was deemed to be.

I’m not sure whether there was a technical reason for this, but commercial television was only given a single channel on the VHF system that was in use at the time. This meant that there couldn’t be competition between commercial broadcasters on the same transmitter – and that the choice for any household would be between the BBC Television Service and ITV. Again, this is very different from the US, where there was competition between commercial broadcasters from the start.

The ITA tried to ensure that there was no monopoly on commercial television by splitting the country into regional TV franchises and licensing them to different companies. London was further split, by transmission day, into London Weekday and London Weekend. Each of the regional companies sold their own advertising and scheduled their own programmes. All the companies made local programmes (mainly news), as a condition of their franchise, and the larger ones made national programmes which they sold to the other franchise-holders. Programming had some “public broadcasting” restrictions requiring a balance of content, impartiality in news reporting and clearly defined advert breaks (with a limit on the number of adverts you could run in an hour). In practice, though, splitting the country into regions didn’t really lead to much competition (if you wanted a commercial on television, there was only one company in each region you could get the airtime from), but it did stop TV production being entirely located in London.

So, ITV wasn’t a single massive commercial network with affiliated local stations (in the manner of CBS, NBC and ABC) but rather an amalgamation of local franchise holders, running a national channel between them.

The ITV companies proceeded to introduce such innovations as big money game shows (usually copied from successful US version), and imported US shows like The Lone Ranger. This form of programming (giving people what they want) when compared to that of the BBC (giving people what you think they ought to have) led to the label of “vulgarity” being attached to ITV. Indeed, I know several people whose parents wouldn’t let them watch ITV when they were growing up, for fear of its malign influence.

In reality, ITV also provided a good kick to the BBC and some much-needed competition. Among its not-so-“vulgar” innovations was the seminal drama anthology series, Armchair Theatre which gave some early exposure to future Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, among others. Such was the series’ success that the BBC poached one of it’s producers, Sydney Newman, who created a similar series called The Wednesday Play which (along with its successor Play for Today) launched the careers of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Dennis Potter and Stephen Poliakoff – among many others. Newman, along with his former production assistant Verity Lambert, also created a little show called Doctor Who. This is why, in the new series Doctor Who episode “Human Nature“, the Doctor (having transformed himself into a human called John Smith) says, “My father was called Sydney and my mother was called Verity.”

ITV also launched Britain’s longest running programme, a soap opera called Coronation Street, which remains one of the most popular programmes in the UK. British soaps are quite unlike US soaps, as the concern themselves with ordinary peoples’ lives and owe much to the “kitchen sink drama” of the 1950s and 60s (a movement with, as far as I’m aware, no US equivalent – although the realism of shows like The Wire shares something of its philosophy). British soaps are also typically shown in prime time, evening, slots and are mainstays of their networks’ scheduling. The BBC launched its own soap, EastEnders in 1985 and episodes of both soaps are typically the highest rated programmes in any given week (being occasionally beaten by live sporting events).

The Christmas Day edition of EastEnders was the most watched UK programme in 2007, getting 14.38 million viewers; Coronation Street was fourth with 13.08m viewers for a January 15th episode and was beaten by: the Rugby World Cup final (England v South Africa) in third, with 13.13 million viewers; and the Doctor Who Christmas Special in second, with 13.31 million viewers.

To get a rough US equivalent for these ratings, multiply them by five and marvel at how big they are. What this mainly indicates, though, is that there is less competition for mainstream viewers in the UK than in the US. Another difference worth mentioning here is that, unlike in the US, Christmas Day is a big TV day in the UK (partly because no shops or cinemas are open on that day).

The other British soaps currently on TV are Emmerdale and Hollyoaks. Mention should also be made of soap-like continuing dramas Casualty and The Bill; and cancelled soap Brookside, notable for launching the careers of Jimmy McGovern and Anna Friel. All attempts to get US audiences to warm to British soaps, so far, have failed.

And finally, a fun fact: Coronation Street‘s original name was Florizel Street, which is the name of the street in the Doctor Who episode “The Idiot’s Lantern“.

In Part Three, I’ll be talking about the developments that lead to three new channels: BBC Two; Channel 4; and Channel 5.

*although it should be said that Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey all have higher population densities than the UK average (and that the large rural areas of states like New York and California offset their densely populated urban areas). On the other side of that, though, the population density of Greater London is ten times that of New Jersey.