The Weird and Wonderful World of British Broadcasting – Part Three

Channel 4

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

Part One dealt with the BBC and Part Two with commercial television, now I’m going to rush through the years as broadcast TV got a little more complicated.

Part Three – adding more channels, from the 1960s to the 1990s

Going back to the 1950s and 1960s and we have two channels, BBC and ITV, using a VHF transmission network. However, the advent of UHF broadcast technology meant the possibility of moving to higher-definition colour TV and adding an extra channel (or more than one). In 1962, a government report was published that was highly critical of ITV (for being trivial and populist) and recommended that a new channel be awarded to the BBC. As a result, in 1964, the existing BBC Television Service was renamed BBC One and a new channel, BBC Two, was launched (exclusively using the new 625-line UHF broadcast technology, which meant you had to buy a new TV set to able to view it). BBC Two started broadcasting in colour (using the PAL system, not the lower resolution NTSC system used in the US) in 1967 and BBC One and ITV followed in 1969.

BBC Two was conceived as a minority-interest public service channel, and has remained so to this day. It is rare for a BBC Two programme to out-rate a BBC One or ITV programme and so the launch of BBC Two didn’t seriously affect the viewer share of either BBC One or ITV. It did, however, give a platform to experimental and idiosyncratic programming.

In theory, the new UHF broadcasting system allowed for two more channels, and over the coming years they were launched.

In 1982, Channel 4 was launched. It was (and still is) a commercially funded station, with adverts, but it was given a public service remit similar to BBC Two‘s and it is a publicly owned body, not a private company. For these reasons, it does not directly compete with ITV and BBC One for mainstream viewers. Channel 4 is also different in that it doesn’t make any of its own programmes, instead commissioning them from independent producers. This model has now spread to the BBC (who used to make everything in-house) and ITV (who used to mainly show programmes made by ITV franchise holders) and both organisations now buy a fair amount of their content for outside companies. Channel 4 also led the way in importing high-quality US programmes (mainly dramas and sitcoms), expanding what the BBC and ITV were already doing and making it something of a fashion – in the 1990s, especially.

In 1997, Channel 5 was launched. Unlike Channel 4, it wasn’t given any special remit and is an entirely commercial organisation. However, it does have the built in limitations of being a late entrant to the market and having a limited transmission area (for technical reasons, not all areas of the country can pick it up on an analogue UHF aerial). It isn’t a serious competitor to ITV and doesn’t even commission much of its own programming – all its top programmes are US imports.

In Part Four, I’ll be rewinding slightly and looking at the emergence of satellite and cable multi-channel digital TV.