The Weird and Wonderful World of British Broadcasting – Part Four


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

In Part One, Part Two and Part Three, I charted the development of UK broadcast TV up the point where we had five analogue broadcast channels: BBC One; BBC Two; ITV; Channel 4; and Channel 5.

Part Four – multi-channel TV, from the 1990s until now.

Until the early 1990s, four channels of analogue broadcast TV, was pretty much all you got. Because of the density of the population, there was never much demand for cable TV, as people could normally get a good service through their aerial. Because of this, there wasn’t an infrastructure in place for multi-channel TV.

That started to change, however, when Rupert Murdoch (yes, the guy who owns Fox) launched a satellite service called Sky (there was originally a competitor, BSB, but they went bust and Murdoch bought them). Murdoch’s brilliant strategy was to outbid the BBC and ITV for rights to live football (real football that is, not that nonsense you call football – oh, OK, soccer, then, if you insist…) and then to show it on a satellite subscription service that required a dish and set-top box. Surprisingly enough, he was allowed to do this (a few sporting events have to be broadcast on free to air TV, but everything else is up for grabs), a situation that I can’t imagine occurring in the US. The result was that wave upon wave of sport-hungry British citizens bought satellite dishes and decoder boxes, paving the way for multi-channel TV in the UK.

This new demand for multi-channel TV, combined with de-regulation of the telecoms industry, was enough to encourage several regional cable companies to spend a small fortune laying fibre-optic cable networks that now cover most of the UK. None of them ever got their money back, though, and, through a long process of bankruptcies and mergers, there is now one cable operator that covers the whole country, Virgin Media.

Unlike in the US (I believe), satellite and cable TV in the UK is now almost entirely digital and is complemented by a subscription-free digital TV service called Freeview that allows you to get multi-channel TV through an aerial with a set-top box or a digital TV. A similar service called Freesat is planned. Between now and 2012, all the analogue transmitters will be switched over to digital meaning that every TV household in the UK will have some sort of multichannel TV by then.

In terms of UK TV production, this change has had little positive effect as the plethora of cable and satellite channels mainly show either repeats of UK shows or imported US shows. It does mean that pretty much any US show is bound to show up on UK television somewhere, though. The main consequence (from a production point of view) is the launch of the few channels that generate any original content of note: mainly BBC Three and BBC Four; but with honourable mentions for Sky One, More4, ITV2 and E4.

To get an idea of the mass of channels now available, click on any UK based channel guide, such as:

As a result of all this increased competition, the companies that hold the ITV regional franchises were allowed to merge. Eventually, all the English and Welsh ones (and one Scottish one) did just that, resulting in ITV Plc. The only remaining regional franchises that carry the ITV channel are STV in Scotland and UTV in Northern Ireland. Thus ITV Plc is as close as the UK has got to a US-style TV network.

However, regional production centres still remain, notably in facilities previously associated with Granada Television and Yorkshire Television. Likewise, the BBC also has production centres outside of London, most notably BBC Wales and BBC Scotland – and is planning to move much of its production to Manchester, where current Doctor Who producer Phil Collinson will also soon be heading up a drama department. There are also regional independent production companies, such as Red and Lime Pictures.

The change in the UK Broadcasting landscape is best summed up by BARB (the UK equivalent of Nielsen) with their annual % shares of viewing figures. In 1981, BBC1 had 39% of the viewers, BBC2 had 12%, ITV had 49% and there were no other channels. Channel 4, which started in 1983, peaked at 11% for the period 1993-1995. Channel 5, has never got above about 6.5%. The figures for 2007 are: BBC1, 22%; BBC2, 8.5%; ITV1, 19.2%; C4 8.6%; C5 5.1%; others, 36.5%; and the only upward trend is for the “others”.

Come the charter renewal period leading up to 2017, it’s going to be an interesting time for the BBC and for the future of the Licence Fee.

Anyway, that’s it for the potted history, in Part Five, I’ll tie everything together. And in Part Six (the final part!) I’ll talk about how UK TV makes it over to the US, and how you can get to see it if it doesn’t.