Broadcasting in the United Kingdom (or BBC heaven?)

In 1922, the British government granted six radio manufacturing companies a license to start radio broadcasting. That was the beginning of the British Broadcasting Company, which would become the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927. About 70 years later, Mike Myers was asking whether we’d make him tea, and if we would turn on the tele to the BBC. And though this was probably not intended as a tribute, it certainly shows how influential the BBC has been. Its significance, both in terms of establishing a paradigm for public broadcasting, and as producer and distributor of cultural products is hard to rival.

It should not surprise anyone, therefore, that any exploration of broadcasting in the United Kingdom not only begins with the BBC, but also seems to revolve around it. David Ward’s chapter, included in Television and Public Policy: Change and Continuity in an Era of Global Liberalization, deals extensively with the BBC. British broadcasting, states Ward, owes its character to the philosophy of public service established by the BBC Charter. However, even stable systems must adapt to changing times, and Ward provides us with an overview of the challenges that affect British broadcasting in general. Multichannel television services, the digital transition, and an increasingly competitive global marketplace have caused dramatic shifts the policies and structure of British broadcasting.

The public interest: a philosophy of broadcasting

In Britain, unlike the United States, broadcasting developed first as a public service, and it was not until the 1950s when commercial broadcasting received a license to operate. However, even the commercial broadcasters were expected to fulfill public service obligations. In other words, they were expected to follow the lead of the BBC, whose public service mandate is encompassed in the phrase “to inform, to educate, and to entertain.” Though this mantra was first advocated by David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC and RCA,  the BBC, under the direction of John Reith, embraced it wholeheartedly. I don’t think anyone would say that NBC did the same.

To inform, educate, and entertain, in its current formulation, means the following for the BBC:

  • Universality of access and appeal
  • Quality
  • Independence and impartiality
  • Distinctiveness (covering underserved areas, or areas not reached by commercial broadcasters)
  • Encouraging culture and creativity
  • Supporting national life and contributing to democratic debate.
  • Reflecting the UK’s nations, regions, and communities.
  • Playing a leading role in technological development (Digital Britain)

(BBB, 2006)

Under Reith, the BBC reached important milestones. It was the only independent broadcaster to cover the general strike of 1926, it broadcast the abdication speech of Edward VIII, and the it expanded its radio reach to the entire British empire. However, Reith was also well-known for his religious conservatism, which he brought to the BBC. His influence on matters of programming was so important, than to this day, the British refer to the BBC as auntie:

At one time ’Auntie’, the BBC, closed down for an hour or so at 6pm, so that mothers could put the little ones to bed, without distraction. Well, don’t you think it would be a great idea if television closed down now at 6pm, so that families could sit down together and have an evening meal around the table and just talk? (Griffin, 2009)

Auntie knew best; she knew how to inform you, how to educate you, but was not very good at entertaining you, at least, not in the sense of providing you with popular culture fare. Reith would not even consider it; he believed that the BBC should improve the lowbrow tastes of some of its audience by exposing them to quality programming. This is what he had to say about Jazz:

Jazz in its place is all right, but do you not agree that it has got altogether out of its place in the life and interest of a considerable section of the community, and that tot to some extent anyhow it is degrading? (Reith Memo, 1937).

Clearly Reith thought that the BBC should not “cater down on the “give the public what it wants” basis” (Reith Memo, 1937), and since the BBC had a monopoly, it could afford to be dismissive. However, beginning in the 1950s, commercial broadcasting was licensed in Britain. The BBC, though remaining in an advantageous position, now had competition.

Ward reminds us, nonetheless, that even with the introduction of commercial broadcasting, the landscape did not widen until the 1980s. The BBC and ITV lived, to use his formulation, in a comfortable duopoly. Furthermore, because commercial broadcasters were expected to uphold similar public service obligations as the BBC, one of the key philosophical elements of British broadcasting remained virtually untouched. Only with the introduction of satellite did these time-honored tenets begin to crack.

Liberalization to compete globally

Ward does a good job in explaining the transition, in terms of policy, from strict regulations to a more liberalized environment. Thatcherism was an important factor.

Thatcherism refers to the policies advocated by Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister in the 1980s. Thatcher was a firm believer in free market economics, privatization , and deregulation. Though many public services were privatized under Thatcher, the BBC was not to be one of them. Yet the duopoly would be challenged through the introduction of new channels, like Channel 4 and 5, and the development of satellite and cable.

With liberalization came the push to become more competitive. Though the BBC still does not broadcast commercial advertising, it had to develop additional revenue sources. This led to the establishment of BBC Worldwide and BBC Resources Ltd.

This is a summary of the sales revenue generated by BBC Worldwide in 2008/09 (in millions of pounds). Total sales = 1,004 Million Pounds, with profits of 103 Million Pounds (Annual Review, 2009)

Interestingly enough, BBC Worldwide’s (BBCWW) success has brought about calls for regulation, and even for stripping away its ability to engage in commercial activities. In 2007, the BBC Trust, which oversees the BBC, forbade BBCWW from expanding its activities through mergers and acquisitions. The decision was prompted by BBCWW’s controversial purchase of 75% of Lonely Planet Publishing. However, the Trust did not order the BBC to sell LPP. Instead, Michael Lyons, chairman of the Trust, said that this would come “under review”.

The controversy over the expansion of BBC WW is an interesting case. I think it does indicate how  British broadcasting is changing, and how, as Ward suggests, because its public service mandate is very loosely defined, the BBC is very vulnerable to accusations of unfair competition and monopoly. Now, I’m not saying that the BBC plays fair. After all, they still collect the lion’s share of the license fee. However, when the CEO of NewsCorp, of all possible media companies, is one of the people crying foul, and even suggesting that this is “nationalisation”, I have to quietly laugh.