I thought Mikki did a great job in her post talking about the development of TV in France, so I figured I would talk a little about TV in the UK since I spent a good deal of time studying there last year and noticed some significant differences in political and cultural approaches to TV.
As most people would guess, the BBC is the single most important TV institution in the UK. Originally a network of radio stations, the BBC invested heavily in TV technology and began regular broadcasts in 1929, after several years of testing. The facilities were housed in the Alexandra Palace, a late 1800s building meant to be a “palace for the people” designed in contrast to the Crystal Palace in south London which had been built for the world’s fair. While in London, I studied the way the media responded to the arial bombings of the city during world war two, and the BBC is notably absent from the historic record, because television service was suspended during the war. Two days before the official declaration, TV service in the UK ended without warning as the government purportedly feared VHF signals would allow German bombers to find the city of London by night. All other forms of media were subject to censorship and government approval during the war, but this action clearly indicates a lower valuation of TV’s usefulness on the part of the British government, contrasted with the attitude HItler and Goebbels had towards TV as described by Williams in our most recent reading. Broadcasts resumed June 7th, 1946.
In the early years of television, there was real debate over airwave ownership, as many of our readings have indicated. In the US, individual, local stations launched broadcasts for the nascent medium, hoping to pique the interest of early adopters. These stations were bought up by larger bodies and their content was synchronized, thus creating the idea of a “network” of stations. Of course, these networks grew and some ceased to operate, leaving the US with 3 legacy TV networks and Fox, the newest addition to the network lineup. In the UK, this process was handled entirely differently. Arguably, this is a product of the UK’s small size (after all, the entire country is in one time zone and its population is significantly smaller than the US) but also, perhaps, different attitudes towards the role of TV in modern life. The BBC had been successful in radio broadcasts, and this model was adapted to work with TV as well. Through an innovative payment scheme, everyone in the UK who owns a TV must pay a flat license fee (£145.50 for color and £49.00 for black and white in 2012) and the revenue from this fee collection pays for public broadcasts in the following ways: (this was copied from Wikipedia, FYI)
50% – BBC One and BBC Two
15% – local TV and radio
12% – network radio
10% – digital (BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News 24, BBC Parliament, CBBC, CBeebies)
10% – transmission costs and licence fee collection
3% – BBC Online, Ceefax, and Interactive Content (including bbc.co.uk and BBC Red Button)
That’s it; there is no PBS (a hybrid of public and private financing), and no C-SPAN. As a government organization, however, the BBC is beholden to all license payers to provide quality, educational programming, much in the way the major US networds were charged to do at several points in their history. What makes this different, however, is that the BBC was the sole TV network (really, the only TV channel) until 1955 when Independent TV (ITV) launched as a set of regional networks. The BBC did not and has not ever carried commercials, and there were serious concerns that ITV would revert to the “vulgar”ness of American Commercial TV, so an independent monitoring body was created to regulate it. Several years later, BBC 2 was launched as a UHF, higher quality channel that couldn’t be received by older TVs.
TV had a gradual but consistent start and “caught on” in the UK as it did elsewhere in the world in the middle of the 20th century. In 1966 the World Cup Game, broadcast on the BBC and ITV, garnered 32.3 million viewers, which is still a record. Color TV began around 1969. In 1982, Channel 4, another commercial TV station, was launched. In 1989 Sky (now BSkyB) launched as the first satellite TV service in the UK. Currently, with every broadcast subscription package available, there are only 14 true “British” channels (that is, stations that are not international in origin, mostly from the US, like CNN or MTV).
My experience living in the UK taught me how much the British value the BBC as a reliable, consistent, unbiased, and fair source for news and political arbitration. I don’t know many Americans who feel the same sort of reverence for any of the major networks or even for PBS. Even though it is government owned, the British don’t revile the BBC in the same way that the far right in the US is suspicious of PBS for receiving government funding. As a government organization, the BBC does a great deal to ensure fairness and that the airways remain “clean”. For each broadcast, they record the number of complaints received, and this number is used later to inform any action they may take against the offending program. A Halloween special called “Ghostwatch” from 1992 is often regarded as the most controversial program, receiving 2,215 complaints.
Given that for the first 50 years or so of broadcasting the BBC has been the sole content producer, British TV has evolved a particular style. Primetime Soap Operas have consistently been the most popular programs on British TV, with two shows, EastEnders and Coronation Street, being particularly noteworthy. These shows all adopt a similar style – the focus on a neighborhood or street in England and feature a large, diverse cast that changes constantly with each season. This sort of “fictional village” allows the writers to continually refresh their material without changing the familiar settings of the show. For example, in the 90s EastEnders introduced an Indian immigrant family who had moved into the neighborhood and attempted to dramatize the struggles they faced adapting to life in the UK. This earnest desire for “representational” or “progressive” programming is a hallmark of BBC shows, which genuinely never forget their responsibilities to educate and inform the people of the UK. This contrasts with the American attitude towards educational programming which was described by Keegan in an earlier post and also in our discussion in class. Furthermore, this is no trivial genre for the british. On Christmas day 1986, the now famous EastEnders episode when one character serves his wife, Angie, with divorce papers received 30.15 million viewers, OVER HALF of the total population of the UK at the time (the episode was shown four times that week, all included in viewship numbers, but still!). It is the #4 most watched program of all time in the UK, behind Princess Diana’s funeral, a world cup final, and a documentary about the royal family. One year later, an episode of Coronation Street received 26 million viewers, with a similar national population.
Make no mistake – these are daytime programs. They are created, much like American Soap Operas, to be watched by women at home during the day. There is something really remarkable to me in this – the fact that somehow this genere of TV, which shares many dramatic conventions with American Soaps, would be so popular. Britain also produces many more miniseries than the US, partly because of the style of their “seasons”. In the US, networks today aim for 22 episodes of a given show, with the goal of getting to 100 episodes, important for syndication, in as little time as possible. British networks never embraced the syndication model, and it shows. They don’t produce “seasons”, but rather “series”, which are the same conceptually but don’t necessarily air year after year – sometimes they take long breaks. The shows that do last, however, last FOREVER. EastEnders (which, insanely, airs 4 new episodes per week) has been on the air since 1985. Coronation Street has been around since 1960 – there are 7,908 episodes – and Doctor Who since 1963, Casualty (Their “ER”) since 1986. Other shows come and go in a more leisurely manner, often centering on performers who can carry the same character from a 6 episode miniseries to a 2 hour holiday special and back for reunion episodes indefinitely. The rigid “seasonal” structure that we have come to accept from American TV networks isn’t a factor in the UK.
It’s worth noting that, generally speaking, these programs aren’t very “good”. They aren’t sold internationally, for the most part (Downton Abbey, an ITV wildcard, changed everything when it became a massive hit in the US) and don’t really garner any income from DVD sales or other “re-watching” schemes. Their subject matter is frustratingly yet irrefutably “British”, and though I can’t really explain what that means exactly, I think it makes some sense. These shows require a particular attitude towards the role of entertainment to be enjoyed. Furthermore, they owe a good deal of their structure, pace, and design to Victorian novels and the British theatrical tradition, rather than Hollywood films, as, arguably, is the case with American TV. Furthermore, lacking that Hollywood studio system has spared UK networks from the conglomeration that has swept the US entertainment industry in the last 20 years.
Ultimately, the British regard TV as a public service, while Americans prefer to think it of entertainment. Just in the number of independent commissions that oversee its operation, the British have invested heavily their time and effort in ensuring that TV is at once impartial, unbiased, and educational. They have been saved (mostly) from the explosion of reality TV in the last decade because of a genuine concern that TV should serve the public interest, rather than that of network shareholders. On the other hand, there is something decidedly insular about the humor and drama of British TV, contrasted with the universality of the themes of heroism and adventure, or social/domestic dramatization that typify American TV and lead to its success internationally. Because at the root of this issue is the very real threat that American exports pose to this idyllic and somewhat naive attitude the British have towards TV. This was my greatest take away from my time abroad there – anxiety about the usurpation of historically British institutions like the press, their version of TV, and the NHS by cheaper American or international competitors. As far back as ITV’s launch in 1955, the fear that British TV would become “cheap” like American TV was palpable With satellite and now IPTV, British households are plugged in more than ever to MTV, CNN, Comedy Central, FX, HBO, and the like through these stations’ international arms. These programs, in turn, are winning viewers away from the BBC. Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see if the somewhat unique, somewhat particular version of TV that has emerged organically in the UK will be able to stand up to increased competition from abroad.
** A few hours after I wrote this, this story was published by the New York Times and couldn’t be a better example of what I’m talking about:
Some noteworthy excerpts: “That decision, [not to air the episode] … is now the subject of three independent investigations.”, “What has deepened the revulsion is that this happened at the BBC, an institution so loved and trusted it is known as Auntie. This has cast a stain on the BBC.”, “BBC executives… have strenuously denied pressuring “Newsnight” to drop the Savile segment, an assertion backed by the “Newsnight” editor who made the decision, Peter Rippon. Although he told executives that he was working on the program, he said in a blog post, “I was told in the strongest terms that I must be guided by editorial considerations only and that I must not let any wider considerations about the BBC affect my judgment.””,