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20 April 2015

So, you’ve just got into broadcasting history in one of its various guises and you’d like to know more about this strange hobby you’ve embarked upon. But where to start?

Let’s begin at the beginning and see where television and radio through the 20th century takes us.


Guglielmo Marconi


Radio itself goes back to the 19th century, with experiments by many people, chief among them being Guglielmo Marconi. By 1920 it was possible to broadcast voices and music across a radius of a few miles from a transmitter and the government department responsible for communications, the General Post Office (GPO) promptly banned it, then changed its mind in 1922 and licensed one company as a monopoly. This is where, conventionally, broadcasting history in the UK starts, with the formation of the British Broadcasting Company. This commercial organisation was owned by the wireless set manufacturers and funded by a fee added to pre-built radio sets. However, most people built their own sets.

The General Post Office
The GPO was a government department with a politically-appointed cabinet minister at its head from the year 1660. The organisation was responsible for all post, telegraphs and telephones in the British Isles, and was responsible for licensing transmitters for all types of non-military radio broadcasting. The General Post Office was converted into the Post Office Corporation in 1969 and the Postmaster General became Minister of Post and Telecommunications; that ministry was eventually absorbed by the Home Office (broadcasting) and the Board of Trade (post).

The Company spent most of its life in financial trouble whilst being closely examined in all it did by parliament and various committees. Eventually it was decided that broadcasting in the UK should be a government monopoly, run by a neutral, arms-length corporation funded by an annual fee payable by each household with a radio set. On 1 January 1927, the British Broadcasting Corporation was born.

BBC 1930sTransmitter power in the early days was limited and there was no real way to network transmitters or studios together without tying up all the trunk telephone lines between each location. For this reason, each transmitter was its own mini-BBC, producing a full schedule with little oversight available to the people in the BBC’s headquarters in Savoy Hill, London.

As the 1920s turned to the 1930s, more powerful transmitters became possible and the GPO laid dedicated co-axial cables between London and each station. As this network was nearing completion, the BBC began to wind up the individual medium wave stations and replace them with regional broadcasting, plus a separate national service on long wave. This process was called “the Regional Scheme” and led to the birth of two radio stations – the National Programme and the Regional Programme.


Meanwhile, the field of broadcasting was still developing. Short wave broadcasting, able to cover the entire globe, was developed. The “Fultograph Process”, essentially a form of fax machine, was developed, allowing the BBC to send still pictures to enthusiasts each night after the National Programme had closed down. This was a dead-end technology for broadcasting, but around the world people like John Logie Baird in the UK, Vladimir Zworykin, Charles Francis Jenkins and Philo T Farnsworth in the United States and Kenjiro Takayanagi in Japan had begun the development of television.

Who invented television?
Television may just have been the logical development of existing broadcasting technologies rather than something to be ‘discovered’ or ‘invented’. For that reason, who invented television has become more of a nationalistic question, the answer depending on which country you’re from (Brits say Baird, Yanks say Farnsworth and so on).

The BBC took an early interest in television, starting the BBC Television Service in 1936 at Alexandra Palace in north London. This service alternated between two standards – John Logie Baird’s 240-line system that used an intermediate film stage and required a lot of mechanical apparatus, and EMI’s 405-line all-electronic system. EMI’s system was more flexible, cheaper, less prone to breakdown, better quality and didn’t come with Baird’s notoriously fractious personality to interfere with its use. Baird’s system was very quickly dropped, even though he was continuing to innovate, developing 3D and colour mechanical television, while EMI’s system remained 2D and black-and-white. Television itself remained confined to London.

1939 saw the biggest shake-up of the BBC in its history. 48 hours before war was officially declared, the BBC combined its two domestic radio stations, the National Programme and the Regional Programme, into one, named the Home Service after its parent domestic radio department at the BBC. The BBC Television Service was closed completely. The BBC also started a proper news department – until this point, the news had come from agencies. War would require the BBC to become the news powerhouse we know today.


Back page of the Radio Times for the second week of the war, giving details of how news was to expand – as was the number of hours devoted to the theatre organ


By 1940, the population of the UK was bored. There was no choice in radio other than foreign stations, no sign of any actual war on land and no death raining from the skies. Newly conscripted soldiers sat playing cards in barracks, their family members sat waiting at home. The BBC eventually acted, starting a service for the forces, designed to be listened to at home as well (to bring the two together) and offering a lighter, more entertaining fare than the Home Service was providing. This radio station would soon be named the Forces Programme, then, with the arrival of American and Canadian forces in 1944 for D-Day, it was relaunched as an even lighter, more populist service called the General Forces Programme. This station would be the basis for post-war Light Programme.

Before the war, the National and Regional Programmes were not ‘streamed’. They offered ‘alternative programming’ to each other, but were not each aimed at a different audience in the way we’ve become used to with, say, Radio 2 vs Radio 4. The alternative programming the National and the Regional offered were often quite different, but just as often very similar – so you may have had the choice between dance music on the National and classical music on the Regional, or drama on the Regional and a talk on the National – but the audience was expected to follow individual programmes or genres across the two stations rather than staying with one station aimed more-or-less directly at them.

After the war, the BBC – and the country – began a process of reconstruction. The Home Service was regionalised roughly along the pre-war boundaries, the General Forces Programme became, in effect, the Light Programme, and a new, highbrow service of drama and talks, the Third Programme, was launched. This still wasn’t streaming as we know it now – there was quite some overlap between the three stations – but the genesis of the idea had been born.


The television service reappeared in 1946, using the same equipment in the same studios and broadcasting from the same north London transmitter. However, the government’s export drive – Britain was bankrupt and needed to sell our goods abroad – led them to ask the BBC to invest heavily in television. By starting a domestic market for television receivers and transmitters, the idea went, an industry could be founded that would ride the wave of exports as each country in Europe recovered and started its own television networks.

To that end, the spread of television began, hindered only by money and labour shortages at both the BBC and the GPO – the co-axial links between London and the transmitters being much slower to build than the transmitters themselves. 405-line black-and-white television came to the Midlands in 1949, then spread to the North of England in 1951.

19530529 A01But the big expansion of television would happen due to an event in 1952: the heavy smoker King George VI died of lung cancer and his pretty young daughter became queen. As the country recovered from bankruptcy and war damage, it was decided to make her coronation a national party, and, after some arguments about how intrusive it would be, that television should bring the event itself to as much of the UK as possible. Transmitters were quickly put up, co-axial cable was laid and the British public started to buy television sets in profusion for the first time. The age of television had arrived.

With television now firmly established, the government started to look at how it could be shaped and expanded. A committee looked into the matter and decided things were fine as they stood, but one lone voice produced a minority report suggesting that commercial television should be introduced. The government liked this and rushed the report into quite vaguely worded legislation, founded a new broadcaster to rival the BBC – the Independent Television Authority (ITA) and then left it to them to set up the new service.

What system?
The new ITA was told to develop a system where there was competition not only with the BBC but also within the system itself. The Authority looked at various models that could achieve this, deciding that two or more stations per region would be best, then realised that this was technically infeasible. Instead, they chose a system were each company would have its own region and would compete amongst themselves for programmes and advertising income; in the big population areas of London, the Midlands and the North of England, the companies would be forced to compete by handing the three regions to four companies and splitting the week as well as the geography between them.


Independent Television launched in London on 22 September 1955. From there it spread through the main population centres, then to the smaller areas and finally, in the early 1960s, to the smallest and least profitable areas – north and west Wales, the English-Scottish border and the Channel Islands. Of all of these regions, only the north and west Wales contractor would not prosper. It suffered from being in a large overlap with the North of England region, established some time before, and an unrealistic requirement from the GPO to produce lots of Welsh-language programming. It rapidly went bankrupt after less than two years on air and was absorbed by its neighbouring south Wales and western England contractor.

BBC2By the mid-1960s, all seemed well in the world of broadcasting. On radio you could choose between the comedy, light music and chat on the Light Programme; the news, features and classical music on the Home Service; and the drama, talks and opera on the Third Programme. If you wanted more popular music, you could listen in the evenings to the commercial output of Radio Luxembourg. On television, you could choose between the BBC’s single channel and your local ITA contractor. If you were lucky, you might even have fringe reception of a second ITA region.


Things could not stay stable for long. 1964 saw the start of two big things – the new black-and-white 625-line UHF service BBC-2 and the phenomenon that was the ‘pirate’ off-shore radio stations. BBC-2 was a highbrow service that was actually little watched, although its launch had the effect of causing a relaunch of presentation both on the newly re-named BBC-1 and also on many of the ITV stations.

The ‘pirates’, however, would have even more influence.

BBC Local Radio
An oft-repeated myth is that BBC Local Radio was introduced to replace the off-shore stations. This is nonsense. BBC Local Radio was a replacement for regional radio, which the BBC thought was not really serving anybody usefully any more – it couldn’t give the listener local news and information because it was too big, but it couldn’t pull its weight within the Home Service network because it was too small. The solution was local mini-BBCs, going back to how BBC radio had began in the 1920s.

CarolineMaritime law had developed slowly over centuries, based upon common practice rather than anything written down. After the Second World War, the new United Nations Organisation set about trying to end these informal agreements and replace them with written treaties. This consolidated and changed existing practice, but helped establish the idea that each nation’s territorial waters extended a mere 3 miles from their coast.

Position a ship 3.1 miles from the coast and the government of the nearest nation had no rights or responsibilities to that ship. They must let it go about its business. Put a big medium wave transmitter on a ship, position it 3.1 miles off the coast and start broadcasting pop music with commercial advertisements and there’s nothing the government can do – even if their policy is firmly that commercial radio should not be allowed.



With the BBC having a single station for all types of “non-heavy” music, plus a small amount of “needle time” – the number of records rather than live music that it could play, as demanded by the Musicians’ Union who were keen to keep their members employed – there was no way to provide popular music to the nation’s booming number of teenagers. Radio Luxembourg could take up some of the slack, but their transmissions were limited to the evenings, and the young people wanted pop music during the day.

‘Pirate’ ships abounded. People became very rich very quickly, an anethema to Harold Wilson’s socialist government. Being outside of British jurisdiction, they were also outside of British protection, and a fear grew that this lawless bunch of pirates were in hock to the mob. A murder (on land) served to ‘prove the point’ and eventually the British government were able to find a way to kill the stations, by making it illegal to advertise on them.

As compensation – poor compensation, according to young people of the time – the government asked the BBC to come up with a replacement national radio station.

BBC Gillard

Transdiffusion wrote to the BBC at the time to ask them about their decision to renumber the stations and to criticise the choice of numbers, to which the BBC politely replied that we could get lost. In many western European countries, when it came time to reorganise state radio broadcasting, numbers were chosen and the main news and speech network was renamed ‘Radio 1’.

In the UK, it was decided to call it ‘Radio 4’. The BBC were right (and young Transdiffusion members wrong) in the naming of the stations. The Third Network (a mixture of the Third Programme and several other services) obviously had to keep the number ‘3’. Since the new popular music network and the Light Programme would be sharing a lot of material and, indeed, an entire FM network, they needed to have numbers next to each other, ruling out either using ‘4’. ‘1’ is the best number for promoting a new service, so the pop music station became ‘Radio 1’. It’s parent/sibling therefore took ‘Radio 2’, while the Third naturally took ‘Radio 3’. This left ‘Radio 4’ as the only place for the Home Service to go. As the BBC’s principle network, it was placed last, to the annoyance of many people. Nevertheless, the newspapers commonly listed the stations backwards, 4, 3, 2, 1, thus suggesting that Radio 4 remained the senior network.

WalesThe ITA decided in 1966 to reform the ITV system. All existing contracts were cancelled and brand new ones, for newly redrawn regions, were offered. A parade of newcomers appeared and were interviewed, along with the outgoing contractors. The weekend/weekday splits in the north and the midlands would go, the one in London would move to Friday evenings. The north would be divided in two across the Pennines. There would now be five big contractors rather than four.

The changes took effect in March, May, July, August and September 1968 – in March, the losing Wales and West contractor TWW stalked off; an unbranded interregnum (run by TWW but managed by the incoming Harlech) ran until May, when Harlech took over. In July, ATV gave up its Saturdays and Sundays in London and moved to take the full week in the Midlands. In the north and midlands, ABC Weekend disappeared; Granada went 7 days in the west and Yorkshire Television appeared in the east.

In London, the weekends went to the London Television Consortium, which dithered over a choice of name – Thames Television? London Television? – before settling on the self-explanatory London Weekend Television. The smaller ABC was given the far larger Rediffusion’s bones to pick over, with their parent companies creating a joint holding company for what was going to be called Capital Television until LWT freed up the name Thames. These new companies, and BBC-1, operated in black and white for the next year, going colour on 625-line UHF together in November 1969 – BBC-2 had gone colour gradually a few years earlier. The original 405-line black and white network continued, with the plug not being pulled until the 1980s.




IBAThe country settled down to a have a quiet 1970s, with four national radio stations plus the waning Radio Luxembourg, the BBC Local Radio services, the new Independent Local Radio (offering much the same output as the BBC’s local stations but causing the Independent Television Authority to rename itself the Independent Broadcasting Authority – IBA) and three television channels, now in colour and on 625-lines – although colour licences didn’t overtake monochrome licences until 1976. The politicians discussed what could be done about Welsh-language programming – not enough of it from Welsh speakers, too much of it for non-Welsh speakers in Wales – and what should be done with the spare fourth channel. A BBC-3? An ITV-2? An educational channel? An ‘alternative’ channel? From the point of view of broadcasting changes, the 1970s were quite quiet, with new radio services appearing but nothing earth shattering happening.



CentralAnother ITV contract review was due at the beginning of the 1980s. The IBA made it clear that their vision of 1980s broadcasting was hyper-regional. If companies weren’t, or were not considered likely to embrace that idea, out they would go. Also, the companies would have to live with a new fourth channel the IBA would be starting – simply named Channel 4 – while the Welsh contractor would see its Welsh-language programmes join those of the BBC on a new, non-IBA-controlled, Channel 4 Wales (Sainel Pedwar Cymru, S4C) after a huge political battle lasting several decades. And they wouldn’t have their frequencies to themselves – television at breakfast time was to arrive, from a new national contractor who would take over from the early mornings until the schools’ programmes began.

From this, ATV in the Midlands was reorganised into Central Independent Television. Westward Television, busy tearing itself apart at boardroom level, was replaced by Television South West (and asked to leave in August 1981, with TSW operating the franchise under the Westward name until January). Southern Television, a nice, solid workhorse, was replaced by the more exciting and colourful Television South. For the mornings, in came TV-am – and collapsed spectacularly a few months later, facing unanticipated competition from the BBC’s Breakfast Time, rushed onto the air a few days earlier.

The 1980s were a time of change for Britain. The old ‘post-war consensus’ – that the state and the unions would work together for the betterment of society – came to an end. The Conservatives dropped their previous support for the status quo established back in the 1940s and began a serious programme of pulling the state out of industry. Direct-to-home satellite television became a possibility, after years of cable television failing to catch on with viewers and with suppliers fearful of the massive investment required. Satellite was a quick way to supply extra channels, and a few small operators – the ITV-owned Superchannel, the YTV-owned Satellite Television (trading as ‘Sky’) – were trying to get it established.

BSBThe government wanted the BBC, the IBA, the ITV companies and various manufacturers to work together to get a British satellite showing British programming to British people up and running. The costs, while less than for cable, were still daunting, and most of the broadcasters and manufacturers pulled out, leaving the IBA behind to advertise a licence for three (later five) television channels from the new IBA-1 and IBA-2 ‘Marcopolo’ satellites.

The result was British Satellite Broadcasting, which was a great service, but too expensive, too free-spending internally and, alas, entirely designed to operate as a monopoly. This didn’t happen – Rupert Murdoch bought YTV’s Satellite Television Limited and created the cheaper, unregulated Sky Television out of it, destroying BSB in the process (the two would ‘merge’, although the Sky name, style, management and model would be all that survived).

MeridianThe reforms to British society continued into the 1990s. The Independent Broadcasting Authority, the broadcaster and licenser of ITV, was abolished by the Broadcasting Act 1990, replaced by the regulator Independent Television Commission, which was ordered to sell the ITV franchises to the highest bidder. They tried their best not to, but TSW, TVS, TV-am and Thames all died in the process, replaced by Westcountry, Meridian, Sunrise (which went on air as GMTV) and Carlton on 1 January 1993.

Through the 1990s, Independent Local Radio was expanded while the BBC was forced to contract its local radio services. Radio 1 finally got an FM frequency of its own, whilst Radio 3 got competition from the commercial Classic FM, the first of the three new Independent National Radio stations (with Virgin 1215, now Absolute Radio, and Talk Radio, now TalkSPORT). ILR stations converted from general service to pop music, then split their FM and AM frequencies into separate stations. On television, Channel 5 was launched on a shoestring, using frequencies previously put aside for video recorders and home computers, which had to be retuned before the station could begin. And then came the big leap that is digital broadcasting.

But that’s a whole new story.

BBC Digital

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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6 responses to this article

Karen Smith 20 April 2015 at 12:08 pm

Really interesting article. A great overview of broadcasting history for the lay person.

Nigel Stapley 20 April 2015 at 8:04 pm

Nice overview. I’m not sure about one thing, though: you refer to people buying TV sets in time for the Coronation. Wouldn’t it be far more likely – given the expense and the variable reliability of what would now be called ‘the hardware’ – that people would have rented their sets? A similar phenomenon occurred in the early days of colour, and for much the same reasons.

Chris Bowden-Smith 21 April 2015 at 12:01 pm

The TV rental market existed but was far less developed at that point with relatively few shop outlets and only really found in bigger cities. It is true that Rediffusion rented radio sets but their TV portfolio was modest. The Coronation was more of a catalyst when many saw TV for the first time in neighbour’s houses at “Coronation Viewing Parties” as only about one in a dozen homes actually had a TV at that point. It did stimulate people to go out and get one later though.
It was mainly the more bourgeois middle class homes who equipped themselves in advance, but TV would remain a very middle class hobby until ITV came along a little later…

Nigel Stapley 21 April 2015 at 8:06 pm

Fair comment – I wasn’t around at the time, and I know you were! 😉

Arthur Nibble 22 April 2015 at 11:57 am

Great article. A mini-documentary series on its own.

Geoff Nash 12 October 2016 at 10:03 am

Bearing in mind the limited boradcasting hours in 1953 and being that most TV sets of the time were only watched for a couple of hours at any time, I wonder how many sets couldn’t last the long haul and broke down during the Coronation broadcast?

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