How Britannia Rules Her Wavelengths 

9 July 2018 tbs.pm/65756

From the Daily Telegraph for Monday 2 January 1967

 

NORMAN COLLINS
reviews the Government’s plans for sound and television broadcasting

 

WITH the publication, which just scraped into 1966, of the Government’s nine-times postponed White Paper on Broadcasting, private doubts can at last give way to public despondency.

The BBC licence fee certainly looks like going up by a further £1 in 1968; and the Government, we are promised, is at this moment “reviewing the penalties which magistrates may impose on convicted evaders.”

Commercial ownership in sound radio is to be prevented, and the public, deprived of its pirate pleasures, is to be consoled by Royal Charter Pop. Local radio, due “to come into operation after about a year,” will be limited to a handful of stations. Denied all access to advertising revenue, it is blithely recommended to pass the hat round in the most unlikely quarters to find the means to keep alive.

Independent Television is refused its second network. And the electronics industry, already disheartened by its experience of B.B.C-2, sees itself facing an unusually drab future, which even the promise of colour will not brighten unless the companies as well as the Corporation are permitted to provide it.

 

Low Priority

 

Indeed, the document is not really about broadcasting at all. It is about the effects on broadcasting of the prevailing freeze — which is a very different matter.

Speaking of all developments either in television or sound broadcasting, the Postmaster-General [Edward Short] says that (my italics) “it is not enough that they should be desirable in themselves. The overriding consideration is whether the country can afford them.” And twice in the eleven pages of the Paper he invokes, but does not disclose, the “order of national priorities” and makes it perfectly clear that, in his view and Mr [Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Michael] Stewart’s, broadcasting comes out pretty low among the lot of them.

So at least we know where we are. It would be wrong, however, to assume too much righteous indignation. In particular, it is party political righteousness which should be avoided.

It was a Conservative Government which, thanks largely to the courage and outspokenness of Mr. Selwyn Lloyd, introduced Independent Television. Even so, it left the BBC monopoly in sound broadcasting intact and undisturbed. Again, it was a Conservative Government which in 1962 rejected Sir Harry Pilkington’s Broadcasting Report which would have destroyed the whole structure of Independent Television; but it was a Conservative Government which then awarded the third television channel, not to Independent Television, but to the BBC and left the Corporation without the means of paying for it.

Present-day Conservatives, it should be noted, may draw encouragement from the statements of the Shadow Postmaster-General, Mr. Paul Bryan. Here at last is a Tory strongly in favour of a place for free enterprise in the broadcasting industry.

The fact remains, however, that somewhere between the 18th century, when the free Press of Britain came into existence, and the 20th century, when the BBC was born, respect for individualism had declined and concentration of power had become, not merely accepted, but revered.

It would, therefore, have been forlorn to look to a Socialist Postmaster-General for the new Charter of Broadcasting Liberty that is waiting to be published.

When, some six months ago, Mr. Short succeeded to the office of Postmaster-General, there was already waiting for him a formidable pile-up of broadcasting problems, some technical, some political, all prickly and none of his own making. The accumulation included BBC finance, a fourth television service, University of the Air, colour television, pirate radio, and local sound radio.

What has he done about it?

First, there is the more-than-half-promised £1 increase in the licence fee which will not “be required before 1968.” Here the battle between St. Martin’s-le-Grand [headquarters of the General Post Office] and Broadcasting House must have seen some interesting in-fighting. For we learn that by restricting “activities which they have hitherto considered well justified” the BBC has suddenly discovered that it can manage without its extra £13 million or so a year at least for another 12 months.

Embed from Getty Images
Television licence detector vans, with later Minister for Posts and Telecommunications Christopher Chataway

On the other hand, tucked away on Page 6 of the White Paper is the news of a counter-victory, and the announcement of the setting-up of a powerful new all-British deterrent to television progress. It comes in the form of an extra £5 licence fee, specially for those viewers who may want to watch colour programmes.

The argument that “the cost should not fall upon viewers in general” has its ironic undertones. For the plain fact is that 60 per cent. of all viewers prefer the programmes of ITV and it is this independent majority which is at the moment uncomplainingly supporting the viewing minority which remains faithful to the BBC.

 

Procrastination

 

The matter of a fourth television service and University of the Air (now renamed Open University) is closely interlocked because it is here that the technical and the political come face to face; the former may need the wavelength but the Government is pledged to the latter. The decision that “no fourth television service shall be authorised for the next three years at any rate” savours more of procrastination than solution.

“That there is an audience for continuous music as popular entertainment is not new,” the White Paper tells us, and “because a popular music programme does not need to differ from place to place, the most economical way of broadcasting it will be by relatively few stations, each with a large transmission area.”

This is where the B.B.C is to come to the rescue of the Government with popular music from 5.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. and then again from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., carried on the old long wavelength of the Light Programme. Scarcely, perhaps, in the broadcasting role which Lord Reith had in mind when the BBC began, the new service may nevertheless satisfy many listeners who remember not to go driving in their cars during the two-and-a-half hours of the evening curfew.

As the provision of this service of continuous pop is the P.M.G’s answer to the pirates, it should be borne in mind that pirate radio is essentially a problem of those countries which, like the United Kingdom, legislate for the suppression of the operation of private stations.

Buccaneering disc jockeys do not festoon the coasts of the United States or Canada for the simple reason that the North American public is already fully satisfied with the programmes that the commercial companies provide.

 

Waif Stations

 

It is in the proposals for local sound radio that the art of compromise reaches its highest level. For some inscrutable reason, the Government is convinced that advertising is out of the question because “the provision of a service generally local in character” would prove “incompatible with the commercial objectives of companies engaged in local sound broadcasting” — a view which would astonish all local broadcasters in Canada, Australia, and America, and will certainly leave the editors of every local paper in this country wondering who told the Government so.

Instead, the BBC “in co-operation with local interests” is to open, and operate experimentally, nine V.H.F stations which will derive their income “so far as possible from local sources and not from the general licence fee.”

To make things harder for these waif stations “general subvention from rates ” is ruled out and, in their distress, they are advised to turn to

“various other bodies which might well be prepared to make a financial contribution to the costs of the station, in consideration of the general promotion through its programmes of their objectives: the local university, where there is one; the Open University; chambers of trade and commerce; local Councils of Churches; arts associations; and other representative bodies active in the social and cultural life of the community.’’

Those, however, who still believe that local sound broadcasting can, with the support of local advertisers, add a great deal to the life of any community must take such comfort as they can find from the surprisingly bland assurance that  if the experiment showed that local sources, without recourse to advertising, were not enough, the Government would have to reexamine the alternative methods of financing the service.”

And, with that, we are back to what the case for commercial radio stations has always been about.

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