Media Studies – The BBC and the Concept of Public Service Broadcasting.


Media Studies – The BBC and the Concept of Public Service Broadcasting.

Note: Today we did 2 lectures in one session. I have split them up however into two separate blog posts.

Today we continued our Introduction to Media Studies module by looking at the BBC and the concept of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB).

A Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) is simply a broadcaster funded by the state or better put it us. This is done through taxes or more specifically in the U.K. the TV License which in 2011 costs £145.50 for a colour license.

In the U.K. our PSB is the BBC which has to stick to a Royal Charter, which is a state mandate of rules and a promise that the BBC shall always inform, entertain and educate. There has also been a stipulation of Universal Provision, meaning anyone who has the equipment to access it should be able to – everyone should have equality of access to the broadcasts.

The BBC originally had a monopoly because there was no other TV or Radio companies. Under the Royal Charter, they were stipulated to provide a mixed schedule to cater for everyone up and down the country.  They had to stay away from the market to be impartial and not accept outside influence. By outside influence it means advertisers who can influence schedules through their product placements.

British Broadcasting Company set up in 1922 and hired John Reith as managing director. They gained a license to broadcast in January 1923 and in October 1923 Major General Sykes published the Sykes Committee Report on Broadcasting. This report looked at how broadcasting can be achieved and whether it was in the public interest.

Why PSB?

‘The wave bands available in any country must be regarded as a valuable form of public property and the right to use them for any purpose should be given after full and careful consideration. These which are assigned to any particular interest should be subject to the safeguards necessary to protect the public interest in the future.’

‘The control of such a potential power over public opinion and the life of the nation ought to remain with the state’

(Sykes Committee Report 1923)

It was argued that it had to be protected from commercial pressures such as advertising. But it also needed protection from state control – the state can’t interfere – they could use propaganda. But, the company was regulated by the state via the charter. The BBC was forced to broadcast to a criteria.

John Reith argued that broadcasting was a moral, cultural and educative force and that it had:

‘Responsibility to bring to…homes…best in every department of human knowledge.’

It aimed for the very highest standards of moral culture.

Radio and Democracy have a strong bond. Radio contitutes the home in the public sphere. It utlilises the mighty weight of public opinion. It is socially interactive with the use of call-in’s to shows like 6-0-6 or letters written to DJ’s like Chris Evans.

‘A radio’ – hearth bringing democracy into the home, an armchair democracy made easy. It serves the good of the people. Is this public sphere? Yes it is.

We then looked at the History of a Political Nation.

  • 1800s – Rise in political nation evident. Working class gain influence in democracy of the nation. The public is now more important than ever in the running of the nation with the rise of the press, the unions etc. People want change!
  • 1832 – Middle class males gain vote upon stipulation fo proprety ownership.
  • 1832Disraeli’s Reform Act – male working classes over 21 can now vote.
  • 1834Gladstone update’s reform act so that the vast majority are encouraged to vote.
  • Mid-1800s – Unions start to form.
  • 1848Karl Marx starts Marxism and forms the fundamental ideas of Communism in the Communist Manifesto. This is an anti-capitalist ideology.
  • 1868TUC Union formed. A rise in socialism begins.
  • 1906Labour Party officially formed.
  • 1924The first ever Labour leader is voted in as Prime Minister.

We then took a look at one of the key turning points for political history and the BBC.

General Strike
(3rd May 1926 – 12th May 1926)

The General Strike in 1926 saw the whole nation draw to a stand still. People from all walks of life went on strike. Even the newspapers went on strike, something that was important as it left no competition at all for the BBC.

Baldwin stated that if the BBC broadcast the events of the strike it would be ‘ A challenge to the government’ and would be the ‘road to anarchy and ruin‘. The BBC was in a tricky situation. They had to report what was going on. However, if they supported the strike they would alienate the government and likely be shut down and if they supported the governemnt it would alienate the people and lose viewers. They were stuck in the middle and people like Churchill were calling for the BBC to work for the government.

Reith stated ‘Since the BBC is/was a national institution and since the governemt in this crisis is acting for the people, the BBC was for the governenment too.’ The BBC was actually banned from accessing the unions. So, the BBC took the only option and stayed neutral. They reported what was happening, but not why and gave no opinion on the matter. They were careful not too broadcast anything to alienate either side and remained impartial.

This impartiality gained the trust of the government, the strikers and the public and continuing to use this stance of impartiality ever since it has secured it’s future.

The BBC had a duty to provide mixed programming – something for everyone, everything for someone. It must provide for all ages, races, religions, genders etc. It see’s the public as one person. It must get a balance between informative, educational shows and entertainment shows. The BBC claims to do this it requires a monopoly on it’s scheduling with no outside influences.

In the beginning the BBC could alienate people due to it’s scheduling. Sunday’s were dominated with religious programming originally, ruining people’s weekend, their only days off. They wanted entertainment and people complained quickly rectifying the problem.

During the war there was a need for morale boosting programs so the BBC utilized lots of light entertainment shows and comedy or variety shows. These proved popular and main stayed on broadcasts. This was provided by BBC Home Service, the combination of regional and national networks. This model was abandoned after the war however and a new format favored. This format used ‘the light programme‘ which was entertainment followed by ‘the third programme‘ which was high brow stuff like opera. This method was used up until the 1970’s when commercial radio was introduced.

‘Pyramid is served by three main programmes, differentiated but broadly overlapping in levels of interest, each programme leading on to the other, the listener being induced through the years increasingly to discriminate in favour of the things that are more worthwhile. Each programme at any given moment must be ahead of its public, but not so much as to lose their confidence’

William Haley (BBC Director General 1944-1952)

Here they were promoting the rise in standards in education and culture. We then had a quick look at the history of terrestrial television from a business point of view.

In 1955 ITV was established. It was regulated by an independent authority and had a remit. ITV became more popular than the BBC because it was more fun. It became the BBC’s boring serious programming vs. ITV’s light hearted fun quiz shows and entertainment.

In 1962 the Pilkington Report criticized ITV for pandering to the public with cheap U.S. imports and not promoting homegrown talent. It claimed it was aimed for the masses – the lowest common denominator – and didn’t promote any values.

BBC2 launched in 1964 and was seen as the BBC’s attempt to bring more culture to TV. It competed with BBC1 which broadcast more entertainment shows. The first controller of BBC 2 was none other than David Attenborough.

1977’s Annan Report said that being only two companies – BBC and ITV – was bad and they needed more competition to increase standards. It claimed the comapnies had become lazy and were not innovative enough and didn’t cater to minorities. The 70’s were different to the 50’s but neither had noticed this and were stuck in the past. The report promoted the idea of a fourth channel – something that took five years to happen.

However, Channel 4 did launch in 1982 starting it’s broadcast with Countdown. However, this channel was very outspoken politically and broadcast a massive variety of programmes and was seen as innovative and experimental. A huge change in television started to occur.

1986’s Peacock Report claimed the BBC should get advertising to gain extra revenue but also mentioned that this could bring outside influence to the BBC. This idea was never followed through.

1986 saw a huge change in television with the invention of VHS and computers etc. yet the BBC and ITV were still stuck in the past.

1990’s Broadcasting Act stipulated many laws and rules for TV companies but also recommended that a fifth channel should join the fray. It also said 5 and ITV should be sold to the highest independent bidder. They should sell their own adverts and 25% of their production should be independent.

The 1996 Broadcasting Act amendment argued that the BBC was raising £3 billion p/a and that this money should be plowed back into TV and technology and create a world service which it had an international responsibility to do so.

We then had a quick look at the Royal Charter, a set of rules from the Queen and state that the BBC has to follow that is periodically renewed. The most recent charter is available here. I have summarized it below:

2006 Royal Charter

  • 1. Sustaining citizenship and civil society.
  • 2. Promoting education and learning.
  • 3. Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence.
  • 4. Representing the UK, it’s nations and regions.
  • 5. Bringing the world to the UK and the UK to the world.
  • 6. Building a digital Britain.

The BBC has other interests than TV and radio due to the rules this charter states such as BBC Online, BBC iPlayer, the Digital Switchover etc. The BBC also runs BBC Video Nation which utilizes public interaction.

PSB has to adhere to quality standards aswell:

  • High Quality
  • Challenging
  • Original
  • Innovative
  • Engaging

Due to the license fee the BBC is accountable to the Royal Charter, the state but most importantly – us!


5 thoughts on “Media Studies – The BBC and the Concept of Public Service Broadcasting.

  1. Pingback: Media Studies – Television: Broadcaster or Narrowcaster | David Roberts' (1992)

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