Media, power and responsibility


There was a lot of opposition to the introduction of commercial television, arguments against the notion believed that if the BBC were ‘faced with a competitor then it would be forced to fight for the lion share of total audience to justify a universal licence fee’, (Crisell 85) this would mean abandoning some of its quality programmes which are not very popular. The National Television council was also formed in 1954 and they were opposed to commercial television in any form, they wanted to encourage the development of public service television and even promoted the idea of an alternative BBC channel.

Another big issue that was raised in the argument against commercial television was the effects of advertising on the nature of programme content, there was a fear of Americanisation, with a worry that adverts would infringe on programmes and divert the audience’s attention. The fear that commerciality of television eventually result in a loss of the serious side of television; religion, education and social importance (built up by the BBC’s service) to make way for more audience grabbing entertainment shows.

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The Television Bill was carried in 1954, following with many revisions; the ITV system developed was a compromise between making profit, breaking the BBC’s monopoly and holding back from Americanisation. The government wanted commercial television to be part of the public service system from the beginning; they set up a public corporation, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) to be chaired by Sir Kenneth Clark. The ITA was given ‘general responsibilities to establish a commercial television service that would inform, educate and entertain’ (Buscombe 51).

The government gave the ITA strict guidelines, insisting that programmes were of a high quality, that films and telefilms were mainly British, and that advertising should not be so great that it detracts from the value of the programmes. The ITA allocated regional franchises to various contractor companies who made programmes, this regionalisation concept related back to The Beveridge report’s concerns about ‘Londonization’ (Crisell 82) and the BBC. The ITA wanted contractors to produce programmes of ‘balance, quality, and variety (Crisell 90), they also controlled the quality of the advertising on the channel.

There was to be no sponsorship allowed on ITV the contractors were told to use ‘slot advertising’ (another Beveridge report ideal), selling different slots that were situated between and within programmes to advertisers. The idea was that advertising would be completely separated from the programme’s content, thus preventing commercial interference, unlike America where advertisers could provide or participate in the development of programs. The ITA could also view schedules and scripts in advance, they were able to forbid forecasts on certain subjects and regulate advertisements.

ITV posed a radical challenge to the BBC, ultimately forcing the service to change and consider the public wants, making the BBC more conscious of audience ratings. The BBC found that they were losing their working class audience to ITV as the commercial companies concentrated on entertainment. If the BBC’s audience decreased too far then it would no longer be able to justify its licence fee, and would have to try and emulate the commercial programmes, which did not seem possible.

ITV’s first priority was to capture an audience, and it achieved this, by the end of 1955 ITV had all but two of the top twenty programmes (according to viewer choice) and in 1956 they had all twenty. It was estimated that in 1957 the adult television public numbered 19. 5 million, those who had a choice of programmes spent one-third watching time devoted to BBC and two-thirds to ITV, and their advantage was growing as they extended their coverage in 1959 to 90 per cent of the country.

ITV was seen as an entertainment channel, with programmes consisting of ‘give-away shows’, variety shows, soap operas and American film series, the service was described as ‘people’s television’ (Crisell 93). However, perhaps ITV’s most important contribution to television was the development of a specialist news service, which would supply news broadcasts for all the ITV companies. The Independent Television News company (ITN) changed the format for broadcasting television news. The news was presented by newscasters who were journalistic, they researched their own stories and wrote their own scripts, presenting in their own style.

ITN also illustrated their news with films and images, they liked the sense of spontaneity and human interest of ‘vox pops’, everything was edited into a tight package which made the news more personal, interesting, comprehensible and acceptable to the public than it had been before. ITV also developed its local news service with regionally based contractors; this was unlike the BBC’s method which was much more centralised and metropolitan. ITV’s news service was a stark contrast to what the BBC had provided and its success eventually provoked the BBC to improve its own news services.

Competition between the BBC and ITV raged over a ratings war, the six to seven slot in the evening saw the fiercest competition of the whole schedule. The services would use the series format as it helped to gain audience loyalty, soap operas were found to be highly popular, ITV was influenced by American Television forms and styles and was most popular for its light entertainment shows, which included competition quizzes for big prizes, and these programmes were highly popular with the public.

The BBC were successful too with their straight comedy shows (perhaps driven for a need of quality writing by insurgence of competition, some of the most memorable programmes came from this period; Steptoe and son, Hancock’s Half hour for example. After the first five years of competition the BBC and ITV probably shared the honours equally, becoming a cosy duopoly, the BBC was acclaimed critically for its moral and cultural superiority, persevering to provide something for everyone, where as ITV ultimately had the most popular shows and highest audiences.

ITV was heavily criticised for its lack of cultural standards in its content, being un-informative and only pretending to give quality. Programmes were seen to be commonplace, there were too many game shows and adverts being shown, which were attacked for being misleading, ‘encouraging crassly acquisitive attitudes’ (Crisell 109). Commercials became enormously popular, with advertising slogans and jingles infiltrating into everyday language, they also produced high revenues for ITV and fears grew that the adverts were influencing the types of programmes being shown.

An example of this complaint was the ‘Admag’, a advertising magazine programme which was broadcasted as an actual TV programme; audiences could now be entertained while parting with their cash at the same time. Admags were soon amongst the most popular items on television, until they were banned following the Pilkington report. Commercial television was originally introduced to ‘bring competition into broadcasting that would make the service more responsive to popular demands, and break the elitism of the BBC’s cultural policy, and its metropolitan bias’ (Curran and Seaton 181).

However there has been much debate as to whether this was achieved, and whether commercial television resulted in a demise of quality broadcasting, The Pilkington report’s assessment of commercial television, in 1962, stated that the service was dependent on a view for exploiting ‘working-class false consciousness for profit’ (Curran and Seaton 178), this implied that the publics choice was not real as it had not been offered all possible options, just those ITV (whilst being governed by a need for profit) chose to offer.

It is hard for this essay to solely conclude that the emergence of ITV resulted in a reduction of quality in broadcasting service, the original concept for the service was moulded on the BBC, and the government wanted it to an extension not an alternative to public service broadcasting. The ITA was employed to regulate the service with an agenda to provide good quality programmes. ITV’s development of news presentation through ITN was innovative and pioneering, forcing the BBC to rethink their service.

However that said, due to advertising pressure for profit ITV focused on its entertainment shows, which were highly popular if not very informative. Due to their popularity the BBC were forced to fight for audience ratings to hold their licence fee, so they too would have to favour more entertainment aspects of broadcasting, although they did produce some of their finest comedies at this time.

To determine the effects of these shifts in broadcasting the notion of ‘quality broadcasting’ would have to be questioned, how can this be measured, popularity? education? If the public were happy with the service then should they be censored into viewing informative programmes over their enjoyment of entertaining shows.


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