A History of the Origins of Television

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A History of the Origins of Television

For the first half of the twentieth century, the dominant media in western society had been newspapers, radio and cinema. Then, in the early 1920s, a man named John Logie Baird created the first television, which has since become the dominant media of the second half of the twentieth century. Television has had an immense impact on human society in many forms including sociality, knowledge, experience and leisure.

After the first experimental broadcasts in America in the 1920s, the British Broadcasting Corporation was set up in 1922, however television broadcasting did not begin until 1936 when an estimated 23,000 people saw the first broadcasts. In 1939 television had ceased and was described as something that would amount to nothing. During the war the radio was extremely popular and this was the case for several years after as television sets were expensive and had limited broadcasting hours with poor receptions.

The BBC was dominated by their director general, John Reith, who had negotiated a position where the BBC was independent from both the government and free from the pressures of market forces. For the BBC had an assured income from all those who owned radio receivers. Reith had established a corporation with aims to inform, educate and entertain the public as a whole, making available cultural experiences that they would otherwise not have seen [HOLLAND, 1997: Page 8].

Up until the 1950s the BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting and it wasn’t until 1951 that various criticisms began to emerge. The 1951 Beveridge report was critical of the stance and arrogance of the BBC and there were even reports suggesting that it should be discontinued. In 1953 the coronation of the Queen was broadcast live on the BBC easing the pains of the Beveridge report and causing a television boom. In 1950, only 4% of the population owned a television set, by 1960 the figure had risen to 80% [HOLLAND, 1997: Page 11]. A consumer society was emerging with developments in popular culture and a youth orientated society.

The single biggest factor for the emergence of a consumer society was the post war economic boom. The Conservative Party using Keynesian economic policies introduced by Labour had just come into power. This meant a mixed economy based on a mixture of both free markets and government assisted growth. A boom in technology coincided with improvements in the standard of living and a society wanting to consume and spend money. There was a growing campaign for commercial television and in 1954 the Television Act ended the BBC monopoly and created ITV which was funded entirely by advertising. Regulated by the independent television authority (ITA), it had its own news and offered services the BBC did not, such as a regional focus [HOLLAND: 13].

In order to attract advertisers ITV had to give the people what they wanted. By 1957 through a mixture of popular programmes, open and inquisitive news and reporting on elections, ITV had gained three-quarters of the broadcasting audience. By 1960 ITV had made a ten million-pound profit [HOLLAND: 14]. The BBC feared that it would have to abandon ‘public service broadcasting’ in order to compete with ITV.

However the 1962 Pilkington report praised the BBC for its quality and savagely criticised commercial television by stating that ‘ITV’s approach was a cultural decline seen as an Americanisation of Britain’ [HOLLAND: 16]. The 1964 Television act enabled the BBC to create another channel in BBC 2. This new BBC channel pioneered colour television on its higher quality signal [HOLLAND: 17]. This increased the pressure on ITA to continue to broadcast quality programmes such as world in action.

The period from 1964 – 1979 became known as the golden age of broadcasting where the BBC became more populist and ITV offered a more public service forming a ‘cosy duopoly’ [Williams, 1998: p.128]. However the cosy relationship began to breakdown as the economy began to decline. The 1973 oil crisis left the economy at a point of crisis, leading to a return to a conservative government and with it, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Thatcher was a great believer in the free market and strongly opposed state ownership. As a result of this, she strongly opposed the BBC. With Thatcher leading the country and ratings down the BBC was struggling to justify the license fees.

By the early 1980s Britain was divided with many economic and political problems. This social unrest had an impact on broadcasting and in 1982, the Broadcasting act created channel 4, a free market channel broadcasting quality but controversial programmes. Such programmes provided adverts for specialist markets including youth and ethnic minorities. This channel became popular largely to a high pornographic content and American sitcoms.

As the 1980s progressed the Conservatives became more and more opposed to the BBC. They accused them of bias and attacked their programmes. However, the Peacock report of 1985 opposed the government and supported the BBC. It was during this period that satellite TV and videos were introduced in the UK. This led to the possibility of having hundreds of channels through their satellites or through underground cables. This led to yet more pressure on the BBC to become a commercial channel as questions began to arise as to whether they could survive on license fees alone. People like Rupert Murdoch promoted market forces and declared:

This public service television has, had in my view, debilitating effects on
British society, by producing a television output which is so often obsessed with class, dominated by anti-commercial attitudes and with a tendency to hark on about the past [Murdoch, 1989 cited in HOLLAND: p.23].

Murdoch’s savage criticism of the BBC strongly supported the commercialization of television with the belief that people should be allowed to choose from as many channels as possible. In 1990, the Broadcasting act enforced an auction system upon ITV companies. This meant companies had to bid to get their franchises renewed leading to a grossly commercialized market obsessed with profit making. The last of the terrestrial channels, channel 5 was set up in 1997, which signaled the decline in standards of television. A decline which has been due largely to the huge companies involved in television, the rise of satellite and cable television and a move into digital broadcasting.

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