This is a brief history of the BBC which, when it was first created, was known as the British Broadcasting Company. It was towards the end of the 1920s, after receiving the Royal Charter, that it became the British Broadcasting Corporation.
A broadcast licence was introduced to help the funding of the BBC in the early 1920s as the BBC was classed as a public broadcasting organisation. The licence was originally known as a ‘broadcast receiving licence’, becoming the radio licence in 1922. It was on 1 June, 1946 that the TV licence was introduced and in January 1968, as colour television started, the licence was amended to cover both black and white and colour television. The original radio licence was abolished in 1971.
How the BBC Started
It was back in 1922 when the Post Office, at the Government’s behest, first agreed to trial two experimental radio stations. The stations were simply known as 2MT, based in Writtle, Chelmsford, and 2LO based in London. The radio stations were set up as the basis for forming the British Broadcasting Company.
The Company was actually created in October, 1922 and was initially owned and run by the then leading wireless manufacturers, including Marconi. The first daily broadcasts by the BBC started on 14 November and took place from Marconi’s studio in London. This was then followed by broadcasts from Birmingham and Manchester.
In just a few months the transmitter network spread out all over the UK as the wireless caught on as a means of mass communication. By the end of 1925 the BBC could be listened to throughout the UK.
The BBC had been created initially with nothing more in mind than to be a commercial interest; being owned by the major wireless makers, it was set up to sell radios. The general manager at the time, a Scotsman called John Reith, decided he wanted something that was different – to be able to educate, inform and entertain without Government interference or commercial pressures influencing what was broadcast.
It was the General Strike in 1926 that first brought the BBC into direct confrontation with the government. The strike meant there were no national newspapers, so people listened to the BBC for news and information. Winston Churchill, who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, tried to get the Government to take over the BBC in order to control its output, but John Reith persuaded the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, that such a takeover would not be in the country’s best interest. The BBC was left to carry on in its own way; as a result, it started to gain a reputation for impartial and independent reporting. In 1927 the BBC got its first Royal Charter and it then changed from being called the British Broadcasting Company to the British Broadcasting Corporation.
1930 – 1939
In 1932 the BBC moved into a new purpose-built building, Broadcasting House, in Portland Place, London. It was the world’s first radio production centre and the building became a city landmark, often described as the New Tower of London.
During the 1930s all manner of eminent figures, from writers, performers, artists and actors were heard in plays, sport and talk shows. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was created and the first BBC commission was awarded to Gustav Holst. Most popular were the variety shows which had millions of listeners. Also in 1932, the BBC launched what was then called the Empire Service which was later to become the World Service.
On 2 November, 1936, the BBC started the world’s first television service based in Alexandra Palace, London. They were to test two television systems, one by John Logie Baird and one by the US backed EMI-Marconi. After two months the EMI-Marconi system was chosen as it was an electronic system compared to Logie Baird’s mechanical one.
As with radio, television developed rapidly when it first started, from 1936 – 1939, and highlights included outside broadcasting such as King George VI’s coronation procession on 12 May, 1937. Other landmark broadcasts included the first FA Cup final on the 30 April, 1938 and the Wimbledon tennis championship in June, 1937.
1940 – 1949
During World War Two the television service was closed down and it was left to radio to inform and entertain. However the BBC didn’t get things right and listeners complained about the standard of the new ‘Home Service’.
The Home Service had replaced the national and regional radio programmes and the new service had too many public announcements and the tone of the broadcasts was deemed boring. The BBC then decided to lighten things by switching to what was to become known as light entertainment. A programme called ITMA, (It’s That Man Again) starring Tommy Handley, attracted over 16 million listeners every week. Other popular shows included Vera Lynn’s Sincerely Yours, which was to land her the title of the Forces Sweetheart.
In 1943 the BBC set up a war-reporting department. Special training was given to the reporters in survival techniques used by the military. A newly designed portable lightweight recording machine had been designed by BBC engineers for use in the field.
After the Second World War, radio advanced in leaps and bounds, transmitting all manner of new programmes from the inaugural Reith Lecture in 1948 to popular entertainment shows like Worker’s Playtime and Desert Island Discs.
1950 – 1959
A single event in 1953 was to change television forever. The broadcasting of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. It was estimated that over 22 million people watched the event. It was after this that the nation became more keen to have television, and sales of TV sets soared.
Television had become just as important as radio. As a result of the increase in television set ownership the revenue from the licence fee also increased, which enabled the BBC to put on more elaborate programmes such as David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest in 1954, and Jack Warner in Dixon of Dock Green, a police series. They had further success with dramas such as The Quatermass Experiment and the adaptation of George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty Four.
It was only when commercial television began with the launch of ITV in September 1955 that the BBC’s output was revealed as dated and old-fashioned, resulting in a dramatic loss of viewing audiences. Things became so bad that by 1957 the BBC’s share of audiences fell to 28%. This led to a further revamp of programme output by the BBC, and by the end of the decade this decline was reversed with the introduction of new programmes. Shows such as Panorama, The Sky At Night, Jukebox Jury and Blue Peter all became instant hits.
During the 1950s, technological innovations came about which went a long way to improve the reception and sound quality of broadcasts as well as electronic recording devices which meant programmes became pre-recorded. This resulted in a drop of ‘live’ broadcasting thus reducing costs.
1960 – 1969
In June, 1960 the new BBC Television Centre in West London was officially opened. It was another purpose-built building to cater for both television and radio, and it became the main headquarters and operations centre of the BBC.
A further review of output in 1960 resulted in plans for a second channel. BBC Two was launched in 1964 as a result of this review. Further advances in technology took place in 1967, one of which was the advent of colour television. BBC Two was the first channel to broadcast in colour followed in 1969 by BBC One.
In 1963, the first series of Doctor Who was broadcast.
Radio also expanded with the launch of Radio 1 in 1967 to replace the now-banned pirate radio stations such as Radio Caroline. The BBC’s main radio station, known initially as the Light Programme, was renamed Radio 2 that year. November, 1967 saw the first local radio stations, and within a few short years more than 20 local stations appeared across the UK. Further advances in technology also meant listeners could tune in to the enhanced FM1Stereo mode which gave a much better, clearer reception and improved sound quality.
1970 – 1979
The 1970s were to become known as the ‘Golden Age’ of television. The BBC’s income grew rapidly due to the expansion of colour television for, as more and more people bought television sets, so the licence fee revenue went up. This resulted in some major new documentary series being produced, and new series such as The Ascent of Man and The Family were broadcast. The Family was a fly-on-the-wall documentary series in 1974 which could claim to be the first reality television show ever. Epic and long-running television dramas such as I, Claudius, Last of the Summer Wine and Pennies From Heaven were all big hits. There were new comedy programmes such as Fawlty Towers, Are you Being Served? (1973) and The Good Life (1975), which were all instant hits which drew large viewing audiences.
BBC Radio was suddenly facing major challenges from local and independent radio stations and had to come up with new programmes to combat the challenge. As a result programmes such as I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy came about and again redressed the balance by keeping and increasing its share of listeners.
It was during the late 1970s that the BBC faced further challenges from the Government about output and quality of programmes. A committee report stated that the BBC had ‘lost its nerve’ and was in an ‘organisational fog’. As a result of this 1977 report, the way was laid open for the formation of Channel 4.
1980 – 1989
The 1980s became the decade of pressure for the BBC both from added competition and from the government. Channel 4 was launched in 1982, satellite television also started to emerge, and more local and national commercial radio stations started up – all resulting in ever more competition for listeners and viewers.
It was during the 1980s that some of the biggest political arguments occurred, and one which turned out to be quite spectacular was about a programme called Real Lives. The BBC were about to broadcast an edition about extremists in Northern Ireland when the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, asked the governors of the BBC to stop the edition from being broadcast. The Board of Governors viewed the programme prior to the planned air date – an unusual course of action that had previously been unheard of. They decided that changes needed to be made to the programme before it could be aired, but this demand resulted in BBC staff going on strike as they felt the BBC’s political independence and impartiality had been damaged and brought into question.
News reporting changed dramatically in the 1980s as it became the decade of wars and coverage of dangerous events such as Tiananmen Square, Northern Ireland and then the Falklands war. The news was being brought to the screen by correspondents who were either on scene or embedded with the armed services.
Major live events were broadcast, such as the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981, and new soap operas emerged such as Eastenders and Neighbours. Factual and investigative programmes such as Newsnight, Crimewatch and Watchdog also became hits and are still running today2.
In 1985, the House of Lords began a six-month experiment televising proceedings, after which the cameras became a permanent fixture. Four years later, the House of Commons followed suit, and it was in 1990 that the Commons voted for the cameras to stay.
1990 – 1999
The 1990s was to turn out to be the decade of technological advances so great that television and radio changed dramatically forever. Digital technology and the Internet allowed more channels and allowed the viewer to interact directly. For radio, they gave CD-quality sound.
BBC Online, better known to the public as bbc.co.uk, was established in 1997 and has gone on to become one of the world’s best-known and most trusted websites.
Radio also expanded greatly. The first new network for over 23 years, Radio 5, was launched in August, 1990. Its main output was sport and educational programmes. Radio 4 also underwent change and altered its format to target a wider and mixed age range, including younger listeners.
In order to secure a new charter in 1996 the BBC had to start providing programmes that the commercial networks wouldn’t. This resulted in new shows such as One Foot in the Grave, Absolutely Fabulous and topical news comedy quiz Have I Got News For You. All became hits with large viewing audiences and the programmes ran for several series. Some are still going to the present day, such as Have I Got News For You.
Costume dramas were also made and were again very popular, with dramas such as Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch providing instant hits.
Science and natural history programmes such as The Human Body and Walking with Dinosaurs were broadcast towards the end of the decade, and were groundbreaking programmes in the way they were filmed.
2000 – 2008
The start of the new millennium was to see the biggest changes ever to the way the BBC provided its services. The digital revolution, across both television and radio, meant more choice, a wider variety of channels and programmes, and channels aimed at specific groups – for example ethnic, religious and special-interest groups. Children’s TV, education and documentaries also had their own specific channels.
The BBC introduced its own new digital service called Freeview, which allowed viewers to receive digital TV and an accompanying wider choice of channels via a normal TV aerial; it has proved a successful format alongside the major satellite rivals. As well as more choice, it has also allowed viewers increased interactivity via the ‘red button’ and digital teletext.
In 2001, the BBC expanded the bbc.co.uk website with the addition of Douglas Adams’ h2g2.com. In 2002 the arrival of more digital services meant the launch of new digital Radio channels via the Freeview service and stations such as 1 Xtra, 5Live and BBC7 were launched.
In 2007 a new ten-year charter was negotiated with the Government, the Board of Governors were replaced and the BBC Trust took over as the governing body of the BBC.
Further expansion of the BBC’s online services took place, and it is now possible to watch live news coverage via the news website, and even BBC television programmes after they’ve been broadcast, via the downloadable BBC iPlayer. The online services were also expanded to include the facility to access the site via mobile phones. The BBC expanded the interactivity of its site allowing viewers and listeners to input ideas and comments, allowing more choice and more say in how and what the BBC do.
As technology grows and improves so changes will continue. The BBC, as with any media organisation, will have to continue to adapt and adopt to the new technology as well as the need to continue to provide programmes and services as per the charter.