PSB and Commercial TV


Run through the Hendy approach and remind of history PO/Monopoly/licence fee

Monopoly as such justifies the universality of the lic fee – a prob for later


This 'Reithian' ethos is sometimes lazily defined as straightforwardly elitist, patrician, authoritarian, stifling. But it was always more complex than that. When Reith talked of bringing to British people 'the best' of things ideas and culture and information they did not know they wanted but which he, at least, knew they needed in an era of mass democracy-he undoubtedly played the neo- Victorian paternalist to perfection. What could be grander, after all, than his quintessential claim that broadcasting should give a lead to public taste rather than pander to it? 'He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy.'4 Yet Reith went on to say very clearly that the whole point was to bring the best' into the greatest number of homes'. If broadcasting was a force for the improvement of taste and knowledge and manners, as well as a means of promoting social unity, the task was to enable men and women throughout the country to take an interest in things from which they had previously been excluded. And if all British people were to be led on to higher things, the BBC needed to attract a mass audience. It needed to be truly popular.5 Hence the classic formulation of the BBC's mission being to 'inform, educate, and entertain': in part, an expression of the desire to build rounded, enlightened citizens by exposing them to the broadest range of material; in part, a recognition that only through the enticement of popular programmes would decently sized audiences ever be secured for all the tougher, more 'improving' fare. (Hendy, Life on Air.)






If this summarises the idea of PSB under monopoly conditions as a cultural thing then the Sykes Cmtee 1923 summarised it as a technical thing in terms of scarcity of the wavelengths to be used for broadcasting.



but PSB should also be expressed in terms of an expanding democracy: The…



So right from the beginning, Reith and the government generally (though they had great doubts about broadcasting ‘controversial material’, wanted a service that would promote what might be called a modern democratic system via a responsible control mechanism of indirectly applied monopoly (BBC as separate from direct control by Ministers)




and thus we have the relation between PSB and the emerging idea of a mass public – the notion that there is no necessary connection between a particular type of culture and a particular class or group of persons. Please not – and I was saying to some of you last week in Soc 2026, that the idea of mass society and mass culture has usually been seen as a post-war formation c1950s as a result of the collapse of class culture, but here we had a top down effect to give rise to a mass culture.


PSB should:

Develop (educate) individual lives in terms of knowledge, taste, culture, entertainment


help develop democracy in a space of informed debate between citizens


provide the technical infrastructure of wavebands and transmitters connecting the nation and the regions to provide the broadcasting service


In this sense the famous trio of terms for PSB and forever associated with Reith, that broadcasting should inform, educate and entertain is if anything an understatement – it was far less paternalistic than that.





the fear that if alternative services i.e. commercial services were to be permitted, then the good would be driven out by the bad especially as a competitive market would use everything it could to widen its audience base and to do so appeal to base instincts by offering vulgar popular cultural material..which would probably work..and it did Success of ITV.


The triviality charge from the Pilkington report.


But Annan again as a reaction to increasing anxieties about the political and social content of broadcasting esp the political stuff suggests that pluralism is the key thing.



and then Peacock 1986 who saw broadcasting in terms of an economic commodity

in a changing technological world of availability





Thus by 1986 the debate had moved on radically into envisaging a highly commercial multi-channel world of TV.


But this takes us back to the debates over a commercial service and its principles.


For some the roots of a commercial service lies with the ancient idea of laissez-faire – let things be – an Open marketplace in which all goods are bought and sold without bias or privilege.


But…we have always regulated markets for the betterment of  the economy - protection of home markets, or for raising taxes, or for raising more generally the nations money supply to do other good things e.g. have wars, protect the country, build roads, welfare etc


Kings/government were happy to have taxes imposed on newspapers as a method of control of bad broadcasting (sedition) and to raise public sector dosh.


As such the alternative was not purely a laissez-faire model but any commercial alternative would be regulated – the question was how much and why..determined by what various opinion formers as well as a the public thought.


The debate over ITV was very much in that direction – for some it would lead to dumbed down popular TV that was of low culture, Americanised, with too much sex and violence – this was a view BEFORE as well as after 22nd Sept 1955


And there was a govt that saw that a new service would not only be popular with a post-war democratic public who were less easily impressed by the judgments of the elites as to what was good for the people, but also popular in the sense of having a strong role in the economic revival with expansion of a TV market and an ads market – as it was clear that that was going to be the mechanism for funding ITV. Pay-TV was never discussed, and would have been complicated especially as it would have meant an increase of the existing Lic Fee OR the payment of two fees – which was seen as politically disasterous.


Bu there is then the equation between pursuit of audiences and programme content. Quality – programmes demanding reflection, thought, concentration partly because they engaged in ideas that were deep and questioning of the human condition,  tended to get lower audiences which meant less revenue.


Now this upsets the PSB idea NOT because somehow PSB was assumed to be posher – more elite of middle class BUT BECAUSE PSB which had set the terms and standards had always emphasised plurality and, so the argument went, mass TV organised around money from advertising would constrain plurality to only those types of progs that would generate suitable amounts of revenue. Esp in an increasing market place. As such Annan and Peacock would cancel each other out, though both would recognise the importance of plurality and commerce. And in a highly competitive marketplace as now, we see this has happened with ITVs PSB type output – which people of want parents want Childrens TV, want news, like a bit of high culture etc.


And what happens when the provision of TV becomes almost wholly about the economics of providing and signing up audiences – Sky and Pay TV.


And the ease by which to buy popular packages of CAS – conditional access systems of TV instantly over the net) is a challenge to advert funded approaches and to the justifications for the licence fee.


If I get most/all of my TV from Sky and I have to pay for that, why should I be made to pay for BBC by lic fee? And this is a very real threat to BBC and has allowed for the idea to take off that Lic fee is a kind of tax and taxes are never popular.


The multi-channelling of DTV also means that budgets squeezed and one is forced to ask how are the big orgs going to be able to afford to make the programmes that are bought by the smaller TV Cos to broadcast?


A neo-liberal semi-laissez-faire market in TV since 1998 does not just mean lots for all, it may mean far less for all and ultimately a decline in pluralism


If that is how one wants to judge the value of broadcasting in a democratic society