When we moved to America eleven years ago, one of the things I was worried about missing was British TV and especially the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Netflix and other streaming services were not very common in 2009, and I do not tend to be an early adopter of technology in any event. I am not a big TV watcher and never just put the TV on for background noise or company – I would rather listen to music or an audio book if there is no one else around. Most of my TV watching is done while I am ironing or doing some other mindless task. I am also of the generation that grew up in Britain with only three TV channels, so the whole country was more bound together by the common experience of following just a few shows, and to me that helps to define being part of a culture.
I remember being disappointed by BBC America, which our cable company offered, as it seemed to broadcast a very narrow range of options, usually involving sports, cars or science fiction – none of which are at the top of my list. I did, and still do, enjoy America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) as it broadcasts many British imports such as Downton Abbey and Sanditon. In fact, I discovered that this week marks 50 years of PBS broadcasting TV shows.
The early history of television in the USA is mostly dominated by commercial entities. Publicly funded television broadcasting in America was mostly limited in the 1950s and 1960s to the National Educational Television (NET), and in 1970 the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) became the successor to NET. A number of hugely popular shows started life as part of PBS, including Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the performance art program Evening at Pops, the science program Nova, the current-affairs show Washington Week in Review, The French Chef with Julia Child, one of the first national political talk shows Firing Line, and Masterpiece Theatre.
How does this compare to the history of the BBC? The first BBC Television Service, now known as BBC One, is the oldest television channel in the world. It was established in 1936, 14 years after the BBC was founded for radio broadcasting. Until 1955, the BBC broadcast the only TV channel in the United Kingdom. The BBC itself is the world’s largest broadcasting corporation and is commonly nicknamed as “The Beeb” or “Auntie”, the latter down to general perceptions of it being maternalistic and old fashioned like a maiden aunt. However, most British people are very fond of the BBC and regard it with great affection and trust.
The BBC was poorly funded until 1946, when the television license scheme was introduced. This was, and still is, an annual fee payable when you own a television. The BBC Television Service is very different from most other British networks in that it is publicly funded through this arrangement; if you watch live broadcast TV in the United Kingdom, on TV or a live internet stream, then you must fund the BBC by buying a license which today costs the equivalent of about $200 a year. This means that BBC programs are advertisement free and are supposed to be free of bias in areas like news reporting. It also means that product placement is banned – so for example logos are blacked out on computers and sneakers. There has been much debate over the years, especially in today’s internet enabled world, that the TV license fee is old fashioned and should be abolished. Petitions for both the fee’s abolition and for keeping it have been launched and for now, the status quo remains. Whether you agree or don’t agree with this approach, the income generated by this license fee has given the BBC the power and the funding to innovate and shape modern television for the past 75 years.
In 1964, a second channel called BBC Two was launched to cover less mainstream programming. More recently, the network has added several digital channels to its line-up, including BBC Three, BBC Four, and other more specialized channels, such as Children’s BBC and a number of regional and online-only channels. The BBC also broadcasts radio and TV channels outside the UK, such as the World Service and BBC Prime, and owns half of BBC America. There is a lot more information at www.bbc.com
I will say goodbye this week with an amusing quote from a British TV personality from my childhood who made it big on both sides of the Atlantic, David Frost: “Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home.“
God Bless America and the BBC! Stay safe, stay well, and stay positive.
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Lesley grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her PR and marketing agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com