How Relevant is Reith’s Idea of Public Service Broadcasting in Relation to Contemporary Television? Essay
How Relevant is Reith’s Idea of Public Service Broadcasting in Relation to Contemporary Television?
The beginning of the 20th century saw the dawn of a new form of power. A means to communicate with thousands, and eventually millions of people simultaneously, to convey your ideas across a whole nation in a matter of seconds. This power was broadcasting.
Broadcasting at the time was seen as a public utility, and as the wave spectrum was limited, the government got involved in its distribution. It decided the best way to fund broadcasting was a license fee. A British Broadcasting Company (which in 1927 would become the British Broadcasting Corporation) was formed, and on November 14th 1922, after over a million ten-shilling licenses were sold, it started transmissions.
The first managing director of this company was John Reith, a Scotsman with a background in engineering. When he signed up for the job he did not even know what broadcasting meant, and yet he would very soon shape the future of broadcasting in Britain for the next 80 years. In 1925, for the Crawford report, Reith was asked for his opinion on broadcasting. He came up with several ideas about it, ideas that are still in use to this very day. He also came up with this phrase: Public Service Broadcasting.
Reith believed that broadcasting should be a public service. It was overseen by the government, controlled by the General Post Office, and paid for by the people who used it. As a public service, public service broadcasting (PSB) should have an ethos, and Reith put forth some ideas that would stay in the PSB charter (and in the BBC’s mission statement) for years to come.
One of the utmost concerns of Reith was that PSB had to educate as well as inform. Not only did the BBC have to relate events as they happened but also to educate the masses with science, nature or history programming. We must not forget that in the 1920’s most of the BBC’s listeners would not have had any real education past the age of 14.
Another of Reith’s priorities was that all that possessed a wireless anywhere in Great Britain, be it in the center of London or the far end of the Hebrides, could access the BBC’s services. This universality of access would ensure that wherever you lived, you would have the same opportunities to be informed and educated by the BBC, thus putting the whole population on equal terms.
Important to Reith as well was the public sector status that the BBC should have. That way it was not run for some anonymous shareholders who would only be interested in higher dividends, but in fact financed by the people who actually listened to it and later watched it. This would ensure that the quality of the programs was rewarded, rather than fulfilling the agenda of a handful of bankers.
The BBC also had to lead popular taste rather than follow it. As Richard Hooper, chair of the radio authority said, the BBC had to offer “the Reithian ‘what audiences need’ not just ‘what audiences want'”. The corporation’s task was to innovate and give the public new areas of thought to explore. However in doing so, the BBC had to remain popular, as it was still the people paying for the programmes productions.
The BBC also had to promote social and national unity, making programmes that catered for minority groups, and as the same time, sending out an image of national identity that all these groups could relate to together, thus creating national unity, a difficult task in the United Kingdom which has an “immensely varied national identity” (John Birt, director general of the BBC 1998)
The promotion of democracy was also a major issue, and this was put to the test during the 1926 general strikes. The result was seen as inconclusive by some as Reith only allowed the prime minister to have his say and not the opposing parties. His arguments were that the BBC is the people’s service and the government was the people’s choice, so the BBC backed the government.
But above all, Reith wanted the BBC programming to be of exceptionally high standards, and this at every level. The engineering had to be of very high quality, as did the programs. The information contained in them had to be accurate and up to date. “Our responsibility is to carry into the greatest number of homes everything that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement.”(Lord Reith). Reith also wanted a high moral tone to be respected at all times. Dress codes had to be respected when broadcasting, even if the BBC only produced radio programs at the time. Reith stopped a divorcee violinist playing on the BBC, as divorce was not in accordance with the moral tone of the BBC.
Reith had very precise ideas about how he thought public service broadcasting should be run. These ideas were turned into the mission statement of the BBC. However this ethos was thought up nearly 80 years ago. Those 80 years have seen a lot of changes; changes in society that makes our contemporary lifestyle very different from life in the 1920’s.
Are Reith’s ideas of public service broadcasting relevant to contemporary television? Can we apply the same ideas we did 80 years ago to media today, or are we forced to modify them? Or even change them completely?
Some of Reith’s ideas are actually still applicable to contemporary public service broadcasting, and are still a part of PSB’s ethos. However with the arrival of satellite TV, speciality channels, otherwise known as narrowcasting, some of his ideas seem more difficult to apply to contemporary television.
We know have in England four analogue public service broadcasting channels: BBC1, BBC2, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Even though the two latter ones do carry advertising, they are still public service broadcasting channels, in comparison to ITV, which is privately owned. There are some PSB digital channels being rolled out by the BBC, like BBC choice (soon to be replaced by BBC3), Cbeebies, a children’s channel, BBC4 and a learning zone channel). However these are not yet widely available, as not many households possess digital receivers yet. Let us look at the “terrestrial” channels, and how they measure up to Reith’s ideas.
Firstly Reith wanted to inform and educate. BBC1 carries the BBC’s news bulletins as well as documentaries and educational programs. BBC2 carries a lot of educational programs for children in the mornings, many factual programs during peak time in the evening, and learning zone at night. Channel4 also has educational and factual programs but only one news program albeit of high quality. Channel 5 has short news bulletins on the hour every hour and “super serves for the pre-school age group” (C5 corporate web site).However, these do not make up the most of these channels’ programming grid. The majority of it is filled with dramas, soaps, gameshows and films. The BBC, as do channel 4 and channel 5 now set out to educate, inform and entertain and not necessarily in that order. However a technique known as hammocking which consists of putting a “low rating” show in between two “high rating” ones does try and educate us: having finished watching one show and waiting for the other, we can learn about the life of wild flies in Africa for instance. Unfortunately, in the days of cable and satellite, when people have scores of channels to chose from, research shows that viewers tend to change over to other channels rather than watching these shows. The competition between the PSB channels and cable or satellite TV is forcing PSB to include more entertainment.
Reith wanted PSB to be accessible all over Great Britain. The BBC and C4 have met these requirements. However C5 has not. The reception of this channel is very irregular: good in some areas (depending on the weather), bad in some others, and non-existent in a few areas. Channel 5 is trying to remedy this by being carried by many different technologies: cable, satellite and digital, but not everyone has this diversity of receivers.
Public sector status was also one of Reith’s priorities, as it meant independence. The BBC has the same status as it did when it was launched, however it has been forced to start selling its shows abroad to make profits. Channel 4 and channel 5 have both public sector status. Even though they carry advertising, they do not have to report to a board of shareholders.
Public service broadcasting had to lead popular taste. The BBC, true to its nature still does, with a wider variety of innovating shows. Channel 4 prides itself as being an innovative and experimental channel, and it does offer us some shows that make us think, even at the cost of risking heavy criticism. This happened in 2001 when a spoof news show “Brass eye” offended many viewers while trying to make a serious point. Channel 5’s programming however resembles more the private commercial channels’, using lowest common denominator programming.
Reith wanted PSB to promote national and social unity, to cater for minority groups, and also to establish a sense of identity. The BBC still caters for many minority groups, showing a wide variety of different genres, from opera ( a typically low rating program) to The Simpsons. Channel 4 carries a very wide spectrum of shows catering for many different minorities: a few years ago it shocked the nation by showing the first totally gay drama “queer as folk”, but it shows more the different communities in Britain rather than establishing a national unity.
The promotion of democracy was also among Reith’s ideas. This is done by the BBC with party political broadcasts, or news shows and satirical takes on the British politics. However occasionally the BBC, especially in times coming up to it’s licence renewal, has been said to favour the government in place at the time, to be sure it’s licence would be renewed as it would like it to be. Channel 4 promotes democracy in the form of documentaries and current affairs programs.
One of the most important aspect of Reith’s vision of public service broadcasting was high standards and a high moral tone throughout.
High standards for the BBC and channel 4 are usually met. The quality not only of programming but also of the production is one of the highest in Europe. Channel 5’s programming however could not be called high standard.
Reith demanded high moral tone. The director general of the BBC John Birt told this anecdote about the BBC under Reith in a speech he made in 1998 to celebrate the 75 years of the corporation:
When the most popular comedians of their day, Clapham and Dwyer, had cracked a seaside-postcard joke (which does not quite – I warn you – stand the test of time) ‘What’s the difference between a baby and a champagne cork? One’s got the maker’s name on its bottom’ – they were banned from radio and an apology was broadcast on the Nine O’clock News for their grave lapse of taste.
This shows that moral tone has changed in 80 years, and that if PSB were to observe the same moral code as in the 1930’s, TV would not be credible. This kind of tone can only be found in comedy shows like “Harry Enfield and chums” where we see two characters observing this code. Nowadays, if PSB is to cater for all minorities, the moral code has to change: if any of the public service channels banned a violinist as Reith did because she was a divorcee, they would be fined by regulations authorities. Our society has become much more tolerant, and public service broadcasting reflects this on all channels.
Most of Reith’s ideas about PSB are relevant to contemporary PSB channels. However commercial channels do not abide by these ethics. Graham Murdock said that “audiences are addressed by PSB as citizens, not consumers” as they are by commercial channels. The aim of these channels it to make as much money as they can through advertising, and to achieve this they need ratings. This compromises on quality and does not allow them to do things that PSB can and must: address audiences that advertisers are not interested in, thus catering for everyone.
The future is bringing a new challenge: digital channels. These will be able to target much more precise audiences: catering for minorities or better aimed advertising? Only time will tell, but if PSB has managed to survive 80 years, with changes as radical as the introduction of TV, there is no reason to think it will not survive in the digital age. Auntie is here to stay.
Articles: A.C. Grayling The man who made the BBC
(Financial times 8.10.93)
Paul Valley Lost in a moral maze
Great Scots: lord Reith
(Sunday herald 19.12.99)
Books: Branston and Stafford (2001) Media student’s book second edition
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 July 2017
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