The following is an Essay written for the Video Industry and Television Studies Module of my Degree Programme at the University of Portsmouth. It received a 2.1 Passing Grade, my First Year overall was passed at First Class Standard. The title for this Essay was “Using an historical perspective, outline a vision of the future for British broadcasting” and it was printed for submission on June 10 2011 – note that certain details may have become outdated since then owing to rapid developments in the UK Media.
British broadcasting has, throughout its history, been an highly changeable medium. It has evolved constantly to keep up with advances in technology, changes in taste and an evolving political situation. This pace of change, always considerable, has been accelerating at an ever increasing rate. Today, the industry faces its largest upheaval ever as trends in multiple areas are shifting concurrently.
As a result, British broadcasting in the future will be virtually unrecognisable…
A Brief History of British Broadcasting
In the early days of broadcasting in Britain, Television, the dominant form of broadcasting today, was mostly a dream. The broadcasting age was kicked off by the advent of the radio in 1922. That year, a number of independent stations began broadcasting and the BBC was formed, initially broadcasting in London.
Right from the start, the BBC was funded by a License Fee. Initially, the Broadcasting Receiving License. The industry as a whole was protected from collapse by forming a syndicate, with royalties being earned on all wireless sets sold. By 1925, though, change was already in the air as the wireless manufacturers wanted out of the deal. Meanwhile, the BBC’s leader (Lord Reith) successfully convinced the Government’s Crawford Commission to continue Public Service broadcasting.
As a result, the British Broadcasting Commission, which largely survives to this day, was established to oversee the nascent British Broadcasting Corporation under the authority of the Crown.
That set the scene for much of the remainder of the post-war period, until around 1935 when the BBC began experiments with television broadcasts, initially using Baird’s 30-line system. By 1936, “High Definition” had already arrived – 405 lines versus the 240 of the Baird system used at that point.
The service wasn’t available for long, however, as service was interrupted by the breakout of World War II.
Once the War ended and stability returned, efforts to resume television service began. In July 1946, the TV License was introduced and TV Service resumed, with the BBC showing a Mickey Mouse cartoon (Mickey’s Gala Premiere) which had been the last programme aired prior to the shutdown of the service seven years earlier.
Three years later, the BBC Television service began to expand outside of London. This expansion continued, with the BBC maintaining its monopoly, for a number of years. Then, in 1955, Independent Television – commercial broadcasting – arrived. And the shape of British broadcasting was altered once more.
This was just the first of a rapidly accelerating number of paradigm shifts in British broadcasting over the coming decades. In the 60s, BBC2 and colour television arrived. In the 70s, Ceefax launches – a nascent foray into information services for the broadcast industry.
But things really changed in the 1980s. Channel 4 launched, bringing commercial broadcasting to the state-owned broadcasting slate, with a focus on exploring new ground with programming aimed at niches not catered to by the existing BBC/ITV Duopoly – most notably the rising “youth” movement of teens and young adults, an increasingly distinct set of demographics.
On top of this, satellite broadcasting went online, beginning an industry in premium TV which would eventually become one of the most important sectors of British broadcasting. Amazingly, it was only in this same decade that British networks began 24-hour broadcasting, which just serves to demonstrate the rapid pace of acceleration in British broadcasting’s evolution.
By the end of the 90s, Channel 5; Six TV and a plethora of premium channels like Sky 1 and the Disney Channel had become available to British audiences. Whilst some were unsuccessful (Six TV went defunct in 2009 after a troubled and highly limited run in its ten year lifetime) others, like Sky 1, remain dominant forces.
Into the 21st Century, analogue broadcasts – satellite, cable and over the air – began to cease. Freeview, Freesat, Sky and Virgin Media Television have battled for eyeballs, and all four have launched new HD services in 1080i. But a growing competitor in the form of the world wide web, born in the 90s, has begun eating into television’s market – both with original content on sites like YouTube and blip.tv and through on demand distribution of television programming through services like BBC iPlayer.
This is the scene as we look ahead to the future of British broadcasting.
The Future of British Broadcasting: A Vision
As it stands, British broadcasting is engaged in a massive-scale “war for eyeballs”, caused by the plethora of services demanding the attention of the public.
There is little chance that all these services can continue to co-exist. As a result, going forward, it is inconceivable that we will not begin to see ever-increasing instances of convergence amongst these services. Already, we have seen television broadcasters like the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, BSkyB and more make their programming available online.
Some, like the BBC and BSkyB even allow viewers to watch television live as it is broadcast over the web – and even on mobile phones.
The future of British broadcasting will be crafted in this image. Video content is platform-neutral at its most basic level. As a result, video services from one platform can be delivered on another platform with minimal additional effort. We are beginning to see this coming to fruition in the form of Internet-Enabled TV sets and devices powered by software like GoogleTV.
These products, which will become increasingly prevalent in the coming years, invert the move of television to the web by bringing the web to television sets. As a result, audiences are able to watch live transmissions or on demand content from the comfort of their living room, on their big screen, without additional effort on their part.
The secondary result of this will be the resurgence of independent and even semi-professional video producers. With internet video services – which offer a far more accessible platform for smaller producers – with equivalent prominence to conventional broadcasters on TVs, independents and semi-professional individuals will be able to reach a far wider audience than at present, radically increasing the viability of small producers.
One possible side-effect of this will be the collapse of the Government’s efforts to launch a new sixth terrestrial broadcaster. The new sixth channel is being pitched has having a localised remit, patterned after the US Networks system, where a national Network produces prime time, late-night, (in some cases) daytime and news programming and local stations broadcast it to small areas (Eg. Cities) along with locally produced content like the local news and weather. Note, ITV used to be organised in this way prior to a mass of station mergers which has rendered the ITV Regions system a nominal one only.
This focus on localised programming will likely have its audience consumed by independent efforts making use of the web. Already, services lie Portsmouthlive.tv are serving the same basic purpose – at very low cost – without the government’s backing.
Similarly, it is highly unlikely that the proliferation of channels (Hundreds broadcast in the UK at present) will continue. Indeed, it seems likely that the number of channels available to UK audiences will plummet over the next ten to twenty years as the niche markets catered to by satellite and cable begin to be eaten up by web services. These niche channels are by far the most vulnerable to being subsumed by the web, as their inherently smaller audiences mean it will be viable for users to stream video live far sooner because less bandwidth will be needed.
As bandwidth concerns are overcome, channels with ever-wider audiences will be able to move online. Theoretically, if enough bandwidth can be added to the UK’s internet infrastructure, every channel currently on the air could be broadcast via the web. But that is a long way in the future.
One other thing seems likely: 3DTV will not achieve truly widespread adoption. Whilst their is a market for 3D content, the inconveniences of the technology make it ill-suited to broadcasting as it is generally consumed. Studies in the UK (The Guardian Online, 2010) and the US (NTDaily, 2010) have shown that an increasing proportion of the audience – particularly amongst younger viewers – prefer to multitask whilst watching television. This means their attention is divided between a TV, perhaps a laptop computer and even a mobile phone. They are social networking and reading the news whilst they watch.
3D doesn’t fit in this lifestyle, as it requires concentration to work. So whilst it has a market in event programming like live sport and movies, particularly movie premieres, conventional programming is unlikely to move to 3D in a meaningful way.
Ultimately, it seems possible that in the future, there will be no Freeview, no Satellite and no cable – as we know it. Instead, broadcasting will be consumed via an online portal with access to all the channels and on demand content in one place and an interface which scales from small screens (mobile phones) through laptop screens all the way up to big screen TVs.
Additionally, this portal could integrate with social networking services, to tap into broadcasting’s role as a creator of shared experiences and converge it with the advent of modern day social media.
Wearden, G. (2010) The Guardian Online: Multi-tasking media consumption on rise among Britons, says Ofcom study. Retrieved 9 May 2011 fromhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/aug/19/multi-tasking-media-ofcom-study
Landry, N. (2010) NTDaily: Study shows increase in technology multitasking. Retrieved 9 May 2011 from http://www.ntdaily.com/?p=7975