Case study: an outline history of TV in the UK

This case study is an updated extract from a case study in the 4th edition of the Media Student’s Book.

Television broadcasting in the UK, as in most of Europe, was introduced as an extension of radio broadcasting. The UK was unusual in developing a television service before 1939. Its development was the responsibility of the BBC.

The BBC was set up as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922 by a group of manufacturers of wireless equipment – an early attempt by hardware manufacturers to create software and a distribution system. This private sector organisation was the world’s first ‘national broadcaster’ but during the General Strike of 1926, independence of the company was called into question in a dispute that saw both government and trade unions attempting to influence communications. On 1st January 1927, the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded with a Royal Charter and granted a licence to broadcast. The new corporation had a measure of independence from the state.

An experimental television service began in 1936. In the trial period two different technologies were used but John Logie Baird’s mechanical system was quickly dropped and an electronic 405 line system became standard.

See some of the Learning Resources on the BBC website and the rich resources on BFI Screenonline.

The early years 1936–55

In the beginning, the new television service was constrained, in terms of both geographical and social ‘reach’. Initially a limited service for the metropolitan middle class, it was a long time (including closedown from 1939–46, because of the disruption of the Second World War) before the single BBC channel was widely available. It was 1952 before the signal could be received by 81 per cent of the population. The television service required a viewing licence on top of the existing radio licence, and by 1955 the number of television licence payers had risen to four and a half million (out of around fourteen million households).

A universal public service 1955–82

The highly controversial introduction of ‘commercial’ or ‘independent’ television (ITV) in 1955, in London and then around the country (set up partly with public service rather than simply commercial principles), did much to fire up the BBC, which was allowed to introduce a second channel with colour and a higher resolution picture in 1964. Colour transmissions began in 1967 but the ‘switchover’ to the new 625 lines of UHF from the original 405 lines of VHF took over twenty years. It was 1985 before the old system was finally switched off – an interesting comparison with the current timetable for switching to digital broadcasting in a very different television environment. In this period, ITV companies were obliged to operate on a purely regional basis, serving a distinctive community and abiding by tight regulatory controls laid down by the franchising authority, the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority – at first the ITA or Independent Television Authority).

Filmed American series became commonplace on UK television during this period and ‘live links’ via satellite introduced overseas news and joint broadcasting events. ITV was first known as ‘commercial television’  and was depicted as ‘vulgar’ by some middle-class audiences. It was some time before the quality of ITV programming was recognised in drama productions such as Armchair Theatre (1956-74).

The beginnings of pluralism 1982–90

Channel 4 went on air in 1982 with a new remit, to widen the range of programming and to serve a diverse range of audiences not served by the BBC and ITV. Channel 4 was innovative in several different ways. It was a public sector organisation that was funded via advertising revenue, initially sold by the ITV companies. It didn’t make its own programmes, but commissioned independent companies as a ‘broadcaster-publisher’ and created a new form of television channel. Channel 4 promised a wider spread of viewpoints and a third source of news and current affairs during a period of great social unrest in the UK.

In Wales, S4C was also set up as a public service broadcaster-publisher. This period saw the UK introduction of satellite broadcasting (two companies, Sky and BSB began broadcasting, but Sky soon took over BSB to form BSkyB) and the re-emergence of cable television (it had previously been used to relay terrestrial signals and some local services) offering a variety of channels on broadband cable.

The multi-channel environment, 1990 onwards

The Broadcasting Acts of 1990 and 1996 legislated for a new television environment in which regulation of ‘independent television’ was loosened, Channel 4 gained control over its own advertising revenue from ITV, and digital broadcasting promised to provide even more channels than analogue cable and satellite, as well as ‘interactivity’ and computer services. Channel 5 was launched as a final terrestrial channel (i.e. analogue bandwidth was now used up). Throughout the previous thirty-five years, the BBC and ‘independent television’ (i.e. ITV and later Channel 4) had shared the audience on a roughly equal basis. From now on, the audience share of ‘other broadcasters’ would grow steadily, undermining the settled terrestrial broadcasting environment.

EXPLORE Television as social history

Television has become an important part of our experience of national and international events. Why do you think the following events are important intelevision history? Relate them to the periods outlined above:

  • 1953: Coronation of Elizabeth II
  • 1969: Landing on the moon
  • 1984: The Miners’ Strike
  • 1997: The death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales

Analysing television history

Various commentators have found ways to analyse this history. John Ellis, one of the foremost academic analysts of UK television (who has also worked within the industry), has represented the history like this:

  • the era of scarcity;
  • the era of availability;
  • the era of plenty.

‘Scarcity’ refers in most countries to the restricted number of channels available up to the late 1970s (terrestrial broadcasts are limited by the availability of suitable ‘bandwidths’ of radio waves). New technologies such as broadband cable, DBS (direct broadcasting by satellite) and now digital free-to-air or DTT (digital terrestrial television) allowed the move to the era of ‘availability’ by creating space for many extra channels. In 2000 Ellis suggested television was moving towards a future that was being promoted by producers and distributors, but which audiences were only coming to terms with quite slowly.

In Ellis’s terms the producers and audiences have actually been ‘working through’ an ‘age of uncertainty’ as television begins to redefine itself. We can see this in the refusal by a significant section of the UK audience to ‘buy in’ to the new world of plenty – after a decade of promotion, ‘multi-channel television’ had ‘penetrated’, to use the market jargon, just over two-thirds of UK households (TV International Database, reported in The Times 22/4/05). To the surprise of many industry pundits, much of that growth had been via the Freeview service for terrestrial digital channels. In other words, some of the new audiences for digital television had still to be convinced that they need to pay extra for more channels. In the digital switchover currently underway in the UK, the state has subsidised the move to digital for the minority not yet able to receive signals.


Created as a joint project between BBC, BSkyB and Crown Castle (the privatised ex-BBC transmitter group now Arqiva), Freeview was set up as a free DTT service when ITV’s ONDigital service failed in 2002. In June 2005 it had some 30 per cent of the digital market, growing faster than BSkyB or cable by recruiting the ‘refuseniks’ who wouldn’t pay for digital services. ITV had to ‘buy’ extra channel space on the platform and in 2006, ITV and Channel 4 joined as equal shareholders. The Freeview model has since been exported to other countries. In 2008, BBC and ITV set up Freesat as an alternative platform for free digital television services.