BBC Airs the First High-Definition Television Program

The British Broadcasting Corporation’s inauguration of regularly scheduled high-definition television service had enormous impacts on industry, commerce, and popular culture.

Summary of Event

Television was not the unique invention of a single genius but more a case of an idea whose time had come. Shortly after the development of the telephone and the radio, a number of inventors, scientists, and engineers addressed themselves to the problem of transmitting pictures electronically. Alan A. Campbell Swinton, a British engineer, proposed in 1908 a remarkably accurate theory of how this might be done. On a more practical level, John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer, began successful experiments with low-definition television in the 1920’s. Unfortunately for Baird, he relied on a mechanical scanning system to transmit pictures; an electronic system utilizing the cathode-ray tube would eventually prove superior. Baird was important because he helped to popularize this new form of entertainment. By the early 1930’s, experimental demonstrations of television were taking place. [kw]BBC Airs the First High-Definition Television Program (Nov. 2, 1936)
[kw]First High-Definition Television Program, BBC Airs the (Nov. 2, 1936)[First High Definition Television Program, BBC Airs the (Nov. 2, 1936)]
[kw]High-Definition Television Program, BBC Airs the First (Nov. 2, 1936)[High Definition Television Program, BBC Airs the First (Nov. 2, 1936)]
[kw]Television Program, BBC Airs the First High-Definition (Nov. 2, 1936)
British Broadcasting Corporation
Television;Great Britain
[g]England;Nov. 2, 1936: BBC Airs the First High-Definition Television Program[09260]
[c]Radio and television;Nov. 2, 1936: BBC Airs the First High-Definition Television Program[09260]
[c]Communications and media;Nov. 2, 1936: BBC Airs the First High-Definition Television Program[09260]
[c]Science and technology;Nov. 2, 1936: BBC Airs the First High-Definition Television Program[09260]
[c]Inventions;Nov. 2, 1936: BBC Airs the First High-Definition Television Program[09260]
Reith, John Charles Walsham
Baird, John Logie
Swinton, Alan A. Campbell
Greene, Hugh Carleton

Central to the development of television was the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Founded as a company in 1922, the BBC was transformed into a corporation by royal charter in 1927 and was given a monopoly on the transmission of all programming. It was financed by a license fee on all users of radios (called wireless sets) and was thus free of commercial pressure and of the need to rely on Parliament for funding. This independence ensured that the BBC’s programming would be free of government influence. Because radio was growing enormously in popularity, the financial basis of the BBC was secure, and income increased each year. For example, 4.5 million licenses were granted in 1932; six years later, that figure had risen to 8.5 million. The BBC raised additional money from the sale of its publications, such as Radio Times and The Listener.

No proven guidelines existed to draw upon when it came to harnessing the immense power of radio, then later television. Much of the direction of the BBC was determined by its first director-general, John Charles Walsham Reith. A serious-minded Scottish Presbyterian, Reith could be arrogant, domineering, and self-righteous, and certainly he imposed his strong personality on the corporation. He also had a deep sense of public service and was determined that the BBC would not only entertain but also inform and educate. He had no wish to court vast audiences by producing banal, vulgar, and tawdry programs; the BBC should maintain moral standards and expand the minds and cultural sensitivities of its listeners. Above all, he wanted the BBC to retain its monopoly status and remain independent of both government and business by having its own source of income. Within a short time, the BBC became the most admired radio network in the world, famous for its quality, objectivity, professionalism, and wide variety of programming.

When the television age dawned, Parliament gave the BBC the task of providing this new service. The television industry from the earliest moment thus benefited from the high standards and traditions already established by the BBC in general and Reith in particular. The world’s first regularly scheduled high-definition television program was broadcast on November 2, 1936, from Alexandra Palace, London. Germany had begun regular service a year earlier, but it utilized a low-definition system of 180 lines, whereas the BBC transmitted a 405-line picture. (The United States eventually adopted a 525-line system.) Programming was limited to two hours a day, from 3:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon and from 9:00 to 10:00 in the evening, six days a week. Sunday service and additional hours were added later. Initially, the BBC was unable to decide which television system was the best, that advocated by Baird, utilizing his mechanical scanning system (240 lines), or that of the Marconi-EMI Company, using the cathode-ray system (405 lines). It adopted the peculiar arrangement of alternating the two systems every other week. Within a short time, however, the latter system proved vastly superior. The BBC adopted it exclusively in February, 1937.

From the beginning, certain trends emerged that were to remain a permanent part of the television landscape. Although serious drama was an integral part of BBC programming, the public overwhelmingly preferred light entertainment such as prize fights, boat races, cricket matches, circuses, and popular plays. Women quickly became prominent in front of the camera, serving as presenters or entertainers, although senior administrative staff positions were dominated by men. The public also demonstrated that it was addicted to dramatic national events, such as the coronation of King George VI. About ten thousand viewers watched the event, foreshadowing the enormous audiences that later were to watch inaugurations, coronations, and high-profile sporting events. Opinion polls consistently showed that the public thought the quality of the BBC’s service and programming was excellent.

Still, by 1939, television reached only a small audience, mainly in the London area. Although the cost of television sets was falling dramatically, there were only about ten thousand of them in use. The new medium was regarded as essentially a toy of the rich. When World War II broke out, the government ordered the television transmitter at Alexandra Palace shut down, because its signals would have been an excellent detection device by which German bombers could find London. Ironically, the last programming to be shown before the war was a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Service was not resumed until June 7, 1946.


After the war, television proved to be immensely popular with the British public. The prosperous 1950’s saw a sharp increase in the sale of television licenses. In 1953, about 2.1 million television licenses were issued. Many people were encouraged to buy television sets by the televising of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Sales of licenses increased at the rate of about one million a year. Simultaneously, there was a vigorous debate as to whether the BBC should retain its monopoly. One alternative was to establish a second channel, to be financed by advertising. Opponents of the BBC argued that a second channel was needed for greater variety, that monopoly was inconsistent with a free society, that competition would actually benefit the BBC, and that a channel showing advertisements would provide British industry with a powerful tool in marketing its products.

After much debate, Parliament passed legislation in 1956 creating a new public corporation, the Independent Television Authority, Independent Television Authority to run commercial broadcasting. Even supporters of commercial television had no wish to introduce American-style television, with its alleged vulgarity, crassness, endless commercial intrusions, and programming catering to the lowest common denominator. A system of controlled competition was set up that imposed certain programming standards and closely regulated commercials. Advertisers could only buy time; they had no control or influence over programming. Moreover, the time allotted to advertising was limited and minimal, usually working out to only one brief commercial break during a half-hour program. Commercials were not allowed to disrupt the dramatic flow of a program.

Competition initially devastated the BBC. The new channel captured almost 80 percent of the viewing audience, and hundreds of BBC staff members defected to the opposition for higher pay or new challenges. Some of the worst fears of those who opposed commercial television appeared to prove true. It was estimated that the BBC carried about three times more serious programming than did its rival, which soon slipped into a conventional and bland format of programs lest it alienate its huge audience and jeopardize advertising revenue.

The BBC fought back. Much of the corporation’s success in the 1960’s was directly related to the personality of Hugh Carleton Greene, who served as director-general from 1960 to 1969. Greene is often considered to be the second most influential personality in the history of the BBC, behind Reith. He is generally credited with modernizing the structure and programming of the BBC, as he was forward-looking and made sure the corporation reflected the most modern trends in British society. During his tenure, the BBC brought in enterprising and imaginative writers and took chances on new forms of entertainment. The corporation also began to spend more money on television, at the expense of its radio division.

When Greene became director-general, the corporation had a staff of seventeen thousand and revenue from ten million licenses. By 1969, he had added some seven thousand staff positions, and the number of licenses totaled sixteen million. Programming in the field of comedy became more daring, police dramas reflected the gritty realism of law enforcement, and controversial documentaries both shocked the nation and stimulated debate.

In 1964, the BBC was authorized to set up a second channel, simply called BBC2. A logical division ensued: BBC1 concentrated on high-quality light entertainment and first-rate news and information programs, and BBC2 specialized in serious programming, catered to the needs of minorities such as opera lovers and science buffs, and experimented with new forms of entertainment. Eventually, the BBC won back about half the viewing audience. In 1982, a second commercial channel was created, giving Great Britain four channels equally divided between the BBC and commercial television.

The impact of television on Great Britain in particular and modern society in general has been enormous. To compare it to the invention of the wheel or the written word is probably no exaggeration. It created vast new industries in the field of electronics and dramatically expanded other industries, such as advertising. In the process, it changed the global economic balance of power. The ability to produce quality television sets and related electronic goods played a significant role in the dramatic rise of Japan and the Pacific Rim countries, at the expense of Great Britain and the United States. It encouraged industrial research and produced a string of new products such as color television and video cassette recorders. Business directly benefited from home shopping networks. Television technology allows people in different places to see each other during teleconferences. The television industry itself employs millions of people.

Television wreaked havoc on other sectors, such as daily newspapers and weekly magazines. The film industry benefited from the larger market for films, but theaters suffered. Television had profound social and cultural implications and rearranged the way that families lived and communities operated. The moral and ethical dimensions of television were constantly debated. Television has been accused of promoting promiscuity, encouraging violence, and destroying the family. It has been charged with polluting the democratic electoral process. In the United States, for example, a successful candidate for a major office must be telegenic and have access to vast sums of money for political advertisements. In business, cynics claim that the quality of a product matters less than how attractively it is presented in television commercials.

Even the most severe critics concede that at its best, television offers wondrous opportunities. It provides information, knowledge, and entertainment beyond the dreams of previous generations. Television gives people access to news events as they happen and to high-quality documentary programming dealing with history, nature, and society. On a human level, it undoubtedly has enabled millions of people to cope with loneliness, illness, and boredom. Its impact on education has also been considerable. In 1971, the BBC began providing television courses for the Open University, which offered degrees primarily to nontraditional students studying at home. By 1980 these broadcasts were reaching about seventy thousand students; about twenty-one thousand already had been graduated. The Open University has been called the most successful educational experiment in modern British history.

Starting from the most humble beginnings in Alexandra Palace in 1936, television emerged as one of the great industries of the modern epoch. It is difficult to imagine business and commerce operating effectively without television, just as it is difficult to imagine daily life without it. Many observers have noted that television constantly poses new problems to industry and society but never offers solutions. Certainly one of the great ongoing business and ethical challenges for modern society concerns how to harness the immense power of this medium for the benefit of all people while minimizing its potential for misuse. British Broadcasting Corporation
Television;Great Britain

Further Reading

  • Black, Peter. The Mirror in the Corner: People’s Television. London: Hutchinson, 1972. Lively and useful account of how the BBC’s television monopoly was ended. Focuses on the debate leading to the creation of the Independent Television Authority and how commercial television affected the BBC.
  • Boyle, Andrew. Only the Wind Will Listen: Reith of the BBC. London: Hutchinson, 1972. Unconventional biography focuses only on Reith’s years at the BBC. Adopts a psychological approach, emphasizing the puritanical and depressive side of Reith’s personality. Fascinating reading.
  • Briggs, Asa. The BBC: The First Fifty Years. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985. Excellent introduction to the BBC by a distinguished British scholar. Includes useful list of significant dates and a fine bibliography.
  • Cain, John. The BBC: Seventy Years of Broadcasting. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1996. Lively, entertaining, and informative volume provides an ideal introduction to the history of BBC radio and television. Includes numerous photographs, including some depicting early television sets and transmitting apparatus.
  • Crisell, Andrew. An Introductory History of British Broadcasting. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Comprehensive history of British radio and television discusses the beginnings of BBC television in chapter 4. Includes time line, bibliography, and index.
  • Paulu, Burton. Television and Radio in the United Kingdom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981. Scholarly work by a noted authority on European television details the structure of the BBC, including finances, personnel, programming, and legal status.
  • Pawley, Edward. BBC Engineering, 1922-1972. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972. Immensely valuable work on the application of technology to the development of BBC services. Intended for readers with some scientific and technical background.
  • Smith, Anthony, ed. Television: An International History. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Collection of essays on the history of television around the world includes discussion of the BBC and its impacts. Features a list of television museums and archives.

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