While in London for the Fourth of July holiday this year, I have been thinking about how television developed so differently in the UK compared to the US. Fundamental decisions about the role of government in broadcast and cable go back to the days of radio in both countries. It is a story of how two nations struggled with the same questions and developed two different solutions.
As Secretary of Commerce during the Coolidge administration, Herbert Hoover had the task of organizing the airwaves. He quickly understood the need for frequency allocations and issuing licenses. It was clear to him that radio was a business, but he wondered how to pay for it. Although he was not an advocate of advertising, this quickly became the standard across the country. He thought that radio should be a public service, but was considerably more worried about governmental control of the airwaves. He believed that radio could promote the liberties granted to its citizens under the Constitution, but he also realized that it could have the opposite effect if party politics dominated the discussion.
At the same time in the UK, the Post Office had this regulatory responsibility. It granted the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) a monopoly in 1926, thus making radio—and eventually television—a public service. It was a system without advertising and it relied on unpopular license fees. The Board of Governors, selected from the elite of society, determined the details including the use of “BBC English,” an educated form of English spoken by only 5% of the population at that time. Particularly disturbing for democracy in the 1930s, critics of the government including Winston Churchill did not have the opportunity to present opposing views on the airwaves. It was not unusual for Prime Minister Chamberlain to summon the director of the BBC, Sir John Reith, to No. 10 Downing Street to warn him about broadcasting that was critical of government. Churchill did not forget what he perceived as a critical flaw in the system when he later became Prime Minister.
Both approaches had advantages and challenges, especially as the two countries moved into the television era. During World War II, the accomplishments of the BBC are exceptionally noteworthy. It was natural for the BBC to move into television and while it produced some wonderful programming, it engaged in censorship that blocked voices both within and outside the country. The BBC also resisted the development of independent television and programming, as well as the establishment of cable television. It was determined to stay a monopoly, despite changes in attitudes and technology that would slowly challenge the status quo.
In the US, Sarnoff at NBC and Paley at CBS dominated early television and presented substantial roadblocks to the embryonic cable industry. Many people still criticize the advertising model today, especially around children’s programming—a problem that the BBC avoided through its public service model. In 1961, Newton Minnow (then FCC Commissioner) called broadcast television a “vast wasteland.” While we might consider UK programming highbrow during this period, programming from the US networks seemed to cater to the lowest common denominator. The US formalized its own Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1970. While it still provides some outstanding programming, it has had significant financial challenges and remains the subject of political debate, as Hoover might have predicted.
The telecommunications systems in both countries have evolved extensively, but you can still see the influence of the past in the present systems. Countries around the world have a similar story—each had challenges and opportunities and the introduction of cable programming has made a noticeable difference. Consider for a moment the influence Discovery Communications has had: They deliver programming to 210 countries in 40 languages around the world. As I sit in my London hotel and watch Discovery, CNN or CNBC, I can think of no better evidence that we are working in an industry that really has changed the world.
(Larry Satkowiak is president and CEO of The Cable Center, the nonprofit educational arm of the cable industry. The Center preserves cable’s enduring contributions to society, strengthens relationships between cable and academia and unites the industry around the advancement of exceptional customer service. www.cablecenter.org)