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GB and US: How far? How close?

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John Atherton

The Extent of American Influence on British Broadcasting. Policies, Business Interests and Programmes

Robert Tatham

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  • 1 See in particular Jeremy Tunstall, The Media are American (London; Constable, 1977); Tapio Varis, I (...)

1Current media developments - the creation of new television services, broadcasting from satellites, the growth of local radio and so on - have revived fears of a 'cultural invasion' of Europe. The theory of media imperialism, with the 'media' largely meaning television and the 'imperialism' usually the United States of America, has already been expounded and discussed by various authors over the years.1 However, many studies seem to neglect countries like Britain, which have built up their own broadcasting industries. Furthermore, much of the published data is now out of date and it was felt that a new study could clarify certain issues.

2Three major questions will be examined here. The first was to determine how much influence America has had on British broadcasting policies. The second was to discover to what extent American firms have been able to acquire interests in British broadcasting companies. The last part is devoted to the question of programmes and seeks to find out how dependent British radio and television are on American programmes and how audiences react to them.

A. AMERICAN INFLUENCE ON BRITISH BROADCASTING POLICIES

3A couple of received ideas permeate much historical analysis. Many authors have felt that the British and American broadcasting systems have always been very different, Britain's based on the concept of a public service and America's fully integrated in the business system. They are then tempted to study the British media in a purely national context. On the other hand a small minority has argued that Britain is simply the junior partner in an American-dominated media world. This school often considers that the American technological lead enabled the United States to control broadcasting in the rest of the world, first by developing and exporting the hardware (studios, transmitters and receivers) which are then followed by the programmes, or software. Our aim here is to determine the real extent of American influence on broadcasting policies in the United Kingdom. Rather than try to follow all the ins and outs of the history of British broadcasting over the last 65 years, it seemed preferable to focus on three momentous periods when general policies have been widely debated and the major decisions taken.

1. The Founding of the BBC

4During the early days the history of radio in Britain and America was very similar. European inventors and pioneers played a major role in developing and testing the new technology. The dominant organisation on both sides of the Atlantic was the Anglo-Italian Marconi group, at least until the "wireless telegraph" was taken over by both governments during the First World War. However, in 1920 the airwaves were deregulated in the United States whereas that very same year, broadcasting was completely banned by the Post Office in Great Britain.

5The number of radio stations in the US grew rapidly and it is not surprising that in 1920 and 1921 British enthusiasts were inspired by American practice. Some experts, like Godfrey Isaacs, the managing director of the British branch of Marconis, were able to cross the Atlantic and returned convinced that commercial companies should develop the medium in Britain, too.

6Amateur and business interests lobbied the government and when in 1922 broadcasting began again in Britain, it was organised on exactly the same basis as in the US with private companies producing their own programmes on local stations. It is often forgotten that the British government granted licences to Marconis (for stations at Chelmsford and later in London) to Metropolitan-Vickers (for station 2ZY in Manchester) and to Western Electric (which built station 2WP in London and then moved it to Birmingham).

  • 2 Quoted from a 1924 speech by Saundra Hybels & Dana Ulloth, Broadcasting: An Introduction to Radio a (...)
  • 3 including the Evening Standard, the News of the World, the Daily Herald, the Dally Graphic, the Wee (...)

7It may also come as a surprise to learn that broadcast advertising was spurned on both sides of the Atlantic, even by businessmen such as David Sarnoff (who became commercial manager of RCA) or influential politicians. President Herbert Hoover declared: "I believe that the quickest way to kill broadcasting would be to use it for direct advertising."2 Financial necessity dictated otherwise and by 1925 advertising was largely accepted in the United States. Various newspapers and magazines were also sponsoring concerts broadcast by the BBC.3

8British and American broadcasting were by then moving apart, of course. Indeed from 1922 to 1927, American experience served more as a warning for the British. Another English observer, F.J. Brown, Assistant Secretary at the Post Office, returned from his American study trip convinced of the need for regulation to avoid "chaos." Few people could afford to cross the Atlantic to see - or listen - for themselves, so the concept of a public service monopoly was grudgingly conceded, though never fully accepted, by most interested parties. This led to the creation of one single organisation to take charge of radio, the British Broadcasting Company, or BBC.

9Three years later the monopoly was reviewed by a committee of inquiry. After the "chaos" that supposedly reigned on the ether in the United States, a second American failing had been discovered and the "content" of American stations was criticised. Broadcaster Percy Scholes reported to the committee on his listening tour of American stations in these terms:

  • 4 Quoted by Asa Briggs, The BBC: The First Fifty Years (Oxford; O.U.P., 1985), p. 89.

It might be thought that the existence of a spirit of competition between stations would produce a constantly rising standard in the type of programme and the manner of performance, but experience shows that this is not so.4

10Even the Economist accepted the case for a monopoly in Britain and the Crawford Committee accepted the Reithian ideal of a public service and reported in favour of the BBC severing its commercial links. In 1927 the BBC became a public corporation and was granted a royal charter.

2. The Advent of the Second Television Service (ITV), 1951-64

  • 5 Baird had been experimenting with television broadcasts since 1929.

11Television rather than radio finally breached the BBC's monopoly. In this field, Europeans again often showed the way. The first official British television service opened in 19365 and was technically stable by 1938. On the outbreak of hostilities, it was forced to "close for the duration." The US did not catch up until May 1941 when the 525 line, FM sound system was adopted. Work continued, in fits and starts, throughout the Second World War enabling the Americans to take the world lead by the end of the forties. However, it should be noted that most other countries subsequently rejected not only the 525 line standard, but also the NTSC colour system.

  • 6 Quoted by Briggs, p. 259.

12Meanwhile the Labour Government in Britain was vaguely worried about the concentration of power vested in the BBC and another committe (chaired by Lord Beveridge) was appointed in the 1940s. Of the eleven members, four visited the United States to watch American TV. Alderman Joseph Reeves (a Co-operative Labour MP) brought back the traditional idea. "American programmes," he said "do not compare with ours. They are positively ruined by obtrusive and objectionable advertising matter."6

  • 7 Reith's somewhat unfortunate phrase, use by Selwyn Lloyd.

13Later events showed that the opinions of Selwyn Lloyd, then an obscure, backbench Conservative MP, were to be more important. He also crossed the Atlantic and, although he agreed on certain points with Joseph Reeves, he did not believe that the introduction of on-air advertising would have exactly the same results as in the US. He thus favoured the retention of the BBC, "to set the standards" but rejected the American model (which he feared might not cater adequately to minorities) and called for "independent competition" (that is commercial radio and television) to counter the BBC's "brute force of monopoly."7 Selwyn Lloyd's minority report encouraged a rising group of Conservatives who wanted to stimulate the growth of the electronics industry and to see a TV set in every British home.

  • 8 See Briggs, p. 276.

14America was of course to have more influence on the debate for and against the introduction of commercial television. Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in June 1953 illustrated both the power and some of the potential dangers of the medium. TV showed first that it was already an important force in Britain - the ceremony attracted an estimated 20 million viewers. However, delight was tempered by the American commercial networks' coverage. When the live commentary from Westminster Abbey faded, it had been replaced with a "graceless" interview with a chimpanzee called J. Fred. Muggs that appeared regularly on a breakfast programme. The Daily Express published a full report drawing attention to this outrageous treatment of a British monarch and other anti-commercial TV newspapers were quick to add their criticism. Even the Financial Times had to admit there would be a need for "safeguards."8

  • 9 Cmd 9005 of Nov. 13 1953.

15The second Conservative White Paper9 proposed a typically British approach. A second broadcasting authority - the Independent Television Authority (ITA), now called the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) - would be established to supervise the commercial system along the same lines as the BBC. It would also own and operate the transmitters, renting the transmission facilities to programme contractors (an arrangement copied apparently from Chicago).

16Partly to pacify Reith, who had forced the House of Lords to debate "sponsored" broadcasting, the companies would only sell advertising time and would make all the programmes themselves. Spot advertising was by then replacing sponsored programmes in the United States, too. The more detailed organisation was left to the ITA, and Independent Television evolved as a more decentralised kind of network than its American forerunners.

17Once again American experience had influenced British policy makers but in the event Britain created a unique kind of authority (the ITA) to supervise a highly distinctive television system (ITV).

3. Competition in Radio

18If Britain largely pioneered commercial television in Europe, the excitement generated contrasted sharply with the decline of British radio. Elsewhere, especially in North America and France, the sound of a second generation of radio stations had already been heard.

19The new style of radio came dramatically to England. One March morning in 1964, a strange ship with a very tall mast anchored in the Thames Estuary and Radio Caroline shattered the BBC sound broadcasting monopoly. Caroline was an instant success, attracting seven million adult listeners in Southern and Eastern England in just three weeks. A couple of months later, Caroline acquired a second ship to serve the West and North and soon a fleet of pirates surrounded Britain. Raymond Williams remarked that:

  • 10 Television - Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana/Collins 1974), p. 133.

Young people all over Europe welcomed the pirate broadcasters, as an alternative to authorities they suspected or distrusted
or were simply tired of. The irony was that what came free and easy was a planned operation by a distant and invisible authority - the American corporations.
10

20Our aim here is to see briefly whether this hypothesis can be proved.

21In fact, the idea of Caroline came not from America but from a Dutch station. Radio Veronica, itself modelled on the Scandinavian pirates. To a certain extent it was an Anglo-Irish project with an Irish promoter and British, Irish and Swiss financing. Most programmes were produced on the ships and, of the disc jockeys, only two had any American experience-out of a total of 60.

22Radio London, the only other offshore station to become as famous as Radio Caroline, did have some American links. It was the brainchild of Philip Birch, a Briton who had worked in American advertising. He also found some of his capital in the United States. Ben Toney, an American member of the original team, has explained how they were inspired by KLIF, then the most successful station in Texas, and how they introduced its top 40 programme format to Europe. However, two years later the management team was all British.

23These two stations were to dominate British offshore radio. It is true that they used methods that had been successfully applied to North American radio, such as the disc jockey working as a presenter in a "self-op" studio, playing records from a playlist and imbibing his programme with his personality. The pirates also used jingles (some of which were produced in the US to create an identity for their stations and interrupted the music shows every hour for short news bulletins. But just as Europe Ν° 1 was almost the opposite of RTL, so the pirates also strived to be different from the BBC and created their own style, mixing both typically British presentation techniques with more modern ones and adding a maritime flavour, Later stations replaced the pop with other music formats (light music on Radio 390, for example) or specialised by area (Radio Essex or Radio Scotland). In fact most of these ideas had been used by other European stations before, and visiting Americans did not regard either Caroline or London as being truly commercial.

  • 11 Despite the £ 1½ million invested in the project.

24Research reveals that only one ship was American owned, backed and operated - at least when she anchored in the North Sea. This was the M.V. 'Laissez Faire,' which housed two stations: 'Swinging' Radio England and Britain Radio. Their brash, American style did not go down well with British listeners though and both went bankrupt11 and were taken over by British and Dutch concerns.

25When the pirates were outlawed in 1967, BBC radio had to be rejuvenated. The BBC was obliged to introduce a carbon copy of the pop pirates (Radio 1) and to modify the Light Programme to replace the easy listening stations and also to launch local radio.

26The reorganisation of BBC services did not altogether satisfy listeners' demands and in 1970 a Swiss managed and financed station, Radio NorthSea International (RNI), appeared off the coast of Essex. The ship drummed up support for the Conservatives who won the elections. As promised during the campaign, the new government set about introducing commercial radio and Chris Chataway, the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, made the customary trip to the United States.

  • 12 The ITA was renamed the Independent Broadcasting Authority when it became responsible for radio in (...)
  • 13 THe Broadcasting Act of 1981.

27In the event the British system of Independent Local Radio (ILR) is based more on the pirates (as far as music and its presentation is concerned) and on ITV, with which it shares the same broadcasting authority12 and legislation.13 Only two major ideas crossed the Atlantic during this period. Chris Chataway's visit to station WINS in New York resulted in the creation of LBC, the London all-news station. The commercial stations also exploited the 'phone-in' programme - which was being regularly featured on the BBC too by 1974.

28British "Independent" Radio, just like Independent Television, is thus a typically British solution to the conflicting demands of listeners, government and business.

29It is still a little early to comment on recent developments. In television, Channel Four apparently owes little to American models - and the Welsh version (Sianel Pedawar Cymru, or S4C) even less! Breakfast Television on the other hand is obviously a copy of American practice. The offshore stations, as well as spearheading the campaign for free radio in the United Kingdom, have also borrowed other formats from the US. Radio Caroline specialised in albums ("Adult Orientated Rock") from 1972 to 1980, and more recently Laser 558 pioneered the "All Hit Music" format in the UK.

30To conclude, it would appear that neither of the assumptions about American influence on British broadcasting policies are entirely correct. At times Brit and American broadcasting seem to evolve in the same way, as for example in the early days of radio or when commercial television was being planned in the UK, or again, when the pirates sailed in with their American radio formats. But the final decisions led to peculiarly British systems - first a non-commercial BBC, financed by the licence fee and very much aware of its mission to provide a public service, and then the hybrid "independent" sector with its supervisory body steering its contractors on a middle path between profit and perfection.

31If American influence on British broadcasting policies seems relatively limited, the licensing of commercially financed stations has given American interests the possibility of investing in broadcasting companies.

Β - FOREIGN INVESTMENT IN BRITISH BROADCASTING COMPANIES

  • 14 In some cases there are also trustees, nominal holders and beneficiaries.

32The task here was not easy. It is difficult to find out exactly who controls the companies owing to the large number of shareholders (in several cases running into thousands), the complex relationships of holding companies, their subsidiaries and associated firms14 and the changes in share ownership especial-especially when shares can be bought and sold on the Stock Exchange or the Unlisted Securities Market. Finally the secrecy that often shrouds the question made investigation even more difficult.

  • 15 Broadcasting Act, 1981, Section 20.

33The various British Broadcasting Acts have not barred foreigners from buying shares in Independent Broadcasting, though people living outside the Common Market and firms operating or based outside the EEC are not allowed to control a programme contractor.15 Legally, the IBA has a veto and history proves that this prerogative has been used from time to time.

1. Television

  • 16 Quoted by Bernard Sendall, Independent Television in Britain, vol. 1, (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. (...)
  • 17 Covering engineering, programmes, research, sales, advertising, promotion and management.
  • 18 Sendall, p. 213.
  • 19 Sendall, p. 213.

34Some of the early ITV companies tested the authority on this point. Lord Derby's group, which as Television Wales and the West (TWW), was awarded the first contract to serve the Bristol Channel area, included the American network NBC as a small but significant shareholder. The ITA declared this holding undesirable. Tactfully, Robert Fraser, then Director-General of the ITA, went out of his way to point out that the Authority's action was no comment on NBC, for whom he had "nothing but respect and admiration."16 The shareholding was replaced by a service agreement17 and a senior NBC executive, Bob Myers, went over to Bristol for two years to help the infant TWW. Similarly Scottish Television (STV) took on Rai Purdy, a CBS producer from New York, during its early days. However, these two appointments appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule. William Sendall, the ITA's historian, commented that "there was to be no mass importation of staff from across the Atlantic"18 and that "the ITA [...] certainly had an aversion for any non-British elements."19

35The Commonwealth fared better. The Canadian Roy Thomson set up Scottish Television in the Central Lowlands, though his holding was progressively eliminated in subsequent years.

36Research into the ownership of the 18 television companies that make up Independent Television today reveals only two significant foreign holdings and both are Australian. Kerry Packer's Consolidated Press controls 25% of TV-am, and Rupert Murdoch's News International owns 11,8% of London Weekend Television (LWT). In the latter case Australo-American would perhaps be a better term, since although the holding company is still based in Australia and controlled by the Murdoch family, Rupert Murdoch himself took American citizenship last year.

  • 20 It is difficult to say whether an American shareholding would be countenanced today. Former CBS Chi (...)

37The IBA still watches over its network as closely as ever. When the Associated Communications Corporation (ACC), the owner of 51% of Central TV, was taken over by Australian Ropert Holmes à Court's TVW Enterprises in 1982, the Authority intervened promptly to remove foreign control.20

  • 21 Now owned by Coca Cola.
  • 22 Première has recently merged with Mirror Vision and the channel is now controlled by Robert Maxwell

38Satellite television is still in its infancy but the seven services on the air were studied and four were found to have foreign shareholders. The oldest, Sky Channel, is controlled by the News International group, which owns 65% of the equity. The American ABC Network and its subsidiary. Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN), have minority holdings in the British Screensport service. American firms have significant but minority interests in movie channel Premiere. Its shareholders include Columbia Pictures,21 Warner, CBS, Home Box Office and the latter's greatest rival. Showtime! Thorn-EMI Screen Entertainments dominates the consortium with a 41% stake and Twentieth Century Fox, recently taken over by Murdoch's News Group, is also a shareholder.22 Finally there is of course one all-American TV channel, Ted Turner's Cable News Network (CNN) which is now distributed throughout Europe.

2. Radio

  • 23 The Radio 210 holding was criticised by the Annan Committee. See Report of the Committe on the Futu (...)

39The IBA also controls the Independent Local Radio stations and lists of the shareholders were also examined. There are few foreign holdings, though Commonwealth businessmen have been active. The Canadian firm Selkirk Communications Ltd. holds no less than 49,99% of the London Broadcasting Co. (LBC) and 31% of Beacon Radio (Wolverhampton). They also own Radio Sales and Marketing (RSM), one of the national advertising sales agencies. Another Canadian subsidiary, Standard Broadcasting Corporation (UK) Ltd. has shares in 13 radio companies. Holdings range from 24% of Capital Radio (London) to 5% of Plymouth Sound. A Canadian, Terry Bate, former marketing director of Radio Caroline, has small interests in half a dozen stations. Finally, we come to Rupert Murdoch's News International group. They originally subscribed 45% of the capital of Radio 210 (Reading) and 2% of BRMB, the Birmingham contractor, but both investments have been sold.23

  • 24 Caroline is still broadcasting but Laser 558 was escorted into port by a government "spy" ship last (...)

40It was difficult to find out who exactly was behind the offshore stations Laser 558 and Radio Caroline. Such activities are at best considered as "unauthorised" in the UK, and at worst are offences that could be punished by heavy fines or prison sentences - or both. The two stations have had spokesmen in the United States and channel much of their advertising through offices in New York. Laser 558 claimed to be an all-American organisation and there was a mainly American crew on board the ship. However, usually well-informed sources suspect that both Caroline and Laser were probably Anglo-Irish ventures.24

41This leaves us with just one empire, Rupert Murdoch's, which although it spans three continents (Australia, Europe and America) and has embraced the press, radio, television and the cinema, has only a very small share of British broadcasting.

42Perhaps we shall find more evidence of American cultural influence in Britain in that most easily accessible and visible of American exports, the television programme.

C. PROGRAMMES

43Hardly any American programmes are broadcast on British radio, so here we shall study television, starting with programme flows and concluding with the way people react to the American television programmes that are screened in the UK.

1. Programme Flows

  • 25 Salesmen regret that they sell for so little; purchasers feel they are buying too many programmes!

44In the absence of up to date published data or of an international supervisory body, a research worker has to approach either the programme exporters or the purchasers, both of whom are reluctant to divulge information.25 If and when they do, there is the problem of the units employed. Rather than hours of programmes, which would be the most useful yardstick for our purposes, most commercial organisations calculate in terms of income or expenditure, which the complexities of fluctuating exchange rates render a still more debatable parameter.

  • 26 Broadcasting Act, 1981, Section 4.

45Programme flows were a thorny issue before the first Independent Television programmes had been transmitted. Fourteen organisations representing those who hoped to work for ITV founded a "Radio and Television Safeguards Committee" which pressed for a 20% limit to foreign material. The legislation passed only requires "that proper proportions of the recorded [...] programmes should be of British origin and of British performance,"26 but negotiations between the 14 organisations, the ITA and the programme contractors resulted in a gentleman's agreement for a 14% limit.

46It is also true that Great Britain rapidly became an important programme market for American producers who could offer products at a low price with high audience appeal at a time when the ITV contractors were suffering heavy initial losses and needed to pad out their schedules with ready-made programmes. And so from 1955 onwards, British viewers were able to watch programmes like "I Love Lucy," "Rin Tin Tin," "Wagon Train," "Wyatt Earp," "Maverick" and "Bonanza." In addition, these shows often filled the peak viewing hours of the late afternoon and early evening. The BBC retaliated by increasing broadcasting hours and apologised for buying "The Cisco Kid," "I Married Joan" and "Disneyland."

  • 27 Sendall, vol. 2, p. 112.

47By the early sixties many felt that ITV had exaggerated. The Pilkington Committee criticised the commercial channel's "retreat from balance." The only organisation to submit evidence in favour of imported programmes was apparently the Scottish National Party which declared that; "If anything we approve of the amount of material from the United States. It at least gives our people a viewpoint other than that of London."27 The ITA reacted by limiting American programmes in peak viewing hours, a move which infuriated the American government, which complained that it was contrary to the spirit of the GATT negotiations. They need not have worried - the BBC took over some of the displaced programmes!

  • 28 Particularly the countries of origin of the larger ethnic minorities that have now settled in the U (...)

48The quota regulations have evolved over the years. Like all British Independent Broadcasting codes, the present (1983) quota regulations seem all embracing. 86% of all air time should be filled with material of British origin. There are some exceptions, for programmes from the EEC and Commonwealth countries,28 for shorter items and very occasionally for "outstanding programmes." Scheduling of overseas programmes is limited to 5½ hours per week in peak time and no concentration is allowed at weekends. The code lays down that repeat broadcasts should be avoided for two years, with an even longer interval before further showings.

  • 29 Both points are mentioned in the Annan Report, pp. 338-40.

49This quota is not to everybody's taste, mainly because it concentrates on quantity rather than quality and also because it could encourage insularity.29

  • 30 In 1978 the BBC started showing Dallas, which became one of its most popular programmes. The Corpor (...)
  • 31 Geoffrey Lealand, American Television Programmes on British Screens (London: Broadcasting Research (...)
  • 32 Lealand, p. 20.

50Programme buying for British television is equally well organised. As the recent Dallas episode showed30 the BBC and ITV do not normally compete for the same programmes and thus keep prices at a "reasonable" level. The ITV companies have a Central Purchasing System, which has been co-ordinated since 1968 by Leslie Halliwell. He freely comments on his preferences. He likes to buy "harmless action-type programmes with simple formats and simple stories..."31 He claims to avoid "the worst32 of American television" and also rejects spoofs, American style satire and anything (like half hour programmes) that British producers could supply themselves. Individual ITV companies also buy about 900 hours annually for local off-peak use. The main suppliers are the USA, Canada and Australia.

51Channel Four, which also uses Leslie Halliwell's service, has a different policy. They buy American light entertainment shows like "I Love Lucy," "Bewitched," "The Munsters" or "The Dick van Dyke Show" to complement the serious programmes in the schedule. They claim to be trying to promote a sense of television history but admit that these programmes were purchased because they were cheap! Channel Four also tends to screen more imported material than the other three channels.

  • 33 BBC-1 in particular is now more openly battling for viewers with ITV and finds many feature films t (...)

52Little information is published by the BBC. Nevertheless, Alan Howden, in charge or purchasing programmes, imposes roughly similar limits and follows much the same kind of policy as ITV. The BBC traditionally bought cinema films, leaving made-for-TV movies and crime series for ITV.33

  • 34 For example on Sunday mornings for instance.

53The satellite services naturally depend more on American products during this early stage in their development. Data was made available by three stations and revealed that Sky Channel was already filling over half its schedule with British items.34 Thorn-EMI bought about 35% of the programmes it shows on 'The Children's Channel' from foreign suppliers, the remainder coming from British firms such as Thames and Talbot. Screensport only managed to take 20% of its output from British suppliers and large amounts of programming came from ABC and ESPN. Programme statistics are much more difficult to calculate for the other channels, either because of the very short sequences (pop videos on Music Bos), the frequent rotation of full length feature films over four or five weeks (Première, TEN) or because of the experimental nature of the ventures. Finally, the Cable News Network is the only service that comes directly from the US, but European items may well be inserted in the future. Even if the cable networks report heavy viewing of the new channels at certain times34 the four BBC and independent networks still attract the bulk of the British TV audience, and doubtless will do for some time to come.

54Surveys confirm that the terrestrial services respect the quota agreements and that foreign programmes only represent about 12-15% of airtime. Slightly higher figures are sometimes quoted, either for Channel Four or if all output is considered. In the latter case, the totals can legitimately be increased at certain times by the inclusion of news items, reports on important American events (Presidential elections, space exploration) or sports coverage (e.g. the Olympic Games). Such retransmissions do not normally decrease domestic production and it is difficult to imagine for what reasons the British networks should deprive their viewers of programming with such intrinsic interest.

  • 35 The Arts and Entertainment Network has signed a contract to buy 200 hours of BBC programmes each ye (...)
  • 36 The three big networks do not need to import but the Public Broadcasting Service, pay-TV channels, (...)

55The programme trade can no longer be described as a one way flow, either. North America represents a lucrative market for British products. The BBC earns over £25 million per year from exports to the United States. The Corporation has recently bought an American programme distributor (Lionheart Television International) and has contracted to sell hundreds of hours of programmes to various stations on a regular basis.35 ITV probably earns about £15 Million a year from its sales to the US. For independent production houses, the American market is crucial and Gold crest, for example, hopes to sell everthing its produces on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus British experience shows that the trend can be reversed and that European producers can break into the American market.36

56Incidentally, British programme makers note that typical British products generally sell better than shows made in an American style or format. Some programmes are still made for worldwide sale but nowadays the trend is to make two (or more) versions - one for the home market, the others for export - and thus satisfy the demands of both viewers and customers in different parts of the world. This brings us onto the next question - how indeed do the British viewers react to American programmes?

2. Audience Reactions

57British broadcasting executives, trade unions and newspaper critics are almost unanimous in their critisism of American programmes. Reviews (and previews in all newspapers) whether "haughty," "naughty" or alternative, are characterised by resignation, criticism or hostility. It is more difficult to assess the viewers' attitudes, since studies should take into account the effect of competition from other channels, the importance of scheduling, the promotion of the programme as well as the regional nature of much of British television. Some general conclusions can be drawn although very little is yet known about the different segments of the audience.

  • 37 See Lealand Sections 2 and 3.

58Geoffrey Lealand, for example, has studied London viewers.37 With some exceptions, the majority of his respondents were able to correctly identify the country of origin of various programmes. Only about a quarter of the sample seemed to be dissatisfied with American programmes whilst nearly 60% either appreciated them or held no strong opinion:

OPINION OF CURRENT AMERICAN PROGRAMMES ON BRITISH TV

OPINION OF CURRENT AMERICAN PROGRAMMES ON BRITISH TV

Source: Geoffrey Lealand

59Asked about the amount of American television programmes broadcast, 40,6% thought there were too many, 43% enough and 3,6% would have liked morel Viewers were then asked a non-directive question to find out what they most enjoyed about American programmes. 8% particularly liked the locations and the scenery, 6% the quality of the production and 5% the action and adventure. American programmes are thus seen as an attractive alternative to domestic output. British viewers appreciated the fast moving American shows, even if they were less realistic than British ones. Finally, a point forgotten by the critics, viewers usually found the American products entertaining.

60The least enjoyable feature of American imports was clearly violence, cited by 8,8% of respondents. Content analyses confirm that the American programmes shown on British TV are twice as violent as home produced ones.38 Finally humour and glamour provoked mixed responses, with approximately equal numbers of viewers finding them either enjoyable or objectionable.

  • 38 There are at least two exceptions to this rule. First American football, which over two seasons has (...)

61As far as the ratings are concerned, most American programmes attract millions of viewers, at least during the early episodes, but the exhaustion point is fairly rapidly reached and then the audience steadily drops off.38 Research also shows that British serials like "Coronation Street" or "Crossroads" are still enormously popular, even after thirty years of competition from home and abroad.

62To conclude, American television exporters may be imperialists but the United Kingdom would appear to be far enough away from the United States to have been able to choose its own broadcasting policies. British radio and television is largely run, managed and staffed by Britons even if Rupert Murdoch's empire includes some television interests. Finally, audience research confirms that the British (like other European viewers) enjoy American imports, but generally prefer local programmes.

Notes

1 See in particular Jeremy Tunstall, The Media are American (London; Constable, 1977); Tapio Varis, International Inventory of Television Programme Structure and the Flow of TV Programmes between Nations (Tampere, [Finland]): Institute of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Tampere, 1973); Herbert Schiller, Mass Communications and American Empire (New York: Augustus Kelly, 1969); and Alan Wells, Picture Tube Imperialism (Maryknoll [N.Y.]: Orbis, 1972).

2 Quoted from a 1924 speech by Saundra Hybels & Dana Ulloth, Broadcasting: An Introduction to Radio and Television (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1978), p. 60.

3 including the Evening Standard, the News of the World, the Daily Herald, the Dally Graphic, the Weekly Dispatch, Answers and Tibbiys.

4 Quoted by Asa Briggs, The BBC: The First Fifty Years (Oxford; O.U.P., 1985), p. 89.

5 Baird had been experimenting with television broadcasts since 1929.

6 Quoted by Briggs, p. 259.

7 Reith's somewhat unfortunate phrase, use by Selwyn Lloyd.

8 See Briggs, p. 276.

9 Cmd 9005 of Nov. 13 1953.

10 Television - Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana/Collins 1974), p. 133.

11 Despite the £ 1½ million invested in the project.

12 The ITA was renamed the Independent Broadcasting Authority when it became responsible for radio in 1972.

13 THe Broadcasting Act of 1981.

14 In some cases there are also trustees, nominal holders and beneficiaries.

15 Broadcasting Act, 1981, Section 20.

16 Quoted by Bernard Sendall, Independent Television in Britain, vol. 1, (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 213.

17 Covering engineering, programmes, research, sales, advertising, promotion and management.

18 Sendall, p. 213.

19 Sendall, p. 213.

20 It is difficult to say whether an American shareholding would be countenanced today. Former CBS Chief Executive Bill Paley was interested in bailing out TV-am, the struggling breakfast TV contractor, during its November 1983 crisis but decided not to invest in the end.

21 Now owned by Coca Cola.

22 Première has recently merged with Mirror Vision and the channel is now controlled by Robert Maxwell.

23 The Radio 210 holding was criticised by the Annan Committee. See Report of the Committe on the Future of Broadcasting (London: HMM.S.O. [Cmnd 6753], 1977), p. 209 (§ 14.14).

24 Caroline is still broadcasting but Laser 558 was escorted into port by a government "spy" ship last autumn.

25 Salesmen regret that they sell for so little; purchasers feel they are buying too many programmes!

26 Broadcasting Act, 1981, Section 4.

27 Sendall, vol. 2, p. 112.

28 Particularly the countries of origin of the larger ethnic minorities that have now settled in the United Kingdom.

29 Both points are mentioned in the Annan Report, pp. 338-40.

30 In 1978 the BBC started showing Dallas, which became one of its most popular programmes. The Corporation had agreed to pay £ 29,000 for each episode of the latest series. Just over a year ago, Bryan Cowgill, managing director of Thames Television, secretly negotiated with the distributors (Worldvision) and clinched the deal by offering £ 55,000 per episode. The other ITV companies did not approve and several refused to screen the series. The IBA also criticised Thames and Cowgill was forced to resign. He subsequently joined the Mirror Group to develop their broadcasting activities.

31 Geoffrey Lealand, American Television Programmes on British Screens (London: Broadcasting Research Unit, 1984), p. 20.

32 Lealand, p. 20.

33 BBC-1 in particular is now more openly battling for viewers with ITV and finds many feature films too expensive considering the audience they attract. When ITV programmed "The Jewel in the Crown" the BBC retaliated with "The Thorn Birds" and, unworried by criticism of the quality of its programmes, proudly replied that it had attracted an audience of 15 million for a mere £ 600,000!

34 For example on Sunday mornings for instance.

35 The Arts and Entertainment Network has signed a contract to buy 200 hours of BBC programmes each year for example.

36 The three big networks do not need to import but the Public Broadcasting Service, pay-TV channels, the cable operators and the independent stations can all be good customers.

37 See Lealand Sections 2 and 3.

38 There are at least two exceptions to this rule. First American football, which over two seasons has attracted more and more appreciative viewers and secondly M.A.S.H., probably because of its unusual mixture of black humour and elaborate practical jokes.

Table des illustrations

Titre OPINION OF CURRENT AMERICAN PROGRAMMES ON BRITISH TV
Légende Source: Geoffrey Lealand
URL http://books.openedition.org/pufr/docannexe/image/4466/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/, 14k

Auteur

Université de Savoie

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1986

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540

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