Courses for menu-driven TV

November 7, 1997

To keep pace with a fragmented and revolutionised TV industry, training must innovate and not imitate, argues David Plowright.

For the first 40 years of its life, broadcasting was valued more as a public service than for its merit as a business. The purpose was to pursue programme values that emphasised the need for universal availability and appeal and recognised the needs of the disadvantaged in society. Broadcasting had to show an awareness of the importance of information and education as well as entertainment and protect British culture by restricting imported programme material. The service placed itself beyond the influence of advertisers in programme content and was free from state control.

The changes brought about by a storm of technological development that introduced satellite and cable services to compete with the BBC and ITV resulted in a shift in the values of broadcasting; the emphasis on its potential as a multinational business grew. The business is now worth about Pounds 6.4 billion in the UK and has about 35,000 production-type jobs. Its attraction as an employer is clearly underlined by the high percentage of this year's university students choosing media courses.

The public service standard of broadcasting was set by the BBC over 60 years ago. Licensed by Parliament, distanced from political control by its royal charter and with a burgeoning income from the radio licence fees, the BBC's sense of independence was all the greater because it had no need to sell its wares in the marketplace or tussle with competitors. It was a unique and, in retrospect, an unnatural situation. To those working there it must have seemed a golden age. The objective was programme excellence without too much of the tedium of cost control or audience appeal analysis.

What is remarkable is the degree to which the cordon sanitaire separating broadcasting from the full impact of economic and commercial forces remained intact even after the introduction of an advertising-supported ITV service in the early 1950s. This was accomplished by an extraordinarily imaginative piece of government-imposed protectionism.

Parliament, concerned about unleashing the forces of commerce on British broadcasting, decided that commercial television should compete with the BBC for audiences and prestige but not for money; and the ITV companies would compete with each other but in a well-organised way that would ensure they played on their own grounds and never met face to face.

Each would service its own nominated territory, be the sole supplier of programmes there and enjoy the exclusive right to such television advertising revenue as was available in its area. ITV thus provided a rare instance of a commercial enterprise making one thing - programmes - and selling another - advertising air time - in a market environment where the acceptance of noncompetitive practices was a prior condition of permission to trade.

So ITV grew up in the traditions of the BBC. It was regulated by a government-appointed watchdog, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which introduced compulsory and specific programme requirements of a public service nature. Targets were set for the output and regularity of single-play drama series and anthologies; current affairs programmes to be shown in peak viewing time; documentaries, science and arts programmes, education, religious and preschool programmes. After those requirements had been satisfied, entertainment was encouraged, provided it was within the boundaries of taste and decency and did not include too many give-away game shows. The contribution to the country's economy was formidable. A new generation of actors, writers, musicians, producers, directors, camera,sound, lighting, make-up, wardrobe, design construction, sales administration and financial service personnel became taxpayers.

The BBC/ITV duopoly was clearly in for a radical shake-up, but there is no escaping the fact that it worked well as a public service for a remarkably long time. From the early 1950s until the late 1980s Britain had a television service that, while not perfect, was acknowledged as the best in the world. Anyone who has studied broadcasting in the UK cannot fail to have noticed the defensive walls that surrounded it.

The dual purpose was to maintain standards and deter invasions, whether the latter took the form of unwelcome advances from expansionist neighbours at home or the predatory tendencies of big business abroad. One result was that broadcasters worked within their own compound governed by a set of trading regulations which applied nowhere else in industry. It was easy to point to broadcasting as an enclave of protectionism in a sea of monetarist economics.

The key that enabled Parliament to adopt the paternalistic protection it never had over the press was the shortage of airwaves. Anyone could found a newspaper if they were prepared to risk the money. Airwaves were just not available and had to be rationed by a system of licences, and who better to do the rationing than Parliament itself.

What finally made the end of the system inevitable was not the incongruity of its economies or dissatisfaction with its performance. It was the fact that new technologies, particularly cable and satellite, made watertight monopolies of the kind the BBC and ITV had enjoyed unfeasible. There was no longer a scarcity of the airwaves.

The new competition for advertising revenue changed the nature of employment in the industry. Full-time jobs were replaced by casual working.Independent production companies were formed, aided by programme supply requirements imposed on broadcasters by legislation and the setting up of Channel 4 as a broadcaster/publisher commissioning all its programmes from the new independent sector. Satellite and cable services were followed by Channel 5. The BBC faced pressure to reduce its costs and the auction of ITV contracts following the 1990 Broadcasting Act led to anomalies in prices paid for contracts that surprised even those who conceived the idea.

Now digital television promises further expansion and no one is yet confident of the programmes that will drive consumer demand for the new technology. Viewers responded to subscription television on satellite and cable not because of the volume of channels on offer, but because Hollywood films, previously unavailable on television until three years after cinema release, and live Premier League soccer secured at a price the BBC and ITV could not match, were the engines that drove the expansion of the new services.

Digital television brings the interactive electronic bookshelf and menu-driven services such as video on demand ever closer - as close as next year. The response of universities and training establishments to meet the needs of this vast international industry is crucial. There is a significant need not just for the mastery of new technologies but of new ideas to escape from the bogus choice of more of the same. Innovation must take priority over imitation.

At Salford, we tackled the problem by anticipating as best as we could the needs of tomorrow's broadcast television and the growing opportunities that follow the convergence of broadcasting and computer techniques. But how can an industry characterised by fragmentation and casualisation of the workforce and continuing technological development establish a long-term training strategy?

It was against this background that Salford University's faculty of media,music and performance was established. The faculty developed a series of course structures designed to address the needs of the broadcasting industry and of the broader media/cultural industries. We created a diversity of courses, extending from physical theatre and dance to media technology and popular music and recording, a range of course levels from BTec/HND to masters, and a close liaison with industry, broadcasters and professional organisations such as Pact, Bafta and RTS. The faculty was further characterised by its focus on the creative role of technology and the potential for collaboration between disciplines initiating, for example, the first UK honours degree in media and performance where production and performance are combined. The Pounds 1 million performance poet Murray Lachlan Young is a graduate of the first course. Students have supplied programme material transmitted by Granada Television, BBC2, Anglia, Channel 4, Channel 5, Discovery, Piccadilly Radio, BBC Radio Five Live, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4.

The introduction of a new media technology has attracted equipment manufacturers to set up distribution, exhibition and demonstration bases in the International Media Centre (IMC) established alongside the faculty. The IMC holds the annual Television from the Regions National Conference, which is responsible for refocusing the broadcasting industry and government on production in the UK regions. This year's event, on December 3, will be addressed by Chris Smith, minister of state for culture, media and sport.

The convergence of digital media will generate enormous changes in the production, distribution and transmission of media products. The IMC seeks more partnership investments with the media industries to start courses in,for example, virtual environment production and performance - among the more obvious solutions to high-cost programme production. Salford, with about 1,000 students in its faculty, is a principal provider of trained, intelligent and creative media personnel eager to seize the opportunities presented by the crumbling of media walls and by the multichannel digital future.

David Plowright, former chairman and chief executive of Granada Television, is deputy chairman of Channel 4 and visiting professor of media at the University of Salford's international media centre.

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