BBC (British Broadcasting Company) Essay

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The  BBC began  life as  the  British  Broadcasting Company in 1922. It was formed by the six largest companies  manufacturing radios in the United Kingdom, but in 1926, it became the British Broadcasting Corporation, signifying its status  as a state-owned public  service broadcaster. Its first television (TV) broadcast took place in 1936, to a small  audience,  mainly  in  the  London  area,  but this was suspended  during World War II.

In the 1950s, TV grew rapidly, and the BBC had a state-sanctioned monopoly of both TV and radio broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The services were  funded  by  a  license  fee, which  today  costs about  £130 annually  and is payable by any household owning a TV set. Failure to pay the license fee is a criminal  offense,  and  there  are  a number  of people  in  British  prisons   who  have  acquired   a criminal  record  by failing to pay their  license fee. The U.K. parliament is considering  making  this a matter  of civil as opposed  to criminal law.

The  public   corporation  is  a  business   model devised in the United  Kingdom,  which, before the privatizations initiated  by the  Margaret Thatcher governments of the 1980s  and 1990s,  had nationalized several strategic industries, including electricity generation, railways,  telecommunications,  steel production, and  coal mining. A public corporation is responsible  to a government minister  for  long-term  funding  and  strategic  direction, but its day-to-day management is in the hands of a director   general   and   an   executive   board.  The founding   director   general   of  the   BBC  was   a Scotsman, John Reith (later, Lord Reith), whose “Reithian” principles still pervade the organization as an ideal. Reith  decreed  that  the purpose  of the BBC was threefold:  (1) information, (2) education, and (3) entertainment; the first of these has always been  severely stress  tested  during  times  of  crisis, such as the General  Strike of 1926,  World  War  II, and, more recently, the war in Iraq started  by Tony Blair and  George  W. Bush. To  a greater  or  lesser extent,  the BBC has withstood pressure  from politicians  to become an arm of U.K. political  propaganda. In peacetime politics, the BBC has always been committed  to impartiality and balance.

The  BBC’s World  Service (on  radio)  is widely regarded  as a prime example  of what  political  scientists   call  “soft   power.”  Listeners   around  the world value its news bulletins for their honesty, accuracy,  and ethical journalism. In recognition of this, the World Service has traditionally been financed   out   of  general   taxation  by  the   U.K. Foreign Office. However, the source of funding has recently been switched  to the license fee.

For  the  first  three  decades  of its life, the  BBC enjoyed  a monopoly on radio  and TV services in the United  Kingdom.  Visitors to the country  have always been struck by the variety and quality of its programming and  have  often  remarked on  how refreshing  it is to, say, watch  an hour’s TV that  is not  punctuated by  any  commercial  breaks  or  to find   news,   plays,   documentaries,  comedy   programs, and other speech-based  programs on radio, which in their  home  country  is given over to pop music  and  trivial  banter.  In  terms  of  music,  the BBC caters  to a range of genres, from heavy rock through  pop   and   light   music   to   full-blown classical.

During the 1950s, pressure to put an end to the TV  monopoly  became   overwhelming,  and   the British government brought in a large amount of the   much-needed  revenue   in   1955   by   selling regional franchises to companies, enabling them to become  commercial  TV stations.  Meanwhile, the only commercial  radio  was broadcast to the U.K. mainland from companies  based  on the continent of Europe,  such  as Radio  Luxembourg, and  also from  offshore  “pirate” stations.  One  such station was Radio  Caroline,  which  operated from  a ship just outside the territorial waters but close enough to broadcast to listeners in London. A network of local  and  national commercial   TV  stations   was allowed by law for the first time in 1973. With the coming  of satellite  broadcasting in the 1990s,  the market became more open to different types of broadcasters, and U.K. consumers now have access to  hundreds of TV and  radio  stations.  Ironically, many  of them  specialize  in broadcasting recycled content   originally   made  for  the  BBC  but   now edited to contain  suitable  commercial  breaks.

While the BBC enjoys considerable public support in the United Kingdom, it is the last great state corporation not to have been privatized,  and there is some pressure to find a new funding  formula  as an  alternative to  the  license fee. Possibilities  that have been suggested are to run some of its “minority” programming by a subscription service and to allow  advertising   on  those  stations   whose  programs are similar to those available on commercial TV. Given that the license fee is not cheap and that there is some resentment against the idea of paying a  legally  enforced   fee,  the  survival  of  the  BBC model is quite remarkable, especially when considering  the  added  complication of programs being available  on the Internet, where  the policing  of a license fee for TV viewers is not feasible.

The range of the BBC’s activities is remarkable and would appear  staggering to audiences in countries where public service broadcasting is regarded as a minority  pursuit  or a charitable activity. Each year,  the  corporation presents  a  full  report   and financial  statement to  Parliament, and  the  2013 report  indicates  that  the total  budget  is more than £3.5 billion. This currently  finances nine TV channels;   more   than   20   radio   stations,   including regional  and  local services; and  a presence on the World Wide Web.

The corporation does have a reputation for bureaucracy,  which   has   arguably   only   become worse as the organization reacts to political attacks on  its independence and  accusations of mismanagement and bias through setting up complex compliance  procedures. Until recently, the director general  of  the  BBC earned  approximately three times the salary of the prime minister of the United Kingdom,  and  major  “talent,” such  as individual talk-show presenters, had  contracts paying  them sums in the region of £2 million per year. The corporation’s argument was that  it had  to pay commercial rates in order  to compete  with the private sector for the best people; critics argued that by its very nature, public service broadcasting should not enter  into  this  kind  of  commercial   culture   and mind-set  about  pay rates. In recent years, the BBC has had to react to a political  and economic  environment dominated by  policies  of  austerity,  and since the license fee is widely regarded  as a form of taxation, all costs, including  pay, have been somewhat  scaled down,  but certainly  not sufficiently to satisfy all critics.

The  average  British  citizen  is proud  of institutions  such  as  the  National  Health   Service  and the BBC, and in this age of privatization, these are arguably  the two remaining institutions that define British concepts of public service. Indeed, to many, they  define “Britishness” itself. Where  else in the world would  one find a media organization covering the  Glastonbury rock  festival, major  sporting events such as the soccer World  Cup, and classical concerts, some of which are performed by full symphony  orchestras financed  by the media organization  itself?  For  that  organization to  also  have  a worldwide  news network that is almost universally regarded  as  a  watchword for  truth,  impartiality, and  resistance  to  political  pressure  is undeniably unique.

The  fact  that  its  comedy,  drama, and  factual programs are a major invisible export  for the U.K. economy   speaks   for   itself   in   an   increasingly globalized  environment. Despite  its many  controversies and its propensity for intermittent internal crises, the BBC in some shape or form is no more likely to disappear in the foreseeable  future  than, say, the United Nations organization or any one of the three branches  of the U.S. government.

The   BBC  will  become   more   commercial   in many ways: For example, in the Internet  age, it has to solve the problem  of what  economists  call the “free  riders”  who  access  its  output without any sort  of contribution at all. The BBC has met such challenges  before;  for example,  in recent  decades, anyone in the United Kingdom who can prove that she or he only listens to the radio and does not use TV equipment has not  had  to pay the license fee. There is still a reduced  license fee for anyone  who only  has  a  monochrome TV  set  and  does  not watch  programs in color.

Such  challenges   are  more   difficult   to  tackle when  consumption is worldwide  and  online,  but “difficult” does  not  signify  “impossible” for  an institution that  began with analog  technology  and crystal  radio   sets  in  the  1920s   and  has  lasted nearly  100  years  to  take  a  leading  place  in  the world  of satellite, cable, Internet, and digital technology.


  1. BBC Trust. “Annual Report.” (Accessed October 2014).
  2. Hendy, Public Service Broadcasting.  London:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

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