"Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation"
"To Inform. To Educate. To Entertain".
—Lord Reith's vision from the Charter
The BBC's full name is the British Broadcasting Corporation, not "Blurring, Buzzing Confusion," or "Best British Cheekbones," or "Burmese Borough Council
" or "Big British Castle
" or "Boring Brown Chocolate
" or indeed "Bastards Broadcasting Communism
" or even
"Blimey, Bollocks, an' Cor!
". Until 1955, when ITV
was established, it broadcast the only TV channel in the United Kingdom. It is the world's largest broadcasting corporation, reaching 274 million households in 200 countries, compared to their closest rival, CNN
, with 200 million. The BBC Television Service, now BBC One, is the oldest television channel in the world.
Founded in 1922 as a privately owned radio network, it was "acquired" and made into a state network in 1927. It was relatively poorly funded until 1946, when the television licence was introduced. The income generated gave the BBC the power to truly innovate and effectively shape modern television in all countries, not just the United Kingdom.
In 1964, BBC 2 (later BBC Two) was launched to cover less mainstream programming. More recently, the network has added several digital channels to its line up, including BBC Three, BBC Four, and other more specialized channels, such as CBBC
. The BBC also broadcasts radio and TV channels outside the UK, such as the World Service and BBC Prime.
The BBC Television Service is very different from most other British networks in that it is publicly funded by the UK Television Licence; if you watch live broadcast TV in the United Kingdom, on TV or a live internet stream, then you must fund the BBC (to the tune of about £140 per year or, as the BBC likes to put it, 39p a day), a system widely used across Europe with most countries having a similar TV licence to fund their national broadcaster. The upshot is that the BBC's programming is advertisement-free (bar trailers between programmes), and thus they can take more risks, although it's been a matter of media, public, and government debate as to whether they're actually doing this. It's also supposed to be free of bias in areas like news reporting (like every other public broadcaster in the UK - no Bill O'Reillys
or Jon Stewarts here,
no siree), although practically every opposition party has accused it of supporting the current government and at least one government has accused it of the opposite. It takes this very seriously, and extends it to international affairs - it famously declared during the Falklands War
that "the widow in Portsmouth is no different from the widow of Buenos Aires." Finally, it's meant to be responsible with the money it receives - although it had to fork out £50,000 of license money on a fine after a phone-in scandal. Which paled in comparison with the £90 million
that it later blew on an unworkable digital video archiving system. Ouch.
The BBC's news service is essentially second to none in the UK and for much of the wider world, it provides a global TV and radio service in the form of the World Service, which some governments have jammed at times and was the real-life Voice of the Resistance
in World War II
. Its political and current affairs programming has a reputation for the highly adversarial style of some prominent presenters; it's not unheard of for Newsnight
or The Today Programme to draw viewer/listener complaints for being too hard
on the politicians they're interviewing.
Note that not only is advertising on the BBC simply not done, Product Placement
is actually a violation of the Ofcom Code (although it will now be allowed on other networks), and people have complained when brand names are visible on screen. For example, an episode of Spooks
was pulled and digitally edited after it was pointed out on a preview that some computers in the background had the Apple logo visible. David Tennant
's Converse All-Stars in Doctor Who
had the logo painted over. For many years they even refused to broadcast any songs which mentioned brand names (the most famous example being the forced removal of a reference to Coca-Cola from "Lola" by The Kinks
to get BBC airplay). This may seem overly touchy, but the BBC's lack of advertising has earned it some level of immunity to corporate influence - for example, when Top Gear
(in the 90s, before it became an international phenomenon with hundreds of millions of weekly viewers) condemned a particular car from an Italian car company, their CEO allegedly demanded that they "pull all the advertising from Top Gear's network
" in order to influence them into a retraction.
At least 25% of the BBC's output (excluding news) must be made by outside independent production companies, with another 25% split between indie and in house production. Many well known "BBC" programmes are actually made by indies such as Spooks
, Life on Mars
, Have I Got News for You
, and Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. This requirement was introduced to help the UK indie industry. These are genuine independent production companies who retain ownership of the rights for repeats, syndication, DVD and overseas sales etc, unlike the US (and Channel 4
) where production company names in the show's credits are effectively vanity names and do not alter the fact that the show is made by the studio who own all the rights.
Criticisms of BBC programmes will often call them "a waste of the license fee". Praise will often include the phrase "worth the license fee alone" (Craig Charles
' 6 Music Funk and Soul Show
uses this as a catchphrase). Having just mentioned Top Gear
, anyone saying either of that about TG is Completely Missing the Point
as the show is now self-supporting via The Merch
and sales of international rights. Rupert Murdoch
-owned papers often attack it, for reasons that are totally not related to its status as a serious contender with his own Sky
More seriously, in 2012 the BBC has come under fire with the horrific revelations
about British celebrity Jimmy Savile (longtime presenter of Top of the Pops
, Clunk Click
, and Jim'll Fix It
), specifically with regards to how much BBC brass knew of his conduct behind-the-scenes and what they covered up. (For Americans not aware of the matter, it's similar to what happened at Penn State University with Jerry Sandusky; Savile used his television and charity work as an avenue to sexually abuse children — possibly hundreds of them over the decades.) Despite these batterings it maintains a very high level of public trust (the highest in Britain, in fact
), and is a source of pride to many Britons.
Notable BBC programmes are many indeed. A modern BBC programme can be pretty easily identified these days. During The Teaser
or Title Sequence
, the BBC logo will appear on the screen while other things are going on. (The BBC actually lays down very strict rules on when and where the logo appears, as well as its size and duration on screen. This is due to the BBC logo's appearance in Title Sequences
being a way for engineers to tell if a programme is being broadcast in the correct Aspect Ratio
- if the usually perfectly square logo is squashed or stretched, it's in the wrong aspect ratio.)
Genre-wise, the BBC's particular specialities are:
- Costume Drama - a lot of it. It's widely exported.
- Radio Drama - The Beeb is almost as famous for its radio adaptations, comedies and dramas as it is for its TV dramas. In the past they have aired such ground breaking material as The Goon Show (which inspired almost every British comedy since and was even referenced in Shrek), adapted many novels, such as the whole of C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia series, and produced such long running and loved shows as Just a Minute, Im Sorry I Havent A Clue, and, of course, the most popular show of all, The Archers, an extremely accurate and topical depiction of — of all things — farming... Seriously, it's been going since 1950 and it's the most popular show on Radio Four. The Goon Show once did a spoof of it and the spoof version is still completely accurate. People who join on as young actors on that show have been known to leave by dying of old age in real life. At the height of its popularity 60% of the country tuned in every week. It currently has over 17,000 episodes and is considered the longest running soap opera (and second longest running radio show, after Desert Island Discs) ever made - and that's on a channel full of contenders for that title.
- Speculative Fiction, most notably Doctor Who. Although the BBC made hardly any in-house SF or fantasy between the cancellation of the original Doctor Who in 1989 and its revival in 2005, according to rumour because of executive hostility to the genre. The only significant SFFH show made in that time was Red Dwarf, which may have survived because of Misaimed Fandom on the part of the executives who thought it was laughing at the genre and its fans.
- Comedy (often risk-taking, ground-breaking and highly influential, like Monty Python). This includes the genesis of the Panel Show genre.
- Natural History series, often narrated by David Attenborough.
- Travel documentaries, usually with Michael Palin.
Because of its lack of need to chase advertising, and therefore ratings, the BBC is not under the same pressure (News Corp
headlines aside) to gain 'instant hits' with high viewing figures. A number of TV shows that would not have had a second series commissioned on ITV (or in the US been pulled mid season) have gone on to become hits - Only Fools And Horses
are prime examples. Men Behaving Badly
actually started on ITV, dumped after series one, then picked up and nurtured in to a genre defining hit on the Beeb.
At the end of 2007, the BBC introduced the free iPlayer service, allowing UK-only users to download some of the previous seven days' programming online and some entire seasons. (Most BBC radio programmes and stations can be listened to by users outside the UK via BBC's website or smartphone apps like TuneIn.) This may change in the future, as the BBC wants to open up the iPlayer to non-British audiences, for a fee.
The BBC's television stations are:
- BBC One is broken down into a number of regions for broadcasting purposes, with each region having some specific local shows (e.g., local news) and the production of national shows being spread across the United Kingdom. These are all available on satellite or cable and include the 14 regions of England (BBC One East, East Midlands, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, London, Yorkshire, Yorks & Lincs, West, West Midlands, North West, North East & Cumbria, South, South East, South West), BBC One The Channel Islands, BBC One Northern Ireland, BBC One Scotland and BBC One Wales.
- BBC Two has fewer regions (BBC Two England; BBC Two Scotland; BBC Two Wales; and BBC Two Northern Ireland). BBC Two is generally seen as the "Special Interest" channel, showing things that have a loyal following, but won't get the big ratings (e.g. snooker, "serious" documentaries, alternative comedy, the Chelsea Flower Show and, in Scotland, Gaelic programmes). A programme that proves popular with the "mainstream" audience may be "promoted" to BBC One (this has happened to Have I Got News for You and QI, amongst others.)
- BBC Three - Comedy, the occasional film and repeats. Started off showcasing some new stuff like Nighty Night and Little Britain, in addition to stuff like Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, but dove head first into the 16-24 demographic with shows like The Wrong Door, Being Human and various pilots for comedies, effectively getting revamped as a platform for this age group's creative works - possibly a more youthful Spiritual Successor to Channel Four's Comedy Lab as well as potential rival to T4. These have not all been successful.
- BBC Four - Pretty much the visual equivalent of Radios 3 and 4, with widespread critical acclaim. Documentaries, classical music orientated programmes and television films and plays in the vein of Play for Today. Fridays are devoted to music documentaries and performances, featuring everything from classical to heavy metal. In The New Tens, known for importing cop shows and other drama series from mainland European countries, not previously a UK tradition, including Engrenages from France, the original Swedish TV version of Wallander, Forbrydelsen and Borgen from Denmark, and Il commissario Montalbano from Italy. Also Condensation.
- CBBC - A kids' channel. Showing mostly British stuff with the occasional Australian drama or American cartoon. Broadcasts educational programming (a BBC charter requirement) during school hours.
- CBeebies - In addition to CBBC, as well as traditional morning and afternoon slots, and extended Saturday and Sunday blocks, and morning blocks extended from about 7 until 10 in the summer, the BBC also has this channel. Targets 0-6 demographics. Has its own morning and afternoon slots prior to CBBC. Again, mostly British made content. Those living in the United States can now see a number of its shows in some markets if they receive On Demand service from their cable provider.
- BBC News Channel: Exactly What It Says on the Tin - A BBC News channel. Airs 24 hours a day. Formerly BBC News 24.
- BBC Parliament: Covers the debates of the UK's Parliament, including Select Committees (like the US standing committees), devolved assemblies and the House of Lords. Also does re-runs of past election night coverage and occasionally coverage of the US Congress. Similar to the American C-SPAN (which reciprocally broadcasts the Prime Minister's Question Time).
- BBC Alba: The BBC's Scottish Gaelic-language channel.
- Although responsibility for Welsh-language programming has passed on to the independent S 4 C (Sianel Pedwar Cymru), the BBC still makes programmes for the Welsh-language network, most notably long-running soap opera Pobol Y Cwm.
- In addition, during the London 2012 Olympics the BBC operated a whopping twenty-four live Olympic sports channels, although they weren't all showing live events simultaneously. Part of the cost of these channels was borne by the International Olympic Committee.
The BBC still has many radio
stations as well. There are five national terrestrial stations. Radio 1 is the youth station, playing primarily chart music (many are quick to point out that "chart music" doesn't simply mean generic pop music as in the United States, but also encompasses various other genres including hip-hop, indie rock and blues) during the day, and more obscure genres get airplay in the evening and into the night. BBC Radio 2 is another music station, but aims for an older demographic. BBC Radio 3 plays classical, jazz and "world" music. BBC Radio 4 is the spoken word station, which broadcasts a mix of news, documentaries, drama, comedy and current affairs. Finally, Five Live is a talk radio station, with an emphasis on sports, often featuring live commentary on UK sports events. Furthermore, the BBC has regional stations across the United Kingdom and several more specialist digital radio stations, most notably the indie rock-leaning 6 Music (which in 2010 was saved from certain death via cutbacks with the work of fans, musical acts and the BBC Trust), and BBC Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC [Radio] 7) which specialises in spoken-word comedy, science-fiction, mystery and drama.
Commonly nicknamed "The Beeb" or "Auntie", the latter down to general perceptions of it being a bit stodgy and hand-wringing like a maiden aunt; it's still affectionate
, though. Down Under
, The ABC
has the same 'Auntie' nickname, with the same connotations.
The BBC (or, more accurately, its commercial arm BBC Worldwide) also part-owns a number of commercial channels, mainly the UKTV Network, responsible for channels such as Dave, Home and Blighty, as well as a print arm which handles the bulk of the magazines which license its properties (Top Gear
being one example) and listings magazine Radio Times
There's also BBC America (a cable network in the United States), which is the BBC in name only, being a privately run channel (although half-owned by BBC Worldwide, the other half being owned by Discovery Communications
) that shows programmes from a variety of makers, including the real BBC's rivals ITV, Channel 4 and E4, most notably The Inbetweeners
, Peep Show
. The name in America basically just means "British!". The channel does run some of the BBC's most popular programs, such as Top Gear
and, of course Doctor Who
- all among of American extended cable's highest rated and critically acclaimed shows. It acquired the first-run rights to Doctor Who
(which they initially only had repeat rights to), gaining them in a deal with their original American rights holders, Sci Fi Channel, later called Syfy
. Unsurprisingly, Doctor Who
is now BBC America's highest rated show. It also has American science fiction programmes such as Star Trek: The Next Generation
, The X-Files
and the 2003-2009 Battlestar Galactica
, but it devotes most of its day to British programming. It began to air original dramatic programming in 2012 with Copper
, with 2013's Orphan Black
proving to be an unexpected breakout hit for the channel; it was soon broadcast in the UK on BBC Three. BBC Canada and BBC Kids serve Canada through joint partnerships with Canadian broadcasters (with the required smatterings of Canadian content), and BBC Entertainment, Knowledge, Lifestyle and versions of CBBC and Ceebies serve the rest of the world. There is also BBC World News, an advertising-supported 24-hour global news channel. It is unavailable in the UK due to license fee considerations, aside from a half-hour daily simulcast on BBC Four.Mitch Benn
wants you all to be proud of it
. And why not?