Fourth floor says… Thoughts on a third programme
A word from Associated-Rediffusion management in 1959: BBC-2, ITV-2 or a brand new TV-3?
I suppose the words ‘Third Programme’ make most of us think about the BBC’s sound programme of that name. And as with sound, so in television, there is a strong chance that the third programme will be designed for the special interest of minorities, following the argument that two programmes of popular appeal are enough and the third should be used for a different purpose. This argument has more than sentiment and highbrows behind it, as most of us who are engaged in television know only too well how difficult it is to keep up the standard and supply of peak time programmes for general audiences. But, practical difficulties aside, I believe the general public are well content with two alternative programmes of general appeal, and even though they never looked at it, would tolerate the existence of a third programme appealing to special interests.
What sort of programme should it be? I think educational in its widest sense, including the Arts, but with emphasis on direct education, where it seems to me that television could be used as a powerful supplement to evening classes at schools, particularly for technical subjects which lend themselves to pictorial demonstration.
So far so good, but now we come to more difficult matters. Who would be responsible for the third programme and who would pay for it?
If the choice were to fall on the BBC. it would be said that the Corporation already has in existence or in course of construction sufficient studios to produce a third programme as well as its present one, that it could build on its experience in broadcasting for schools, and that it was appropriate for a public service such as the third programme to be provided by a public body financed by public funds.
But the public funds would have to be found, either by an increase in the fee for television licences or by some appropriation from other funds. The BBC is already expensive, its expenditure having jumped from £12½ million [£438m now, allowing for inflation] in 1951-2 to £26½ million [£655m] in 1957-8, and any further calls by the Corporation on public funds, particularly if they required an increase in licence fees would hardly be popular. Add to this the argument that the BBC is already powerful enough in controlling the whole of sound broadcasting and half of television and the balance tips against any further extension of the Corporation’s responsibility.
If not the BBC, perhaps the ITA. The Authority has no programme production facilities of its own, but that could be overcome; nor has it a production staff, but it could get one. The objections are not really the practical ones. They are matters of principle. The Authority’s function is to control independent television and it ought not to be diverted into other activities. Besides, there is the old matter of finance. If it came from public funds there would be the same objection as in the case of the BBC; alternatively any suggestion that the Authority might try to finance the programme from advertisements would be incompatible with its function as controller of television advertising practice. So I conclude that the ITA are not likely to run the third programme.
The position is slightly different if a completely new television authority were set up for the purpose, as its advertising practice could be made subject to the approval of the ITA. It is, however, most doubtful whether advertising revenue would be anything like sufficient, firstly because the audience would be extremely small compared with that for other television programmes, and secondly because it would contain a small proportion of housewives, who control purchasing power. So again there would have to be a subsidy from public funds.
Finally for consideration are the present programme contractors. Our chairman has already said that Associated-Rediffusion would be willing to participate in an educational programme (using the word ‘educational’ in its broadest sense), even if that programme required a subsidy from the company’s other activities. If other programme contractors were willing to take part on the same basis, the financial hurdle would be cleared. The programme could be produced economically, as it could share facilities and staff with the commercial programme, and we in Associated-Rediffusion have already shown in our programmes for schools that we can do the job well.
The main arguments against this would be that the service should be under public control and not dependent on commercial companies whose finances have been subject to extreme variation in the past and may be again. But it should be possible to overcome the financial drawback by sufficient guarantees being given on both sides. And there are abundant instances to show that commercial companies can and do act with just as much a sense of public responsibility as do public bodies. My personal opinion is that if a third programme is authorized, and if it takes the form I have discussed, the most logical course would be to make it the responsibility of programme contractors.
There is a saying well known in the company that the enemy, thought to be faced with three alternatives, chooses a fourth. Perhaps both Independent Television and the BBC will be given an extra channel to be used for educational purposes. But let me put forward my guess at an extra choice that has only an outside chance of being accepted. Is public opinion ready yet to follow through the success of independent television and have the BBC accept advertisements on its television programme, drop one sound programme and share with Associated-Rediffusion and other programme contractors the responsibility of providing a non-commercial educational television service?