The development of TV in Britain and the United States represents two very different legacies of the way governments and corporations developed radio and TV broadcasting in the pre-World War II period.

A. TV in the United States

A1 NBC, CBS, and ABC

In the United States, the dominant concerns were NBC and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS Inc.), set up in 1927. These companies built their TV empires on the radio programming networks they created during radio’s heyday in the 1930s, funding expansion through the sales of sets, and of advertising.

Networks produced programmes for a chain of local stations across the country, some of which they owned, but most of which were affiliated with them. NBC and CBS were joined by another two broadcasting networks, American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and DuMont, in the 1940s, and until the 1980s, the trio of NBC, CBS, and ABC dominated the American TV landscape. DuMont went bankrupt in the 1950s, but a fourth network, Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, emerged in the late 1980s.

A2 Network Affiliation

The domination of US TV by the networks was reinforced by the FCC’s 1952 decision to allocate only three VHF (very high frequency) stations to most urban areas. The first three stations in an area inevitably affiliated with the networks in order to get the best-known national shows. New channels were forced on to UHF frequencies, which were of poor reception quality, and unobtainable on most sets. Thus the American TV system developed as an advertising-funded, commercial system, dominated by a small number of companies.

B TV in Britain

In Britain, the dominant institution from the 1930s to the 1950s was the BBC, which had its roots in the British state’s conception of broadcasting as a public service, rather than as a commercial enterprise. This notion stressed the provision of information and education, as much as entertainment. The BBC had a royal charter, giving it a monopoly on programme production, and guaranteeing its income via the collection of radio and later television licences by the Post Office. To this day, the BBC carries no advertising.


In 1955 the British government opened a second channel for commercial TV (ITV—Independent Television), but this was still a heavily public service-oriented system. Fourteen regional franchises were allocated, with strict conditions attached: the successful companies would have to show a responsiveness to local conditions and a commitment to impartiality in order to maintain their franchise upon renewal in 1968, 1980, and 1992. Whereas the BBC was non-profit-making, and had to put its resources back into programmes, the commercial companies that bid for the ITV franchises were obliged to pay dividends to shareholders, and could use TV profits to subsidize other parts of their businesses. Arguably, the fact that audiences had to be as large as possible to attract advertisers meant that ITV programmes could not be as adventurous as some of those made by the BBC.

B3 Channel 4

In 1982 a new mix of public-service broadcasting and commercial interests was introduced in Britain, with the launch of Channel 4. This involved a new system of programme production. Previously, programmes were made by the BBC or by the ITV franchise-holders, but Channel 4 makes none of its own programmes. Rather, it commissions programmes from independent production companies, and it has an obligation under its charter to show programmes for minorities not adequately catered for by the existing two BBC channels (BBC2 was launched in 1964) and ITV. New companies sprang up, mainly in London, to service Channel 4, and by the early 1990s, the BBC itself was obliged by law to commission much of its output from these independents. A fifth independent station, Channel 5, began transmission in March 1997.

C. Public Service Broadcasting

Public-service broadcasting is not the same thing as state broadcasting, but nor is it independent of the state. The British TV system relies on “arm’s length” regulation. The governors of the BBC and the authority controlling ITV have autonomy, but they are appointed by the state, and are made up of “the great and the good”. Regulations require broadcasters to be impartial and to produce programmes of quality, but these are terms that are open to different interpretations. At times, political pressure by the ruling party can be strong, especially in times of war or national crisis.

D. TV in France

The case of the TV system in post-war France suggests that state broadcasting involves much more direct forms of control than public-service systems. In the early 1960s, the Minister of the Interior would communicate with senior executives in Radio Television France, the only TV channel at the time, on a daily basis. Only in the mid-1970s was the system reformed to allow competition between channels, and a greater distance between government and broadcasters.

E. TV in Australia

Many countries developed a mixture of commercial and public-service stations. Australia, for example, developed a mixed system at about the same time as Britain. By 1957 the bigger cities had six channels, two run by the state-controlled Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and four by commercial owners. However, whereas many countries’ regulations have limited the ownership of both press and TV outlets, publishing companies quickly established a dominance of commercial Australian TV channels.

F. 1950s and 1960s

The great boom in TV came in the 1950s and 1960s, and was brought about by a number of important social changes. Greater affluence, easy credit on consumer goods such as TV sets, and reductions in the length of the working week all served to pave the way for the rise of TV as a mass medium. In 1948 there were fewer than 100,000 sets in the United States; by 1959 there were more than 50 million, and 88 per cent of American homes contained at least one receiver.

TV’s cultural importance rose in proportion to its popularity. The mid-1950s have often been portrayed as a “golden age” of American TV production, as talented writers and performers increasingly turned to the greater exposure and rewards available in the new medium, and away from radio and the cinema. Many critics hold a similar view of British TV in the 1960s: there was a new realism in the portrayal of working-class life in situation comedies (sitcoms) and soap operas (soaps), compared with the sometimes patronizing tone of earlier British cinema and theatre. Satire programmes and current affairs interviewers challenged authority figures in an unprecedented way.

Nevertheless, although TV had become an important new leisure form, and cultural resource, it was far from omnipresent. Much of the world still had little or no TV service until the early 1960s, such as Indonesia (began services, 1962), Singapore (1963), and Pakistan (1964). Even within established channels, programming seems sparse by comparison with today’s standards: in the late 1960s, the BBC’s main channel still ran from only 4 p.m. until 11 p.m.