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TV in the 1970s

Decade overview

Main image of TV in the 1970s

The 1970s got under way with the Annan Committee making inquiries into the future of broadcasting. Under the chairmanship of Lord Annan, two of its recommendations were crucial to the BBC:

Broadcasting services should continue to be provided as public services, and should continue to be the responsibility of public authorities. These Broadcasting Authorities should be independent of government in the day-to-day conduct of their business. (recommendation 1)
The BBC should continue to be financed from the revenue of the broadcast receiving licence. (recommendation 34)

In March 1977, the government invited comments on the Annan report's conclusions and recommendations and in July 1978 presented its own proposals in a Broadcasting White Paper. In this the government concurred with the Annan Committee's general praise of the performance of the IBA - the former Independent Television Authority had become the Independent Broadcasting Authority in July 1972 when the government made the Authority responsible for the establishment of Independent Local Radio.

The committee saw a marked improvement in the quality of Independent Television programmes over the past decade and considered the IBA's increased influence an important factor in this improvement. The White Paper proposed a fourth television channel: the IBA would run the transmission side, and the ITV companies would have an important programme involvement, but the overall administration would be the responsibility of a newly created Open Broadcasting Authority (OBA).

The White Paper's proposal brought opposition from the IBA and from the ITV companies, which had been lobbying strongly for an 'ITV-2' since late 1971, when a TV4 Campaign had been formed. However, in January 1972, the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (former ITN newscaster Christopher Chataway) postponed any fourth channel decision, to the disappointment of the ITV companies and the embarrassment of the IBA.

1973 ended with the 'three-day week' and television closing down at 10.30 pm - ostensibly to save electricity during a nation-wide industrial dispute - until February 1974, when, with a general election looming on the horizon, the curfew was lifted. Until the energy crisis made itself felt at the turn of the year the ratio of audiences continued to divide fifty-fifty between the BBC and ITV, with the balance tipping towards the BBC at all holiday times and for just about all coverage of major events.

In 1974 the government authorised the BBC to start a two-year experiment, regularly transmitting live 'pages' of written up-to-the-minute news and information, displayed at viewers' requests on their TV screens, either in place of, or in association with, the ordinary television picture. This CEEFAX (as in 'see facts') service started on 23 September; ITV introduced its own teletext service, ORACLE, in July 1975.

The 1970s was a busy decade for TV sport. England's defence of its World Cup soccer crown in Mexico was covered by satellite all the way through to Brazil's victory in the final (1970). There were also the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh (1970). A year later the introduction of slow-motion instant playback into sports programmes opened up the floodgates of unending controversies over refereeing decisions and bad conduct by players. Satellite links made possible same-day pictures of the Australian test cricket; a programme of highlights was beamed to BBC2 each day.

In 1972 the Munich Olympic Games reached estimated audiences of up to 17 million in the UK through 170 hours of live coverage. The BBC was the only individual European organisation, apart from the German networks, to have exclusive studio facilities in Munich and to have rented a private vision circuit from Munich for its national coverage of the Games. Because of this, BBC1 transmitted live pictures of events in the Olympic village during the nights of 5 and 6 September which were not generally available elsewhere in Europe, and TV's presence enabled it to cover in detail the tragedy of the Israeli hostages.

The Munich Games provided world colour television on the largest scale yet known. Some thirty Olympic locations were covered by over 160 colour TV cameras, 23 colour transmission vehicles, seven colour studios, and around 50 TV tape recorders, as well as numerous rooms for cutting and editing film. These vast production facilities were provided by Deutsches Olympia Zentrum, a consortium formed by the two German networks. Two BBC Outside Broadcast units went to Munich to assist with the DOZ operation; one of them provided the Olympic boxing coverage and a BBC mobile camera was used for the cycling road race events. Fifty BBC editors, producers, productions assistants, and secretaries, nearly 70 engineers, and 16 commentators were on the spot in Munich to make this the biggest single operation ever mounted on British television.

The increasing role of television within social life led to a growing concern over its power. An independent Programmes Complaints Commission was set up by the BBC in October 1977 to consider complaints from the public of unfair treatment in radio and television programmes. 1979 saw the completion of a study by programme makers, led by Monica Sims of the BBC, recommending guidelines for the portrayal of violence in television programmes. Sims' report was thoroughly examined by the Board of Governors after it had been endorsed by management and discussed at length with the BBC's Consultative Group on the Social Effects of Television. The BBC working party report on Violence on Television was published in March 1979.

Original TV drama was for the most part replaced by a surge of period and novel-based serials during the 1970s, with The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970) and Elizabeth R (BBC, 1971) blazing the trail for such programmes as Upstairs, Downstairs (ITV, 1970-75), The Onedin Line (BBC, 1971-80), Colditz (BBC, 1972-74), Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill (ITV, 1974), When the Boat Comes In (BBC, 1976-81), The Pallisers (BBC, 1974), Edward the Seventh (ITV, 1975), The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC, 1976-77), I, Claudius (BBC, 1976), and The Glittering Prizes (BBC, 1976).

The mainstream presentation of TV comedy took a sharp curve away from the 'Pythonesque' style of humour (and even the 1960s 'new wave' sitcoms of Johnny Speight and Galton & Simpson) to the more bland, by-the-numbers programming of On the Buses (ITV, 1969-73), Bless This House (ITV, 1971-76), Are You Being Served? (BBC, 1973-85), and Man About the House (ITV, 1973-76). However, some comedies - Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC, 1973-74), The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79), Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975; 1979), Ripping Yarns (BBC, 1977-79), and a handful of others - went some way to try and balance out this cosy, studio-bound situation comedy.

TV documentary, often incorporating dramatisation, excelled, informing and impressing viewers with such (at times, marathon) productions as The Search for the Nile (BBC, 1971), The World at War (ITV, 1973-74, The Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973), The Family (BBC, 1974), The Voyage of Charles Darwin (BBC, 1978) and Life on Earth (BBC, 1979). These excellent documentary studies went on to win much international acclaim and help boost British TV's standing around the world.

The early part of the 1970s, under a Conservative administration, reflected safe, reassuring, family-based programming: Bless This House, For the Love of Ada (ITV, 1970-71), Queenie's Castle (ITV, 1970-72), Father, Dear Father (ITV, 1968-73), And Mother Makes Three (ITV, 1971-73). Even game shows - The Generation Game (BBC, 1971-81), for example - adopted a family-focused format. During the latter half of the decade (now under Labour Prime Ministers Wilson and Callaghan) the emphasis turned in favour of the underdog (whatever their respective pursuits and motives), with such programming as Miss Jones and Son (ITV, 1977-78), Citizen Smith (BBC, 1977-80), Rumpole of the Bailey (ITV, 1978-79; 1983; 1987-88; 1991-92) and Minder (ITV, 1979-85; 1988-94) proving popular.

Tise Vahimagi

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Abigail's Party (1977)

Abigail's Party (1977)

Memorable Mike Leigh drama about a disastrous middle-class soiree

Thumbnail image of Ascent of Man, The (1973)

Ascent of Man, The (1973)

Dr Jacob Bronowski discusses the cultural evolution of mankind

Thumbnail image of Bagpuss (1974)

Bagpuss (1974)

Just a saggy old cloth cat. But Emily loved him.

Thumbnail image of Black and White Minstrel Show, The (1958-78)

Black and White Minstrel Show, The (1958-78)

Notorious variety show that ran for an astonishing 20 years

Thumbnail image of Catweazle (1970-71)

Catweazle (1970-71)

Children's comedy series about a time-travelling sorcerer

Thumbnail image of Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, The (1974)

Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, The (1974)

Controversial, hard-hitting dramatised history of Scotland

Thumbnail image of Citizen Smith (1977-80)

Citizen Smith (1977-80)

Robert Lindsay stars as Wolfie Smith, the Che Guevara of Tooting

Thumbnail image of Doctor Who: The Green Death (1973)

Doctor Who: The Green Death (1973)

The Doctor and Jo battle giant maggots to prevent global pollution

Thumbnail image of Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The (1976-79)

Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The (1976-79)

How a midlife crisis became sublime character comedy

Thumbnail image of Family, The (1974)

Family, The (1974)

Pioneering 'fly on the wall' series about a working-class family from Reading

Thumbnail image of Fawlty Towers (1975, 79)

Fawlty Towers (1975, 79)

John Cleese as manic hotelier Basil Fawlty in Britain's greatest sitcom

Thumbnail image of Fosters, The (1976-77)

Fosters, The (1976-77)

Sitcom about the life of a South London black family

Thumbnail image of Glittering Prizes, The (1976)

Glittering Prizes, The (1976)

Acclaimed serial charting the lives of a group of Cambridge friends

Thumbnail image of Good Life, The (1975-77)

Good Life, The (1975-77)

Much-loved sitcom about a self-sufficient couple in Surbiton

Thumbnail image of I, Claudius (1976)

I, Claudius (1976)

Epic, gory and salacious drama of murder and intrigue in ancient Rome

Thumbnail image of Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Robert Powell plays Jesus Christ in Franco Zeffirelli's famous miniseries

Thumbnail image of Just Another Saturday (1975)

Just Another Saturday (1975)

A young man's experience of sectarian violence in Glasgow.

Thumbnail image of Life on Earth (1979)

Life on Earth (1979)

David Attenborough's landmark natural history series

Thumbnail image of Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)

Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)

Legendary sketch show that revolutionised TV comedy

Thumbnail image of Old Grey Whistle Test, The / Whistle Test (1971-87)

Old Grey Whistle Test, The / Whistle Test (1971-87)

Long-running, album-oriented music show for grown-ups

Thumbnail image of Out (1978)

Out (1978)

Gritty crime drama about a man seeking revenge on a police informer

Thumbnail image of Pallisers, The (1974)

Pallisers, The (1974)

Mammoth production of Trollope's 'political' series

Thumbnail image of Penda's Fen (1974)

Penda's Fen (1974)

David Rudkin's complex drama explores English pagan myths

Thumbnail image of Porridge (1974-77)

Porridge (1974-77)

Ronnie Barker goes behind bars in the definitive prison sitcom

Thumbnail image of Revolver (1978)

Revolver (1978)

Shortlived ATV music show for the post-punk generation

Thumbnail image of Rising Damp (1974-78)

Rising Damp (1974-78)

Leonard Rossiter's first great sitcom role as seedy landlord Rigsby

Thumbnail image of Stone Tape, The (1972)

Stone Tape, The (1972)

Chilling sci-fi ghost story written by Nigel Kneale

Thumbnail image of Survivors (1975-77)

Survivors (1975-77)

Apocalyptic sci-fi series set in a plague-wracked Britain

Thumbnail image of Sweeney, The (1975-78)

Sweeney, The (1975-78)

Tough 1970s police drama with John Thaw and Dennis Waterman

Thumbnail image of TISWAS (1974-82)

TISWAS (1974-82)

Saturday morning anarchy presided over by Chris Tarrant and Sally James

Thumbnail image of Two Ronnies, The (1971-86)

Two Ronnies, The (1971-86)

Hugely popular sketch series uniting Ronnies Barker and Corbett

Thumbnail image of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? (1973-74)

Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? (1973-74)

James Bolam and Rodney Bewes return as Geordies Terry and Bob

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Children's TV in the 1970s

Children's TV in the 1970s

The first all-colour decade produced many enduring classics

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