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TV in the 1950s

TV takes off, with a little help from the Coronation

Main image of TV in the 1950s

Television's growing popularity in all sections of society as the 1950s began was reflected by noticeable changes in the social habits of viewers and by the medium's influence on people in general. This popularity was both the cause and the effect of an increase in the volume of television available. The Beveridge Committee's report on broadcasting recommended renewal of the BBC's charter (continuing its monopoly) with no fixed time limit but with a review of its workings in five years.

More regional autonomy was suggested, as well as further development of the television service, with an increased licence fee. One of the most important proposals in the government's statement on Beveridge's report referred to the possibility of an alternative television service provided by private enterprise.

The televising of the Coronation was a significant factor in the increase of TV sets in public use, and in March 1953 figures for combined sound and television licences were given as 2,142,452, compared with 1,457,000 a year previously. The Coronation broadcast (tx. 2/6/1953) lasted for seven hours and viewers saw the whole service except for the Anointing, the Communion prayers, and the administration of the Sacrament. Taking into account large-screen presentations in cinemas, church halls, hospitals and other public venues, it was estimated that no fewer than 20 million people watched the service in the UK alone.

During the same year (1953), the BBC decided to replace transmission from Alexandra Palace with a new and more powerful transmitting station situated in the grounds of the old Crystal Palace. Meanwhile, the transfer of various activities from Alexandra Palace to the Lime Grove studios in Shepherd's Bush continued, and a small part of the proposed television centre at the White City was also brought into use. Having achieved some measure of centralisation, the BBC launched a five-year development plan, which included the establishment of an alternative BBC TV channel and the introduction of colour.

The Conservative Government's Bill proposing the introduction of a commercial television service aroused a storm of debate in Parliament in early 1954. The Bill provided for the establishment of a public corporation to operate the new service, the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which would consist of a chairman, a deputy chairman and from five to eight other members, of whom three would represent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The programmes were to be "predominantly British in tone and style and of high quality, and nothing was to be included which offended against good taste or decency or which was likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling."

The controversy and debate about the desirability of commercial television raged throughout the early 1950s. Nevertheless, the Television Bill became law at the end of July 1954, and the ITA service, transmitting from its station at Norwood, was inaugurated on 22 September 1955 when, after a 5-minute documentary film, the opening speeches made at a Guildhall dinner by the Lord Mayor, the Postmaster-General, and ITA chairman Sir Kenneth Clark were broadcast. Independent Television had finally arrived in Britain.

During late October 1954 the ITA had decided to offer station contracts to three contractors: Broadcast Relay Services and Associated Newspapers, who had made a joint application, Granada Theatres Ltd. (under the helm of Sidney Bernstein and partner Alfred Hitchcock), and the Kemsley-Winnick group. A fourth contactor was later added, the Associated Broadcasting Development Company (later ATV). Broadcast Relay Services and Associated Newspapers then formed a subsidiary company to carry out their contract and this company became Associated Rediffusion.

The first stage in the development of commercial television was completed in November 1956, when the ITA's new transmitter at Emley Moor near Huddersfield was opened and brought an additional 5 million viewers within reach of ITV programmes. In July 1957 the ITA announced the application of a group formed by the Rank Organisation, Associated Newspapers, and the Amalgamated Press to provide all programmes for the southern region.

It was estimated, around the end of March 1957, that the adult television public numbered about 19.5 million, and that viewers spent on average nearly 40 per cent of each evening watching television. Those who had a choice of programmes spent one-third of the time devoted to television watching BBC programmes and two-thirds watching ITV programmes.

ITV transmissions began in the London area on 22 September 1955, with the launch of Associated Rediffusion (weekdays) followed by that of ATV (weekends) two days later. ATV launched its midlands (weekdays) service the following February. Associated British Picture Corporation, generally known as ABC TV (midlands (weekends) and later north of England (weekends)) and Granada TV (north-west England (weekdays)) followed during 1956, with Scottish Television (central Scotland) and Television Wales and West (TWW; for South Wales and the west of England), and Southern Television (south England) all arriving between 1957 and 1958. The latter was generally regarded as the first truly local TV station in Britain.

January 1959 saw Tyne Tees Television, created by a group formed by the News Chronicle, impresarios George and Alfred Black and film producer Sidney Box, begin serving north-east England. The advent the same year of Anglia Television, for the east of England, meant that ITV now covered 90% of the country, while Ulster Television, for Northern Ireland, followed before the decade was out.

The ITA also announced in 1955 that news programmes would be dealt with by a specialist organisation, to be known as the Independent Television News Company (ITN), which would supply news broadcasts for all the ITV companies.

From 1953 to 1954, the BBC was developing plans to introduce a second television service when the frequencies became available, even if it meant some reduction of hours for the first channel. In March 1959, almost four years after ITV was established, the government was still refusing to authorise a third television channel until it was decided which line definition system would be adopted permanently in Britain.

The principal systems in use were the 405-line system in Britain, the 525-line system in America, the 625-line system available in most of Europe, and the 817-line system in France. While commenting on the proposed third television channel, the Postmaster-General stated that a colour television service in Britain was still a long way off.

In December 1959, licences were issued for 10 million combined television and sound receiving sets in Britain - a number exceeded only in the United States - and in a report at the end of the decade, Dr W.A. Belson, former psychologist in the BBC research department, explained to the British Association the effect of television on family behaviour. TV viewing either produced a disruption of family affairs during the evening, or brought the family unit together. From the 550 adult viewers questioned for the survey, very few thought that TV's influence on the family had been bad; about half said that the total effect had been good for family life.

However, many families hurried through meals in time for viewing, and in many cases meals were eaten while watching television. Frequently, people carried on with something else while viewing. In some homes children pleaded to stay up after their bedtime to view and in some households the wife was left to finish various jobs while the family went off to view - the latter two situations, obviously, causing most friction.

The swing of television favourites in the 1950s went from comfortable, cosy programmes such as Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76; drama), The Good Old Days (BBC, 1953-83; variety), and What's My Line? (BBC, 1951-63; quiz) to the post-1955 ITV period of Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74; drama), Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1955-67, 1973-74; variety), and Double Your Money (ITV, 1955-64; game).

The latter part of the decade was particularly influenced by American TV forms and styles: basic trivia quiz shows became money prize-winning game shows, filmed drama series were produced in a style to suit American tastes, TV plays adopted the gritty working-class characters and milieu of such American TV classics as 'Marty' and 'Tragedy in a Temporary Town', and there was a rush of imported US cop shows and Western series to supplement the ITV schedules.

While the 1930s and 1940s standard of Sunday night 'theatre' presentations continued throughout the decade, sharing their popularity with the off-beat successes of the Nigel Kneale-scripted Nineteen Eighty-Four (BBC, tx. 12/12/1954) and the Quatermass serials, it was the half-hour, filmed period-action series that soon became hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic. This genre of TV swashbucklers was launched by The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITV, 1955-59), quickly followed by The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (ITV, 1956-57), The Adventures of William Tell (ITV, 1958-59), The Buccaneers (ITV, 1956-57), The Count of Monte Cristo (ITV, 1956), Sword of Freedom (ITV, 1958-60) and others.

But it was ITV's Armchair Theatre, which had started out in safe theatrical territory, that changed for ever the look and style (in both writing and production) of the British TV play, especially after Canadian producer Sydney Newman took over the programme in 1958. He wisely invested in the work of such writers as Alun Owen and Ray Rigby, Canadian author Mordecai Richler and American Rod Serling, to achieve not only the 'original' TV look to his productions but also to introduce characters and settings with which the ordinary viewing household could identify.

With a generally higher standard of living in Britain than ever before, for which the Conservative Government of the day claimed responsibility, the latter part of the 1950s produced that curious phenomena, the 'Admag' - an advertising magazine programme which was broadcast in the guise of an actual TV programme. Now the ordinary viewing household, with their fatter wage packets, could be entertained while parting with their new-found wealth. Not surprisingly, the Admags were soon among the most popular items on television, until they were banned by Parliament in 1963.

Tise Vahimagi

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