Popular misconceptions 2: looking back at "Extending Choice"
I'm going to start looking at "Extending Choice: The BBC's role in the new broadcasting age" at page 58. Compared to the dozen A5 pages, by 1992 the BBC wasn't alone in using Desktop Publishing software to provide verbose output, on high quality card.
This section, "Harnessing Technology" starts
The history of broadcasting has been characterised by extraordinary advances in technology. Each of these advances has expanded the range and enhanced the quality of broadcasting services to the viewer and listener.
Over the last decade, the pace of technological change has accelerated. Since the BBC's current Charter period began in 1981, we have seen the emergence of direct to home satellite broadcasting, of cable television and of the video cassette recorder as a mass market produce. These technological advances are so significant as to transform broadcasting supply and demand.
It is, of course, interesting to see that two of these new technologies (NICAM and teletext) have now expired:
The BBC has often made important contributions to the development of broadcasting technology. BBC engineers have played major roles in the progressive enhancement of sound and picture quality on television, in the development of FM stereo services on radio and in the creation of teletext services. More recently, they have been involved in the development of NICAM digital stereo sound on television.
The BBC's policy has always been to harness technology to the services of the public. The licence payer would not have been well served had the BBC remained a purely radio broadcaster unable to influence the quality of the emerging television medium; or if it had stuck resolutely to black and white television, when colour technology became available. No more would it not be appropriate for the BBC to limit itself to old technologies, which may or may not be eventually become as obsolete as valve radio and black and white television.
This document, which is now over 20 years old, now looks into the future:
The process of technological change in broadcasting is by no means complete. At least three major initiatives are underway, each of which could dramatically increase the number and enhance the quality of broadcasting services.
The move to widescreen TV happened over the last decade, but we are still waiting for 2014 for all of the BBC's output to being HD.
High definition/widescreen television. Broadcasters may soon be able to offer improved quality pictures, employing either high definition or widescreen technology. BBC engineers have played an active role in the development of HDTV systems. Many HDTV programmes have been produced by the BBC, including coverage of tennis from Wimbledon, the FA Cup Final, Mahler's Eighth Symphony and the drama series, 'The Ginger Tree'. Widescreen TV, which is especially beneficial to films and sport, is seen as a possible interim development prior to the instruction of HDTV in the longer term.
The question of digital TV is quite forward looking: this is five years before the first publication of the DVB-T standard in 1997. It was interesting to see how little was expected: four HD channels and "many more" SD ones:
Digital television. Parallel work is going on to develop the capability for digital compression of television signals. Digital transmission could dramatically increase the number and quality of services available to viewers. For instance, the spectrum currently used to provide four existing terrestrial television services might also be able to accommodate four digital HDTV services or many more digital TV services of a quality comparable with the existing services. Similar techniques could also be use to squeeze more services within each satellite TV channel.
At this point, DAB was seen as a way of putting several "CD quality" stereo signals into the place of one. The idea of putting radio services on digital satellite was mentioned, but was off-target.
Digital audio broadcasting. The application of digital compression to audio signals offers an equal, if not greater, potential for improvement in the delivery of radio services to listeners. It offers the possibility of much more efficient use of radio spectrum, with five or six stereo FM services occupying the space currently taken by one. It would also improve the convenience and reliably of radio reception for listeners using portable and car radios, as well as offering CD quality reception for listeners using hi-fi equipment. Digital audio broadcasting delivery by satellite direct to the listener also opens up new opportunities for the BBC in its international broadcasting role.
So, the BBC lays out the conditions for use of these systems:
As always, however, there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding the likely pace of technological change. How quickly will new technologies be ready for market introduction? How rapidly will they be taken up in the marketplace? What impact will they have on the broadcasting environment? These are questions which can often only be answered with a well-educated guess.
For this reason, the ideas for the BBC's future role contained in this document primarily reflect the current state of broadcasting technology and anticipate the way in which the broadcasting environment will respond to proven technological advance.
Nevertheless, the BBC's thinking about the future is highly sensitive to the potential impact of technologies that are not yet fully developed, and certainly not proven.
The BBC's future approach to technology should continue to be driven by the objective of providing high quality, cost effective programmes and services to viewers and listeners. It should not view itself as primarily a research organization or a technological pioneer. But, like NHK in Japan, it should be prepared to play a leadership role in the advance of broadcasting technology to the service of the public. It will therefore have the following priorities.
To deliver its core services to viewers and listeners using known technology
Not to discontinue existing transmissions arrangements until new technology is widely in use to play its leadership role, either by offering new services or by simultaneously transmitting existing services on both old and new technology
Therefore, in the short term, to create services that apply existing satellite and cable technology. In the longer term, to provide selective support to the development of widescreen/high definition television, digital television and digital audio broadcasting.
In this way, the BBC can ensure that its services to the licence payer and to the international audience are always the product of the most modern and effective technology.
Looking at page 29, some plans were forming for the "Development of a continuous news service", with reference to CNN, Sky News and the BBC "Scud FM" service run during the first Gulf War.
It is becoming clear that regularly scheduled news bulletins and current affairs programmes alone cannot meet the increasing information needs and expectations of audiences. With partial expose to CNN and/or Sky news, as well as the BBC's on News FM radio service that ran during the Gulf War, the public now expects to be kept directly in touch with breaking news, particularly at times of crisis. Meeting these expectations should be a public services priority for the BBC. It can only do this by delivery continuous news channels on radio and television, applying the experience and skills of BBC journalist and the breadth of its newsgathering coverage to delivery truly distinctive services.
Even in 1992, the BBC had decided to launch Radio 5 Live:
It should therefore, be a strategic priority for the BBC to Deliver a continuous news service on radio building on and extending the news platform established by Radio 4. The BBC has announced that such as service will be launched in 1994.
But it would be over five years before it got to:
Participate In the development of a continuous news series on satellite and cable television, drawing on the setting journalistic resources of News and Current Affairs and the World Service.
And more specifically...
To create and establish a continuous news services. As we outlined earlier, the BBC can only fulfil its most critical role as the platform for national debate if it develops continuous news services on television and radio. The BBC is uniquely equipped to create such as service on radio - it can develop its existing bi-media news gathering capability, draw upon the World Services, and benefit for the experience of running News FM during the Gulf War. Such a service has been announced and will be a major priority for the BBC.
Moving on to page 49, most of these will eventually come to pass:
To take part in the development of commercially funded market for specialist channels on satellite and cable.
Subscription television is set to be the fastest growing sector of the broadcasting market thought the 1990s and beyond as new satellite and cables services rapidly gain household penetration and share
It is entirely consistent with the BBC's public service role and objectives for it to support or supply programming to satellite channels, which supplement and delivery greater depth than it is possible on the core licence fee funded services. These might include:
A continuous news channel, of the kind we described earlier;
Channels which use the BBC archives. For example, the collaborative venture with Thames Television to launch UK Gold on the Astra satellite.
The BBC should work with partners to develop thee and other options which offer extended choice to potential subscribers. This will build of the experience the BBC already has in supplying programmes to, and collaborating with, specialist cable and satellite services.
I'm not going to post the whole of the document today - it's far too long - so I am providing the introduction here:
IntroductionThe BBC is seen by many people at home and abroad as the world's leading broadcasting organization. Over the last 70 years it has established a name for high quality broadcasting on both television and radio which has made a major contribution to British life. It has provided a national sense of shared experience, and it has played a major role in enabling the different groups within society to understand one another.
The BBC has become one of the nation's primary sources of news and information. As a broadcasting organization, it has entertained successive generations. Its programmes have become part of our culture. It has fostered the arts, encouraging new writers, composers, artists and performers. It has helped to educate millions of people in Britain and overseas. And it has brought credit to Britain though its international World Service broadcasts.
But British broadcasting is changing. New technology, new methods of funding and new regulation are transforming the environment for broadcasters and their audiences.
At the end of 1996, in the midst of all this change, the BBC's current Royal Charter expires. Over the last eighteen months, therefore, the BBC has conducted an extensive and fundamental review of its role and services. An effective organization cannot stand still: as the society it serves developers and the broadcasting market expands, the BBC must adapt - as it has done in the past - to these different circumstances. This document summarises the results of our reviews and outlines a vision for the BBC's place in the new broadcasting age.
Questions for the debate
The BBC has addresses the fundamental questions which will probably be the subject of public discussion in the Charter Renewal debate
- Do we need publicly funded broadcasting in an expanding market?
- Should it be provided by the BBC
- If so, what should be the BBC's public purpose, role and objectives?
- What kind of programmes should the BBC make and broadcast to fulfil this public purpose?
- How should the BBC develop its international role?
- Should the BBC be a single broadcasting organization and if so how should it shape its services to deliver programmes as effectively as possible to their audiences?
- How should the BBC change the way it works as an organization to ensure that it delivers maximum value for money?
- How should the BBC harness new broadcasting technologies which offer the prospect of expanded and enhanced services for the viewer and listener?
- How should the BBC be funded?
- How should the BBC be held accountable to the licence payer and Parliament for meeting its objectives?
In the chapters that follow, we outline our views on each of these questions. They are the BBC's initial contributions to the full public discussion that will follow.
This document reflects the achievements and traditions of the BBC and if describes new developments underway. But above all, this document lays out our ideas for the future - out considered thoughts about the role and services that the BBC might offer to the British public in the 1990s and beyond. It is these ideas for the future - and not just the achievements of the past - which we believe that should underpin the case for the renewal of the BBC's Charter.
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