Why is British television the way it is? Because of streams

Or does the memory cheat?

I, Claudius

It’s story time! And theory time, albeit theory backed up by the occasional publicly announced historic strategy, etc.

Anyway, it can’t have escaped your notice that British TV isn’t as good as it was when we were all kids. Not the BBC. Not ITV. Not Channel 4, which might not have existed back then. Not Sky, which definitely didn’t exist back then. Not none of them. It’s all been dumbed down and it’s all stupid, innit? Drama isn’t as intelligent, comedies aren’t as funny, and the schedules are filled with pointless rubbish. Not like when we were kids.

Or is it?

Well, yes and no. And I’m going to explain why after the jump. I hope.

The story of British TV
Once upon a time, there was a TV channel called the BBC. It was the only TV channel and its mission was to both educate and entertain. This Reithian ethic meant that the viewers were going to get what the BBC though was good for them and would teach them to be better people. It would help them to understand (proper) art and literature, just like the people at the BBC, who had been to public schools and Oxford and Cambridge. Okay, there weren’t many TVs back then, because they were so expensive, and there wasn’t much TV either, just a few hours a day because of budgets, studios, people and so on, but that was the plan.

And it sort of worked. People watched it and they liked it, even when it was just educational, because there was nothing much else to do, certainly not at home.

Of course, eventually the BBC got the hang of the entertainment side of things, too, and the likes of 1984 and The Quatermass Experiment could empty the streets in the 1950s. But then a question arose – if the BBC was a monopoly, could it really be producing what everyone wanted? Was it perhaps even resting on its laurels too much and getting lazy? Perhaps, it needed competition.

So along came ITV, which rather than a monolith, was just a system of different franchises across the country that could all buy each other’s content, show their own programmes or buy in programmes from other companies. It also had a public service remit, just like the BBC, which meant that it had to both educate and inform.

ITV’s aim: to give the public what they genuinely wanted, while also giving them what they needed. And in competition with the BBC and sharing again some of the same values (and indeed people), it delivered, albeit not all day and not all the time. It could buy in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Thunderbirds from Lew Grade or anyone else who had an idea. It could make The Avengers, produce World in Action, deliver Armchair Theatre or even broadcast an unsubtitled production of Elektra entirely in Greek, just because the controller felt like it.

Okay, there was an incredible amount of dross as well, as a quick look at the TV schedules from 30 years ago will tell you,

TV from 30 years ago

Lots of movies that no one could watch elsewhere because videos hadn’t been invented. Game shows aplenty with prizes of ‘a pen’. Sport that had no Sky Sports 27 to hide on. Soap operas aplenty. US imports that maybe weren’t the best shows in the world.

But there was a lot of good stuff, largely made possible by the cheap stuff around it, constant repeats or because there wasn’t TV on all day that had to be made. Besides, what else was there for people to do that was free, available in their front room for minimal effort and could keep the whole family quiet of an evening?

Time moved on, though, and TV progressed. More TV was needed. Daytime TV came along. BBC2 was created as well, not to provide competition, but to provide a different kind of programming, one less mass market, more challenging. Would I, Claudius ever have been made for even BBC1? Probably not, but for BBC2, it had a natural home.

Channel 4 also came along with a remit to be different yet again, giving a voice to people, cultures and ideas that hadn’t managed to achieve a voice of their own on the other channels. TV comedies starring only black people and exploring the differences betweewn African- and Caribbean-British cultures? Not on the very white BBC of the 70s and 80s, which was still showing The Black and White Minstrels Show, but Desmonds had a home on Channel 4, as did original movies such as My Beautiful Launderette.

Then video recorders arrived, which allowed you to rent movies long before they appeared on TV, more or less whenever you wanted to watch that movie – provided no one else had rented it from the shop before you.

And so did Superchannel, which began to repeat shows on the newfangled cable and satellite TV. BSB and Sky both arrived by satellite, merged into BSkyB, and began to offer programmes that no one else could. Computers arrived, allowing us to play games at home that would have required a trip to the amusement arcade a decade earlier.

Suddenly, people had choice. People didn’t have to watch TV if they wanted to be entertained and if there was something educational on that felt like hard work, well, now there were other channels and plenty of other things to do instead that would be bound to entertain if the first channel didn’t.

Slowly, ratings began to fall. 30 years ago, 26m people might watch an episode of a soap opera; nowadays, just a few million tune in regularly.

Advertising began to decrease on ITV and Channel 4, just as TV began to get more and more expensive to make – digital TV arrived, giving us yet more channels but with much better picture and sound quality than ever before, requiring new equipment and higher budgets. That had to be repeated again with HD and will probably have to be repeated again with 4K. People wanted their TV to look like films rather than theatre, so shooting your drama in a small studio in Borehamwood, rather than on location in Cannes, stopped being an option. 

And children, once the all-powerful Internet arrived, began to wonder if they needed this TV thing at all. A repeat? But I can watch that on DVD or online. There’s a sick video on YouTube I’ll watch instead. Maybe I’ll stop watching your TV station altogether unless you start giving me something new.

The BBC wasn’t immune from the problem. With ratings falling, politicians began to question whether everyone should have to pay the licence fee to fund the BBC or even if there should be a licence fee at all. The BBC now had to justify what it showed on screen and prove that the licence fee wasn’t money been thrown away at an elite that produced programmes nobody wanted to watch. That meant finding money from elsewhere, particularly overseas, for co-productions – which naturally enough would have to appeal to the populations of more than one country, so arguably had to be more generic and crowd-pleasing than those made specifically for the UK.

In conjunction with ITV’s 1990-2 franchise ‘adjustment’, which reduced its commitment to public service broadcasting and ended up with all those different franchises amalgamating into one big ITV, that meant everyone was looking at how to grab hold of viewers who weren’t prepared to sit still and be fed cheap rubbish.

Enter streams
One advantage of all those digital channels, though, is you can specialise. With one channel, BBC1, you have to put on television that appeals to everyone, which is nearly impossible. But with several channels, you can serve different communities with different channels.

And this is what I like to call the ‘stream’ theory of TV. When you were at school, you probably had year groups, but also streams or sets – so those who were best at a subject were in one stream, those not so good in the next stream and so on. As you got older, you’d potentially progress not just up year groups but also sets.

And that’s, to a certain extent explicitly, how the BBC envisioned its channels. Back in the days of analogue, you had BBC1 and then BBC2 if you were smart enough or different enough. Now with digital TV, CBeebies and CBBC could start children off on this TV-watching thing. Then, when they were old enough, they’d graduate to BBC3. BBC1 would then be the channel for the general viewer, neither too ‘bright’ nor ‘too stupid’. BBC2 would be for the more able student while BBC4 would be for the top stream student. Resources are allocated accordingly, with BBC1 getting the bulk of resources since most people watch it, BBC2 getting less and so on.

ITV and Channel 4 had similar ideas, with CITV, ITV2, ITV1, ITV4, ITV3 being the progression, and Channel 4 offering E4/Channel 4/More 4, although with differences in both funding and in what counted as a ‘most able’ pupil (it’s a strange world where ITV3 is aimed at the pinnacle of audience intellect).

No money
That, at least, was the theory, anyway. Trouble is we had that economic meltdown back in 2008 and a licence fee settlement. The result was less money all round. Over at the BBC and Channel 4 in particular, there was some shifting around of cash. ‘Top stream’ programming became harder to justify, so cuts were made. More4 stopped making much more than documentaries and lifestyle shows. BBC4, while it continued to make top documentaries, had to stop making more than a few very original dramas and comedies.

Sadly, the result is, on average, dumber TV. There’s just not the money to make really good, challenging TV to a high standard any more, except in a very few isolated individual cases, and with the constant need to find ways to pry people away from other media, it’s far more tempting to funnel money into the easy wins that get a reasonable number of viewers without offending anyone than into that period drama about gay Oxford students, slow-moving, thoughtful spy dramas or an anthology series involving left-wing playwrights. Not always, since no one goes into TV to make anything average, but some things are unavoidable, thanks to the current economics.

However, it’s also worth noting the importance of the streams, progression and memory.

It’s tempting to think that TV one saw as a child was brilliant and that modern TV just isn’t as good. But have a lot back at those listings from 30 years ago. Good TV was very rare. If ITV stuck on Mind Your Language or Up The Elephant and Round the Castle now, no one would touch them with a barge pole, but they ran for seasons and seasons in the 70s and 80s. The simple fact is that we were young and had no frame of reference for a lot of what we saw. It looked good because we didn’t necessarily know what good was. Going back, it’s easy to see that the memory cheats. Not always, but it can.

But we’re also older. We’ve seen more, perhaps our tastes have changed. We know more. If we watched the generalist documentaries we saw as children again now, we’d think them lightweight because we know all the things we saw in those documentaries. Not always, but often. Every generation has to learn for itself what the previous generation has already learned. Brian Cox might produce less information per minute than Jacob Bronowski did in one of his documentaries, but less than Carl Sagan in Cosmos? Probably not.

So on the down side, we have fewer things that excel and that speak to the pinnacle of what TV can produce. We’re no more likely to get something like Boys From The Blackstuff instead of The Syndicate on BBC1 than we are to get opera instead of The Voice.

But on BBC2 or, if the money comes back, BBC4? Maybe. Even ITV is happy to produce thoughtful cop shows about crossword-solving detectives in the 1950s. We just shouldn’t expect it as a matter of course.

What we also have to do is forget what BBC1 was like when we were kids. Not only have our memories often cheated us, they’re obscuring us to the fact that as a channel, BBC1 is no longer intended to be as all things to all people as once it was. If you’re smart, there’s BBC2 and BBC4; only if you’re very lucky will you find something you want on BBC1. Because you’re smarter than you were and this isn’t the channel for you. It’s no different from people moving from Radio 1 to Radio 2/4 or possible even Radio 3 over time, then wondering what that old rubbish is if they happen to hear Radio 1 again. It’s just something that’s relatively new to TV.

You’re now a top stream kid now – learn to live with it.

This is, of course, a very basic essay and glosses over a lot of history, politics and more. Aesthetics have changed, the idea in documentaries of ‘an expert’ telling you things rather than ‘discovering’ them before your eyes has been adopted, and I’ve not covered how subscription TV such as HBO, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts can provide niches for quality TV. And that’s before we even debate the difficulty of making a great work of art, anyway.

But as a broad thesis, I think it’s roughly where we are. Let me know what you think!


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.