a media industry resource



This page looks at the British Broadcasting Corporation, public sector broadcasting in the UK.

It covers -

  • introduction
  • evolution
  • structure
  • studies
  • other state networks
  • the licence fee


The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the United Kingdom's public sector broadcaster, operating on a not-for-profit basis.

It is active in radio and television broadcasting and associated audio-video and 'new media' production. It has a small print publishing arm, is responsible for orchestras and has expanded into retail merchandising. It has been lauded as a domestic and global representation of British 'national identity' (albeit for most of its history that identity was strongly weighted towards particular classes in Southern England at the expense of the North, Wales, Scotland or Ulster) and as a model for non-commercial broadcasting in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other former UK colonies.

Like other public sector broadcasters it has struggled over the past thirty years with uncertainties about its mission, questions about its legitimacy and difficulties with management in an era when expectations about performance are higher than available resources.

The Corporation is formally an independent public sector (and state funded) body under the control of a board of Governors. The Governors have typically been members of what Noel Annan characterised as "the great and good", appointed by the Queen on the Prime Minister's nomination for a term of four years (formerly five years).

The major source of funding is licence fees on receivers, along with government subventions for overseas broadcasting activity and revenue from marketing of BBC audio, video and other output to partners such as the US PBS and Australia's ABC.


The BBC traces its origins to the British Broadcasting Company, a commercial entity established in 1922 by a UK electrotechnical industry consortium that included Marconi, Metropolitan Vickers, GEC, British Thomson Houston, Western Electric and the Radio Communication Company.

Establishment reflected pressure from those manufacturers to sell (and maintain) receivers and transmitters, rather than to generate significant revenue from the new medium. It also reflected the desire of the Post Office, the government agency responsible for telecommunications regulation, to establish a coherent broadcasting landscape after an outbreak of 'experimental' stations under the auspices of major commercial interests.

The new company was to develop a national network of radio transmitters as the basis for a UK-wide broadcasting service. Initial stations were located in London, Manchester and Birmingham (ie the main population centres in England). Debate about its operation, objectives and funding saw it replaced by the Corporation in 1927, under the leadership of Director-General John Reith (1889-1971), who boasted that the organisation "has never attempted to give the public what it wants. It gives it what it ought to have". Reith departed in 1938, subsequently serving as CEO of British Imperial Airways and British Overseas Airways Corporation and in the wartime Cabinet.

It has been fashionable to characterise much of the organisation's history as grappling with his vision of public sector broadcasting. However, the persistence of that vision suggests that it is attributable to a consensus among key sectors of English society rather than merely the force of Reith's personality.

Reith's vision had five elements -

  • service to the whole nation (including reinforcement of a strong national identity)
  • a consequent protection from commercial and narrowly political pressures
  • unified control by ostensibly apolitical guardians, underpinned by the organisation's monopoly on broadcasting
  • high programme standards', identified and administered by a cultural elite
  • embodiment of particular cultural values (eg an emphasis on the pastoral in a nation of city-dwellers, the diction of early announcers on BBC radio, avoidance of 'unseemly' violence and sexual content in overt contrast to US commercial broadcasters up to the 1960s)

Under Reith it quickly became a bastion of the 'Establishment', embracing The Listener and other publications, the BBC Orchestra (established 1930) and an Empire (later Overseas) Service.

Its Home Service (initially the National Programme) and World Service (inaugurated as the Empire Service in 1932 and later rebadged as the General Overseas Service) networks were supplemented from the late 1940s by the Light Programme and the Third Programme. Contemporary music broadcasting on BBC Radio 1 was launched in 1967 (in response to commercial pirate radio stations), with the networks being renamed at that time. BBC Radio 5 (later renamed BBC Radio Five Live) was launched in 1990.

BBC television service commenced in 1936 following experimental transmissions from 1932 onwards. Receivers at that time cost the equivalent of a small car, in an era of considerable unemployment. Transmissions ceased in 1939 and resumed in 1946. The BBC Television Service was renamed BBC ONE in 1964, with the launch of BBC TWO (offering more niche programming).

The organisation faced competition from 1955, with introduction of commercial television in that year (the Independent Television Network (ITN)) followed by introduction of independent radio in 1973 after abandonment of the radio receiver licencing fee.

In June 2005 the BBC announced a contract to sell BBC Broadcast (its channel management and creative services arm) to an investment group led by Australia's Macquarie Bank for £166 million. BBC Broadcast provided promotion, playout and publication services for the BBC across multiple platforms that included television and mobile phones. It was renamed Creative Broadcast Services.

A chronology of the BBC is here.


An indication of the BBC networks is here.


Asa Briggs' five volume The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom (London: Oxford Uni Press 1961-86) is an establishment history on the model of the worthy, irreplaceable but often stupefying official war histories that have disappeared into the remoter stacks of university libraries.

Colin McCabe's The BBC & Public Service Broadcasting (Manchester, Manchester Uni Press 1986) is more independent, as is Paddy Scannell's A Social History of British Broadcasting: Vol 1, 1922-39 (Oxford: Blackwell 1991) and William McDowell's The History of BBC Broadcasting in Scotland, 1923-1983 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Uni Press 1991). For Northern Ireland see Rex Cathcart's The Most Contrary Region: The BBC in Northern Ireland 1924-1984 (Belfast: Blackstaff 1984). Andrew Crisell's An Introductory History of British Broadcasting (London: Routledge 2002) and David Elstein's 2001 lecture The Changing Role of Public Sector Broadcasting and comment Neither history nor mystery but reality offer other insights.

John Reith - master of the British Broadcasting Commission and Imperial Airways, High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland, self-lacerating calvinist in love with power, pomp and engineer Charlie Bower - was the subject of biographies by the acidulous Andrew Boyle in Only the Wind Will Listen (London: Hutchinson 1972) and the gentler Ian McIntyre in The Expense of Glory (London: HarperCollins 1993).

Boyle was responsible for Poor Dear Brendan (London: Hutchinson 1974) on 'bounder', supposed Churchill love-child and Financial Times publisher Brendan Bracken, more perceptively analysed in the spritzy Eminent Churchillians by Andrew Roberts. The Reith Diaries (London: Collins 1975) edited by Charles Stuart are a long howl of pain over - rightly, we think - disappointed ambition. His vision is encapsulated in Broadcast Over Britain (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1924), a contrast to the 2005 Building Public Value: Renewing the BBC for a Digital World (PDF)

Hugh Greene, brother of the nasty novelist, provided an anaemic account of his term at the BBC's helm in The Third Floor Front: A View of Broadcasting in the 60s (London: Bodley Head 1969), in contrast to Marmaduke Hussey's Chance Governs All (London: Macmillan 2001) and Citizen Greg: The Extraordinary Story of Greg Dyke and How He Captured the BBC (New York: Simon & Schuster 2000) by Chris Horrie & Steve Clarke. Michael Leapman's Last Days of the Beeb (London: Coronet 1987) complements Alasdair Milne's DG: Memoirs of a British Broadcaster (London: Hodder 1988). Humphrey Carpenter's The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, 1946-96 (London: Phoenix 1997) is serviceable.

Michael Tracey's Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1998) and Eva Etzioni-Halevy's National Broadcasting Under Siege: A Comparative Study of Australia, Britain, Israel & West Germany (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1987) consider public sector broadcasting in the UK, Japan, Germany and other countries. Lucy Shankleman's Inside the BBC & CNN: Managing Media Organisations (London: Routledge 2000) is a study of corporate cultures, all very upbeat. There is a different tempo in Jennifer Doctor's The BBC & UltraModern Music, 1922-36 (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1999) - essential reading if you're into musicology, otherwise not - and in Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC (London: Vintage 2005) by Georgina Born.

Tom Hickman's celebratory What Did You Do In The War, Auntie? The BBC At War 1939-45 (London: BBC 1996) should be read in conjunction with Sian Nicholas' The Echo Of War: Home Front Propaganda & The Wartime BBC (New York: St Martins 1996) and Gary Rawnsley's Radio Diplomacy & Propaganda: The BBC & VOA in International Politics 1956-64 (New York: St Martins 1996). The latter is complemented by Jackie Harrison's lucid Terrestrial TV News in Britain: The Culture of Production (Manchester: Manchester Uni Press 2000)

Other state networks

There are separate profiles on

  • ABC and SBS - Australia
  • TVNZ & RNZ - New Zealand
  • CBC - Canada
  • MCS - Singapore
  • NHK - Japan
  • PBS - USA

The licence fee

In contrast to Australia, where the ABC is funded through a grant by the national government and sales from products, the BBC is dependent on the licence fee.

The fee was introduced under the Wireless Telegraphy Act in 1923, with an annual charge of 10 shillings. Labourers at that time were earning around £2 12s per week. By the end of 1923 some 200,000 licences had been issued, rising to 2.5 million by 1928. A combined radio and television licence, costing £2, was first issued in 1946. Revenue collection initially involved the Post Office. Enforcement arrangements featured official detector vans cruising suburban streets checking for unlicensed devices.

Licensing of radios, including car radios, was abandoned in 1971. In 1990, under the Broadcasting Act 1990, the BBC was made responsible for licence administration.

In 2004 there were 24.5m licences in force, with estimates that around 5% of UK sets were unlicensed. The annual fee for a colour tv licence was £126.50 per household (half-price for those who are registered as blind), with a licence for a monochrome receiver costing £42.