A Primer To British TV

In Britain there are only five terrestrial broadcasting TV channels: BBC-1, BBC-2, ITV-1, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The BBC operate their two channels, while the other three are independent commercial broadcasters. The BBC does not show commercials and all shows and movies are broadcast without interruptions. Promotions for other BBC shows are run in-between programs. The BBC is financed exclusively from mandatory television licenses that must be paid for annually. In order to own a television or any device capable of receiving television signals, each household in Britain is required by law to pay 104.00 ($165) each year - even if you never watch the BBC. The penalty for failing to have a license is a heavy fine and a possible jail sentence. Despite such heavy-handedness, most people approve of the way the BBC is funded which allows it to produce quality programs for all audiences without commercial considerations or government interference.

The other three commercial networks are much like their American counterparts: shows are either 30 or 60 minutes in length with commercial breaks during the programs (though typically in Britain there is only one break during a half hour show and two during an hour show). And sometimes the commercials can be the most entertaining part of a program. Without much of a film industry in Britain up until recently, most up-and-coming directors get their start doing slick, arty commercials. Ridley Scott is the best example of someone who garnered attention from directing award-winning commercials and turned it into a feature-film career.

Except for soap operas (the most popular shows in Britain), most series only run for 6 weeks a year, giving up their time slot to other series, only to return a year later. Reruns are not nearly as common as in the US, partially because British viewers expect plenty of new programming for their hefty license fee. It can be quite a task to keep up with your favorite series in England when it only runs for a month and a half each year, instead of 52 weeks year-round like in the US. Mini-series are also much more frequent than in the US, with many award-winning 8 and 10-part dramas shown each year.

The two "main" channels in Britain are BBC-1 and ITV-1. They have the majority of audiences (top series receive 19 million viewers) with the most popular mainstream series and comedies. The "art" channels are perceived to be BBC-2 and Channel 4 which, much like Public Television in the US, sometimes suffer under the impression that everything is either too dull or experimental for ordinary viewers, though of course this is far from the case. Their top-rated series garner about 7 million viewers, even though they are available to everyone in the country. Channel 5 is the newest channel (launched in 1997), still not available in some parts of Britain, and has a reputation for cheap imports and salacious programs.

ITV-1 is actually a collection of 16 different companies (e.g. Carlton in London, Anglia in the East) each with their own territory, loosely affiliated, much like WB and UPN stations in the US are.  News, sports, and prime time programming on ITV-1 are networked throughout the country simultaneously, but "fringe" programming (for example late at night) can vary from region to region. The franchise for each area is bid on every few years and can frequently change hands. Thames TV in London, the company that created many classic series and produced Benny Hill for years, lost their broadcasting license rights several years ago to Carlton (which continues to share the franchise with London Weekend Television, the only such dual-arrangement in the country).

Satellite television has had a presence in Britain longer than in the US and is dominated completely by Rupert Murdock's Sky channels. Relying almost exclusively on glossy American imports such as The X-Files and Star Trek and sports, satellite television is slowly making in-roads in British audiences, although it is in only about 5 million households currently. Cable television is still a long way from the kind of penetration it has in the USA.

Over-the-air digital television is becoming more common at the turn of the century, with many new free channels available to anyone in reception areas with the proper equipment. The BBC for example now offers specialty channels such as BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge. Due to the quality and selection, this technology is rapidly gaining acceptance in Britain. In America digital broadcasts are still a FCC pipe dream for now.

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