The Humble Beginnings of Public Television and Radio

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For most people today, television and radio are some of the most common things we deal with daily; for a few others, they are even slightly obsolete, because a computer can serve all those functions and so much more. But we mustn’t forget where we came from, and we must cherish the opportunities for communication and information that we have today; the exchange and spread of information takes place much faster now, from various sources and in various forms, but the important thing is that what I find out today is shared by the majority of the population. Even though we feel the information might sometimes be incomplete or manipulated, it still gives us the chance to analyze it and draw conclusions about the world surrounding us. And we owe all these to the first public television and radio.

We speak in the general sense because as with most things, public television and radio started in one place, and that is England; the initiative was called public broadcasting and it included radio in the beginning and subsequently, when available, television as well. The mission of the initiative was to serve and inform the public, speaking to the citizens and engaging them; in other parts of the world it was called the British model, and it was soon adopted by other countries as well. Today, most countries with public broadcasting follow the British model which was established by the British Broadcasting Corporation – the BBC – in the 1920s. At one point, this was the only reliable source of information for members of the Axis Powers during WW2.

The first places to adopt the British model of public television and radio were European countries, countries from the British Empire and the Commonwealth. Thus, in many countries today, what we see as public broadcasting is basically a version of that old model, which still stands. Here are some of the principles which stood at the basis of the model, and which we still find today:

  • universal (or geographic) accessibility
  • appeal for general interests and tastes
  • more attention to minorities
  • contribution to the sense of national identity and society
  • focus on good programming competition rather than on numbers
  • guidelines which liberate program-makers, giving them the freedom to act

Although some of these principles may be more difficult to implement straightforwardly, most of them can be easily put to practice. One of the controversies, however, is how can public television and radio remain unbiased if they get funding from commercial activity. The way the model put it, the public broadcasting had to be directly funded by the government, but ever since then this was not enough and public television had to get advertising revenue as well. This situation is common for modern public broadcasting, and it leads to an involuntary competition between public and commercial broadcasting. Whatever the future reserves, the history of the 20th century was profoundly marked by these inventions, which helped us evolve much faster than we would have ever dreamed.

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