Commentary Magazine


Report of the Committee on Broadcasting, by Sir Harry Pilkington & others

TV and the Public Interest

Report of the Committee on Broadcasting.
by Sir Harry Pilkington and others.
Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. 342 pp. 18 shillings.

The Pilkington report is a long and repetitive amalgam of Fabian tract, aristocratic bias, puritanical concern, New Left polemic, and technical jargon produced by a committee of private citizens who had been authorized to observe and ponder the condition and influence of British broadcasting. The composition of this eleven-man body was as diverse as one could expect: Sir Harry Pilkington, the chairman, is a glass manufacturer; his colleagues included a professor, a trade union official, a football player, Joyce Grenfell, and Richard Hoggart. Published last June after two years of hearings and deliberation, its findings are couched in a gritty and chatty bureaucratese which does not prevent them from achieving at several points a maximum degree of provocation. This is particularly true of the findings that deal with commercial television, where the Committee apparently wished to exceed its authorization and challenge the very existence of the new channel. However, the Pilkington report is provocative enough throughout, for it amounts to the first really serious recognition by a democratic government of the powerful influence that commercial television exerts upon public values.

It is clear that this recognition had to be established against the will of many of the leaders of that government. The Conservative leadership seemed at first to reject the Committee’s findings amid the general outcry that followed its publication, which was perhaps best expressed by the Economist’s protest against its “illiberalism and restrictionism and censorship.” The shouts in the popular press against “Big Brother” were echoed by critics who found an excessive moral earnestness in the recommendations of the report. It was pointed out that the Committee had listened to testimony from organizations such as the Association of Head Mistresses, and that it was unnecessarily suspicious of the frivolities that people enjoyed. In time a more reasoned reaction was expressed, and the government itself came to agree with a number of the findings. Once the smoke had cleared, there was no question that the Pilkington Report had made the idea of political responsibility for cultural welfare into a real issue.

Certainly, some of the complaints were quite justified. The Committee does seem to have an excessive fear of the malleability of British children, it rumbles vaguely about sex, drink, and “kitchen-sink” drama, and it gives to the BBC something approaching an absolute endorsement. But the most important of its 120 recommendations consist of its reactions to commercial television, and these must be instantly intelligible and wholly welcome to anyone who has experienced American television. The fact is that the level of programming on ITV is not markedly superior to American broadcasting. Much has been made of an innocuous commercial program on which Malcolm Muggeridge gossips with celebrated persons, and of another series in which politicians briefly scream abuse at one another, but I could see little reason, except for an occasional elegance of rhetoric and the absence of David Susskind, to prefer these ventures to our own. The few notable exceptions have been in drama and documentary, especially those issuing from the contractor known an Granada Television. These infrequent undertakings are perhaps more ambitious than the local product and are evidently less absurdly policed; but the same can be said, with wider reference, of the BBC. There is nothing on British or American commercial television to rival the BBC’s “Monitor” in general coverage of the arts or its “Panorama” in public-affairs presentation, and there are few makers of documentary films anywhere to compare with Denis Mitchell. Recently, the BBC has begun a regular satirical program, “This Was the Week that Was,” which, by all reports, is as wittily hard on the supposedly established rulers of Britain as American networks are on—whom?

Defenders of ITV have considered that competition is wholesome, that the commerical channel presents “what people want,” that it is not so subservient to the priorities of the rigid class structure, and that it is more open to dissenting political opinions. It is certainly true that ITV seems to have the preponderance of quiz shows, Westerns, murders, and Professor A.J.P. Taylor; moreover, many of its light programs draw a much larger audience than the BBC: ITV commissions surveys to prove this, but, unlike the BBC, does not seek to learn its audience’s opinion of its worth.

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The Pilkington Committee meets this defense within the structure of an argument that is built on the limiting technical fact that very few additional TV channels are available to the United Kingdom. “The limitation emphasizes the need for all those services to be good,” says the Committee, and it proceeds to elaborate in general, and by the examination of certain categories of programs, its concepts of the purposes of broadcasting. It rejects the notion of providing “what the public wants”; we all share our tastes with different minorities, we are individuals and not a uniform mass, and “no one can say he is giving the public what it wants, unless the public knows the whole range of possibilities which television can offer and, from this range, chooses what it wants to see. The subject matter of television is to be found in the whole scope and variety of human awareness.” Nor is it possible to say that TV should mirror society; a mere reflection would not show “the whole range of worthwhile experience” because “only the most common experience would show large enough for recognition.” The report disparages the fashionable idea that the mass media do not really influence people; the nature of society itself may be altered by television, it says, and broadcasters have a special obligation to focus on “the growing points” at which “the challenges to existing assumptions and beliefs are made. . . . If our society is to respond to the challenges and judge the claims, they must be put before it.”

Convinced of the immense power of TV, the Committee felt obliged to deal with certain of the complaints made about existing programs. There is too much violence, the Committee was told, and too much immorality in general. The report takes the violence with the utmost seriousness. While rejecting censorship, it approves of the BBC code of practice governing violence (“Torture is normally inadmissible. . . . Coshes, knives, whips and bottles are more suspect than revolvers, rifles or swords, because they are more easily available”) and deplores the lower standards of ITV. Its main concern is with violence during those hours when children are likely to be watching, and it is careful to distinguish between material that is gratuitously sensational and that which is artistically justified. It objects, too, to the possible inculcation of “an unfeeling or cruel disposition of mind.” The vagueness of the Committee’s discussion of these questions suggests not so much the priggishness of which it has been accused as its concern that moral issues should be “fairly put and fairly answered”; it did not ask that these issues be disguised, but rather that they should be intelligently disclosed and not represented as conclusively settled for the worse. (One notes in the BBC code on violence, with the usual shrug of recognition, the statement that “Scenes of physical violence are an almost invariable ingredient of all American importations other than comedy or musical shows” and that in many American crime series this “is inserted extraneously for depraved effect.”) Along with violence the Committee deplored triviality, the pointless exploitation of “personalities,” the false morality of quiz programs, the complacency of pseudo-controversy. In all these faults, the Committee found commercial television egregious. In addition, the advertisements on commercial TV were themselves suspected of furthering snobbish values and of spreading misinformation.

The usual American reaction to such complaints, if it is not to dismiss them, is to propose a regulatory commission or further competition. The Pilkington report examines both alternatives: it rejects further bureaucratic regulation as impracticable, and it rejects extended commercial competition as self-defeating, for rival producers would simply compete for the largest audiences, worst programs, and most advertising. Here the Committee’s most persuasive evidence is a listing of the programs available to New York viewers during the peak viewing hours on Tuesday, December 13, 1960; it is the familiar stew of thrillers, Westerns, and wrestling, with the addition of two plays. By contrast, the BBC devotes an average of one third of its peak time to “serious programs,” in which category it does not include plays. There is much more live and taped drama on British TV than on American; though the Pinter, Osborne, and Beckett productions have been exceptional, they have been there, and not only on the BBC. British television allows more experiment, verbal eccentricity, snobbery, and leftism than does American, but less violence, psychosis, and social mobility.

The Committee’s preference for the BBC led to the recommendation that an additional channel should be controlled by it and not by commercial interests. But the real cause of the uproar in the press was the proposal to alter drastically the existing arrangements of commercial television. There were some to whom the Pilkington reforms sounded like a confiscation of private property. Actually, the report says the Committee wants to give real meaning to the notion of competition, and that it wishes “to apply the incentive of profitability to the production of the best programs.” It would do this by making the ITA (now merely a transmitting agency) into a responsible body that would plan the programs and sell the advertising. The program companies (there are four major and eleven minor ones), which now sell advertising and control the programs, would be confined to producing material for sale to the ITA. Since they would be guaranteed only a minimal amount of sales, they would be expected to compete in their program quality.

The simplicity may not be suited to the American situation, in which producing companies do in fact compete to some extent for the favor of networks and advertisers, with more or less unpleasant results. Yet it is sound in principle; if commercial broadcasting is to exist at all, there is no reason why it must be maximally open to corrupting influences, and it is altogether desirable that the producing function should not depend on the advertising interest. The issue is larger than that of profitability: it involves directly the question of social power, it demands reflection upon the nature of freedom in an area of technologically determined oligopoly, and it challenges the cultural neutrality of the political apparatus.

Unfortunately, we have not even recognized the existence of the problem. One searches the FCC reports in vain for some clue to the value of our mode of broadcasting. There appears to be no purpose to it at all, except profit and the nebulous nation of grandeur through limited public service; it is certainly not “free.” Even Mr. Minow seems to be promoting local trash at the expense of network trash: it is a more democratic arrangement. As Telstar zoomed through space, speeding to the world its great vision of buffalo and Grand Canyon, baseball and the price of gold, we were reminded that we killed the buffalo, commercialized baseball, and sanctified gold. Which leaves us with the Grand Canyon, CBS, and NBC. And ABC.

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