Do not adjust your set: The highs and lows of the BBC

It's not strictly a company, but we all pay for it and it has more than its fair share of woes. Here's the latest news from the BBC.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 28 Jan 2014

Formative years

On 11 May 1922, the first regular radio broadcasts by the newly formed British Broadcasting Company Ltd - the world's first national broadcasting organisation - began. Note that 'Company' - everyone's favourite public service actually began life as a private joint-venture between the Post Office and half a dozen telegraph companies, including Marconi and General Electric.

Impressed by its even-handed coverage of the general strike in 1926, a grateful public took the BBC to its heart, allowing high-minded but autocratic general manager John Reith to realise his dream of independent public ownership. So on 1 January 1927, the famous Royal Charter was established, the 'Company' changed to 'Corporation' and a new adjective was set to join the lexicon - 'Reithian'.

In 1953, BBC TV really arrived as 20 million people watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on those newfangled contraptions. The 1960s and 1970s were the Beeb's heyday - huge audiences, limited competition and guaranteed income gave it a licence to be both stuffily patrician and enormously creative.

Recent history

That golden age seems a long time ago now. These days, the BBC is beset by woes on all sides - the lot of many a former monopoly player. The interweb scoops it on news provision, Sky and now BT beat it hands down on sport, and imports from the US and even Denmark are where it's at in drama.

As if that wasn't enough, the Government is on its case too, and has frozen the licence fee at its 2010 level of £145.50 per household until the end of the current charter period in 2016. It has even had to flog off its iconic TV Centre for £200m.

Its public standing is also at an all-time low, thanks to exec pay-off scandals in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse revelations. The £740m of public money that it has just spent propping up the ailing pension fund hasn't helped either. At least everyone still loves Radio 4.

Who's the boss?

One bright spot is to be found in director-general Tony Hall, who, despite taking over at the start of April last year, is nobody's fool. Good job too - predecessor George Entwistle had hardly got the seat warm before he was out on his ear, albeit with a £450,000 goodbye.

The secret formula

Lord Reith's famous mission was to 'Inform, educate and entertain', not a bad strapline for a such a sober-spirited son of the manse. Nowadays, however, rather like the nation it serves, the BBC faces some searching questions about just what it is for, and whether we can afford it.

Vital statistics





Uncollected licence fees:


Source: BBC Annual Report 2012/13

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