November 21st is National Television Day – a day that celebrates television as a symbol of communication and globalization that educates, informs, entertains and influences our decisions and opinions. From the first television to the latest technologies, we take a decade-by-decade journey through the history of British television.
For many, television began on 26th January 1926 when the Scottish born engineer John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of a working television system. His mechanical ‘Televisor’ pipped to the post a couple of all-electronic television systems being developed in America. 1927 saw Baird demonstrate a string of television firsts including long distance transmission via telephone wires, electronic image recordings onto gramophone records, and infra-red television. The following year Baird successfully transmitted moving images across the Atlantic and went on to demonstrate colour television and 3D television. By the end of the decade, Baird was regularly broadcasting experimental 30-line television – although with only one available radio transmitter, sound and vision had to be transmitted alternately for 2 minutes each. Meanwhile in America, rivals Vladimir Zworykin and Philo Farnsworth were battling it out for supremacy with an all-electronic television system.
The 1930s started well with a new transmitter enabling simultaneous sound and vision for television. This was quickly followed by the first British television drama, The Man with a Flower in his Mouth, and then the first outside broadcast when Baird televised the 1931 Derby. In 1935, the Television Advisory Committee recommended that Britain use both Baird's 240-line mechanical system and a 405-line electronic system built by Marconi-EMI. On 2nd November 1936, BBC Television began broadcasting regular programmes to the London area from Alexandra Palace – arguably the start of British broadcast television. The Baird and Marconi-EMI systems operated on alternate weeks but after a few months Baird's mechanical system was finally abandoned. The way was now clear for the domination of all-electronic television in Britain and in May 1937 some 9,000 TV sets were sold prompted by the BBC's broadcast of the Coronation of King George VI. Television's prospects looked good but on 1st September 1939 British television shut down for WWII.
On 7th June 1946 BBC television reopened and the following summer the London Olympics were the first to be broadcast in the UK. Even so, it was a quiet time for television in post-war Britain. However, in America black-and-white TVs were becoming more common and by the late 1940s the finishing touches on what would become colour TV were being made.
A string of dedicated television transmitters built around the country meant that by 1955, 95% of the UK could receive BBC television. That year also saw the start of commercial television (ITV) broadcasting in the London area. By the end of the 1950s there were regular television shows in virtually every genre with one of the most famous being the current affairs programme Panorama, which started airing in 1953. The decade also saw videotape used for recordings.
As the Space Race played out, Telstar made the first transatlantic television satellite link in 1962. By now most households had a television and many tuned in to soap operas such as Coronation Street, created in 1960 and still the longest running soap opera in the world. Despite a massive power failure cancelling BBC2's gala opening night, the channel launched in 1964 with an episode of Play School. Regular colour transmissions began on BBC2 in 1967 after the adoption of the Phase Alternating Line (PAL) colour television system; BBC1 and ITV followed in 1969. A flurry of new ITV contracts saw the emergence of regional commercial television with London Weekend Television, Thames Television, and Yorkshire Television. The decade ended with arguably one of the most spectacular television achievements ever – live pictures of the moon landing on 21st July 1969.
In the 1970s Teletext started to become a feature of televisions. This was the Internet of its day bringing real-time updates about anything from the weather to politics into people's homes. In 1978 the first video cassette player/recorder was released, which changed the home cinema experience forever.
The early half of the decade saw terrestrial television expand significantly with new ITV contracts and the launch of Channel 4 in 1982. The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer was the world's biggest outside broadcast to date being viewed by 750 million people in 74 countries. Breakfast television began with BBC Breakfast Time and TV-AM, and February 1989 saw the start of a whole new way to watch television with the arrival of satellite television from Sky.
Ushering in the era of satellite television, November 1990 saw the formation of BskyB which by the end of the decade was broadcasting digital TV from a new generation of satellites as Sky Digital. Meanwhile, terrestrial television continued to expand with new commercial companies including Carlton, Meridian and GMTV. Then, in 1997 Channel 5 began broadcasting with nearly 2.5 million people tuning in for its launch which included a specially adapted song by the Spice Girls. However, the 90s remained the decade when many in the UK were turning to the bigger private networks such as Sky.
The 2000s was the decade of reality television with shows such as X-Factor, Big Brother, and spoof documentary The Office transforming modern television. ITV plc was created with the 2004 merger of Granada Television and Carlton Television and the second half of the decade was dominated by the first HD broadcasts. In 2006 the BBC began broadcasting in high definition (HDTV) on their new subscription channel BBC HD and in 2007 the BBC launched iPlayer to watch previously aired shows. In 2007 the gradual switch-off of all analogue terrestrial TV broadcasts began in Whitehaven with all regions switched to digital by 2012. 2008 saw the start of the Freesat satellite service including the first non-subscription HDTV channels.
For the first time since the dawn of television, the 2010s saw viewing devices such as smart phones, tablets and personal computers take over from watching ‘the box’. When streaming service Netflix began in 2012 many other tech companies followed suit, making streaming the most common method of distribution today. Other firsts included Sky's launch of Europe's first stereoscopic (3DTV) television channel, the first 4K Ultra HD channel with BT Sports, and product placement being permitted on UK television for the first time. In 2011, dock10 opened its doors in the new Media City in Salford. The BBC sold Television Centre and moved many of its operations to Media City; ITV plc also relocated many of its shows and operations there including the Coronation Street set. Now, as dock10 celebrates its 10th year in 2021, the BBC prepares to mark its 100 years of broadcasting in 2022 and almost 100 years after John Logie Baird made the UK's first public television transmission, we are beginning to see CGI and virtual reality transform and expand the viewer experience even further. We've come a very long way in a century of television!