When major events impact broadcasting

There have not been many occasions when extraordinary events or national crises have had a fundamental effect on broadcasting. Normally the impact of a news story is limited to specific schedule changes to allow for extended coverage or to remove individual programmes considered inappropriate.

In the early days of broadcasting the General Strike had a profound impact on the development of the BBC. Although there were questions over the fledgling organisation’s impartiality, the then British Broadcasting Company managed to avoid a government takeover, helping to establish its independence from the state.

The outbreak of World War II led to the sudden suspension of TV and the previous radio networks. The Home Service and later the Forces Programme took their place.

In 1945, peacetime broadcasting built on this pattern – the Home Service is what became Radio 4 and the Forces Programme evolved into the Light Programme and Radio 2.

There have only been two other occasions when major national crises have fundamentally hit broadcasting. In 1947, a fuel crisis led to the shutdown of TV, and radio being closed for part of the day. The power cuts of 1972 caused minor changes – the most notable being that Play School was briefly shown on BBC One at lunchtime to keep BBC Two shut all day.

The Three Day Week of 1974 had a more serious impact – mandated 10.30pm closedowns had a severe impact on the schedule and ITV ad revenues. However things soon got back to normal.

In ITV’s case, the biggest catastrophes were the result of major industrial action in 1968 and 1979.

In 1968, an emergency national service was briefly established during the dispute. In 1979, it took a few days for normal local services (and in some cases continuity) to be re-established once the dispute was over.

While some freelancer announcers never returned, fundamentally the lasting impact was more subtle. How did this strike  influence Mrs Thatcher’s views on union policy and broadcasting? Discuss.

News events have occasionally provided a handy cover for changes to unsuccessful programmes. In 1991, the BBC’s unsuccessful morning schedule Daytime UK was removed during the Gulf War and was overhauled in its absence.

Broadcasters have made many schedule changes as a result of the severe restrictions on life currently imposed. There is no suggestion of any of the crisis being used as a cover for changes that might normally have been controversial – such as the temporary suspension of UTV continuity.

But it will be interesting to see if some emergency arrangements actually end up becoming established even if that is not the current intention.

Much will inevitably depend on how long this crisis lasts.

Acknowledgements

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Posted by Andrew Nairn

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