Greg Dyke On Broadcasting
Stand up for the man who made the BBC's golden age possible
Monday 05 September 2005
As the television industry celebrates the 50th anniversary of the arrival of multi-channel television - Britain went from one channel to two with the arrival of ITV in 1955 - there has been a lot of speculation about who has had the most influence over British television in the years since the BBC launched the world's first television service in 1936.
Broadcast, the trade magazine for the broadcasting industry in Britain, recently asked that question of 30 notables from British broadcasting. They came up with a list of 50, which, surprisingly, had Rupert Murdoch in the number one position, Lord Reith second and Lew Grade third.
I am almost too embarrassed to add that I came fourth - ahead of many people who I believe have had a greater impact than I have - but I was particularly surprised to find that I was 11 places ahead of the man who I thought should have been number one.
My vote for top slot wouldn't have gone to Murdoch, but instead to Hugh Carleton Greene, who was director general of the BBC from 1960 until 1969. He was also the man responsible for the creation of British television, as we know it today.
In the late Fifties Carleton Greene was in charge of BBC News and Current Affairs, where he began to change the journalistic ethos of the organisation, transforming a largely obsequious and deferential newsroom into a much grittier institution. But it was in his years as Director General that Carleton Greene really made his mark.
BBC Television was in real trouble when Carleton Greene took over in 1960. The BBC that he inherited was inward-looking, pompous and elitist. As a result, it was being replaced in the public's affections by an ITV whose schedule was built on quiz programmes like Double Your Money and Take Your Pick, American drama series and variety shows like Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
People have forgotten that only five years after it was launched ITV had a 70 per cent share of the audience in a two-channel world. The BBC's share in 1959 was no higher than that of BBC 1 and 2 combined today - in a world of hundreds of channels.
Greene set about changing this. For the first time British audiences were offered home-grown programmes that were both challenging and accessible; programmes like Play for Today, Z Cars, The Forsyte Saga, That Was the Week That Was, Dr Who and dozens of others.
And this was also the time when (Ray) Galton and (Alan) Simpson - number 43 in the Broadcast list - created the template for the British sitcom on the BBC with first Hancock's Half Hour and later, and arguably more importantly, Steptoe and Son. These paved the way for Dad's Army, Till Death Us Do Part, Fawlty Towers and many other brilliant BBC sitcoms in the years that followed.
It wasn't that Carleton Greene produced these programmes - but he made them possible. He encouraged the BBC's producers to be brave, he let them make what they wanted to make and he protected them from hostile criticism, and there was a lot of that coming from all directions.
Lord Reith hated what Carleton Greene was doing to the organisation he founded. He said of Greene "I lead, he follows the crowd in all the disgusting manifestations of the age... he gives the public what it wants, I would not, did not and said I wouldn't".
And Mary Whitehouse blamed Carleton Greene for just about every ill in modern society, holding him most responsible for what she saw as the moral collapse of the Sixties and Seventies. Even some artists didn't like Greene's BBC. Wilfrid Brambell, who played Albert in Steptoe and Son, described the series and others like it as "dustbin drama".
They were all wrong. This was a golden age and in rating terms the BBC made a great recovery in the Sixties that left ITV, if it was to compete, with no option but to follow the BBC's lead and spend much more money on British programming, particularly British drama. As such, Carleton Greene became the founder of modern-day British television and arguably prevented it from being dominated by American programmes, which happened in so many other countries around the world.
Presumably the Broadcast panel decided that Rupert Murdoch had wielded more influence over British television than anyone else because of the creation of Sky.
While this is a massive achievement, it doesn't compare with what Carleton Greene created 30 years earlier and as such he should have been number one. Outside of news and sport Murdoch has had little influence on British programming, while Carleton Greene's influence has been massive. In the end people watch television for programmes - not delivery systems.
Hello satellite, goodbye audience
Sod's law isn't it? Just as cricket becomes exciting again it's off to Sky where, sadly, it will disappear as a mass television sport. Audiences of millions will dwindle to a few hundred thousand, and the loser will be the sport itself.
When it was announced that Sky would have exclusive live rights to all the home test matches from next year, I wrote in this column that it was a bad day for cricket. I was wrong. After the events of this summer, it's a disaster. Just as a whole new generation of viewers have found cricket for the first time, it will disappear from free terrestrial television.
The result is easily predicted. When the Six Nations rugby was partly on the BBC and partly on BSkyB the results showed up the difference. Wales versus England on the BBC got an audience of seven million, while England versus Wales on Sky the following year got an audience of only a few hundred thousand. And cricket won't be like rugby or football - if you haven't got Sky you can hardly nip up the pub for five days to watch the match.
With Thursday's test match between England and Australia quite likely to be the last ever seen on free television I just hope the short sighted leadership at the Test and County Cricket Board realise what they have done.
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