The playwright David Hare wrote recently that, alongside the NHS and the welfare state, the BBC represents “the finest expression of mid-20th-century public idealism”. Yet, from our vantage point in the third decade of the 21st century, such praise can be a dangerous thing. It associates the BBC with past glories: the analogue era, “old media”, the world of radio and television. This raises a profound existential question for an organisation marking its 100th birthday. Having emerged in the first wireless age, can it survive in anything like its current form in the era of internet, mobile social media and high-spending multinational streaming giants?

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Before reaching for the most pessimistic answer, it’s worth remembering that the BBC kick-started Britain’s own media revolution in the first place. In the early 1980s, the corporation’s education department, alert to warnings of a shortage in computing skills, began working with colleagues in research and development, and with scientists employed by Acorn, to develop what became the BBC Micro. A personal computer designed to be both cheap and easy to use, the Micro – with its distinctive chunky keyboard and orange function keys – became a fixture in homes and classrooms.

It enabled tens of thousands of adults and children with no previous computing experience to learn the so-called Basic programming language. And it was just one part of a wider computer literacy project built around TV programmes, instructional books and a support network for teachers.

This multi-pronged approach provided the template for another BBC project launched a decade later, focused this time on introducing the British public to the then-unfamiliar joys of the internet. The Net was a TV series that created “live” dialogue with its audience by setting up online bulletin boards and an email address.

A “BBC Networking Club” also sprang up to help viewers get online. By this stage, the corporation’s own programme-makers were also starting to connect to the world wide web. In large part this was thanks to one of its engineers, Brandon Butterworth, who had created an internal network of desktop computers and secured a website domain: bbc.co.uk.

A thousand initiatives bloomed in the mid-1990s as staff throughout the corporation began to explore the internet and create web pages of their own. In one corner, the Hungarian Service created its own pages to accompany programmes; in another, “Trumptonshire Web” sprang up to celebrate the children’s TV series, Trumpton. Radio 1 created a live chat facility, and the recently launched news-and-sport network Five Live turned its 606 phone-in for football fans into one of the busiest messageboards in the country. Then, for the May 1997 general election, journalists came up with an 8,000-page site to provide up-to-date details of the results as they came in.

Blazing a trail

Initially this digital evolution was all rather organic and spontaneous, but in 1997 there was a decisive intervention from the top. The BBC’s director general, John Birt, had been talking to Nicholas Negroponte, author of Being Digital. This book had set out a striking techno-utopian vision of the future in which an “information superhighway” would deliver entirely virtual newspapers and personalised forms of entertainment to millions of private computers. After flying to the US to visit companies engaged with this new technology, including Netscape and Microsoft, Birt returned a fully fledged convert. He was, he said, convinced that the internet “was a Very Big Thing that was going to change the world, and that the BBC had to be at the centre of it”.

BBC director general John Birt
BBC director general John Birt, who claimed that producing video-on-demand had been his “obsession” – sparking the development of the BBC iPlayer. (Image by BBC Archives)

Over the next six months, all of the experimental work which had been simmering away was pulled together into a slicker, more-coherent offering. The first tangible outcome of this concerted effort was supposed to be the autumn launch of an online news service. The sudden death of Princess Diana at the end of August forced the pace: this was the kind of dramatic, fast-moving and increasingly complicated story that required web pages to be constantly updated. Presented with an unending supply of fresh interviews on radio and TV, BBC journalists began experimenting with embedding short “grabs” of audio and video. They created a tribute site, and arranged a live “webcast” for the princess’s funeral. The success of that coverage prompted an injection of extra cash for new servers and, when BBC News Online was launched formally later in the autumn, it had the capacity to stream the day’s main television news bulletins on a regular basis. The BBC’s other online services quickly adopted a similar multimedia style.

David Dimbleby commands the studio during the May 1997 general election
David Dimbleby commands the studio during the May 1997 general election, when BBC journalists created an 8,000-page website providing blow-by- blow updates on events and results. (Image by BBC Archive)

Birt subsequently claimed that producing video-on-demand had been his “obsession” all along. If so, the launch of the BBC iPlayer 10 years later marked the first real step towards what he’d seen as the ultimate destination of the digital revolution: the merging of TV, radio and the internet into a single platform.

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The evolutionary origins of the BBC iPlayer can perhaps be discerned in a development of 1996, when programme-makers at Radio 1 created a virtual mixing desk that allowed anyone anywhere in the world to “listen again” to an archive of recent broadcasts. Six years later, a group of technologically adventurous BBC staff came up with the idea of creating something similar for TV. Ben Lavender, a young engineer in the BBC’s New Media Technology department, took up the challenge of turning what he called an “internet personal video recorder” into what became iPlayer.

A thousand initiatives bloomed in the mid-1990s as BBC staff began to explore the internet and create web pages of their own

The technological obstacles proved more straightforward to overcome than the political ones. Senior staff at the BBC needed lots of convincing: many of them refused to believe that anyone would ever want to watch TV on a computer screen or mobile phone. Once they were satisfied, regulators then demanded a “public value test”. This was the opportunity for commercial rivals to argue that the proposed new BBC service would damage their own interests. When it was finally launched to the public at Christmas 2007, the BBC’s original ambitions for iPlayer – which included sharing the platform with ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, as well as including whole “box sets” of past TV series – had been drastically trimmed back.

Nevertheless, iPlayer brought the concept of catch-up TV to the British public. Here was something stable, easily navigated and gloriously free from advertising. By 2012, it was voted the UK’s number-one brand. As the chief executive of the streaming giant Netflix later admitted, if anything had “blazed the trail” for his own company’s success it was iPlayer. And together with BBC Online, iPlayer showed that – even in a media future dominated by the internet, always-on mobile phones and new social platforms – the BBC might retain a centre-stage role.

Alchemical advances

There was rarely a single “eureka” moment in this story of invention. Rather, a complex, almost alchemical mix of factors enabled the BBC to take its leading role: a depth and range of skill and experience on its payroll that allowed for what one insider called “nippy, smart people working around the edges trying things out”; the spending power that came with a licence fee still keeping pace with inflation; and, above all, a capacity for long-term thinking – and a tolerance of failure as a vital component of innovation – that contrasted with the private sector’s nervousness over untested, potentially unprofitable investments.

In this sense, the part played by the BBC in the digital revolution merely reflects its wider role over the past century. This is a role nurtured by those founding figures – John Reith and his lieutenants – who first set it on its path in 1922. For them, the BBC was never about creating a nation of radio listeners or, later, TV viewers. It was about helping to spread ‘“the best that has been thought and known in the world” to as many people as possible. Radio or television were merely the means of delivering this larger ethical vision. The goal ever since has been to employ whichever medium seems most effective for this purpose at any given moment. It was also crucial to use the corporation’s privileged position as a publicly funded body, beyond direct state control or the pressures wrought by ratings-driven advertising, to provide that famous triumvirate of “information, education and entertainment”.

Future challenges

Whether the BBC will retain this capacity in years to come is less clear. There’s no intrinsic reason why it shouldn’t be capable of continued technological agility. The success of Radio 1 in becoming “the most subscribed-to radio station on YouTube” is a reminder that the BBC is by no means wedded to the old FM dial – or, indeed, the terrestrial TV signal – in its efforts to reach large and youthful audiences. Economists even suggest that, as an “investor of first resort”, the BBC stimulates a virtuous circle from which the whole media sector benefits.

A hand scrolls through the BBC News iPhone app
Through the launch of the BBC News iPhone app (above) in 2010 and later innovations, the corporation has pioneered the use of digital technology to “inform, educate and entertain”. (Image by Getty Images)

Yet the outsourcing of so much of its work now threatens the reservoir of know-how that enabled it to be a creative powerhouse in the first place. The freezing of the licence fee for most of the period since 2010 is also having a devastating effect on its ability to invest for the future. And new technology brings its own dangers. The much-touted switch from a universal funding mechanism to a subscription service would restrict the BBC’s riches to those who could afford to pay. It would be the one technological innovation that might end for good what David Hare saw as the BBC’s extraordinary aim of shaping for the better the life not just of individuals but of an entire nation.

Six of the best BBC programmes

They may not be the most famous, but these TV and radio programmes embody the spirit and ambition of the BBC over the past century, says David Hendy
In Town Tonight 1933
The BBC featured entertainment from the start, but it was the launch of In Town Tonight in 1933 that truly announced the arrival of a new, confident age of popular variety at the corporation. The show’s mix of guest interviews and live stunts, all delivered in a slick, chatty style, provided the template for our now-familiar fun-packed Saturday night TV schedule.
Woman’s Hour 1946
There had already been plenty of programmes for women, but Woman’s Hour, which began in 1946, offered more than the traditional mix of fashion and housekeeping. It covered social issues, politics, the menopause and more. The aim, its producers said, was to take listeners beyond the four walls of the home. It refused to see domestic topics and public affairs as mutually exclusive, and it paved the way for programmes such as Radio 4’s long-running Today.
Grandstand 1958
The BBC’s flagship sports show has been described as “the all-encompassing behemoth of sport on television”. For nearly five decades, Grandstand demonstrated the technical mastery and reach of the BBC’s outside broadcast operation for several hours every Saturday afternoon, leaving millions of viewers with indelible memories of great sporting moments.
Z Cars 1962
When Sydney Newman took over the reins of BBC TV drama and launched The Wednesday Play in 1964, Z Cars provided his inspiration. It depicted the rough-and-tumble of ordinary men and women serving in a northern police force, with the restless visual style of a documentary. It was gritty and dark, and showed messy, complex lives. As its writer, John McGrath, explained, “the cops were incidental”.
Top Gear 1967
No, not the TV series about cars – rather, the Radio 1 programme that launched the BBC career of John Peel. The show established the Reithian approach to music Peel displayed over the following 37 years: introducing listeners to sounds they had little chance of hearing anywhere else on British radio.
Small Axe 2020
This anthology of five films directed by Steve McQueen powerfully captured the experience of black Britons – and the decades of institutional racism they’ve endured. By placing these films in the Sunday evening slot usually reserved for cosy television drama, the BBC showed its willingness to make the perspective of marginalised communities part of our shared national story.

David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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