BBC broadcast tech: then and now
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In its centenary year, we look at the BBC’s pivotal role in making the broadcast and radio technology field what it is today.
Daily London broadcasts by the newly formed British Broadcasting Company began from Marconi House on The Strand, on 14 November 1922, using the call sign 2LO, with transmissions from Birmingham and Manchester starting on the following day.
The first broadcast by the young company, which was heard as grainy, muffled speech, was read by Arthur Burrows, who joined the BBC as director of programmes. Notably, he was one of the first people to move from newspaper to broadcast reporting.
At the end of 1922, Scottish engineer John Reith, who was just 33 years old at the time, was appointed general manager of the BBC, which then had a staff of four. Reith is remembered for establishing the tradition of independent public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom.
Within months, the growing organisation moved into the same building as the Institution of Electrical Engineers at Savoy Hill (now the IET’s Savoy Place event venue), where it continued to expand. This was an obvious home for the young BBC, and for the next nine years this is where early innovations of broadcasting occurred.
The British Broadcasting Corporation, as it is known today, was established in January 1927 as a public corporation, and in 1934 it moved from Savoy Hill to the purpose-built Broadcasting House in Portland Place.
In the BBC’s 100 years of operation, much has changed in the world of broadcast and radio technology, and a lot is thanks to the British giant of TV and radio, which has paved the way for much of what we experience today in the broadcasting world.
In 1922, the BBC was authorised to install and operate nine 1.5kW transmission stations plus smaller radio relay stations where needed. It took over 2LO in London, 2ZY in Manchester and 5IT in Birmingham.
Simon J Potter, professor of modern history at the University of Bristol, says the early BBC did have a problem with transmitters – the small local transmitters they operated in the early 1920s had very limited range (around 25 miles in daylight), and this meant they only covered a relatively small proportion of the population. Some major towns and cities were not covered, and rural dwellers were also not served.
“To justify its national monopoly of all broadcasting in the UK, the BBC had to reach out to as wide an audience as possible and try to serve everyone, geographically speaking,” he adds. “The first way it tried to do this was to supplement its ‘main’ stations with low-power ‘relay’ stations in the major centres that did not have their own station. These carried programmes over landlines from the nearest main station, or from 2LO London, and broadcast them from a local transmitter.”
Another ground-breaking feat was the Greenwich Time Signal (GTS), also known as the BBC’s six pips. The British national broadcaster transmitted six short tones at one-second intervals to mark a new hour and was used by many BBC radio stations between 1924 and 1990. Frank Dyson, ninth Astronomer Royal, discussed the idea of the six-pip Time Signal with Reith in 1923. Frank Hope-Jones, the inventor of the free pendulum clock, had backed a five-pip signal and was part of the discussions.
In 1923, Peter Eckersley, a pioneer of British broadcasting, was appointed as first chief engineer of the BBC, and national transmission was his priority.
Dr Zara Healy, senior lecturer at Lincoln School of Film, Media and Journalism, says early BBC history can be complicated, as the BBC initially set up lots of small main/relay stations between 1922 and 1924. “Reception and sound were very limited in very small areas of the UK, and some people complained they couldn’t hear without interference or awful sounds of ‘jamming’. Millions still could not listen at all. The technology was very crude, and many sets were DIY with home-built aerials and elaborate apparatus.”
She adds that there were lots of wireless magazines and articles on how people could build their own sets from 1922/3 onwards. “Eckersley wrote regularly in the Radio Times, giving people advice on their radio sets from September 1923 and how to set these up. People were later given advice on how to listen to radio.”
When Daventry 5XX was set up on 27 July 1925, national coverage went up from 65 per cent (in 1924) to 94 per cent.
It was the world’s first Long Wave transmitting station, and was positioned on Borough Hill near Daventry, Northamptonshire, to cover the maximum land area.
Professor Potter says the idea of this station was to blanket the entire country with a signal, so that anyone who could not pick up a main or relay station had a service from Daventry. Daventry generally carried relays from 2LO, so it also gave a choice of BBC services to those lucky people who already had access to a local main station.
Healy says the early BBC started small but expanded quickly. “There were two influential committees to look at broadcasting: Sykes (1923) and Crawford (1926). Both helped to shape policies to create national access to radio and approve plans for the BBC to become a public service broadcaster from January 1927.
“Eckersley and Reith wanted to give as many people as possible access to radio – Reith wanted to offer the highest standards possible.
“Initially, the BBC only broadcast one radio programme for many years during the 1920s. Eckersley designed the Regional Plan, which saw the small main and relay stations close, and the BBC was restructured into larger Regional Centres by the early 1930s, covering much bigger geographical areas.
This reorganisation aimed to bring radio to more people across the UK and improve reception and listening conditions, though Eckersley left the BBC before much of this happened.”
By the end of the 1920s, the BBC started to plan a new system, based around a small number of very powerful transmitters, which would cover the entire country. These were all to be networked together via landlines, and ultimately to provide everyone with a choice of two BBC services: the ‘National’ and ‘Regional’.
Healy says the National and Regional Programmes were seen as a big improvement, as listeners were now given more choice. Historians like Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff (1991) have argued that radio opened up new experiences and worlds to many people who could not access these before: culture, music, sport and politics. People of all classes could now listen to the BBC in their own homes, which coincided with increased leisure time in the 1930s. Millions of people planned their radio listening using the listings in the Radio Times. Radio changed people's leisure time and was closely linked to the British home and family life.
Potter says the rapidity with which access to radio spread was astonishing, and allowed the BBC to grow quickly during the interwar years. Radio was the key consumer technology of the 1920s and 1930s, and the uptake of radio receivers was very rapid, compared to other household electrical goods.
He adds that in the economic downturn of the 1930s, households might not have been able to invest in labour-saving devices, but they did find funds for radio sets and listener licences, as “radio offered an incomparably cheap form of quality family entertainment that could be enjoyed at home, with minimal additional expense”.
“There were 900,000 UK households with listener licences by September 1924, and two million by the end of 1926. By 1939, pretty much everyone who wanted access to radio had it,” he says.
Early recording technologies were very limited, but Potter says many people thought the great virtue of radio was that it was a live medium, bringing listeners into direct, intimate contact with speakers, performers and events. “So even when recording technologies were more easily available, broadcasters did not always rush to use them – they wanted radio to be live.
“Television to some extent reinforced this. As it moved towards recorded programmes in the 1950s, what seemed to make radio still distinctive, and gave it a niche, was liveness.”
In November 1929, the BBC and John Logie Baird, one of the most recognisable figures of television transmission history, started daily experiments of broadcast 30-line television transmissions using the BBC’s 2LO transmitter.
On 14 July 1930, the first television drama was broadcast by the BBC from Baird’s studios at 133 Long Acre, London. It was a production of Luigi Pirandello’s ‘The Man With the Flower in His Mouth’.
On 2 August 1932, the BBC began a regular television service using Baird’s 30-line system. The agreement for joint experimental transmissions by the BBC and Baird’s company ended on 31 March 1934.
On 2 November 1936, the first regular high-definition (at least 200 lines) BBC Television Service, based at Alexandra Palace in London, officially began broadcasting. It alternated on a weekly basis between Baird’s 240-line mechanical system and the Marconi-EMI 405-line all-electronic system. On 6 February 1937, Baird’s system was dropped in favour of Marconi’s.
The BBC’s first television outside broadcast was on 12 May 1937, taking place after just six months of broadcasts, to cover King George VI’s coronation. There were few technical problems, and the transmission was watched by over 10,000 people.
The BBC came up with many innovations in microphone technology, improving on previous work from others in the industry.
One of the most iconic early products was the BBC Marconi Type A ‘ribbon’ microphone, with its distinctive lozenge shape. This was produced between 1934 and 1959 as an alternative to US broadcaster RCA’s commercially available ‘Photophone’, developed for the film industry, which sold for £130 (about £9,500 today). The BBC needed more microphones than a film set, so the Engineering Research Department created the Type As at a cost of £9 each (around £650 today).
Loudspeaker design was also important, as it was needed to monitor studio output to make sure those involved in making programmes could hear them as clearly as possible. Bill Thompson, technology commentator and principal R&D engineer at the BBC, says in his article ‘BBC R&D: The secret laboratory’ that until the 1990s, the BBC was making its own loudspeakers for studios and control rooms, as commercially available speakers didn’t have the necessary responsiveness or fidelity.
He adds: “The best-known example of this is LS3/5, designed by BBC Engineering in the 1970s to deliver the sound quality and dynamic range needed to monitor broadcasts in a small control room.
“A commercial version of this, the LS3/5A, is still manufactured under licence from the BBC, at £2,500 a pair, and the design itself has been influential across the whole industry.”
Thompson comments that the BBC research into the fundamentals of sound reproduction continues today, contributing to the wider development of the microphones, loudspeakers and headphones we all use.
By the 1980s, NICAM (Near Instantaneous Companded Audio Multiplex) was the standard for digitally recording TV sound. Thompson says BBC engineers took the original specification and developed NICAM-728, to broadcast digital two-channel sound with terrestrial television transmissions by adding two high-quality digitally coded sound signals to the picture and mono FM sound signals of the existing system.
A more recent example of BBC’s broadcast innovation is DVB-T2: the enhanced second-generation digital terrestrial broadcasting system that supports HD (high-definition) broadcasting. Thompson says it was developed in only three years by a consortium led by the BBC and was adopted in 2009.
“DVB-T2 made Freeview HD possible, massively improving the quality of images for UK audiences” he adds.
In the 21st century, the BBC has been a pioneer in the shift to online media technologies, recognising the challenges and opportunities this offers. Professor Potter says iPlayer was a huge success story when it was introduced, “and the London 2012 Olympics were another triumph for online delivery”, he adds. It was the first all-digital Games, with the BBC streaming from every venue each day. Audiences could switch between 24 simultaneous live streams – more than 2,500 hours of coverage overall.
Hannes Ricklefs, lead architect in the BBC’s Product Group, says on Medium.com, an American online publishing platform, that over 90 per cent of BBC systems are IP-based and “almost everything we do is connected over either internal or public networks. These networks transport the audio and video media files, information about what’s in our content (or metadata), and information that we get from our audiences, as well as all the data needed to run the business of the BBC.
“This means there are hundreds and thousands of terabytes of data of different types generated and moving around our systems every single day.”
However, Potter notes that the BBC now seems to be falling behind. “BBC iPlayer gathers much less user data than the platforms developed by the BBC’s big transnational rivals.
“The BBC is also struggling to make its content ‘prominent’ on the hardware and software that many people use to access video-on-demand services. The government is aware of this problem, but regulators have been slow to catch up. The BBC and other British terrestrial broadcasters are relatively small players in a big global industry facilitated by new technologies, and they find it hard to get their needs recognised.
“Consumption of BBC content is also declining relative to other online providers, who are outstripping the BBC in terms of audience growth. The BBC risks being left as the curators of digital terrestrial radio and television services, consumed by older people, while younger people and minorities switch more and more to other online providers. This is a huge challenge facing the BBC as it enters its centenary year.”
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