tv

What Has the BBC Ever Done for Tech?

By Gavin Whenman on at

The Conservative Party is chock-a-block with free market fanboys who would like nothing more than to raze the BBC (that’s British Broadcasting Corporation, you filthy-minded beasts) to the ground. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that since their general election victory last year, the Tories have come out with proposals to strangle Auntie to death by either decriminalising the licence fee or scrapping it all together and replacing it with a subscription model. MP Julian Knight, the new Conservative chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, has also admitted to being a Beeb-basher and talked about his support for “licence fee reform” (i.e. subscriptions).

Anti-BBC Tories think that a purely capitalist broadcaster could provide all the public-service programming the nation could want and they point to the success of Netflix as an example.

But the BBC isn’t just responsible for the shows you watch, the radio or podcasts you listen to or the websites you read. Since its foundation, the corporation has been pushing forward new technology, without which the media landscape might look very different indeed. Here’s only a handful of the innovations they’ve helped pioneer.

Actual Television

 This was the first public demonstration of Baird's television system. No, really. Image: Wikimedia

After a brief stint as the British Broadcasting Company between 1922 and 1926, the BBC proper started life in January 1927 broadcasting radio programmes to the country. At the time, the corporation had a legal monopoly on broadcasting and so when John Logie Baird rocked up with his new prototype, the electromechanical television, in the late 1920s, they jumped on it, starting the first regular TV transmissions in 1929.

Unfortunately, the electromechanical television was, well, a bit shit. It could only broadcast a 30-line moving image at first, an extremely low-resolution that was just enough to make out a human face, although the venerable JLB eventually managed to improve it up to 240 lines. However, broadcasting using Baird’s electromechanical system was a cumbersome process – images had to be recorded on regular film first and then scanned separately in order to be transmitted – and it was eventually superseded in early 1937 by an all-electronic television system developed by EMI-Marconi, after a few months of trials of the two competing technologies at Alexandra Palace. The BBC even had the cheek to call the EMI-Marconi broadcasts “high definition,” as they offered a whole 405-lines of resolution.

Actual Colour Television

Even though Baird had first publicly demonstrated colour television all the way back in 1928, the US got to broadcasting colour television first, doing so in the mid-1950s. However, the standard they used, NTSC, wasn’t great at maintaining consistent colours, especially under poor transmission conditions (like, say, all that bad weather everyone in Britain is always moaning about), and it offered a relatively low resolution of 525 lines. The PAL, or “Phase Alternating Line,” standard upped the resolution to 625 lines and offered more accurate and stable colours. It had originally been developed in West Germany, but BBC2 was the first to use it in July 1967, broadcasting that year’s Wimbledon championships in full, glorious colour. Colour came to BBC1 and ITV in ’69 (nice).

Ceefax

Settle down, younger readers, and let me tell you how we got real-time information about events around the world before the internet and twenty-four-hour news channels. It was called teletext and, piggybacking on the analogue television broadcast signal, it offered TV viewers information in the form of text and simple graphics that refreshed at a painfully slow rate.

The BBC’s Ceefax was the first teletext service in the world, launching in September 1974 and providing viewers with news, weather reports, sports updates, TV listings and, starting in 1979, subtitles for programmes (another world first by the BBC). Ceefax lasted until October 2012, when Northern Ireland’s analogue signal was turned off as the final phase in the digital switchover, but its successor, the BBC Red Button, lives on, even if it’s not clear for how long.

The BBC Micro

Another forgotten relic of yesteryear, but equally as beloved by people of a certain age, was the BBC Micro, released in 1981. Actually manufactured by Acorn Computers, this “microcomputer” (PC in today’s terms) was the result of the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project, an initiative to educate the public about the possibilities opened up by the coming of widespread adoption of computers. The corporation set ambitious specifications for the BBC Micro, while Acorn designed and built them.

About 80% of schools in the UK ended up buying the Micro and their durable design meant they were still knocking around classrooms well into the 1990s. At a time when computers in the home were expensive and far from ubiquitous, it was the first introduction to computers for many kids growing up in the final two decades of the 20th century. It holds such a warm place in the nation's collective memory that it even had a Raspberry Pi-esque revamp back in 2016.

DAB Digital Radio

Image: Andrew Bowden/Flickr

DAB digital radio (the DAB stands for “digital audio broadcasting”) might feel like a relatively recent innovation, but it in fact grew out of work that first started the same year the BBC Micro launched, at the Institut für Rundfunktechnik in Munich. The BBC came on board in 1987 with the formation of the cross-European Eureka 147 project and helped to develop the DAB standard. The corporation was among the first to start broadcasting digital radio, launching DAB versions of their main stations in 1995, the same year Norway and Sweden also started broadcasting a digital service. Digital radio sets, however, were not commercially available for another four years, which seems like an oversight.

HD television and 4K HDR broadcasting

The BBC has been at the forefront of the UK’s move to HD television, launching the BBC HD channel way back in 2006 and offering coverage of the London Olympics in Ultra HD in 2012. In 2015, the corporation teamed up with Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, to develop the Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) system for broadcasting 4K resolution HDR content. Since then, they’ve shown Blue Planet II, Dracula, His Dark Materials, the FA Cup Finals, the World Cup and the Wimbledon championships in HLG HDR. The format has been preserved for a limited range of programmes so far and there’s no word from the BBC about when regular transmissions might begin.


Alongside all this pioneering work are other behind-the-scenes innovations the public might not notice, like noise-cancelling microphones, IP-based production facilities and an early form of digital audio compression. If the government do plan on draining the corporation of money, don’t expect whatever gutted form of the BBC emerges to have the resources to continue its vital role pushing forward media technology.