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Television Committee's Report - Analysis

R W Hallows MA AMIEE, Wireless World, May, 1945.
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Are they flogging a dead horse?.

No one can read the Report of the Television Committee  [*] Report of the Television Committee, 1943: H M Stationery Office, 1945 without being impressed by two things. The first of these is the amount of hard work done by Lord Hankey and his fellow members, both in the examination of witnesses and in coming to the conclusions which the Report embodies. The second is the complete sincerity of the Report: it represents the reasoned beliefs of a body of men who have devoted themselves unselfishly and untiringly to the task which was assigned to them. But no committee, whatever the subject of its enquiry and whatever its terms of reference, can expect that its findings and recommendations will meet with a hundred per cent. agreement when they are published. As one who has the future of British television very much at heart, I confess that I am uneasy about the present Report, and I find that my misgivings are shared by a good many of those with whom I have discussed it.

The Witnesses

To begin with, I cannot help feeling that Lord Hankeys committee made one cardinal error in selecting the witnesses whom they examined. These witnesses consisted (Report, Appendix 1, p. 22) of representatives of the following organisations; the General Electric Company, the Marconi-EMI Television Company, Scophony Limited, Standard Telephones and Cables, the Board of Trade, the BBC, the British Film Producers Association, the Ministry of Education, the Radio Industry Council, and the Cinema Renters, Exhibitors, and Producers Joint Committee. The only other witness was J L Baird. In a word, the witnesses consisted entirely of transmitters rather than receivers, if I may so put it. All were interested in the manufacture of televisors, in the marketing of televisors, or in what could be put over by television. No one appears to have been called by- the Committee to give them the view of the buyer - the owner or would-be owner of the television receiver - the experiences of those who had such apparatus in their homes before the war or the feelings of the amateur enthusiast who is interested in both the technical and the entertainment aspects of television. And by not examining witnesses of these kinds the Committee were, I believe; led to form certain decisions which might have the effect of retarding very seriously the development of television in this country when the war is over.

Fortunately, however, the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Report are not final: the Committee is emphatic that a new advisory committee should be appointed by the Government and that this body should have a very large say in all matters affecting television in post-war days. The advisory committee, one gathers, will not be bound hand and foot by the Hankey Committees recommendations. There is, therefore, still time for the adoption of a policy which will lead to rapid progress and to Britains retention of the lead in the television field. I am convinced that the reverse of both these things would be inevitable were the recommendations of the Report carried out as they stand.

A Poor Start

Let us see first of all what reasons the Committee accepts for televisions failure to become a popular hobby in the years be- fore the war. If those reasons are the right ones, well and good: once you really know why a promising thing does not achieve success at first you are well on the way to making a success of it eventually, for you understand what to do and what to avoid in the future. But are the reasons given in the Report the real reasons why in its first 2½ years television crawled into popular favour instead of advancing at the expected gallop? Here they are:

  • By 1939 the service had reached a high standard, the programme technique had made great progress, and the result was a service of considerable entertainment value. The number of television receivers in use by the public did not, however, rise appreciably above 20,000. This was ascribed inter alia to the cost of the sets (£26 to £75), the belief that the price would soon fall and the fear of obsolescence. The restriction of the service to the London area no doubt gave rise to the impression that the service was still in the experimental stage. Nevertheless the demand for the extension of the television service to the provinces became insistent. It was urged in Parliament, in the Press, and by the Radio Industry.  [1] Report §5, p.4.

There is also a mention of the fact that a considerable number of complaints were made of electrical interference with the reception of pre-war television programmes.  [2] Report §39, p.11.

Fear of Obsolescence

I accept without question that 20,000 television receivers had left the factories, but I fancy that the number actually in private ownership was a good deal below that figure when the war broke out. And emphatically I do not believe that the price of £20-£75 had much to do with it. The area covered by the Alexandra Palace transmissions contains, one understands, between a quarter and a third of the entire population of England and Wales; no one would suggest that less than 20,000 radio receiving sets and radiograms at prices of £20 upwards were sold there in 1937, 1938 and I939. And many of the quite moderately priced television receivers were also all-wave radio receivers or even radiograms as well. If people believed before the war that the prices of televisors would soon fall, they still have that belief, for it has been fostered (if I may say so without offence to my many good friends in the wireless industry) by the pronouncements of prominent members of the industry itself, and so far as one can see there is nothing to prevent them from holding it indefinitely! Nor can I accept fear of obsolescence or any feeling that transmissions were still experimental as root causes of the public's slowness to invest in television receivers. There certainly was a very definite demand for the extension of the Alexandra Palace service to the provinces, and that could hardly have been so strong had there been widespread apprehension of this kind.

This much I can say: I have talked television certainty with scores and probably with hundreds of people of all kinds and very few indeed of those who did not possess television receivers gave any of the reasons accepted by the Committee. What they did tell me was that they were not satisfied that the pre-war service was providing adequate entertainment, save on occasions when there was some big sporting or news event to broadcast; that the viewing screen was too small for their liking; that they were apprehensive of the possibly staggering cost of CRT and valve replacements and that, on the whole, they did not feel that they were missing much by sticking to ordinary radio sets and radiograms.

A very important reason that has deterred listeners from becoming viewers is their dislike of the small screen.

With the programme side of television I dealt at some length in the columns of Wireless World [3] Television Survey, Wireless World, June, 1944. last year. The point I made then was that we knew now how to televise, but had not yet discovered what to televise in order to provide good entertainment day in, day out. Some suggestions were made which the powers that be may or may not regard as being of value. The means of allaying the not unnatural fear of the cost of 'retubing' a television receiver or of re-valving apparatus containing a large number of valves rests with the industry. May I emphasise the fact that people are not nearly so frightened of a fairly high initial outlay as of the possibility of having to spend on replacements at a later date more than the instrument is then worth?

Size of Screen

A very important reason that has deterred listeners from becoming viewers is their dislike of the small screen. Many who have discussed the matter with me have drawn comparisons between the televisor and the home cinematograph. The latter, they say, is fine. A whole roomful of people can watch the moving pictures in comfort; you don't have to peer; there is no need to sit or stand tightly packed right opposite the middle of the screen. In fact given a television viewing screen, say, 30 inches by 20, and definition approaching that of the home movie projector, there would be enthusiasm where there is now lukewarmness or even antipathy.

Television and the cinema are likely to be closely bound together in the future. This illustration is reproduced from a photograph taken on Feb. 23,1939, when two cinemas at Marble Arch, London, showed BBCs television broadcast of the Boon - Danahar boxing match.

Now, 405-line television may be reproduced on big screens, as it was before the war by the Scophony process, but, the bigger the screen, the more obvious are the shortcomings due to poor definition. That fact was recognised by the Committee, who regarded 405 line transmission as suitable for a picture no bigger than 8 × 10 inches.  [4] Report §14, p. 6. Yet this same Committee recommends the extension of the 405 line system to six provincial centres after the war  [5] Report §28, p. 9. at a capital cost of 1½ million pounds.  [6] Report §65, p. 16. It recommends that an improved system, of possibly 1,000 lines, be introduced as soon as possible, and that for some considerable time the new and the old systems should run side by side.  [7] Report §29, p. 9.

Second Best

What is the point of extending the 405 line system to the provinces if something better is to be introduced at no distant date? Is not the spending of a million and a half of good money on such a scheme something very like sheer waste? Why should people in the provinces rush to buy 405 line television receivers when the millions in the London service area would not do so? Even though they have the assurance that the 405 line transmissions will be continued for years after the arrival of the improved system, will there be any real inducement to people to buy such sets? I think not, for very few are content to have something that is notoriously a poor second-best. My own belief is that, were the money spent and the six extensions made, the result would be a ghastly flop; would-be purchasers would wait for the new and better system, particularly if their dreams of ever-falling prices led them to believe that the 1,000 line television receiver of the not-far-distant future would cost no more (perhaps even less!) than the 405 line instrument then offered.

And there is something else to be considered. Again and again in the Report the Committee stresses the importance of Britain retaining the world lead in the field of television. What will the rest of the world think of us if, after the war, we expend money, materials and technical ability in making nation-wide an admittedly inferior television system? By the time that the projected six provincial centres were erected we should almost certainly have in being not the best but the worst television system of the great countries. The Committee is fully alive to the importance of our building up a great export trade in television gear  [8] Report §52 et seq., p. 13. how can we hope to do anything of the kind if other countries believe - as believe they will, no matter what we say about the future - that we have pinned our faith to 405 lines?

Surely, by far the sounder course would be to regard our pre-war 405 line system as obsolescent, if not, indeed, obsolete, and to decide firmly to spend no more money in developing it. The Alexandra Palace station must certainly be brought back into action at the earliest possible moment after the end of the war. By so doing we shall keep faith with those who now own television receivers, and we shall give the entertainments departments of the BBC full opportunities of developing the new lines of vision broadcasting that are essential to ultimate success. Meantime, let all the money and all the technical brain power that can be made available be devoted to research and to the rapid development of high-definition television. As soon as a system has been approved, let the first high-definition station (to work on the standard to be finally adopted) be erected at Birmingham or some other chosen provincial centre. London had the first television service; it is the turn of the provinces to be first with high definition. The new London station must be one of the earliest erected after this on account of the vast population of the area served by it. The moment this station is working satisfactorily, the 405 line system should be scrapped, lock, stock and barrel. If we devote our money and energy to a first-rate system and do not squander either on what is already out of date, the new television service might well come into being far sooner than the compilers of the Report envisage. There would then be no doubt about our retaining our lead and export prospects should be good.

Lastly, the Report recognises that television and the cinema are likely to be closely bound together in the future.  [9] Report §31 et seq., p. 10. I have long held this view, and first put it forward some years ago in Wireless World.  [10] A Partnership with the Cinema, Wireless World, 9th March, 1939. That partnership can never come properly into being with a 405 line system. When it does come its consequences are likely to be so important that we should do all that we can to hasten the day. From almost every point of view, then, it behoves us to cease as soon as may be from flogging the almost dead horse of 405 line television and to put our money on an altogether better and very much alive animal, which will prove a winner, surely.


  1. Report §5, p.4.
  2. Report §39, p.11.
  3. Television Survey, Wireless World, June, 1944.
  4. Report §14, p. 6.
  5. Report §28, p. 9.
  6. Report §65, p. 16.
  7. Report §29, p. 9.
  8. Report §52 et seq., p. 13.
  9. Report §31 et seq., p. 10.
  10. A Partnership with the Cinema, Wireless World, 9th March, 1939.
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