The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which celebrated 100 years of continuous service in 2022, is in some way an emblem of the history of broadcasting in the 20th and 21st centuries. At the same time, it has known how to reinvent itself any number of times, keeping up with the developments in technology. Given the geographical and population scope of the British Empire in the 1920s, and of the Commonwealth after World War II, the BBC has had a remarkable influence, both on models of broadcasting and its technical aspects, as well as on world culture. In some ways the story of the BBC seems straightforward, and its history has been told and critiqued by many academics. But that history opens our eyes to important aspects of the history of communications during the 20th century.
The original BBC – the British Broadcasting Company – began on October 18, 1922, as a programming service to create a demand for radio sets manufactured by a consortium of electronics companies. Much as in the United States, the company needed to create a demand for a product and so it developed the kind of programming content to motivate people to buy the sets or kits manufactured and sold by its partners. However, within just a few years the British company took on a new name – the British Broadcasting Corporation – This received a royal charter as a public service corporation in 1927, together with a new purpose. In this new form the BBC continued to produce programming, but aimed to serve the British public with a kind of radio programming different from that of other nations. Its charter gave it the sole right to produce radio programming in the United Kingdom.
The journalist David Prosser argues that this idea originated with the Marconi company (a member of the consortium of manufacturers) and not the government, rejecting the received view that “The Post Office deployed misleading ideas about the development of commercial broadcasting in America and cemented the case for public funding and a ban on advertising.” Prosser instead has found evidence in the minutes of a meeting at the Marconi company that “shows that ideas about public service broadcasting predate John Reith’s arrival by several months. This meeting laid the foundations of broadcasting in Britain, envisaging a single broadcaster, operating at arms-length from government, providing a ‘public service’ with national content shared between regional stations, funded by a license fee.”