"Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation"—Official Motto
"To Inform. To Educate. To Entertain".—Lord Reith's vision from the Charter
"This is The BBC."
The BBC's full name is the British Broadcasting Corporation, not "Blurring, Buzzing Confusion" or "Burmese Borough Council" or "Big British Castle" or "Big Black Cocks" or "Boring Brown Chocolate" or "Brow Beating Communists" or indeed "Bastards Broadcasting Communism". Until 1955, when ITV was established, it broadcast the only TV channel in the United Kingdom. It is the world's largest broadcasting corporation, reaching 274 million households in 200 countries, compared to their closest rival, CNN, with 200 million. The BBC Television Service, now BBC One, is the oldest television channel in the world.
Founded in 1922 as a privately owned radio network, it was "acquired" and made into a state network in 1927. It was relatively poorly funded until 1946, when the television licence was introduced. The income generated gave the BBC the power to truly innovate and effectively shape modern television in all countries, not just the United Kingdom.
In 1964, BBC 2 (later BBC Two) was launched to cover less mainstream programming. More recently, the network has added several digital channels to its line up, including BBC Three, BBC Four, and other more specialized channels, such as CBBC. The BBC also broadcasts radio and TV channels outside the UK, such as the World Service and BBC Prime.
The BBC Television Service is very different from most other networks in that it is publicly funded by the UK Television Licence; if you own a TV in the United Kingdom, then you must fund the BBC (to the tune of about £140 per year or, as the BBC likes to put it, 39p a day), unless you can demonstrate to the TV Licence Inspectors that it's not being used to watch broadcast TV at all (no set-top box, no aerial connected). The upshot is that the BBC's programming is advertisement-free (bar trailers between programmes), and thus they can take more risks, although it's been a matter of media, public, and government debate as to whether they're actually doing this. It's also supposed to be free of bias in areas like news reporting, although practically every opposition party has accused it of supporting the current government and at least one government has accused it of the opposite. Finally, it's meant to be responsible with the money it receives - although it had to fork out £50,000 of license money on a fine after a phone-in scandal.
The BBC's news service is essentially second to none in the UK and for much of the wider world, it provides a global TV and radio service in the form of the World Service, which some governments have jammed at times and was the real-life Voice of the Resistance in the Second World War. Its political and current affairs programming has a reputation for the highly adversarial style of some prominent presenters; it's not unheard of for Newsnight or The Today Programme to draw viewer/listener complaints for being too hard on the politicians they're interviewing.
Note that not only is advertising on the BBC simply not done, Product Placement is actually a violation of the Ofcom Code (although it will now be allowed on other networks), and people have complained when brand names are visible on screen. For example, an episode of Spooks was pulled and digitally edited after it was pointed out on a preview that some computers in the background had the Apple logo visible. David Tennant's Converse All-Stars in Doctor Who had the logo painted over. For many years they even refused to broadcast any songs which mentioned brand names (the most famous example being the forced removal of a reference to Coca-Cola from "Lola" by The Kinks to get BBC airplay). This may seem overly touchy, but the BBC's lack of advertising has earned it some level of immunity to corporate influence - for example, when Top Gear (in the 90s, before it became an international phenomenon with hundreds of millions of weekly viewers) condemned a particular car from an Italian car company, their CEO allegedly demanded that they "pull all the advertising from Top Gear's network" in order to influence them into a retraction.
Criticisms of BBC programmes will often call them "a waste of the license fee". Praise will often include the phrase "worth the license fee alone" (Craig Charles' 6 Music Funk and Show Show uses this as a catchphrase). Having just mentioned Top Gear, anyone saying either of that about TG is Completely Missing the Point as the show is now self-supporting (via The Merch and sales of international rights).
Notable BBC programmes are many indeed. A modern BBC programme can be pretty easily identified these days. During The Teaser or Title Sequence, the BBC logo will appear on the screen while other things are going on. (The BBC actually lays down very strict rules on when and where the logo appears, as well as its size and duration on screen. This is due to the BBC logo's appearance in Title Sequences being a way for engineers to tell if a programme is being broadcast in the correct Aspect Ratio - if the usually perfectly square logo is squashed or stretched, it's in the wrong aspect ratio.)
Genre-wise, the BBC's particular specialties are:
- Costume Drama - a lot of it. It's widely exported.
- Speculative Fiction, most notably Doctor Who. Although the BBC made hardly any in-house SF or fantasy between the cancellation of the original Doctor Who in 1989 and its revival in 2005, according to rumour because of executive hostility to the genre. The only significant SFFH show made in that time was Red Dwarf, which may have survived because of Misaimed Fandom on the part of the executives who thought it was laughing at the genre and its fans.
- Some American Speculative Fiction imports including Star Trek (apart from Enterprise), Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Heroes.
- One of the BBC's indirect contributions to the world of Speculative Fiction deserves mention too. In 1997 the Radio 4 arts reporters took quite a shine to this new children's fantasy novel and played some part in popularising it.
- Comedy (often risk-taking, ground-breaking and highly influential, like Monty Python). This includes the entire Panel Show genre.
- Natural History series, often narrated by David Attenborough.
- Travel documentaries, usually with Michael Palin.
Because of its lack of need to chase advertising, and therefore ratings, the BBC is not under the same pressure (News Corp headlines aside) to gain 'instant hits' with high viewing figures. A number of TV shows that would not have had a second series commissioned on ITV (or in the US been pulled mid season) have gone on to become hits - Only Fools and Horses and Blackadder are prime examples. Men Behaving Badly actually started on ITV, dumped after series one, then picked up and nurtured in to a genre defining hit on the Beeb.
At the end of 2007, the BBC introduced the free iPlayer service, allowing UK-only users to download some of the previous seven days' programming online and some entire seasons. (Most BBC radio programmes can be listened to by users outside the UK.) This may change in the future, as the BBC wants to open up the iPlayer to non-British audiences, for a fee.
BBC One is broken down into a number of regions for broadcasting purposes, with each region having some specific local shows (e.g., local news) and the production of national shows being spread across the United Kingdom. These are all available on satellite or cable and include the 14 regions of England (BBC One East, East Midlands, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, London, Yorkshire, Yorks & Lincs, West, West Midlands, North West, North East & Cumbria, South, South East, South West), BBC One Channel Islands, BBC One Northern Ireland, BBC One Scotland and BBC One Wales.
BBC Two has fewer regions (BBC Two England; BBC Two Scotland; BBC Two Wales; and BBC Two Northern Ireland). BBC Two is generally seen as the "Special Interest" channel, showing things that have a loyal following, but won't get the big ratings (e.g. snooker, "serious" documentaries, alternative comedy, the Chelsea Flower Show and, in Scotland, Gaelic programmes). A programme that proves popular with the "mainstream" audience may be "promoted" to BBC One (this has happened to Have I Got News for You and QI, amongst others.)
In addition, there are several digital-only stations:
- BBC Three - Comedy, the occasional film and repeats. Started off showcasing some new stuff like Nighty Night and Little Britain, in addition to stuff like Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, but dove head first into the 16-24 demographic with shows like The Wrong Door, Being Human (UK) and various pilots for comedies, effectively getting revamped as a platform for this age group's creative works - possibly a more youthful Spiritual Successor to Channel 4's Comedy Lab as well as potential rival to T4. These have not all been successful.
- BBC Four - Pretty much the visual equivalent of Radios 3 and 4, with widespread critical acclaim. Documentaries, classical music orientated programmes and television films and plays in the vein of Play for Today. In The New Tens, known for importing cop shows and other drama series from mainland European countries, not previously a UK tradition, including Engrenages from France, the original Swedish TV version of Wallander, Forbrydelsen and Borgen from Denmark, and Il commissario Montalbano from Italy.
- CBBC - A kids' channel. Showing mostly British stuff with the occasional Australian drama or American cartoon. Broadcasts educational programming (a BBC charter requirement) during school hours.
- CBeebies - In addition to CBBC, as well as traditional morning and afternoon slots, and extended Saturday and Sunday blocks, and morning blocks extended from about 7 until 10 in the summer, the BBC also has this channel. Targets 0-6 demographics. Has its own morning and afternoon slots prior to CBBC. Again, mostly British made content.
- BBC News Channel: Exactly What It Says on the Tin - A BBC News channel (That airs in America!). Airs 24 hours a day. Formerly BBC News 24.
- BBC Parliament: Covers the debates of the UK's Parliament, including Select Committees (like the US standing committees), devolved assemblies and the House of Lords. Also does re-runs of past election night coverage and occasionally coverage of the US Congress. Similar to the American C-SPAN (which reciprocally broadcasts the Prime Ministers Questions).
- BBC Alba: The BBC's Scottish Gaelic-language channel.
The BBC still has many Radio stations as well. There are five national terrestrial stations. Radio 1 is the youth station, playing primarily chart music (many are quick to point out that "chart music" doesn't simply mean generic pop music as in the United States, but also encompasses various other genres including hip-hop, indie rock and blues) during the day, and more obscure genres get airplay in the evening and into the night. BBC Radio 2 is another music station, but aims for an older demographic. BBC Radio 3 plays classical, jazz and "world" music. BBC Radio 4 is the spoken word station, which broadcasts a mix of news, documentaries, drama, comedy and current affairs. Finally, Five Live is a talk radio station, with an emphasis on sports, often featuring live commentary on UK sports events. Furthermore, the BBC has regional stations across the United Kingdom and several more specialist digital radio stations, most notably the indie rock-leaning 6 Music (which in 2010 was saved from certain death via cutbacks with the work of fans, musical acts and the BBC Trust), and BBC Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC [Radio] 7) which specialises in spoken-word comedy, science-fiction, mystery and drama.
Commonly nicknamed "The Beeb" or "Auntie", the latter down to general perceptions of it being a bit stodgy and hand-wringing like a maiden aunt.
The BBC (or, more accurately, BBC Worldwide) also part-owns a number of commercial channels, mainly the UKTV Network, responsible for channels such as Dave, Home and Blighty, as well as a print arm which handles the bulk of the magazines which license its properties (Top Gear being one example) and listings magazine Radio Times.
There's also BBC America (a cable network in the United States), which is the BBC in name only, being a privately run channel (although half-owned by BBC Worldwide, the other half being owned by Discovery Communications) that shows programmes from a variety of makers, including the real BBC's rivals ITV, Channel 4 and E4, most notably The Inbetweeners and Peep Show. The name in America basically just means "British!". The channel does run some of the BBC's most popular programs, such as Top Gear, Torchwood and, of course Doctor Who - all among of American extended cable's highest rated and critically acclaimed shows. It acquired the first-run rights to Doctor Who (which they initially only had repeat rights to), gaining them in a deal with their original American rights holders, Sci Fi Channel, later called Syfy. Unsurprisingly, Doctor Who is now BBC America's highest rated show. It also has American science fiction programmes such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files and the 2003-2009 Battlestar Galactica, but it devotes most of its day to British programming. A fair amount of BBC programming (or co-production with BBC involvement) also tends to turn up on other networks abroad, including public educational PBS (or its member stations) in the US.