How the history of the Airwaves in the Midlands repeated itself...

FEATURE
It's December. The BBC has just launched a new television service for viewers in the Midlands as part of a roll-out to the majority, but not all of the population.

Within years of the service launching, viewers will need to buy new equipment to make the most of the TV service broadcast via the terrestrial airwaves.

But this isn't 2013, and this isn't the roll-out of new HD channels on Freeview. Roll back the clock to 1949, and you suddenly see that in the world of terrestrial television, it's not just the programmes that are repeating themselves...

Front Page News ISBN 0 907969 59 3
On Saturday, 17th December 1949, the Sutton Coldfield television transmitter was officially opened by the then Postmaster-General Mr Wilfred Paling. The new transmitter brought television in the Midlands to a potential audience of 5 million people.

The start of television in the Midlands was part of the BBC's original plan to roll-out TV to 80% of the population over the course of five years. Until then, television was restricted to the London area, although television had been received from London as far north as Derby in 1939.

In 1949, the Derby Evening Telegraph (article pictured) reported that the Sutton Coldfield mast was "more than a third of the height of Snowdon, for it stands on a hill 550 ft above sea level. The mast weighs 140 tons."

"The new television station will have an average range of 50 miles for reception, which will take in Derbyshire, Staffs, Warwickshire and large parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, parts of Lincolnshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire and a strip of Eastern Wales, but the engineers point out that the Welsh Hills, the Pennines, and other hills and hollows may make reception difficult or even impossible at extreme distances."

Of course, the television service was then broadcast on VHF, with a wider range than the current UHF service. VHF soon became more prone to interference, due to a lack of frequencies and more transmitting stations coming on-air across the UK and neighbouring countries.

Six years and two months later, on the 17th February 1956, commercial television arrived in the Midlands. Channel 8, as it was originally referred to, launched at 7:45pm. Programming on Channel 8 was divided between ATV on weekdays and ABC at the weekend. ATV initially broadcast programmes Monday to Friday from 4pm till 6pm and 7pm to 11pm. ABC aired its programmes on Saturday between 2:45pm and 6pm and 7pm till 11pm. On Sundays, programmes were on-air between 2pm and 6pm and 7:30-10:45pm.

However, the new service required viewers to have a new, or converted TV set and a second aerial.

Just over a decade later, another change and upgrade was required to benefit from BBC 2 and colour TV.

Sounds familar?

Back to the present, Sutton Coldfield went digital only in September 2011, triggering off another wave of TV upgrades.

The BBC launched extra HD channels from the mast in December 2013, as part of a roll-out of a new multiplex of HD channels to 70% of the population. A normal Freeview receiver won't receive these channels.

In around six years, it is widely expected that terrestrial television (Freeview) will be made to start the switch to the DVB-T2 standard used by Freeview HD and to new frequencies, to make way for more mobile broadband services. This will require viewers who don't have a Freeview HD compatible receiver to upgrade, and possibly require a new aerial.

History repeating itself?

Back in the 50s, the lure of a populist second channel was a sufficient impetus to drive change. In the 60s and 70s the advantage of colour TV and another extra channel - BBC 2 - continued the drive to change. Ahead of digital switchover in the 00s, the lure of extra channels for free, plus extra content on the Red Button convinced many to make the switch to digital before analogue was switched-off.

Can the terrestrial broadcasters drive a fourth major change to the terrestrial TV service, as mobile operators eye up their frequencies, and so soon after the last big change? The rise of on-demand TV, the realisation that more channels means more repeats and more dubious filler programmes and the fact that more of us have access to satellite, cable and internet TV platforms and watch TV on mobiles, tablets, laptops and anything other than a traditional TV set means there is a substantial chance that any major upheaval to the terrestrial TV offering may end up fatally splintering its audience.

History repeated itself with regards terrestrial TV and the need to upgrade aerials and equipment. But there's one thing about repeats: sooner or later most people get fed up with them...


  • Material from the Derby Evening Telegraph sourced from "Front Page News" ISBN 0 907969 59 3, published in 1989 by Breedon Books Publishing Ltd.
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