BBC2: Origins; Influence; Audiences: A 50th Anniversary Conference
Science Museum, London, 25 April 2014

On the 20th April 1964 the BBC launched its second television channel: BBC2. Although the launch was a flop (due to a major power cut) the station soon became a fixture of UK broadcasting. This conference marks the 50th anniversary of BBC2, but is also timely in other ways. The way we view television programmes is changing at a startling rate, not only because of satellite and cable, but as a result of the convergence of television and internet technologies, producing services that audiences watch as and when they choose. With the shift in technology the way we study the history of the television must also change, as not only types of programmes, but the idea of a self-contained channel becomes a thing of the past. This conference engages with the example of BBC2 in a contribution to the history of how, as well as what, we access through television.

First BBC2 controller Michael Peacock originally envisioned a ‘seven faces’ pattern designed to complement BBC1 by having a distinctive offer for each day of the week. This approach was questioned within three months of the launch; BBC2 later came to be known as the home of ‘serious’ television. Programmes with an adult, educational, slant such as Horizon and The Ascent of Man found a home on the channel. This tendency was enhanced by a long running relationship with the Open University which made academic programmes to accompany their courses. In recent times though, with the establishment of BBC4, some have accused BBC2 of drifting towards mainstream television. It has also been a testing ground for new comedy with programmes such as The Goodies, The Young Ones and The Office all of which debuted on the channel. How embedded these aspects are in the lasting identity and influence of the channel is a clear direction for discussion.

BBC2 also points to wider questions around the technology of television. In the 1960s questions were being raised about the increasingly dominant role of television in the home and the part the Pilkington Committee played in preserving middle- and upper-class values in the medium. It was also the first channel in the UK to offer UHF, then colour, television, changing the way that television was produced, broadcast and consumed.

At the heart of this conference are the wider questions about how a channel’s identity is crafted and how this sinks into audience awareness. In British television comparisons can be drawn with Channel 4. While the two channels have radically different backgrounds, both Channel 4 and BBC2 had to define themselves as a departure from the existing channels on offer. How a channel sets out to manufacture a clear identity (whether through programming or branding) is another aspect that this conference aims to explore. What are the political, social and cultural circumstances that shape the personality of a channel? Are these always successful? Most significantly, do these carefully honed identities still have a place in a world of thousands of channels and television on demand?

We are looking for papers that address the following themes and questions:

  • The origins and early years of BBC2.
  • BBC2 and its relationship to the institutional politics of the BBC as well as the wider political discussions surrounding the role of television in British society.
  • BBC2’s role in the technical history of British broadcasting. In particular papers addressing the advent of UHF and colour television.
  • The long history and influence of BBC2: specific programmes, strands and genres.
  • Programmes. Did BBC2 really provide a more serious and ‘grown-up’ alternative to BBC1 and ITV? How did this affect the kinds of programmes that were produced? Who were its competitors? How did its ideas fit with the social and cultural changes of the 1960s?
  • More generally, the advent of new channels / multi-channels.We are keen to see papers that address how and why new channels are established. Can comparisons be made with the establishment of Channel 4 or with ITV, even with the BBC TV service in 1936?
  • Papers reflecting on television today. Does channel identity matter today when we have thousands of programmes available of demand and online.
  • Changing viewer experience: historical and current
  • Popular Reception. By audiences? By other media? How (if at all) have these perceptions changed over the years it has been running?

Please send your proposal of around 300 words for a 20 minute paper to [email protected] by 7th October. All enquires to the same address, please.

Jointly organised by the Science Museum, Institute for Historical Research and the University of Westminster