British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

TV Listings

Coverage of TV in the Press

Radio Times' 'Television' cover, 23 October 1936

In an age of Web listings, free newspapers, Electronic Programme Guides and smartphone apps, it is hard now to comprehend the battles fought during the 1970s and 80s in law courts, debating chambers and the press itself, over the right of newspapers and magazines to publish weekly TV listings.

Initially the BBC did not publish any programme information – it was the Pall Mall Gazette that published the first programme schedules in 1922, with the Corporation’s blessing. A year later the Radio Times was launched – at that time it was produced, printed and distributed by publisher George Newnes, and the BBC merely supplied the programme information. Three years later, when the magazine was well established, the BBC decided to take control of the Radio Times.

In the earliest days of television, the new medium was given scant attention by newspapers. When they did discuss television, it was treated firstly as something of a technological novelty, and secondly as a medium which might have an influence on social habits. One of the very first reviews of a television programme featured in The Times on 24th November 1936. This review reported, on the day after transmission, the anonymous journalist’s impressions of the televising of scenes from a West End play by Reginald Berkeley about the French statesman Georges Clemenceau, called The Tiger. The anonymous reviewer noted that there was something “definitely alarming in the thought that what was comfortably witnessed in the Marconi theatre in Tottenham Court Road was at that same and precise moment being performed in a studio at the Alexandra Palace”.[2]

Although the reviewer praised both the ‘promise’ and the ‘achievement’ represented by this television experiment, it was significant that the notice was dwarfed by the rather trivial items appearing alongside it, such as a promotional piece on the new Riley 1½-litre Falcon saloon (‘a highly efficient car built to combine power and speed with economy and comfort’), a discussion on the relative merits of cheap ‘six-penny’ seats in theatre galleries, and an advert for Selfridges.[3]

Newspapers grafted TV listings onto the existing radio listings when television transmission resumed after the war, but arts coverage in the broadsheets (like The Times and The Telegraph) concentrated on the traditional ‘high’ arts of theatre and opera first nights.

Television reviews did not really emerge until the mid-1950s when television ownership became common, and the medium developed its language and cultural status. With the advent of Independent Television (the commercial ITV network) in 1955 and the introduction of a second, ‘minority’ channel (BBC 2) in 1964 there was a considerable enlargement of the space given over to the listing of daily television schedules. Both the Daily Mail and The Times trebled their coverage of this area between 1959 and 1966.[4] Some commentators regarded this at the time as cynical commercialism on the part of the newspapers, as several had holdings in ITV companies and hence a financial interest in advertising their schedules.

Despite this commercial potential, newspapers still regarded TV pages as a relatively low priority throughout the 1960s and 1970s, however. During this period, newspaper advertising by television companies themselves did not exist. Television’s own promotion of future shows was left to on-air trailers and the Radio Times and TV Times. So, as John Ellis has noted, from the newspapers’ point of view, the TV listings took up space with no advertising revenue pay-off.[5] This view altered somewhat when it became evident how popular editorial features covering TV could be – the Sunday Times guide to the week on TV was thought to be the second most-read page in the paper during the 1980s.[6] Advertising for television programmes and services began to emerge as a significant part of actual advertising spending only in the 1990s with the growth of competing TV services of satellite and cable.

Until 1991, newspapers were limited in their television coverage by the existence of a monopoly on advanced TV listings operated by the broadcasters. In addition, television’s own technology meant that, until the beginning of the 1980s, it was difficult to preview many programmes in advance of their transmission. It was relatively difficult for newspapers to provide much coverage of television until these restrictions had been resolved…

Challenging the Duopoly – Channel 4 and the Time Out case

Time Out office, Tottenham Court Road. Courtesy Mark Hillary (CC licence).

It was not until 1968 that Independent Television Publications (ITP), a private company owned by the ITV companies, began publishing a national TV Times (with regional variations). The impetus came from the Independent Television Authority, which made it a condition of the franchise that a national publication should be launched which would improve ITV’s image. A long-running duopoly was thus established, which meant that both BBC and ITV owned seven-day listings magazines, and the broadcasters refused to allow newspapers to run anything more than listings for the day of publication. The result was that the two listings magazines were among the most lucrative weekly magazines in the UK, especially as neither listed the competing broadcaster’s programmes. Keen television viewers had to buy both.

In the early 1980s, when Channel 4 was preparing to go on air, it wanted to publish its programme information in its own magazine, but was persuaded to align with ITV, whose advertising profits effectively bankrolled the channel from 1982 until it the channel began to sell its own advertising in 1993. It signed a seven-year contract with TV Times instead, although the channel produced a highly informative weekly Press Information Pack, which encouraged other publications to give coverage to its programming (see the following section).

The first significant challenge to the duopoly emerged when Time Out editor Tony Elliott wanted to increase the magazine’s TV listings, which were then restricted to selective listings and previews. In late 1982, this was exactly what he did, taking advantage of his midweek copy date to pirate listings from the Radio Times and TV Times. He received considerable support from the new breed of independent television producers working (at that time) exclusively for Channel 4, whose own management chafed at the space given to its output by TV Times as well as the magazine’s editorial restrictions. Roxana Knight, then administrator of the Independent Programme Producers’ Association (IPPA), observed in 1985,

“Channel 4 schedules aren’t prominent. They are printed on a tint that doesn’t enhance them to the reader. We don’t get enough feature back-up material and very few covers are given to Channel 4 programmes”.[7]

IPPA argued that magazine coverage was confined to network successes, and that an open listings market could only benefit non-mainstream programming. This view was not shared, however, by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), whose members’ jobs were at stake. The NUJ believed that the effect of a free-for-all would be a concentration of the most popular, commercially attractive schedules, leading to lower editorial standards. It was also argued that a proportion of profits from both the Radio Times and TV Times were ploughed back into programme making, and that the former helped to subsidize some of BBC Publications’ less profitable products, such as The Listener (indeed the Radio Times accounted for 75 percent of BBC Publications’ annual turnover in the mid-1980s).[8]

When Channel 4 launched in November 1982, it provided Elliott’s justification for publishing complete weekly listings. TV Times took Time Out to court, however, for breaking their existing agreement, and won, with costs (of £150,000) awarded against Time Out. So with the support of many independent producers, Elliott mounted a lobbying campaign for the de-restriction of weekly TV listings, arguing that BBC Enterprises and the ITP were maintaining an anti-competitive practice. In 1984 the campaign received a boost when the Office of Fair Trading decided that the duopoly in listings information was against the public interest. Its report indicated that the market should be opened up to other publications such as the provincial press and Sunday newspapers. The BBC and ITP would not give up the fight, however, and so the battle raged on. Eventually the 1990 Broadcasting Act legislated to de-restrict TV listings from March 1991 as part of a larger raft of legislation opening up broadcasting to a competitive market. Section 176 of the Act required broadcasters to make available the necessary information to all publications requiring its schedule, up to 14 days in advance of the broadcast date. As a result, the modern TV listings guides, supplements and TV pages were born in March 1991.

Conclusion: The Role of the Channel 4 Press Information Packs

Channel 4’s initial Press Office was innovative in several ways. In its early days Channel 4 was a very ‘lean’ organization, and lacked the huge resources of the BBC, who had a whole team of press officers. So, from the outset, Chris Griffin-Beale, the channel’s first senior press officer, ensured that the brand new channel made the most of opportunities to get coverage of their programming into the national and regional newspapers. Each Press Information Packs contained a wealth of information so that journalists who wanted to use copy could draw on the packs directly for their preview pieces.[9] This was in contrast to the BBC and ITV companies, who initially released lists of programming that contained very little detailed information. As Griffin-Beale’s assistant Diana Pearce recently recalled, the packs were designed to tempt journalists into thinking ‘this looks interesting’, or ‘this is great, I’ve got all the information, I would like to see this programme, write about this programme’.[10]

Channel 4 also took a progressive attitude toward previewing programmes for journalists and critics. Instead of inviting a select band of journalists and television critics to previews in viewing theatres at strictly ordained times, the channel would make any programme available to be viewed by any journalist at any time, 5 days a week, at the channel’s premises. The channel’s launch and early development coincided with the rapid spread of VHS recording, the first technology that provided bulk copying of tapes. This democratised the practice of previewing, and meant that previewers didn’t have to move around between viewing theatres and could preview in ‘capsule’ form a substantial part of the day’s broadcast output.[11]

These developments facilitated the previewing – rather than retrospective reviewing – of programmes. Gone were the days when journalists would have to ‘phone in’ their review late at night in time to catch the London edition – as with plays or concerts. Newspapers now had The Tiger by the tail.



[1] Peter Preston, Time Out – the listings magazine with no listings, The Observer, 30th September 2012. (accessed 24th May 2013).

[2] Anon. ‘Televising a Play’, The Times, 24th November 1936, p. 12. This was one of a series of experimental transmissions by the new BBC Television Service – John Wyver has written about The Tiger as perhaps the first play to be broadcast on British television in a blog for the Screen Plays project.

[3] Mike Poole, ‘The Cult of the Generalist: British Television Criticism 1936-83’, Screen (1984) 25 (2): 41-61.

[4] Jeremy Tunstall, The Media in Britain (London: Constable, 1983), p. 100.

[5] John Ellis, ‘TV Pages’, in Bob Franklin (Ed.), Pulling Newspapers Apart: Analysing Print Journalism (Oxford: Routledge, 1984), p. 234.

[6] TV Listings Campaign, Restricted Vision: The Case Against The Radio Times and TV Times Duopoly, 3rd November 1988.

[7] Quoted in Marta Wohrle, ‘TV Listings’ in Dick Fiddy (Ed.) The Television Yearbook (London: Virgin, 1985), p. 28.

[8] Marta Wohrle, ‘TV Listings’, p. 28.

[9] Diana Pearce, interviewed by Justin Smith, Rachael Keene and Linda Kaye, London, 28th January 2011.

[10] Diana Pearce.

[11] John Ellis, ‘TV Pages’, p. 236.