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Today in history... UK's first commercial TV channel

12:00am | & News

An 18-year monopoly of TV broadcasting by the BBC came to an end 61 years ago today, when Britain's first independent and commercially-funded TV channel was launched.

The Television Act 1954 had created the Independent Television Authority (ITA) to supervise the creation of ITV – the first commercial TV network in the UK. It didn't happen all at once, but was phased in over a 10-year period as the ITA awarded franchises different areas of the country.

One of the first went to Associated-Rediffusion, to produce and broadcast weekday TV programmes for the London area. So if you lived in the London area, and had access to a TV set, you could sit down at 7-15pm on September 22nd, 1955, and tune in to Britain's first commercial TV broadcast. 

It began not with a blockbuster film or gripping drama, but with live coverage of a ceremonial banquet marking its own launch! Held at the Guildhall, London, it featured a succession of dinner-suited speakers talking about the new TV channel and how it would work. Among them was the Postmaster General, Charles Hill, as the Post Office was working with the ITA to help create the new network.

Addressing concerns about the effect of advertising on viewers, he rather pompously told his audience at the banquet: "We shall not be bothered by a violinist stopping in the middle of his solo to advise us of his favourite brand of cigarettes. Nor indeed will Hamlet interrupt his soliloquy to tell us of the favourite brand of toothpaste ordinarily used at Elsinore."

Thankfully the evening's main programmes got under way soon afterwards, beginning with a variety show before a half-hour of drama excerpts, a boxing match, a news bulletin and a cabaret programme. A final five-minute religious programme, called the "Epilogue", ended the transmission at 11pm.

The first advertisement didn't arrive until just over an hour into the schedule, during the variety programme. It was for Gibbs SR toothpaste which, according to a very well spoken voiceover, was "the tingling fresh toothpaste that does your gums good too".

In total there were just 23 adverts during the three-and-three-quarter hours of broadcasting on the first evening, promoting products ranging from Cadbury's chocolate to Esso petrol.

The BBC was now facing competition as a TV broadcaster for the first time. It responded on ITV's opening night by broadcasting "The Donald Duck Story", a programme profiling the popular Disney cartoon character. However, it later emerged that BBC Radio had staged the most effective spoiling tactic with its popular drama "The Archers". It pulled in more than 20 million listeners with an episode featuring the death of Grace Archer, one of the leading characters.

Another problem for the BBC was that the cost of 'bought-in' programmes, often from American networks, was already rising due to the arrival of competition in the UK marketplace. The price of "I Love Lucy" and "Dragnet", both popular at the time, had reportedly shot up from a few hundred pounds to several thousand.

The BBC was also considering commissioning a quiz show to compete with ITV's "Double Your Money", hosted by Hughie Green, but it was already prompting accusations of the BBC lowering its standards – what we would now call 'dumbing down' – to compete with its new rival.

Now, of course, there are countless digital commercials available and most would feature more adverts in a single hour-long programme than on the whole of ITV's opening night!

The see the first advert broadcast on UK commercial TV, click here.

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