TV & Cinema Relations: The Cold War Era

January 27th, 2012
Home Cinema

Image courtesy of pietroizzo, under Creative Commons licence.

With the recently published Film Policy Review advocating greater investment in film on the part of broadcasters (see Variety), it seems like a good opportunity to take a look back at the history of cinema/TV relations, starting with the 1950s. This was an era in which the medium of television was in its ascendancy. The televising of the Coronation in 1953 was a landmark mass-media spectacle which demonstrated television’s huge reach and potential, and in 1955 commercial television was finally launched to challenge the BBC’s monopoly in broadcasting. As a result the British film industry waged a war against television on a number of fronts, in an attempt to shore up its audiences.

As I noted in a previous blog about the transfer of the TV mini-series to the big screen, the idea of the common or garden ‘TV Movie’ has never really caught on in the UK. As an exception to this rule, we will discuss the boom in TV movies by ITV companies in the 1970s in a later blog. This historical disdain for the TV Movie can be attributed at least in part to the BBC’s long-term preference for prestige adaptations of theatre plays and literary classics in general, and for the term ‘television play’ in particular. The term itself is both a legacy of this preference, and of the fact that all TV drama was, at one time, performed and transmitted live. See the excellent Screen Plays project blog for an exploration of the history of the theatrical tradition in TV drama through a variety of case studies.

The BBC’s historical reluctance to allow theatrical exhibition of filmed drama can be explained by a number of factors – but chief among them was the reluctance on the part of the Corporation to enter the commercial arena with product paid by the licence-fee, and the reluctance to enter into battle with the unions over such issues. Both the commercial and art-house traditions of cinema appeared to be incompatible with the ethos of public-service broadcasting; put simply the Reithian legacy in BBC management invested the seemingly innocuous term  ‘film’ with connotations of artistic indulgence.

Until the arrival of commercial television, the cinema industry had refused to entertain the notion of distributing or exhibiting anything which had reached the public through the medium of television. During the early 1950s it became typical for the producer of a film made specifically for television to look exclusively to the United States for the chance to sell television rights, allowing the film a theatrical release in the UK. This was the model employed by the Danziger brothers, who churned out genre ‘TV movies’ at an astounding rate at their New Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, and who were said to be the most financially successful independent television production company in the UK. It should be remembered, however, that the Danziger brothers were Americans who made use of the UK for reasons of economy (the cost of a production was said to be at least a third cheaper in the UK at that time). The attempts by British production outfits to break into the American market invariably ended in failure.

With the arrival of commercial television and the emergence of Granada and ABC (wholly owned by Associated British Pictures, then a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) as contractors to the Independent Television Authority (not to mention Rank’s 37% holding in Southern Television), it seemed likely that there could be greater collaboration between the television and cinema industries. It was recognized that indirect advertising for feature films could be accomplished through television at a lower cost than the press and poster publicity that was deducted from the yield of a major production (Goldschmidt 1955). Exhibitors, however, continued to regard television as a major threat to their livelihoods, and such collaboration did not take place. Instead the UK cinema industry looked for ways of protecting itself against the competition of television, establishing the Film Industries Defence Organization (FIDO) in 1958, which extracted a levy from cinema ticket sales in order to create a purchasing fund to buy up film rights with the object of reserving them for cinema distribution (and thereby aiming to prevent sales to British television).

In some ways this was bound to fail –some ITV companies and the BBC had already purchased large numbers of US films (for example, the BBC acquired 100 films at a cost of £215,000 from RKO in December 1957), meaning that in some cases it was actually the UK producer who would suffer as a result of FIDO’s actions.

Whilst film content was estimated as making up 35% of the programming of ATV in 1958, this consisted mainly of films made exclusively for television, such as half-hour ‘shorties’ (Anon. 1958). However this situation was soon set to change. In a major blow to FIDO’s strategy Associated-Rediffusion acquired Independent Film Distributors in 1960. In one fell swoop A-R acquired an impressive library of post-war British feature films (including classic titles such as The African Queen, Moulin Rouge and Richard III) and entered into the film distribution business. FIDO was spending approximately 500,000 pounds per year in keeping cinema features from television screens. By 1962, however, it was estimated that approximately 600 British films had been shown since 1954, either on the BBC or on ITV.

Despite this ‘cold war’ between television and cinema, there was increasing recognition of their inter-relatedness as ‘screen media’, particularly at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 1963 (co-organized with the BFI’s television quarterly Contrast). Pay-TV and ‘projection television’ (an anticipation of ‘home cinema’) were regular topics of debate amongst forward-thinking people. As David Robinson observed at the time, the title of the conference – ‘What is a Television Film?’ – did not anticipate the range of the discussion:

It was even more significant that when Pierre Schaeffer suggested that within a decade film and television will become one and the same medium, there was no protest, either from the film people or the television speakers (Robinson 1963).

Who said that media convergence was a phenomenon that became manifest during the Internet age? We will hope to discuss media convergence in future blogs, but the next one will focus on the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which the supplies of cinema features not previously broadcast began to dry up, and in which the idea of TV companies funding films gained currency.

Ieuan Franklin.


Anon. (7th August 1958). Selling Films to TV. Financial Times. London.

Goldschmidt, E. (21st September 1955). Films and Television. The Financial Times. London.

Goldschmidt, E. (24th August 1955). Making Films for Television. The Financial Times. London.

Robinson, D. (1st September 1963). What’s the Difference? The Sunday Telegraph. London.

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