Sunday 11 February 2024

BBC Select: A Failed Subscription Service

If, in 1987, you had been watching television very late at night, we’re talking post-closedown late, you could have stumbled across something very interesting on BBC2. To be precise, you would have encountered an encrypted engineering test. These tests would have made little sense to the average man on the street. But, for the BBC, they represented tentative steps into their first subscription service. And it failed spectacularly.

Very little is known about the encrypted engineering tests from 1987, with barely any recordings being captured and no references in the press. What we do know, though, is that they paved the way for British Medical Television (BMTV). Originally launched in the early 1980s, BMTV started life as a service which produced a monthly video tape and was sent to every GP in the country.

However, BMTV had their sights set higher than a straight-to-video model. They wanted to broadcast on the airwaves. And, in 1988, they struck an innovative deal with the BBC to make use of BBC2 once normal programming had finished for the evening. Pushing the envelope of innovation further, these broadcasts would be encrypted.

Doctors who had subscribed to the BMTV service would be provided with a direct television recorder (DTR), this machine would decrypt the scrambled signals and send a signal to the doctor’s VCR to start recording. Once the recording had finished, the DTR would conveniently instruct the VCR to rewind the tape. All the doctor had to do was press play the next morning.

BMTV was officially launched, by HRH The Princess Royal, in February 1988 with its first broadcasts expected to air in May that year. Quite when BMTV began broadcasting is unclear, no listings were carried in the press or the Radio Times. In December 1988, it was reported that BMTV had ordered 15,000 decoders from Philips, and expected to have 50,000 subscribers within two years. What I can tell you is that, by February 1989, 1200 doctors had signed up to the service, which comprised a 15-minute service every evening.

Thankfully, footage of BMTV has survived through video recordings which ran on through the night. This footage is encrypted, of course, but the Discret11 encryption method means you can, just about, make something out. Now, you don’t need me to tell you that BMTV was a very niche service. It wasn’t for a mainstream audience. But it served a purpose, and delivered it in a new way. Doctors now had access to a new source of information.

The launch of BMTV caused very few ripples outside of the television industry. There was, however, enough confidence instilled in the BBC for them to use it as a springboard for something more ambitious. Director General, Michael Checkland, revealed in September 1989 that not only would the BBC be taking a 15% share in BMTV, but they would also be expanding the subscription service. The plan was to establish a subsidiary company, one which add new services alongside BMTV.

Industry rumours quickly began to circulate. The BBC would launch “weekly video magazines” for the public to digest, with previously neglected subjects such as gardening, yachting and natural history being given time to shine. The government, meanwhile, were keeping an eye on the situation and the broadcasting minister, David Mellor, was keen to stress that the BBC should remain funded primarily by the licence fee. Any subscription services should, he argued, be restricted to the late-night hours.

Momentum appeared to be building for the BBC’s new service. But then BMTV ended in financial disaster. On 31st January 1990, BMTV made its final broadcast. By now, the service - which was running for an hour per day - had 4000 subscribers, each one paying £90 per year to access BMTV.

Financially, BMTV had been far from a success, a result compounded by constant problems with the Discret11 encryption system. The failure of the enterprise was estimated to have cost the BBC around £500,000. Nonetheless, the BBC remained optimistic about the future, with their head of broadcast services, John Radcliffe, claiming that BMTV had demonstrated a demand for specialised subscription services.

This optimism was regularly touted to the press and, by the summer of 1990, ambitious plans to launch seven new subscription channels in Spring 1991 were announced. At this juncture, there were no plans to involve mainstream programmes in the subscription service. Instead, the off-air space would be dedicated to specialist interests such as natural history and, it was reported, there was a possibility that Irish broadcaster RTE was interested in developing programmes aimed at Irish people living in the UK.

Television industry magazine Broadcast was having none of it. Highlighting the fact that BBC1’s viewing figures were rapidly falling, they doubted that niche subscription services were going to turn around their fortunes any time soon.

However, in November 1990, the BBC announced that the service - now titled BBC Select - would be receiving an £8 million investment. Furthermore, it outlined the broad categories that BBC Select’s programming would cover: community services, leisure, professional business and educational content. The long term aim was for BBC Select to house 30 services, but the BBC admitted they were unlikely to turn a profit until the mid-1990s.

Come the start of 1991 and things were looking… disappointing? February 1991 found Marketing Director of BBC Subscription Television, Chris Townsend, revealing that the economic recession had led to a drop in consumer spending. Consequently, the spring 1991 launch was off. And it was unlikely that BBC Select would launch until the first half of 1992.

Although it was being increasingly plagued by bad luck, the BBC Select service trundled on. Some exciting news emerged in September 1991 when it was reported that the BBC was planning a sci-fi subscription service, one which would feature archive programming including Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. Sadly, and we’re jumping ahead here, this service never launched and most likely morphed into UK Gold, which would launch on Sky in November 1992.

September 1991 also saw news of the BBC Select decoder being announced. Backed by VideoCrypt encryption technology, the BBC Selector would allow subscribers to decode the scrambled broadcasts. Switching itself on at night via an internal clock, the Selector would automatically search through the available channels to detect any VideoCrypt signals being broadcast.

A BBC Selector connected between a TV and VCR

Once detected, the Selector would remain tuned to that broadcast and, if the consumer was a subscriber to the service, decode the encrypted signal through the supplied smart card. Infra-red signals were then transmitted from the Selector to the attached VCR to initiate and terminate recordings. The total cost for purchase and installation would eventually be set at £275.

This news acted as a much needed boost in the arm for the service, and it was backed up by a BBC estimate that BBC Select would have 500,000 subscribers by 1996. Therefore, 1991 was ending much more confidently for BBC Select. But what would 1992 have in store for it?

BBC Select got off to a good start in 1992, well, it finally launched, a result which had seemed out of reach several months before. But, at this point, BBC Select was a free, unencrypted service. The first service to air was The Way Ahead, a 12-part series which provided a comprehensive overview on the new disability allowance. Whilst this debut - which came at 2am on BBC1 - bore little resemblance to what BBC Select was supposed to be about, at least it had arrived. And, apparently, it could start moving forwards.

A scrambled BBC Select signal from 1992

Unfortunately, bad news was never far away for BBC Select. April 1992 brought news that Quay Subscription Television, who were due to provide the Farming Now service had gone into liquidation. Prior to this, BBC Enterprises had made an unsecured loan to Quay, and BBC staff unions could be heard rolling their eyes all around White City at this waste of the licence fee. Farming Now was officially postponed until 1993, where it failed to materialise.

Better news, however, came in the form of the Executive Business Club service which had started free previews in March 1992 under the BBC Select banner. It must be noted that BBC Select’s broadcasts, despite originally being mooted for BBC2’s downtime, was intermittently switching between BBC1 and BBC2. This was mostly likely down to scheduling issues, but proved little problem to the BBC Selector due to the way in which it sought out VideoCrypt signals.

It was around this time that a curiously cute trail promoting BBC Select began airing on the BBC. Featuring a West Highland Terrier and a Bulldog watching the overnight broadcasts, the trail managed to sum up everything you needed to know about BBC Select and the Selector in just over a minute.

Finally, in June 1992, BBC Select’s first subscription service launched: the Executive Business Club was here and it was encrypted. A management training scheme, Executive Business Club had started, much like BMTV, as a video cassette service but now, as part of a collaboration between the BBC and Management TV International, it was broadcasting on the airwaves. In the same month, the Royal College of Nursing began broadcasting a free, unencrypted programme each week for nurses.

TV Edits, a language education series, began transmitting its encrypted programming in September 1992. And, hot on its heels, came Accounting Television in November 1992 and Legal Network Television in February 1993. But BBC Select was struggling. In July 1992, it was announced that the fledgling service had already lost £3.2 million. Hardly an auspicious start. And things would not get much better in 1993. Well, they would actually get a lot worse.

While the mixture of free and subscription content continued, June 1993 brought news that the BBC were freezing any plans for further subscription services. So, despite the original ambitious plans of having 30 pay services, BBC Select had screeched to a halt with just four. These services would limp through 1993 and into 1994, but all subscription services had ended by December 1994. In total, the estimated loss at this point for BBC Select was £18 milllion.

BBC Select carried on through 1995 with its free programming comprising trade union content, nursing updates, educational topics and programmes focusing on disability and benefits issues. The name BBC Select eventually disappeared in September 1995 when the service was renamed BBC Focus. October 1995 saw BBC Focus swallowed by the newly established Learning Zone overnight service, and that was that.

Not many people, outside of TV anoraks and those involved in making the programming, remember, or were ever even aware of, BBC Select. But it’s an intriguing premise, and one which could have been financially viable if the BBC had tapped into their rich archive. Quite why they didn’t, is a mystery, but I suspect there may have been contractual issues, much like the early days of their BBC Video output where the most lucrative programming was bogged down in debates with Equity.

Nonetheless, BBC Select certainly fulfilled Lord Reith’s aims of educating and informing. For professionals, in a (just about) pre-internet age, BBC Select represented an opportunity to receive regular and guaranteed content which wouldn’t be held up in the post. But, in the early 1990s, this doesn’t appear to have been a pressing demand for the public. In fact, BBC Select feels much more like an experiment, and an expensive one at that, for the BBC to explore further funding options.

The content produced for BBC Select is far from essential programming for future generations to pore over, but its story is much more interesting. There’s nothing else quite like it in the BBC’s history but, who knows, maybe they’ll deliver something as innovative as BBC Select again. And hopefully, this time, it’ll be a success.

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