Friday 22 March 2024

The Slow, Slow Start of BBC Video

I still remember the first BBC Video I got: Pyramids of Mars, the classic 1975 Doctor Who serial featuring Tom Baker. This was in 1987, and it meant a lot to a five-year-old who had only been on the planet long enough to catch the end of Colin Baker’s tenure in the role. But BBC Video was about more than just Doctor Who. Suddenly, the BBC’s archive could be opened up to a country rapidly installing VCRs in their homes. However, it was an enterprise hampered by a slow start. A slow, slow start.

Ignoring earlier forays into the home video market, such as the Sony CV2000 (1965) and the Philips VCR (1972), Britain finally started getting to grips with the concept in the late 1970s. Betamax made its way to these shores in 1977 and VHS wasn’t far behind in 1978. So, it was now possible for consumers to watch, to some degree, what they wanted and when they wanted. The market was ripe with potential and everyone wanted a slice of the action, including the BBC.

In the summer of 1978, BBC Enterprises announced that John Ross-Barnard had been appointed as their first videograms marketing manager. Yes, videograms, a most peculiar choice of word which, even in 1978, sounded resolutely archaic. Regardless of the semantics, what would eventually become BBC Video had been established. However, rather than rushing out any products, Ross-Barnard’s first job would be to analyse the fledgling video market and plan a strategy for the future.

There was, already, a long, long list of factors for Ross-Barnard to consider. Which formats would the BBC favour? Betamax? VHS? Both? And what about this futuristic sounding video disc format that Philips and MCA were planning? Ross-Barnard would also be faced with the major headache of contractual clearances and royalty payments on archive material. Repeat fees had always posed a problem, so the unchartered waters of home video - essentially endless repeats - were particularly murky.

And progress remained resolutely slow. It almost seemed as though the BBC would never be able to get video releases of Doctor Who and Monty Python onto the shelves of WHSmiths up and down the land. The contractual issues proved so problematic, in fact, that a two day conference named Video Rights was held in London in 1979. Mostly, the conference consisted of various rights holders arguing over potential royalty and residual payments within the videogram industry. Whilst plenty of viewpoints were put forwards, there was little resolution.

A year later, in June 1980, and industry magazine Television Today ran a headline of “Still no BBC-union videogram agreement” which told everyone all they needed to know. It was a desperately frustrating situation for the BBC, one which was compounded by a problem which haunts media to this day. With the adoption of home VCRs steadily rising, the piracy of BBC programmes was proving to be a lucrative business model on market stalls and under pub tables all over the country. The BBC needed to act quickly in order to stem these losses both to themselves and the freelancers involved with their programmes.

But, whilst ITV had already managed to secure agreements relating to video sales with Equity, the Writers’ Guild and the Musicians’ Union, the BBC had drawn blank after blank. Equity wanted their performers’ video earnings to be in line with modern rates, but the BBC was insisting on figures based on the performers’ original earnings. The Writers’ Guild, meanwhile, were asking for videograms to be treated like a book deal, with an advance on royalties and these to rise dependent on sales. Finally, the Musicians’ Union requested both a session fee and an additional royalty payment.

Despite these legal wrangles, the BBC was eager to persist with the project. And, finally, there was some good news. Well, some vaguely positive news, as BBC Enterprises announced, in July 1980, that a contract had been secured with 3M for manufacturing and distributing their videos. It may not have been the breakthrough news that Ross-Barnard was waiting for, but it allowed him to slot another piece of this particularly complex jigsaw into place.

Better news came in June 1981, and it was news which would jumpstart what was now being officially referred to as BBC Video. So, had agreements with the three main unions finally been put in place? Sadly, no, so Doctor Who would remain locked away in the archives for now. Instead, the launch titles would all be programmes that the BBC owned the full rights to. In total, there would be 20 releases - retailing between £29.95 and £39.95 - available on VHS and Betamax in September 1981.

The very first release, however, would come a little earlier and was all thanks to a historic event taking place. On July 29th 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer tied the knot in a ceremony which halted the nation. Hindsight, of course, tells us that this union was far from celebratory for those at the centre of it, but it chimed a chord with the British public. And, due to a one-off deal with the unions, BBC Video was able to rush-release a two-hour video of the event, retailing at £39.95, into the shops a week after the wedding.

At long last, BBC Video was out of the starting blocks. Their flagship release was successful, too, with sales of 5,000 units sold in its first week, a performance which put it firmly on the top of the video charts. ITV had also rush-released a highlights package, but at just an hour long, the BBC had succeeded in delivering the superior product and dealt a major blow to their commercial rivals.

Shortly after the release of the Royal Wedding video, BBC Video’s initial lineup was released into shops slightly earlier than planned in August 1981. Looking at the lineup now, and I suspect even back then, it fails to fill you with much enthusiasm. Kudos to Ross-Barnard and BBC Video for entering the market, but titles such as Mr Smith’s Vegetable Garden, Play Golf and Training Dogs The Woodhouse Way were only going to appeal to limited audiences.

Perhaps more appealing, to readers of this article at least, was the BBC Children’s Favourites, essentially a showcase for Smallfilms, which featured episodes of Ivor the Engine, The Clangers and Bagpuss. Would I have killed for this video as a child? Absolutely. You’ll be pleased to know that it was later followed up by Beebtots, another Smallfilms extravaganza which also added Noggin the Nog into the mix.

Two more popular releases from the initial lineup were Deep Purple - California Jam and Toyah at The Rainbow, which both managed to crack the top 10 video chart. Both of these releases, however, came from independent producers rather than being BBC productions. Everything starts with small steps, but it was obvious to everyone that the real commercial breakthrough would come when BBC dramas, the crown jewels in the archives, could be released. But this would require an agreement being reached with the unions.

During these negotiations, Philips new LaserVision system came onto the market in May 1982. And the BBC was keen to release their existing titles onto this exciting new system. The technical capabilities of LaserVision (better known later as LaserDisc) also allowed the BBC to provide an additional extra on the disc version of British Garden Birds. As the discs could carry data, this allowed BBC Video to install 300 Ceefax pages on the British Garden Birds disc to act as an information source for the featured birds.

Further releases trickled out from BBC Video during 1982 such as snooker documentary The People’s Champion, the cartoon Little Nezha Fights Great Dragon Kings and Paint! with John Fitzmaurice Mills. Again, these were far from what the Great British public were calling for, nevertheless, BBC Video was slowly building a catalogue which demonstrated what their archives could rustle up. And, with a bit of luck, it could only get better.

Despite little news emerging over the next six months, aside from BBC Video producing a limited-edition run of 200 promotional toothbrushes for the VidCom 82 conference, this luck would finally emerge in March 1983. An agreement with the entertainment unions had been finalised and BBC Video could finally focus on drama, light entertainment and music releases. It was expected that this agreement would allow BBC Video to expand their current range of 40 titles to 300 within 18 months.

The plan was to start launching these new releases in autumn 1983, in order to cash in on the lucrative Christmas market. There was much speculation swirling around the industry as to which titles would make up this new push, but a definitive answer would come in September 1983.

Slated for a 10th October release, BBC would be pushing The Best of the Two Ronnies, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Butterflies and, the news that everyone had been waiting for, Revenge of the Cybermen (complete with an Earthshock Cyberman on the cover). Later releases for 1983 would also see Grange Hill, Ripping Yarns and The Goodies receiving the BBC Video treatment.

So, BBC Video had finally arrived, five years after it had been established, and as Ross-Barnard had originally intended. The restraints of weighty legal complications had been removed and it was time for BBC Video to go full throttle. And, over the next 20 years, the BBC Video logo and its iconic, much loved idents, would be seen as an indicator of high quality entertainment and prove to be wildly successful with the public.

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