From Hastings to hostings – a millennium of media successes

The media revolution of the past 1,000 years has been machine-driven – never more so than today. Torin Douglas considers what lessons have been learned

As the last media column of the millennium, I feel duty-bound to review the media events not of the last year or last decade, nor the last century, but the past ten centuries – to put today’s digital media turmoil into a proper historical context.

The millennium started well. The illuminated manuscript may not have offered a very competitive cost per thousand, but in terms of creative impact it was hard to beat, not least for its stunning use of colour – a benefit neglected by most media until the second half of this century. This was the age of precision targeting, as King Harold found to his cost in 1066, shortly before the first multimedia revolution.

The Bayeux Tapestry heralded media convergence: part-documentary, part-strip cartoon, part-war report, part-soap opera, part-court circular and part-96-sheet poster. Latin scholars may have dismissed it as “dumbing down”, but supporters hailed it as accessible and inclusive, bringing history and politics to a wider audience.

But though the tapestry reached a lot more eyeballs than any illuminated manuscript, its impact was severely limited by the fact that it was in Bayeux. Opportunities-to-see were restricted to those who happened to be in the area.

Which is why one nomination for media person of the millennium must be William Caxton. Although the German Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, and produced the first Bible, it was Caxton who spotted its secular potential. He is credited with creating the first English-language printed poster in the 1470s. Not that this was particularly significant. The real breakthrough was the second, followed by the third, and indeed 50th. Suddenly a sales message could be reproduced and widely distributed.

Books also started to catch on, and then magazines and newspapers such as the Observer and Times. But it wasn’t until George Stephenson invented the steam engine in 1825 that WH Smith was able to develop the railway bookstall – in 1848 – and a truly national market in printed material became possible. Coupled with a reduction in the newspaper tax, the abolition of the advertising tax and, in 1855, the removal of stamp duty, it sparked a media explosion, the like of which wouldn’t be seen for another 140 years. Two hundred titles were launched almost overnight, including the Daily Telegraph, which joined a bandwagon on which were to be found the News of the World and Illustrated London News, among others.

Even so, it wasn’t until 40 years later – with the rise of mass literacy – that the UK’s first press baron emerged. Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, launched the Daily Mail in 1896, and the Daily Mirror in 1903.

The Daily Express was launched in 1900, by which time the Mail was already close to becoming the UK’s first 1 million-selling paper. Harmsworth soon snapped up the Observer and Times and, with his brother Harold (the first Lord Rothermere), built what is generally accepted as Britain’s greatest (or most monopolistic, depending on your view) newspaper empire, controlling almost half of all daily sales.

When radio arrived and John Reith set up the BBC in 1922, the press magnates were not best pleased. They lobbied to ensure the new medium carried no news bulletins before 7pm, and even then it could only use material supplied by existing agencies.

In the first half of this century, newspapers, radio and cinema became the first truly mass media, reaching tens of millions of people each week. By 1950, the News of the World was selling almost 8 million copies. Meanwhile, “Educating Archie” on the Light Programme had an audience of 10 million (if you believe the BBC’s audience figures).

Then came ITV. The press magnates had failed to stifle radio, although they’d managed to keep most commercial stations at bay. Despite the opposition of Lord Beaverbrook (whose Daily Express was now selling 4 million copies a day), the Church, education establishment and Winston Churchill, commercial TV arrived in Britain on September 22 1955. That night, less than 170,000 London homes were equipped with the necessary converters and aerials to receive the new “Channel 9”, which must be reassuring for ONdigital. Meanwhile, 9.4 million people were apparently glued to the radio to hear the demise of Grace Archer – not the last soap character to be sacrificed on the altar of media competition. The BBC claimed 7 million people watched BBC TV that night. Soon the early ITV companies were in dire financial straits.

It did not last. By 1958, most people could receive ITV – and most seemed to be watching it. At one stage, the BBC’s audience share – in a two-channel market – dropped to 28 per cent. The BBC fought back, and competition between the two in the Sixties and Seventies produced what many see as a golden age of TV.

Newspapers, radio and cinema fought back, reinventing themselves to cope with the new media market. In particular, the 1986 newspaper revolution brought new technology to Fleet Street for the first time since the early part of the century.

Which brings us to the present multi-channel, multi-screen, multi-section, multimedia maelstrom. Already, early predictions are being turned on their head. Not so long ago, the Web was seen as a cheap, easy way to launch businesses by avoiding the huge fixed costs of traditional organisations. Now people have realised that if anyone can do it, anyone will. Dotcoms have to spend a fortune advertising in the old media in order to get noticed.

Remember when people said “Wapping” would mean anyone could launch a national newspaper?

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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