Commons celebrates 30 years of televised proceedings

21 November 2019

As the House of Commons celebrates 30 years of televised debates in the Chamber and hearings in Committee Rooms plans are set out for greater access to Parliamentary coverage.

The 21 November 2019 marks thirty years since the proceedings of the House of Commons were first broadcast to the public.

Of the 30 years of broadcast coverage there is little doubt that the past year has been the most high-profile. Over this period the Broadcasting Unit and Parliament’s sound and vision contractor have been delivering live coverage of every contribution on the floor of the House and in committee to media organisations and on Parliament’s own video service, parliamentlive.tv.

During a time of national and world-wide interest in the House of Commons, the number of viewers engaging with the coverage provided by the House has reached unprecedented numbers.

  • Between June 2017 and July 2019, the number of average daily viewers tuning in to Parliamentlive.tv increased by 237%.
  • On Tuesday 3 September 2019 435,000 viewers watched the parliamentlive.tv live stream as Members debated an emergency motion to allow for debate on the EU (Withdrawal) (No 6) Bill

Over the coming months a series of changes will be made to improve access to broadcast coverage for Members, media and the public.

These include:

  • a new access and distribution model for high quality video coverage of all proceedings via internet protocol (IP) opening up the coverage to a wider range of media including local and regional media
  • a new broadcasting centre to be located in the refurbished Canon Row building
  • the establishment of a new digital archive following the digitisation of all broadcast coverage dating back to 1989
  • British Sign Language for all Prime Minister’s question time sessions

Commenting on the 30th anniversary, John Angeli, who heads the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit said:

“Having started as a journalist in local radio at Westminster in 1988 I have seen how public access to Parliamentary proceedings has transitioned over thirty years through radio, television and online. There is little doubt that digital is proving to be the most effective way of increasing public access to the totality of proceedings in Parliament.

“As chance would have it we share our 30th anniversary with Tim Berners Lee’s first successful communication using the internet in November 1989 and it is through digitisation of the broadcasting infrastructure that we have seen the most progress over recent years.

“This has included a doubling in the number of committees requested by media organisations and, with the introduction of video download, a major increase in use of Parliamentary video by Members and media alike. Our team has also been hugely encouraged to see national and local newspaper websites in particular, streaming live coverage of debates and posting video clips.

“We now look forward to introducing even more innovative solutions to improve access to both web and broadcast quality coverage of both Houses over the coming 18 months.”

Access and distribution

For 30 years the focus for distribution of high-quality broadcast coverage has been the domestic broadcasters based in Westminster. International broadcasters have also been served through satellite distribution via BT Tower. The Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit (PBU) is planning to widen the offer and is currently working on plans for distribution over internet protocol. A trial is currently underway with the PA Media with the aim of opening up the coverage to a wide range of media and non-media organisations.

Broadcasting Centre

Sound and vision coverage of the Commons and Lords Chambers and the distribution of all committee feeds has been operated out of 7 Millbank since the turn of the century. A new broadcast centre will be re-located next summer to Canon Row on the northern end of the Parliamentary Estate. The new centre will support higher quality video coverage and act as the new hub for recording and distribution of Parliamentary video.

Digital Archive

A project to preserve broadcast recordings dating back to 1989 was completed in November 2019. An earlier project also saved material from the House of Lords which first allowed coverage in 1989. Thousands of video tapes have now been digitised and for the first time since the early 1990’s Parliament is in a position to offer quick access for Members, media organisations and others to the entire collection.

BSL

A number of trials of British Sign Language have been undertaken over the past three years both for Westminster Hall debates and for a number of committees. From the New Year the PBU plans to offer British Sign Language for all sessions of Prime Minister’s questions. Initially signing will be managed from a temporary studio area in 7 Millbank and distributed live on parliamentlive.tv.

Background to 30 years of Broadcasting

Televising the Commons was a move which was resisted by many MPs and debated eleven times over the course of twenty-two years. A concession was made in 1978 when radio broadcasting was permitted but it was not until 1988 that the Commons finally approved a televising experiment. A year later cameras were introduced in the Chamber and broadcasting began in November 1989. The first televised speech was delivered by Ian Gow, a Conservative MP who was an opponent of the ‘experiment’.

By January 1992 rolling coverage was broadcast on the Parliamentary Channel run by United Artists and a consortium of cable companies, with clips reaching wider audiences via TV news.

Over the years, Parliament’s Broadcasting Unit has widened access to a growing number of media organisations – there are currently 250 broadcast licence holders and 50 internet licence holders.

Through parliamentlive.tv the public has had direct access online to live and on-demand coverage of all chamber and committee meetings contributing to the House’s strategy of:

  • Facilitating effective scrutiny and debate
  • Inspiring and involving the public
  • And securing Parliament’s future as the instrument of democracy

Recent Developments

The video service has a commitment to innovate and broaden accessibility. In 2018 a new clip download service was introduced with the aim of providing a fast and easy-to-use searchable resource.

Clips are no longer produced manually on request by the Broadcasting Unit team but can be searched for on its online video site and downloaded by the service users directly. Users include the media, MPs and their staff, ministers, Government departments, NGOs and other public sector organisations.

In the 12 months leading up to the introduction of the new service, the Parliament TV team received around 500 clip requests from Members and the public. However, in the 12 months following the launch of this service, a total of 55,000+ clips were downloaded.

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