HC Deb 04 June 1957 vol 571 cc1212-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I want to raise the question of television reception in and around Sheffield. As the Assistant Postmaster-General will know, his Department and the B.B.C. and the Independent Television Authority have received hundreds of complaints about television reception in the Sheffield district. The complaints are still being made, and little or nothing is being done about them.

I wish to avoid too technical a discussion. I know very little about the technique of television and I do not know whether the Assistant Postmaster-General is familiar with it. The trouble is caused by hills. Sheffield is built up and down hills and my constituency of Hillsborough is properly named. What happens, I understand from the television technicians, is that the signals or the programmes from the television transmitters hit the sets, then go on to hit the hills and bounce back, with the result that most television receiving sets get a double image. They get both the signal going out and the reflection from the hills. In parts of my constituency, some of the unfortunate viewers get four images on their screens. That is the most common form of bad reception.

In the circles where television technicians meet, Sheffield is known as a "ghost" town because a large proportion of the receiving sets get these double images or "ghosts" on their screens when what the people really want to see is a cricket match, a variety show, "Panorama", or something like that. There is, I believe, a great deal of other distortion of different and irritating forms, but I understand that it is all the result of these reflections of the signals from the hills around.

All that may be true. I do not have sufficient technical knowledge either to accept or to quarrel with these explanations. Even if it is true, it does not absolve either the B.B.C. or the I.T.A. from their responsibilities to provide suitable, normal, reasonable reception to the people in the Sheffield area.

I believe that the trouble is due not so much to the hills, although they are responsible on the spot, so to speak, as to the hills in relation to the transmitters. B.B.C. engineers with whom and my constituents have corresponded say that the television transmitters both of the B.B.C. at Holme Moss and of the I.T.A. at Emley Moor are too close to Sheffield and the signals are too strong. If the transmitters were further away, reception in Sheffield would be better, in spite of the hills.

My first point, therefore, although am sure that the Assistant Postmaster-General cannot answer because he does not take too much responsibility for this, is to ask why, when the transmission masts both of the B.B.C. and of the I.T.A. were erected, the hilly nature of Sheffield was not taken into consideration. Quite obviously the best site for television transmitters in Yorkshire and the north Midlands is on the south Yorkshire moors, and the south Yorkshire moors provide a pretty wide area in which to make a choice. These television masts could still have been erected on the Yorkshire moors, but miles further away from their present site, and from Sheffield. They would still have provided good reception throughout the North Region, and better reception in Sheffield than the people there now receive.

It is quite clear that in the siting of the transmission masts the interests of the people of Sheffield were not taken into consideration. I am sure that the Assistant Postmaster-General will agree that it is a mistake to ignore the rightful claims of the recipients of a public service of this kind. Sheffield and the rest of the area with which we are concerned—which goes beyond the Sheffield boundary—is not some obscure place, with very few inhabitants. I understand that there are nearly 750,000 people in the area of bad television reception and I understand also, from inquiries that 1 have made of the Post Office, that there are now about 120,000 holders of television licences in that area.

When the television licence fee is raised those people will be paying about £500,000 a year for a television service that they do not get—or, at least that not all of them get. The size of the problem surely entitles those people to some consideration, but they have not yet received any. I know that the Assistant Postmaster-General, having been well informed of this controversy in advance, will say that only a small percentage of Sheffield's television viewers get really bad reception, and he will no doubt quote the survey made by the B.B.C. in 1954, of the Sheffield area. But if we accept the basis of that survey—and, frankly, I am reluctant to accept it until I know how it was made—the B.B.C. admits that at least 5,000 viewers in Sheffield will not get good reception, and that about 50,000 viewers might get better reception, but still not perfect reception, if they fiddled with their aerials.

I do not know whether the Assistant Postmaster-General has considered what the B.B.C. means when it says that viewers should experiment until they find the right kind of aerial, which would cut out reflection from the hills, but I could give instances of viewers having had to pay up to £25 in fiddling with their aerials until they achieved something approaching satisfaction, although it was nowhere near a perfect service.

If we take an average figure of £10 in respect of aerial adjustments we find that the incredible sum of £500,000 is being spent by viewers in that way. Even if we take the lowest possible figure of £5—which is the sum paid for a new aerial—on the basis of the B.B.C. estimates those viewers are paying £250,000 to get their aerials and sets adjusted so that they will provide something approaching decent reception.

There is an additional cost involved here. The more the viewer tinkers with his aerial and his set the shorter is the life of that set, and especially the cathode-ray tube. At least, that is what all the television engineers say. They say, "Do not play about with those knobs, keep the thing fixed as long as you possibly can. The more you play about and make adjustments the shorter the life of the cathode-ray tube". Leaving that out of account, we still have the situation in which people in that area, who cannot be guaranteed proper reception, are paying £250,00 a year in television licence fees and at least another £250,000 a year if they take the advice of B.B.C. engineers and adjust their aerials and sets in order to try to get proper reception.

I am sure that the Assistant Postmaster-General will agree that that is an appalling waste of money. First, they are paying money in the licence fee for reception which they do not receive, and, the licence fee having been paid, surely it should be somebody's job to make sure that they get proper reception of the programmes for which they pay? In addition, it is an appalling waste of money that these people should be paying, if they take the advice of the B.B.C. engineers, £250,000 to get their aerials and sets adjusted.

All that is being paid, so far as I can understand, because the two television masts which serve the Sheffield area were not properly sited when first put up. I do not suppose that the two masts at Holme Moss and Emley Moor can now be put somewhere else in order to cater for the interests of Sheffield, although Sheffield is the largest city in the area close to the masts. When we asked the B.B.C. to do something about reception within Sheffield, they said that nothing could be done with boosters or anything like that until the B.B.C. had provided the full national network.

I claim that Sheffield is part of the national network, and that the interests of those people in the Sheffield area should not be left out of account. If it is desirable to provide proper television reception in Orkney and Shetland or in the Channel Islands, surely Sheffield also ought to be taken into account. Apparently, it is not being taken into account at the moment; otherwise, something would be done to make sure that the people in Sheffield get proper television reception.

I do not know whether I ought to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General, the B.B.C. or the I.T.A., because I do not know who is responsible for this, but I must ask somebody what they are going to do to make sure that people in Sheffield get proper reception. I have written to the Postmaster-General, to the B.B.C. and to the I.T.A., and nothing has so far been forthcoming.

I understand from the technical people that there are two possible solutions to this problem. One is to build booster transmitters in Sheffield itself within the areas of bad reception. The other solution is to serve Sheffield by relay television. I reject the idea of relay television, because I understand that it would put the local authority to a great deal of expense to lay wires through the streets. I do not know whether the wires can be taken from house to house or whether they have to go underground, but at all events wires have to be taken from house to house by some means, and it would be a great expense.

In addition, the poor viewer would be faced with the problem of renting a relay system, and if he is in the unfortunate position of having bought a set—and I am speaking for people who have bought sets—the set which he has bought would be wasted. In any case, a person really wants to buy his own receiver rather than rent one that may never be his own property after paying for years and years for relay reception.

On the grounds of cost and of dealing properly with the customer, I think that the best solution is the booster. It is turned down in the correspondence which I and my constituents have had with the B.B.C. on the ground of cost, and on the further ground that other places must come first; in other words, the national network should be completed before these problems are dealt with.

I ask that the question of the cost be examined again. It is not only a question of cost to whichever public authority is to provide the booster transmitters; it is also a question of cost to the viewer. By my calculations—no doubt I shall be corrected if I am wrong—the cost of a booster transmitter would be less than £10,000. There is confusion among the technicians about the number of boosters needed, but if we put the number at six, three for the B.B.C. and three for I.T.A., I understand the total cost for booster transmitters would be £60,000. Against that we are asking the viewers to pay at least £500,000 to get their sets adjusted. On that consideration the boosters are the answer, and booster transmitters should be provided.

I understand that there is a technical problem created, because the boosters cannot be put on the same wavelength as Holme Moss and Emley Moor. That could be overcome because there are sufficient wavelengths, provided the wavelengths now used in parts of the country away from Sheffield are used for the booster transmitters. I beg the Government to bring their influence to bear on the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. to look after the interests of viewers and to see that those people get proper television reception, even though it means an expenditure of £60,000 in the City of Sheffield, rather than that television viewers be asked to spend £500,000 on fiddling with their aerials and adjusting their sets.

There is a further point which I will not labour because I know that the Assistant Postmaster-General understands the position. It is that v.h.f. transmission in the area is just as bad as television reception. The B.B.C. engineers told the poor people who paid a lot of money for v.h.f. sets that they would get perfect reception. But, because of the reflections from the hills, those people find that their sets are useless, and they have to fiddle about with their aerials and try experiments of all kinds. They were told that the makers of the v.h.f. sets had not supplied the proper equipment to permit the making of these adjustments and so the people concerned have to buy modifiers for their sets, which all adds to the expense. In my opinion, that is altogether wrong, and I hope that we may have sonic assurance that these people who are now denied proper television and v.h.f. reception will be able to get it.

I cannot labour this point because I should be verging on questions of legislation, but I hope that something can be done to make the B.B.C. and I.T.A. responsive to public criticism. At present they completely ignore it, and by ignoring public criticism they are not doing their duty to the public. I hope that the matters which I have tried to raise will receive more consideration than has been the case during the past two or three years.

10.19 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

I wish first to thank the hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. G. Darling) for informing me some time in advance of the nature of the complaint he proposed to make. I wish also to assure him, and the people of Sheffield, that they are by no means forgotten. However much Sheffield may qualify for the description of a "ghost town", those who live there are not over- looked by the B.B.C. or the I.T.A., or by those in the Post Office whose job it is to see that the broadcasting services of the country are run reasonably well. If Sheffield were alone in its difficulties the problem might be a little less onerous than it is, but as I hope to show in the few minutes I have at my disposal, it would still not be an easy one to solve.

The hon. Gentleman referred, quite rightly, to the programme on which the B.B.C. and, in due turn, the I.T.A. set out to arrange their television services. It was open to them to decide, I suppose, in the early days, whether they should set out to provide national coverage in a general way with the resources at their disposal or whether to seek out suitable areas—perhaps London and the Home Counties, perhaps Sheffield, perhaps even the part of the country from which I come—and to give those selected areas a complete coverage, seeking out those small pockets which exist in far too many parts of the country, and winkling out the difficulties and problems with whatever technical tricks were required in order to give the service to everyone in those chosen areas.

I think that the B.B.C. was right, and that the I.T.A. was right in endeavouring to provide a reasonably satisfactory coverage for as large a part of the country as possible in the shortest time possible. That is the programme which each of the television broadcasting authorities has set itself to accomplish.

This in itself presents a number of problems, and that to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention is characteristic of the type of problem which this programme throws up. Waves of high frequency of the kind needed for television programmes present peculiar difficulties. They are difficulties which are common both to the vision and to the sound wave of the television programme, and to the sound wave of the V.H.F. sound programme to which the hon. Member referred.

The principal characteristic of these waves is that they will travel usually for short distances and only in the line of sight and vary only with difficulty from that line of sight to go round or through any substantial obstructions. There are, or may be, freak exceptions to and qualifications of that rule, but as a broad general rule it is a pretty good description of what happens. Therefore, the receiver, wherever it is—whether it is in the pocket in Sheffield, or in one of the valleys in Wales or in parts of Scotland—must be within this distance limit which is the carrying capacity of the very short wave. The line between broadcasting station and receiving set must be clear of obstruction, and it must be within the line of vision of a suitable aerial.

The siting of stations both for B.B.C. and I.T.A. is a matter of the very greatest importance, and I should like to assure the hon. Member, and those who live in Sheffield and suffer the torments to which he has drawn our attention, that no responsible broadcasting authority would set out gaily and light-heartedly to choose a site for a television mast which was less than the best which the technical advice and the technical resources at its disposal would lead it to adopt.

A good deal of research and examination was undertaken before the Holme Moss and Emley Moor transmitters were sited. It may help the hon. Member—it cannot please him, but I hope that it will make him a little less unhappy—if I tell him why they were put in their present positions. These two stations are not, and never were designed to serve only Sheffield. I appreciate the somewhat exclusive enthusiasm with which the hon. Member sets out to state the case for his own constituents, but England is a bigger place than Sheffield. I have even discovered, sometimes to my dismay, that it is a bigger place even than Liverpool. That is always a matter of great astonishment to me.

Holme Moss serves a total population of 13 million people—far more than the three-quarters of a million people who live in Sheffield. Those 13 million people have two million licences—far more than the number of licences possessed by the people in Sheffield. Emley Moor serves a total population of 4½ million people with I.T.A. programmes, and those people have three-quarters of a million licences. Both authorities were right to try to site their masts in places and in ways which would enable them to give satisfaction to those very large numbers of people, even though at the same time they recognised that there would be difficulties in providing perfect satisfaction for all the people who would live in this great and important city of Sheffield, whose predominance in the area as a local authority we all recognise.

But it is not the distance of the transmitter from Sheffield that matters, and, indeed, it is not necessarily the actual position in which the transmitter may be sited that really matters in producing the problem from which the televiewers in Sheffield suffer. Almost wherever these masts had been placed outside Sheffield, they would still have had to direct a ray bearing the signals into Sheffield, which would have come into collision with the topography of Sheffield itself.

Here is this great city built in and upon the hills, forming a sort of bowl, and wherever these direct rays come into the city there is bound to be the kind of complaint which we have heard described by the hon. Gentleman, in that the ray may come over the shoulder of a hill, round the masking of part of a hill, and give either no signal at all or only a weak signal to the aerials of those sheltered by the hill. It may also produce from the face of an opposite hill, or even from the Neepsend gasholder, a reflected signal which, in many cases, will be stronger than the direct signal received over the shoulder of the hill which the television beam must pass. This is a problem inherent in the topography of Sheffield.

The hon. Gentleman is well justified in asking what is the solution. and the solution is not an easy one. If the solution were simply one of deciding whether so many booster or satellite stations should be put up, it would still not be quite so simple as the hon. Gentleman's calculations might have led him to believe. I am advised that a figure of £10,000 per satellite station is wildly unrealistic in the present state of our knowledge of how to construct suitable satellite stations of the kind that would be needed for this operation. Indeed, sums five or six times as large as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned have been put forward as probabilities.

Mr. Darling

That is half the cost of the Continental ones.

Mr. Thompson

We are dealing here with a problem which is very different from the problem which is being faced—with some success, we recognise—by Continental authorities. We are dealing here with a different type of television signal. Ours is the 405-line signal, against the Italian 625-line signal. Our system of broadcasting also differs in its use of amplitude modulation instead of frequency modulation. We are concerned, in the creation of satellite stations, with problems of conflict between the signal from the main station and the "ghosting" which will occur from the signal sent forward from the satellite station, by the difficulties of separating the wavebands of these two stations sufficiently far apart to avoid the very kind of trouble of which the hon. Gentleman is complaining.

Furthermore, the moment we start installing satellite stations in the area of a town or city such as Sheffield, for the relaying and amplification of signals from a neighbouring main station, we then produce what I am advised is the problem of the re-creation of signals by the sets themselves, being on the same or a nearby wavelength. All these problems are at present the subject of a great deal of very earnest and forthright research by the authorities, and I hope that they will be able to find a measure of solution which will give some satisfaction to the hon. Gentleman's constituents before too long.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.