A Canadian publisher wrote the other day asking for some “literature” on Intertel. The answer was that there is none. Intertel is too new to have any literature. What it does have is a history of a little more than a year and three programmes to its credit. It has made a good beginning.
The International Television Federation, to give Intertel its full name, is an association of Associated-Rediffusion in London, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company in collaboration with the National Educational Television and Radio Center in the United States. The idea originally came from John McMillan, Associated-Rediffusion’s programme controller who is the present chairman of Intertel. Having travelled the world winning support, he met the representatives of the other countries in Vancouver in November 1960 and there the agreement setting up the Federation was signed. Its object is to produce high-class one hour programmes on current affairs, and to exchange these programmes so that they are shown in all four countries.
Each member of the Federation pays for the programme it produces and receives whatever money the programme earns in its own country. So far Associated-Rediffusion has produced two programmes, “The Quiet War” and “The Heartbeat of France”, which have been shown in all the countries concerned; and the American members have produced one, a study of Britain’s “second industrial revolution” called “Postscript to Empire”, which has been shown in the United States and will shortly be shown in the other three countries. Four more programmes are in various stages of production; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been shooting a study of Castro’s Cuba, Westinghouse and N.E.T.R.C. are shooting in Mexico and Associated-Rediffusion is preparing a programme on the work of Americans in underdeveloped countries and has just completed “Living with a Giant” which is a study of Canadian-American relations. All four programmes will be shown in Britain in the next six months.
In a Cold-War world, rocked each month by some new eruption of extreme nationalism, any form of international cooperation is a welcome relief. But what real advantages are there in the Intertel system of exchange?
Normally each programme is guaranteed an audience of between forty and fifty million people. In the United States the National Educational Television and Radio Center services fifty-two stations and Westinghouse has obtained distribution through fourteen commercial stations. In Canada, Australia and Britain all distribution is nation-wide. Although each member has the right to reject a programme it considers unsuitable for its own national audience, co-operation is such that this right is unlikely ever to be exercised. For the first time therefore serious documentary programmes have an assured international distribution comparable to American Westerns. This does not necessarily mean that the producers make more money — on the contrary they may spend more — but it does mean that international competition has been introduced in a field which, until now, has been almost entirely national and even nationalistic.
There are real advantages in seeing our own problems as others see them. In spite of the staggering development of mass communications most of us remain insular in our attitude towards current affairs. We hardly ever read foreign newspapers or even magazines; foreigners occasionally take part in radio and television commentaries, but normally as “guests” reassuringly introduced or questioned by someone of our own nationality we can trust. Of course many American and some Canadian and Australian documentary programmes have been seen in Britain, but their importation has been spasmodic; few British and fewer Canadian or Australian programmes have been shown in the United States, where it has generally been held that none but American commentators with an American point of view are suitable for an American audience. Now this prejudice has been broken down.
The reception of Associated-Rediffusion’s first two programmes in both the United States and Canada has been enthusiastic. “Excellent programme — excellent project. And an impressive first step in a regular exchange of programming between peoples of the world,” said the New York Times of “The Quiet War.“ “A most promising introduction to this new series,” said the Montreal Star. The fact that Westinghouse have obtained sponsors for the whole series shows what the possibilities are.
The members of Intertel select their programmes on the principle that no country shall report on itself or on problems where its own vital interests are concerned. The Canadians, rather than the Americans, are doing the programme on Cuba. The Americans have looked at Britain, the British at Canada. If a programme were to be done on Malaya it would fall to one of our three partners because, until recently, the British interests in Malaya were paramount. Because the programmes are exchanged and have to stand up to criticism in the countries where the problems dealt with are familiar, there is less likelihood of the treatment being sensational than if they were for foreign consumption only. On the other hand the treatment cannot be “soft” if only because programmes designed “to please” invariably fail.
So far, therefore, Intertel can claim to have been a success. What matters is that the standard should not merely be maintained but improved. Although by British television standards, budgets have been generous, this may mean devoting more time and money to each programme. A valid criticism of television is that even when serious it is superficial; to get below the surface, writers and directors need more time to prepare their scripts, and time means money. On the other hand extra time spent in the preparation of a programme may cut down the time spent shooting it and should certainly help the members of Intertel to keep their schedule of a programme every six weeks.
Intertel has had its troubles. The Australians ran into exchange control difficulties, the Canadians were held up in Cuba. Both the Americans and Associated-Rediffusion have had to revise their first conceptions of a programme. But if the experiment can continue as it has begun, Intertel may well establish itself as the most thorough and authoritative television commentary on international events in the English-speaking world.