Swindon Viewpoint is Britain's only surviving original community television station. Here is a summary of our long and colourful history
Viewpoint was first registered as a company in May 1958 by the cable company in Swindon, then called Radio Rentals, (eventually to be known as Swindon Cable). The company at the time thought that commercial television on a local scale would one day be feasible and formed a company in preparation. Swindon was developing a relatively large cable network, relaying TV directly into people’s homes, because reception by aerial was so poor due to the considerable distance from the nearest transmitters. Radio Rentals ran the service and distributed the main off air channels (BBC and ITV) to homes on the system. They also realised the cable system could carry more channels than those currently available, including locally originated television.
The government was still not permitting local television but Radio Rentals kept Swindon Viewpoint on ice in the hope that one-day they would. The company was steadily expanding the cable network meanwhile, and began to think that a local TV service would also encourage greater subscriber uptake. There were concerns around the funding of a local service however and the company wanted the government to allow them to carry local advertising.
The cable network in Swindon at the time
The chance to activate Swindon Viewpoint came in 1972 when the Government licensed experiments in local TV at a number of places in Britain; Wellingborough, Bristol, Sheffield, Greenwich and of course Swindon. Radio Rentals sold Viewpoint to Thorn-EMI who were interested in trying out local television and Thorn launched the Swindon service. Swindon Viewpoint was the only one of these five national 'experiments' to establish itself successfully and flourish beyond the experimental period.
However, things have not always run smoothly. At our inaugural meeting at the Goddard Arms in 1973, the man Thorn EMI appointed as Station Manager, Richard Dunn, said 'Viewpoint is a pioneer and the problem for pioneers is they get shot at'. Over and over again through our history this has proven to be the case and countless obstacles have had to be overcome to continue providing this unique and invaluable service.
Almost certainly a key factor in Viewpoint's initial success was the inspired choice of Manager already mentioned: Richard Dunn.
Richard quickly realised that half a dozen staff and a few recording kits were not enough to make a significant amount of regular television output. But his practical decision to harness wider community energies in programme production was also coupled with a genuine personal philosophy of encouraging access and as much public involvement as possible in decisions surrounding the nature and content of programmes.
Richard Dunn (Drivers seat) and the original Viewpoint staff
Swindon Viewpoint in this early phase was funded by EMI Ltd, the telecommunications company, as a research and development project. EMI was a separate company from Radio Rentals the cable system owner. Viewpoint began transmissions in September 1973 and soon began to flourish, transmitting an average of five hours of original programming a week. (10 hours with repeats).
By 1976 the success and popularity of Viewpoint was beyond doubt but the government were still not willing to allow a local channel to carry advertising or sponsorship; and EMI, having now proved the viability was no longer willing to continue to cover the cost of the operation. Viewpoint was now scheduled to close. There was widespread public dismay at the possibility of losing Viewpoint and EMI helpfully proposed to sell the service to the public of Swindon for £2, with Radio Rentals offering some continuing support. This is what eventually happened and Viewpoint passed into public ownership.
Swindon Viewpoint Studios at 14 Victoria Road
The company was reconstituted as a not-for-profit company and restructured with a Board of Directors elected from and by the public. The Board set about raising funds in earnest and Viewpoint survived for a year or two on various grants. The breakthrough came when an experimental Lottery scheme (a forerunner of the National Lottery) was piloted by the firm Ladbrokes, and provided regular funding for Viewpoint.
Richard Dunn left for Thames Television in 1976 and was soon to become its Head of Production. He remained devoted to Swindon Viewpoint however and came down to help out as much as possible throughout his unfortunately short life. For a year or two after his leaving there was some organisational turmoil at Viewpoint and staff confusion over policy. This finally settled down when Rupert Kirkham, a man who implicitly understood Viewpoint’s philosophy, became Station Manager.
New funding allowed a change to Umatic colour equipment and a productive few years followed with regular programmes like Seen in Swindon, Spectrum, and Tune In gaining considerable popularity, and frequent social action programmes on issues such as housing problems, being regularly made.
Rupert Kirkham preparing to present a studio programme
By the end of the decade storm clouds began to loom again. The experimental lottery scheme was not renewed and Viewpoint’s funding base once again disappeared. Swindon Viewpoint was scheduled to close yet again in April 1980 when the money to pay staff finally ran out.
The next phase in Viewpoint's history begins with the arrival in early 1980 of Martin Parry, who was placed here as a resident filmmaker by Southern Arts Association and had already opened a film workshop in the town to encourage and train local filmmakers.
Coming from work with The National Film Board of Canada and having run a local TV channel in Canada he immediately realised the value of Viewpoint. Martin quickly became involved with efforts to save Viewpoint and with no apparent solution to the funding crisis, eventually proposed that the film workshop go into partnership with Viewpoint, and offered the workshop's hopelessly inadequate room at Swindon Arts Centre as a base for Viewpoint operations. These, with no funding for staff, would have to be completely volunteer-based.
Martin Parry helps a budding filmmaker at the film workshop
He then immediately drew up proposals and lobbied Thamesdown Council to support a larger operation as a result of this partnership. By the second year the council had agreed to take on his salary (thus freeing the Southern Arts money for an additional helper) and to provide the near derelict top floor of the Town Hall Arts Studios as accommodation. The space was converted by Viewpoint volunteers for the new partnership venture Media Arts, which was to become one of Britain's most successful media workshops of the eighties. (See 'Videoactive' BBC1 primetime 1987)
The film workshop had no video equipment so all that of Media Arts all came from Viewpoint and was largely responsible for the success of Media Arts. It was rented commercially some of the time, and the income used to maintain and upgrade it regularly when necessary, whilst the rest of the time it was made available for public access, and also arts based programming. The production equipment worked hard and needed to be reliable and readily available for a variety of functions, which, with some frustrations, it mostly was.
Viewpoint and its structure of an accountable, elected board of directors continued to function, and volunteer made programmes went out regularly on the cable system. Many long time Viewpoint stalwarts such as Peter Wallen, Peter Monk and Rupert Kirkham (Station Manager in the late seventies, and board member thereafter), continued on the Board of Directors. Many local media figures, such as Paul Langcaster and Shirley Ludford also cut their teeth with Swindon Viewpoint. Another person key to the success of Viewpoint in the 80's was Rob Watling, who took the second post at Media Arts, Studio Manager. He undertook the training of many community groups in the eighties and effectively organised their production schedules.
Relations with key partners, such as the Borough Council (which Viewpoint programmes sometimes criticised!) were at times awkward; but liaison with the cable company broke down seriously later in the decade. At the time, the company and Viewpoint were cooperating and through negotiations Swindon Cable had even offered Viewpoint its old premises back and some funding. Viewpoint had begun to equip the studio but then came a community-access programme originating in West Swindon in which the makers heavily criticised the cable company for alleged insensitive practises in laying new cable in the area. (See 'Rough Cuts').
The company took the view this was 'biting the hand that feeds' and relations deteriorated seriously. The premises were withdrawn cleared out and sold, and valuable records and some equipment that had been taken there was lost. Fortunately core equipment was still at Media Arts, so programmes continued to be made. Despite realising that the programme in question would be received as bad publicity by the cable company, the board had hoped they would understand that Viewpoint's public-access policy needed to be consistently applied.
This was a rather difficult decade for Swindon Viewpoint.
In the early nineties Viewpoint lost access to its production equipment at Media Arts (which was now renamed Create) and from then on was only able to produce programming sporadically on equipment generously loaned by various other sources from time to time. This inevitably led to a radical reduction in programming, and temporarily in the station's ability to serve the town.
The Viewpoint Board during this era concentrated on consolidating its position and worked with a new partnership organisation Western Film Archive set up in 1988 to look after the extensive bulk of media history that Viewpoint had created over the years, and other items of local media history that had been donated. Many of the early tapes were placed for safekeeping at the County Records Office, and many others stored in various places, often having to be moved several times as various supportive organisations such as the Mechanics Institution Preservation Trust lost their accommodation. WFA formed a partnership with the Swindon Society at this time in recognition of their common interest in preserving and making available media artefacts from the town's past. The plan was to preserve and digitise films and photographs and work towards making these publicly available. WFA undertook to make space for the Society's photographs alsngside films on the distribution channel it planned to develop. The result is the 'Then and Now' section of this website.
Repeatedly during this decade attempts were made to rebuild links with the cable company (or companies, - since it has been taken over a number of times), gain access to their equipment and re-establish community access programming on the system, but despite frequent positive noises these proved to little tangible avail. Perhaps because some did not want the risk of more challenging programmes like the one already cited, or perhaps because the company was itself from time to time endeavouring to operate its own local TV service by a different model, which they finally gave up on in 2000.
In this decade prospects grew increasingly brighter for Swindon Viewpoint and access TV. Changes in the wider media environment, the multiplicity of outlets and diversification, and particularly the growth of the Internet, means we are no longer dependent on cable as the sole outlet for our programmes. At the same time the widespread availability of cheap camcorders and computer editing makes production easier than in our early days of bulky, expensive and sometimes unreliable equipment.
During these years Western Film Archive, curated by Martin Parry, has been concentrating on gradually transferring our large programme library to a digital format and make it available once again; and with generous technical assistance from a major IT company, have also been developing the web distribution service for both existing and new material that you see with this site. The process has been slow and time consuming as tapes sometimes almost forty years old are fragile, and often need careful handling and conditioning to yield reasonable results. But great progress has and is being made and fascinating new releases from the past are regularly made available to the public here, in parallel with providing a hub for new material of contemporary relevance to Swindon.
By the middle of the decade Viewpoint was in a position to relaunch its service fully as an Internet television station and accordingly did so. The website you see here has been steadily growing in popularity and we have over 60,000 regular viewers at the last statistical analysis (2013). Mainly local of course but also a significant audience around the world, since Viewpoint is Britain's and probably the world's longest standing community television service and is taught on University media courses across the globe.
Swindon Viewpoint has long been Britain’s public-access TV success story, and as such has a unique history and place in Britain’s media landscape.
Swindon Viewpoint is now operated by Viewpoint Community Media a Registered Charity and continues to flourish. As well as making our extensive library gradually more and more available, we can now accept and show new material and continue our philosophy of entertaining and encouraging debate, dialogue and understanding on issues of public relevance. What we have in Viewpoint is unique and very valuable. Nowhere else can claim such an extensive 'living diary' or offer its residents such a meaningful way of understanding or engaging with local life.
This decade is your story! 2013 was Swindon Viewpoint's 40th anniversary year, so help us celebrate! Why not get involved with what is after all your TV service, as well as Britain's greatest community television station? If you would like to help with Viewpoint's production or administration activities, or have programmes you think we could show, please do get in touch.