To inform. To educate. To entertain.
And also, the Olympics are on this year.
The British Broadcasting Corporation.
And not, as some have called it, Buggers Broadcasting Communism.
The BBC (or “the Beeb”) is a legendary organisation, set up in the 1920s by Lord Reith with the triple charter of “to Inform, to Educate, to Entertain” and the hopeful motto “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation”.
It is funded by the License Fee, a somewhat uniquely British system by which everyone who owns a TV set has to pay a fee every year, and if you try and avoid it, they send out scary 1984-ish detector vans to arrest you and, if you believe some of the adverts, bulldoze your house and fake your death in a plane crash. A common complaint if the BBC puts on a lacklustre programme is “this is a waste of the License Fee!” On the other hand, when the BBC puts on excellent programming, it may be praised as “worth every penny of the License Fee!”
The upshot of the BBC being paid for by a public system (often named by presenters as “the unique way the BBC is funded”, usually before apologising for running out of budget) is that not only is there no advertising on the BBC, but advertising is actually illegal. There have been cases where, for example, an Apple logo being visible on a computer in the background of a BBC drama has led to the programme being pulled until it was hastily edited out digitally, and the producer given a damn' good telling off. This does mean that the BBC is more immune to corporate criticism than most broadcasters - for example, when Top Gear gave a European car a bad review, the manufacturer's CEO demanded “We shall teach them a lesson by taking all our advertising off their broadcaster!” and it took quite some time to explain that this was physically impossible.
A consequence of the lack of adverts is that BBC programmes tend to be longer than most channels' - the BBC half hour is 29 minutes (just leaving time for previews of other BBC shows at the end) whereas the satellite or American half-hour is more like 22. This means that BBC programmes are often chopped down to fit in satellite or American time slots, particularly noticeable with the disjointed version of Top Gear seen on the Dave Channel. Ironically, the BBC's own “adverts” (sometimes more general than straight previews of a particular programme) are considered to be some of the finest in the world.
In the United States and elsewhere, BBC content is shown on various local BBC channels (which do have advertising, as only Britons pay the license fee) and some local public broadcasters such as the American PBS.
Some of the most famous (in an international sense) programmes the BBC have produced include Doctor Who, Monty Python, Blackadder, Red Dwarf, Top Gear, many period drama, Shakespeare and classical adaptations, David Attenborough's endless high-budget nature documentaries, many biographies and documentaries about the Royal Family (usually proper in nature, not like those bloody traitors at Channel 4), countless gameshows, and many, many more. British TV in general is known these days for producing exportable programme formats, but the BBC is the most prolific of the channels.
The BBC's main rival is ITV (Independent TeleVision), which is a more populist channel with emphasis on soaps and celebrities. ITV's main schtick used to be that it had regional programme-making offices, but these have mainly closed down now and ironically the BBC now seems to have more regional programme-makers than ITV. The other terrestrial TV channels in the UK are Channel 4, which is a bunch of wankers who think they're liberal intellectuals showing repeats of 'Friends', the gameshow Countdown and occasionally an original comedy; and five, universally referred to as 'Channel 5' as British people always call everything by its former name, which oscillates between a strange combination of softcore porn, highbrow arts and American drama imports. The satellite scene also has Rupert Murdoch's Sky channels, which mainly exist to show programmes from his Fox channels in the US. Satellite also possesses a block of 'UKTV' channels, which essentially exist only to show repeats of old BBC programmes. Many people think this is actually better than the modern BBC, even if it has adverts in it.
The BBC's News website, although arguably far superior to its television news (which can be shockingly introverted at times, though the World News channel shown abroad is better), often falls victim to the BBC System of Measurements.
BBC1 (Terrestrial and digital) Home of the most popular (and populist) programmes on the BBC, including its flagship soap EastEnders, and the news. Higher-brow shows from BBC2 that become unexpectedly popular are sometimes transferred to BBC1, such as Have I Got News For You and Who do you think you are?
BBC2 (Terrestrial and digital) In theory at least the more high-brow of the two main channels. Its current most highly rated programme is Top Gear. Also noted for its channel idents, featuring various animated figures of the number 2.
BBC3 (Digital only) Originally BBC Choice, reinvented as a channel 'for the youth' which devotes its time to producing original comedies that literally everyone in the world except Kit dislikes. Presumably he has one of those “10,000 viewers” ratings boxes on his TV, as they keep making them. Otherwise its main role is to carry repeats of Doctor Who, indeed many people refer to it as “The Doctor Who Repeats Channel”.
BBC4 (Digital only) As BBC2 has become less intellectual, BBC4 was instituted as the ultimate hardcore intellectual arts channel. The best part is that no-one complains if it has low viewing figures, because it's supposed to be a niche channel. Has produced some surprise hits that have been moved to BBC2, such as the general knowledge gameshow QI. One of Thande's lecturers once got his own series on BBC4, which is quite good.
BBC News 24 (Digital only) A channel showing 24-hour rolling news. It has worsened considerably in recent years due to a policy of mindlessly repeating the same headlines every 15 minutes and then going to their correspondent outside a locked room to tell them “I don't know what's happening”.
CBBC and CBeebies (Digital only) Children's TV.
BBC Parliament (Digital only) Broadcasts of debates in Parliament, often live. Fills up gaps in its schedule with stuff from the House of Lords, various committees, the Welsh and Scottish devolved parliaments, and even the American Congress occasionally.
BBC Radio 1 (Analogue and digital) Originally for young people's popular music. Nowadays seems to have become a niche channel for the absurder side of that. Its modern incarnation is intensely disliked by a large percentage of the population, not all of them old. As an example, on Top Gear Jeremy Clarkson once illustrated how comfortable and relaxing a Bentley was by putting Radio 1 on its radio and not going psychotic within seconds. Several years ago, Radio 1's audience was eclipsed by Radio 2's and continues to dwindle.
BBC Radio 2 (Analogue and digital) “From 88 to 91 FM, and 198 longwave - this…is the BBC.” A station devoted to older and more beloved music, and also some radio quiz shows, especially those with a music theme. The most popular BBC station. Its highest-rated programme is Terry Wogan's breakfast show, which many people find to be inexplicable.
BBC Radio 3 (Analogue and digital) Primarily for classical music. Has a reputation for being elitist, even towards other classical music stations.
BBC Radio 4 (Analogue and digital) A beloved national institution. Bereft of music, its role is to provide talking programmes, often political, philosophical or religious in character. It is also home to modern radio comedy.
BBC Radio 5 Live (Analogue and digital) Sports and sporting news.
BBC Radio 6 Music (Digital only) Intended to be a music-only focused station. Formerly had a breakfast show hosted by Phill Jupitus, who ruefully remarked that he'd have higher listening figures if he drove around shouting it out of his car window.
BBC Radio 7 (Digital only) The most popular of the digital radio stations. About half of its runtime is devoted to new children's radio programmes (an area sadly neglected by analogue radio these days) and the rest is for repeats of radio comedies from the 1950s (The Goons, Hancock's Half Hour) through to the present day (Dead Ringers, Punt and Dennis) with everything in between (I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, Just A Minute).
There are also niche stations aimed at ethnic minorities but, as no-one listens to them, they shall not be covered here.