September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

When the BBC refused to screen Dallas

2 min read
In 1985 the BBC lost the rights to screen the TV series Dallas to ITV and refused to screen the remaining episodes

It was the hit TV series of the late 1970s to mid 1980s. The BBC aired Dallas from 1978 until 1985. Introducing us to the mega-rich Texan oil family – the Ewings. In 1980, the episode about the murder of J.R. Ewing, played by actor Larry Hagman, became a national talking point. Everybody was asking: “Who Shot J.R.?” But after years of screening Dallas, the BBC was outbid by rival network ITV for the next series in 1985. And in a big sulk, it decided not to screen half of the current series.

It had already broadcast half of the last series to which it had the rights with 13 episodes outstanding when ITV swooped in and bought the following series off the distributor Worldvision in Los Angeles. The BBC had bid £29,000 per episode but ITV trumped them handsomely with an offer of £54,000. Already in delicate negotiations over the Licence Fee (the national tax that funds the BBC in the UK), the BBC realised it would be impolitic to try and match the bid from the Thames TV division of ITV.

An extremely disgruntled BBC said ITV had behaved like the Ewings and even referred to the deal as “hooliganism”. The Controller of BBC1, Michael Grade, said all ITV had done was pour even more money from British broadcasting into the pockets of American distributors.

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So to stick it to ITV, the BBC announced in February 1985 that having shown a batch of episodes, it was going to sit on the remaining thirteen until September of that year. ITV would be unable to start showing the series it had paid a king’s ransom for until the BBC aired what it had left.

Unfortunately for the BBC, new technology was rendering that kind of behaviour obsolete. In the 1970s, the BBC could have held back programmes and that would have prevented anybody being able to view them. There was no widespread ownership of video recorders, no digital, and the fact it had already broadcast first in the United States affected nothing.

But…in 1985, a video company announced that even if the BBC withheld the episodes, it was still going to go ahead and release the current series of Dallas in batches of episodes in video shops including those the BBC was refusing to screen.

The BBC eventually crumbled when licence fee payers rose in revolt. There was genuine fury at the BBC’s highhandedness and the mighty broadcaster gave in.

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