BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 17:45 GMT, Wednesday, 12 March 2008

For those of you watching in black and white

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Couple with a black and white television set
In the UK television took a while to get into colour

The price of a black and white TV licence is going up, it was announced this week. But is anybody still watching in monochrome?

Television in the UK 50 years ago was all rather Henry Ford. You could have any colour you liked, as long as it was black or white.

In the late 1960s colour television made its belated British debut and, after a steady start, won hegemony in our living rooms.

And yet black and white television is not dead and there is still a separate licence for it. From 1 April the cost of a black and white licence will rise to £47. This compares very favourably indeed with the £139.50 you have to pay for a colour licence.

Early colour sets were very expensive and had a habit of a setting fire to people's curtains
John Trenouth
Television historian

As of January this year there were 34,700 people in the UK with a licence for black and white television - dwarfed by the 25 million colour licence holders. But who is watching in monochrome?

Detailed market research on what sort of person has a black and white licence is not easy to come by, but figures from TV Licensing - the BBC's collection contractors - suggest that less wealthy socioeconomic groups (D, E) are more heavily represented in black and white licence ownership.

Enterprising students

Of the monochrome licence holders, 20% are in the socioeconomic category D, compared with the 17% they constitute of colour licence holders. With people in the socioeconomic category E, the ratio is 22% black and white and 17% colour.

Scene from the Avengers
The Avengers was filmed in colour long before anyone in the UK had colour sets

Black and white televisions are as rare as hen's teeth in the high street, but they are still available to buy new if one knows where to look. Go on eBay and you see them for sale, recommended as ideal for fishermen or caravanners.

One could hazard a guess that there could be some representation of the elderly in the 35,000 black and white licence holders, those who perhaps have never got round to replacing an old set.

Those under the age of 75 do not get a free licence, so that could be a factor. Students wanting to save money are also likely to be among the total. The caravanners and holiday homeowners do not need a second licence if the whole family is only ever in one residence or the other.

Costs £47
Detector vans cannot distinguish colour/monochrome sets
Black and white licence holders may be visited at home

The numbers of black and white licences have been dwindling for decades. In 2007 the figure was 40,400, falling steadily from 117,000 in 2002.

"It is now very difficult to go out and buy a black and white set. It is as easy to buy a cheap colour one," says television historian John Trenouth.

It is a long time since the soft, poorly-focused picture of early colour televisions and other technical problems were solved.

Muffin the Mule
Mar 2000: 212,000
Mar 2001: 155,000
Mar 2002: 117,000
Mar 2003: 93,000
Mar 2004: 74,000
Mar 2005: 58,000
Mar 2006: 49,000
Mar 2007: 40,400
Jan 2008: 34,700

"Early colour sets were very expensive and had a habit of a setting fire to people's curtains," says Trenouth. "They were often referred to as 'curtain burners' by the engineers who serviced them."

In the 1970s many people were still watching colour broadcasts in black and white, baffled by monochrome snooker and football and feeling the snob factor of not having a colour set.

Trenouth does not think those who are still watching in black and white are nostalgia buffs.

"I don't think there is the same nostalgia you get with black and white programmes."

And of course, the number of black and white licences does not tell the full picture. They belong to people who have no colour television, but there must be countless more black and white sets dumped, unloved, in box rooms, attics and garages all over the country.

These relics are doomed never to return to pride of place in the living room.

Below is a selection of your comments.

All my TV memories seem to be in black and white, even the shows I know were broadcast in colour.
Ray, New Romney, Kent, UK

I really don't see why there is a cost difference between b/w and colour TV licences. The signal received by both types of TV is the same! What next, different price brackets depending on whether your HDTV can display 720p or 1080p?
John, Aberdeenshire

Until last year, my boyfriend and I happily watched TV on my grandparents old black and white. Last year however, the TV licensing authority told us that since we also owned a video-recorder we had to buy a colour licence. Grudgingly we have now upgraded to a colour set, although we still have the black and white, twist tune, set too.
Lisa, Cambridge

My mum and dad had been renting a black and white TV for many years. Over time the picture deteriorated to the extent that the screen became a grey blur. I bought them their first colour TV in February 2006 (the rental company even gave them the old TV as a gift for long service). I now have to co-ordinate my telephone calls home so that it doesn't interfere with their viewing pleasure!
Roger Cumberbatch, Bexleyheath, Kent

My father refused the new colour tv I bought him as a gift and insisted on keeping his black and white.Nothing to do with the licence fee he just doesn't like colour.
Lilly, Nottingham

In 1971/72 I lodged in Frinton-on-Sea with an old lady who had an early colour TV. One day she spilt water from a flower vase down the back of the set, resulting in some very odd colours on the screen. "Oh dear", she said, "the dye must have got wet". I advised her to tell the repair man exactly what had happened.
David Adams, Southampton

I am one of those still watching in black-and-white on a 1937 Marconiphone television set (with a 405-line converter). This lends a sense of occasion to viewing which is entirely missing from the modern experience, I assure you! But even a 70 year-old set still needs a licence.
Steve, Sedgeberrow Worcestershire

My parents got their first colour set in 1987 (late by many standards) but my mum used to turn the colour down to give a black and white picture for two programmes. One was M*A*S*H which I can understand, the black and white adding to the Korean war atmosphere as being like news of the time. The other programme was snooker... some mothers eh.
Saul, Alresford, England

I Roomed at a B&B in Muswell Hill a couple of years ago. The young Irish couple that owned the place had two small children. They had a small B&W TV to watch things like the news, or educational programing. They said that they wanted their children to grow up readers and doers, not just spectators.
S.Kantor, Madison, Indiana USA

I remember one of the consequences of the early 80s recession was our family having to switch back to a rented B/W television. We later upgraded to a colour slot tv but retained the cheaper B/W licence - we had a gentleman's agreement with the TV rental man that if the licence people asked questions, he would say that our B/W set was being repaired and the colour one was on loan. I'm sure we weren't the only people in that position and I'll bet many of the B/W licence owners actually do have colour sets.
Darren, Dudley

Surely anyone registered blind would go for the cheaper black and white option? The TV licensing website states that "If you are blind or severely sight impaired, you can apply for a 50% concession on the cost of your TV Licence."
Nick, Bristol

My mother still has the portable B&W set that was bought to see her through being pregnant with me. I am now 25. The TV is still working, and lives on as a second tv, which can be watched while eg cooking in the kitchen. Okay, it's a bit useless for watching snooker on, but it's great for short bursts of news etc. She also has a second B&W set bought for £5 secondhand which goes caravanning, because it doesn't matter if we break it.

Of course, they will both be totally defunct when the world goes digital, but until then I have to admit I love twiddling with the dial, knowing where the stations are by frequency and getting that satisfying feeling of having found the perfect reception point yourself, by hand. Pressing the button on a remote control just ain't the same.
Susannah, Northampton

I still have a black and white TV and I love it. It's partly a nostalgia thing for me, I love the way it looks but my boyfriend says I'm just being pretentious.
Charley, London

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific