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Small screen heroes: The OU and the BBC

The relationship between the OU and the BBC is a critical part of the OU's history. TV and Radio programmes have always been an important way of increasing the University's recognition, enhancing its reputation and fulfilling its mission 'to promote the educational well-being of the community generally.'  This relationship was looked at in more detail by an article in the University's 40th anniversary brochure The Open University: The first 40 years, which is reproduced here.

Small screen heroes

In 1969, the year the OU received its Royal Charter, a BBC production department for OU programmes was set up at Alexandra Palace, London, in premises vacated by TV news.

The first Open University broadcasts went out on BBC Two – itself a recent innovation – and on radios three and four, in the first week of January 1971. They actually preceded the signing of the first of a series of formal agreements which has governed the relationship between the University and the BBC ever since. This took place in December 1971.

Mention of those early black-and-white TV programmes still conjures up images of earnest, bearded professors with flipcharts. But they made The Open University a household name. And at the time, they were breaking new ground.

Social scientist Professor Michael Drake, one of the academics who took part in those pioneering recordings, recalled the challenges in a later interview. ‘Each programme took one day. We rehearsed once, then recorded it, with no stopping because of errors. I’m surprised I don’t have nightmares still.’ And there was innovation. OU lecturer Robert Bell recalled many maths programmes which ‘involved ingenious working models that would have been unavailable then in a conventional university’.

A number of technological developments were used or trialled at the OU Production Centre; the BBC’s first video rostrum camera, for example, was installed at Alexandra Palace in the 1970s. People think of Open University TV programmes being broadcast to an audience of bleary-eyed students and insomniacs late at night, but in the days before video recorders, they had to be shown when students were available to view the transmission itself – before BBC2 started up on weekday evenings, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The OU production centre was moved from Alexandra Palace to the Walton Hall campus in July 1980, where technological innovation in production continued. In 1983, the production centre’s outside broadcast truck was replaced with two portable single camera units, pioneering lightweight VT (videotape) recording for non-news programmes. In 1986, the OU production centre provided video facilities to the Domesday Project, which encouraged schoolchildren across the UK to send in text and images for central storage.

Meanwhile viewing habits were changing significantly. No longer did students have to watch material only at the time it was broadcast, thanks to the widespread take-up of video recorders during the 1980s and into the 1990s. This allowed for Open University programmes to be broadcast during the overnight BBC two Learning Zone and recorded by students for watching later.

In the 1990s the University’s work also expanded beyond course-related programmes. It began to commission peak-time series for BBC channels while continuing to deliver material specifically related to individual courses in the late-night Learning Zone.

By 2002, technological advances had again changed the nature of the University’s broadcast activity. Audio-visual material for courses was made directly by the University and sent to students in the form of CDs and DVDs. The production centre at Milton Keynes closed in September 2003. December 2006 saw the last of the course-related programmes to be shown on the Learning Zone.

But Open University broadcasting on mainstream TV and radio continues – the following year, 2007, saw more than 20 TV series go out bearing the Open University logo. Since then The Open University’s mainstream broadcasting has gone from strength to strength. Coast, Child of our Time, Chinese School, Fossil Detectives, Can Gerry Robinson fix the NHS?, James May’s Big Ideas, History of Scotland, and Olympic Dreams are all Open University programmes. They attract larger and more diverse audiences than the old course-related programmes could hope to, with viewer numbers for the most popular into the millions.

Production qualities are high, with a number of series, such as Coast, winning awards. And the programmes still retain solid academic content. No less than three Open University programmes: Tree of Life, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Jimmy Doherty in Darwin’s Garden – were shown to mark the 200th Darwin Anniversary.

Open University academics still have a significant input to the content of the broadcasts, although TV professionals and personalities are more likely to be the presenters nowadays. The OU also makes an input into existing flagship BBC programmes such as Timewatch, The Money Programme and a number of David Attenborough’s natural history epics.

On radio, OU programming has also gone increasingly mainstream with series such as Radio 4’s statistics detective show More or Less, World Service series Digital Planet and Radio 5’s Breaking Science. The University has also taken advantage of new opportunities offered by the advent of the internet and new media, developing an online learning portal,, with the BBC.

Broadcasting has changed out of all recognition over the last 40 years, and TV and radio have been joined by other new media. Open University material is now available through a variety of channels: a dedicated website,; YouTube; and on Apple’s iTunesU service.

But broadcasting and its partnership with the BBC remains a central part of what The Open University does – making learning accessible. ‘Part of the OU’s mission is to reach out beyond its students, which it does through the OU/ BBC partnership,’ says Dr Sally Crompton, head of the university’s Open Broadcasting Unit. ‘It’s about stimulating people to learn, opening up access to new learning opportunities, and public transfer of knowledge across a range of areas of interest and concern.’

Open University broadcasting: some milestones


Mathematics: introduction

The Open University’s first course broadcast on 3 January 1971 on BBC 2.


The first Open University radio programme, broadcast on 7 January 1971 on Radio 4.

The Chemistry of Almost Everything

Although made for students on the second-level Chemistry course, Our Chemical Environment, this was the first OU/BBC series to be shown at peak time in 1996, with academic presenter Dr Mike Bullivant setting out to appeal to a general audience.

Rough Science

Launched in 2000, the series featuring a team of castaway boffins facing scientific challenges was so popular it ran for six series.


The first series of this round-Britain tour was broadcast in 2005 and has hardly been off our screens since. It has won the BAFTA and VLV awards. A fourth and fifth series are currently in production.

A103 Art: A question of style, Neoclassicism and Romanticism

The last Open University programme to be broadcast on the BBC Learning Zone, on 16 December 2006.

Fingers crossed: 50 years of space exploration

Open University Professor John Zarnecki shared his memories of past space missions, in the first Broadband lecture broadcast on the internet by the OU/ BBC Open Broadcasting Unit, in June 2007.



For clips from the OU's broadcasting history, visit the interactive timeline on OpenLearn.