How Arnold Schwarzenegger, Reddit and WWII are powering British Pathé into the future 

Future News 86 

The very start of the new Elizabethan age catalysed the end of the cinema newsreel era in the UK. TVs were luxuries at the beginning of the 1950s, with only the affluent (around 1.5m British households) being able to show off their ‘small screens’. The Queen’s Coronation changed all of that as 20m viewers crowded around TVs on 2 June 1953 and watched the crowing of the new monarch live from Westminster Abbey on the BBC.

Richard Dimbleby provided commentary alongside seven other voiceovers, including contributions from Bernard Braden and Brian Johnston. The seven-hour-long event boosted the BBC’s reputation and TV sales, with 10m combined TV and sound licenses being issued by the end of the decade.

News bulletins on the BBC and independent rival ITV (launched in 1955) meant that consumers could stay at home to learn about the big events of the day, most notably the 1956 Suez Crisis (leading to a run-in between Anthony Eden’s Conservative government and the BBC). The newsreels continued, but their days were clearly numbered.

Founded by Frenchman Charles Pathé, the son of a butcher’s shop owner, British Pathé was a dominant force in the newsreel sector, eventually stopping its news product, Pathé News, in February 1970.

Thanks to the internet, history buffs and YouTube it has experienced a revival of late, clocking up more than 822m views and over 2m subscribers on the Alphabet-owned platform. The account was first created in February 2009, but it wouldn’t be until three years later when the Pathé team started uploading some of its content. 

“The original plan when we started...was to publish just a handful of films per month, choosing content somewhat at random that we thought would be of interest,” James Hoyle, a content manager for the organisation, told FN. “Our earliest uploads are things like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Mr Universe Contest, the Hindenburg disaster and footage of the Titanic. The channel ticked over okay with us doing that for a few years.” 

A turning point came in April 2014 when the team decided to upload almost the entire archive to the channel in one go. “It was 82,000 videos,” Hoyle explained. “I was told it was the largest single upload in YouTube history at the time. I haven't gone through every channel to check, but it sounds about right.”

The channel had 166,000 subscribers at the time, meaning that the content dump is partly responsible for a 1,100% increase in sign-ups up to the present day. Hoyle revealed that the decision wasn’t made lightly and there was “some trepidation” on launch day.

“It was actually quite a risky thing for us to do,” he said. “British Pathé isn't a charity or a public institution. We receive no public funding. We're a private company that exists as a result of our archive and the revenues made from licensing that content. And yet, with this upload, we were making everything we owned available to view on YouTube, in good quality, free of charge where it could also, frankly, be stolen.”

The risk paid off and has led to producers and curators finding British Pathé through YouTube and licensing the videos, which date back to 1896, for use in documentaries and museum exhibitions. The seven-strong team has since seen good organic growth and recently uploaded 20,000 clips from the Reuters historical collection, which includes films from Gaumont Graphic, The Empire News Bulletin, British Paramount and Gaumont British.

“It can be really difficult to predict what will take off,” Hoyle added. “We've had videos that have been on our channel for years not getting any attention that will amass hundreds of thousands of views out of nowhere. It will be because someone has shared it to a niche Reddit page or a journalist has made use of it in a story. 

“We've had a film about ballet unexpectedly make the news in Russia, a few months where we were hugely popular in Romania, a story about manufacturing globes that became one of our most popular videos overnight, and just recently a video on jungle warfare which received about 10 million views, mostly from Indonesia. But in terms of themes, our Second World War coverage probably dominates our view count.” 

And British Pathé’s expectations for the future? “We expect to hit 1bn lifetime views later this year,” Hoyle predicted. 

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Image: Future News, British Pathe and “TV Error" by Sibe Kokke is licensed under CC BY 2.0