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10 things you may not know about the OU on TV and Radio

Updated Monday, 10th October 2016

As part of OpenLearn's 10th birthday celebrations, we take a look at some facts about our broadcasting. 

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1: The Open University's broadcasting relationship with the BBC goes back to the swinging sixties

The Beatles in America, 1964 Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: By United Press International, photographer unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1969 (when The Open University received its Royal Charter) the BBC set up a special department in Alexandra Palace for educational programmes to be produced in partnership with the OU, truly cementing it as the 'university of the air'. However, the first programmes to actually broadcast (on BBC Two, BBC Radio Three and BBC Radio Four) didn't occur until January 1971. Since then, the image of coffee-laden students staying awake until the early hours of the morning to watch a course-related programme has been synonymous with the OU. In reality, in the days before video recording (and now iPlayer), students had to be available to watch the programmes so many of these were transmitted during the day. It wasn't until the 1980s, when the OU production centre switched from Alexandra Palace to Walton Hall (our main campus) and video recorders were mass-produced, that Open University programmes started to be broadcast overnight during BBC Two Learning Zone and recorded by students to watch later. The OU's production centre closed in September 2003 and December 2006 saw the last of the course-related programmes to be shown on the Learning Zone. This millenium we've gone increasingly mainstream and although we're providing content for our courses our primetime TV broadcasts attract larger and more diverse audiences, with some viewing figures into their millions. We've come a long way since the days of black and white television showing bearded professors with flipcharts! 

2: We produce an impressive 30 co-productions a year


Open Media and Informal Learning within The Open University commissions around 30 co-productions every year which relate to curriculum priorities identified by each of the University's Faculties. On each co-production The Open University appoints at least one nominated academic (with expertise on the topic covered in that particular series) to become the series' academic advisor. So why do we do it? Well, besides the OU's social mission to promote educational opportunity to as many people possible, for free, we also use the programmes and especially commissioned additional content in our formal learning and teaching at The Open Univeristy. You can take a look at some of our co-productions with the BBC this past year in the trailer above.

3: Our programmes have led us to find out a polar bear's view on Marmite

Polar bear looking at marmite Creative commons image Icon Marmite by David Martyn Hunt under CC-BY-SA licence Polar bear by Ansgar Walk (photo taken by Ansgar Walk) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license

Sure, our programmes can unveil the mysteries of the universe and the extent of cyber crimes across the world but we're also happy to serendipitously uncover the Marmite reaction in polar bears (do they love it or hate it?). While this wasn't actually aired on BBC One primetime natural history series The Hunt, the production team observed a polar bear's feelings towards Marmiite, a product that typically produces a polarised (no pun intended) reaction by those who taste it. It turns out this particular bear had a sophisticated palate, falling into the 'hate' camp. Here assistant producer, Sophie Lanfear, talks about one greedy polar bear that kept on breaking into the filming crew's cabin and eating (nearly) all of their precious supplies:

'...a few days later, we met our intruder, a polar bear, on the way back to the cabin. He didn’t scare that easily, which was not a good sign. Sure enough, the next night the bear was pounding at the front door. We scared him off again, but the next time we went off to film we saw the bear heading straight towards the cabin and we filmed him breaking in again. This time he just destroyed the place. The only thing he didn’t eat was the Marmite. And then every five hours basically he’d come back. We couldn’t leave the hut: armed with a couple of flare guns and a guide with a loud voice and nerves of steel, it was time to re-stake it as our territory. The bear didn’t come back after that. Hunting strategies? Well, we do know that bears don’t like Marmite. At least this one didn’t.'

4: We've won BAFTA and Emmy awards, amongst others

trophies Creative commons image Icon Kristine Paulus under CC-BY-2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license

Our programmes don't go unnoticed by big cheeses in the TV and film industry. Of course, our Natural History programmes (narrated by national treasure David Attenborough) are some of the best in class at these award shows. Recently, The Hunt scooped two awards at the renowned BAFTAs, this included two BAFTA Craft awards for Best Photography in a Factual Programme and Best Original Music. Additionally it was nominated for a TV award for Best Specialist Factual programme. This series, which took a unique stance on how predators track their prey, also won Best Natural History Programme of Series at The Royal Television Society West of England Awards, Thomson Reuters Award for Communicating Zoology by the Zoological Society of London and three awards at the Wildscreen Panda Awards. We've also won the General Education Broadcast Award at the Learning On Screen Awards two years running for Don't Panic: How to End Poverty in 15 Years and Dementiaville - episode 2 'families', respectively. But what about the Emmy's? Well, in 2012 Frozen Planet joined in on the glitz and glamour by winning three awards for Best Cinematography, Best Picture Editing and Best Sound Editing.

5: Between 150-300 million views and listens of OU produced programmes take place each year in the UK...


One of the main reasons for co-producing TV and radio shows is to generate public awareness of the OU brand and, with hundreds of millions of views and listens, creating innovative ways to connect with audiences worldwide. We also have a number of programmes going out on the World Service TV and radio, such as Living Shakespeare, making certain that the OU's teaching and learning is presented across the globe. Some of our UK-only broadcasts seem to have attracted a somewhat viral following across the globe. Take Are our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, for instance; this series gained media attention in China and thousands of people came through to our debate page on OpenLearn to discuss what they think British schools can learn from the Chinese education system and vice versa. We've even partnered with BBC Learning English to bring more learning to those who don't speak English as a first language or live in the UK - check out our Shakespeare Speaks animations to dig deeper into the meaning and use of a well-known modern English expressions that appeared in Shakespeare's work. You can view the trailer to this series in the animation above.

6: ... and up to 670,000 viewers go on to engage with free educational material on OpenLearn

Illustration of a map with visual clues of women who changed the world by Stephen Collins Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stephen Collins

All of our programmes have a call-to-action at the end of the episode that encourages viewers to embark on a learning journey to find out more about the topics they have watched by ordering a free print item and visiting the OpenLearn website with a wealth of material. Our content, for those who come through to our pages from watching our programmes, can vary from articles on DIY chromatography to complement our series Colour: The Spectrum of Science or an interactive map on How Women Changed the World for our co-production The Ascent of Woman. We've also fully embraced the digital world with series such as The Secret Life of Books where we launched an app and also had a collection of eBook guides to famous literary works which included Jane Eyre and Great Expectations amongst others. 

7: We don't just have broadcast partnerships with the BBC


Yes, our broadcast partnerships are typically with the BBC but in more recent years we've collaborated with Channel 4 and Sky Arts to really get education out there to the masses. Our Channel 4 co-production Dementiaville even won a Learning on Screen Award for its portrayal of radical approaches to dementia care. Our programmes also go across all of the BBC - from Our Crime on hip and happenin' BBC Three, to the first BBC commission for BBC One Wales The Story of Wales. This is because each channel attracts a very different audience, thus, our presence on each channel ensures we really are 'open to all'.

  • Take a peek at one of our co-productions with Channel 4, Chasing Perfection, and the eight videos we commissioned with the production company on what makes a champion. 

8: Our most popular free print item from a broadcast was 'Frozen Planet'

Frozen Planet print item Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Those polar bears really do like to steal the show and it seems like our audience just laps it up with Frozen Planet being the most popular print item we've ever created. The seven-part 2011 series of the same name had viewing figures of around 8 million per episode. In case you were one of the few who missed it and wants to know what all the hype is about, the programmes often air on Eden or Yesterday. While you can't order the Frozen Planet poster any more, don't fret - a downloadable PDF version is still available. The poster includes details on both the Arctic Circle and Antarctica with intricate profiles of the respective life, geology and ice formations as well as timelines of human exploration. You can view our full range of print items here.

9: We don't just produce documentaries


We've found that dramas also really inspire learning. Our first co-produced drama Julius Caesar, featuring a distinguished cast of black actors and shot on location in the RSC's theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, went out on BBC Four in 2012 to great acclaim. Since then, we've expanded this by depicting the fight to invent Radar in World War Two with our co-production on BBC Two, Castles in the Sky, starring Eddie Izzard as inventor Scotsman Robert Watson Watt (BBC Two). Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for our latest drama co-production To Walk Invisible written by Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango In Halifax) and starring Jonathan Pryce (Wolf Hall, Game Of Thrones) which tells the story of the Brontë sisters and the means they deployed to write the finest literary novels. We can't wait for you to see it!

  • Besides dramas and documentaries, we also champion live shows - head over to Shakespeare Live! From the RSC to see our latest live co-production with a star-studded cast. 

10: Our broadcasts span the British Isles, countries, space and history

Universe Captured by Hubble Space Telescope

The OU is a four nation university and our broadcasts truly reflect this with the aforementioned The Story of Wales, Ireland with Simon Reeve and Scotland and the Battle for Britain. We're also keen to explore history throughout the globe, as demonstrated in Andrew Marr's History of the World or individual countries, as seen in Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain with Simon Sebag Montefiore. But why stop at the world when we can venture into the universe? Our co-productions have launched into space with Light and Dark and our popular live show Stargazing Live fronted by Brian Cox and Dara O'Brian. In future we'll be looking to continue our wide range of co-productions to bring learning to even more people. 

The Open University launched OpenLearn, a website dubbed 'The home of free learning', in October 2006 and since then it has gained over 40 million unique users and won awards recognising its array of valuable free learning content.
To celebrate OpenLearn's 10th anniversary, we are releasing a new listicle centralised round the number 10 on the 10th of every month in the 10 month lead up to October. Check out our Ten Years of OpenLearn hub to enjoy even more free learning!





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