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Hall of Fame: John Holton reflects on a life in broadcast

Throughout the last ten to 15 years, I have seen the most amazing developments in broadcast television. We no longer have to deal with PAL and NTSC. We have access

Early career

I became part of the broadcasting Industry in early 1972 when I joined Aston Electronic Designs. Aston was less than two years old, employed four or five people, had one product (an audio jack socket) and a clear idea where they were going. My task was to double their turnover of jack sockets to provide the funds necessary for their design work to continue. I did that with ease, tenfold in fact, thanks mainly to the UK changeover from monochrome to colour television.

By the mid 80s our range of products also included Source Identification Encoders and decoders, which we supplied to every broadcaster in the EBU; Teletext Encoders and decoders, and a stills store.

In 1984 we launched the famous Aston 4, the world’s first character generator to feature anti-aliasing, which produced exquisite typography using postscript typefaces. Other features included ultra smooth roll and crawl, automatic kerning and leading, subtitling and very fast editing. By now we were the leading manufacturer of character generators outside of the USA.


Sometime in 1985, I was invited to join the IBC Management Committee and I have been involved this IBC ever since. I was appointed Exhibition Chairman in 2002, a post I held until early this year.

In 1986 my colleague John Wood, Valerie (my wife) and I achieved a successful MBO of Aston and I was appointed chairman and joint managing director.

In 1988 I was appointed a Director of The British Board of Film Classification, a position I held until 2012.

In June 1997 John Wood and the Holtons sold Aston Electronic Designs and officially retired, all at the age of 55. So, not a bad innings!

Industry milestones

In my lifetime, I have witnessed many milestones in broadcasting.

2 June, 1953, was the day I first saw television. It was Coronation Day. The set was a nine-inch Bush and cost around £55. That would be around £1,400 today for which will get you a huge flat screen TV, access to hundreds of channels, social media, surround sound and much more. How times have changed.

20April, 1964. The launch of BBC2 and 625 lines.

10 July, 1964. Telstar, the world’s first TV satellite. Each transmission lasted only 20 minutes. Surely, it couldn’t get any better.

July 1967. BBC transmits colour TV for the first time. Wimbledon, as never seen before!

September 1967. First IBC at Lancaster Gate Hotel.The first IBC I attended was IBC 1972. I have only missed one since, and that was in 2012.

1982 BBC finally starts to use ENG. The unions were not very happy!

Throughout the last ten to 15 years, I have seen the most amazing developments in broadcast television. We no longer have to deal with PAL and NTSC. We have access to hundreds of television channels, we can watch programmes as and when we decide, VTRs have had their day; the servers have taken over!

The television graphics we see today is simply quite stunning and is achieved using nothing more than an off the shelf PC and a decent games card.

4K and television over IP will be the next things to look out for over the coming months.

My only regret is that, despite all the amazing technology we have today, the content providers have lagged behind. All we seem to get are repeats, which I accept we can now see more clearly.

Lasting thoughts on the industry 

It’s been a privilege to share time with so many gifted people whose work within the industry has brought us to the digital age that has changed all our lives so much. I would like to think that the design and development carried out by Aston during the 70s, 80s and 90s has contributed in some small way to today’s television experience.

My final thought is a warning to the broadcasters. Make sure you protect yourselves against hackers. We have only recently witnessed how easy it is for Russian hackers to almost bring down an entire French television station.

John Holton will receive the 2016 TVBAwards Lifetime Achievement honour at tomorrow night’s ceremony at the Grand Connaught Rooms, London.