The BBC opened a television service for the London area in 1936, first broadcasting from Alexandra Palace on 2 November. Widespread access to a medium which could accurately communicate both sounds and images must be assumed to have a considerable effect on political relations. For example, in democratic theory, at least some of the orthodox idea of a representative's role becomes irrelevant in circumstances in which national leaders can be seen or heard in nearly everybody's living room. The early period of mass television did produce observations of ‘Caesarist’ or ‘Bonapartist’ tendencies as politicians sought a direct relationship with the electorate. Harold Macmillan (British Prime Minister 1957–63), Charles de Gaulle (French President 1958–68), and John Kennedy (US President 1960–63) were all national leaders thought to have succeeded by adapting to the ‘television age’. Many people believed that Kennedy had won his narrow victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 because his ‘clean‐cut’ image in television debate compared favourably with Nixon's ‘five o'clock shadow’.
Early liberal fears of totalitarianism, such as those expressed by Russell and Orwell, tended to assume that television would prove a mighty mechanism for thought control by the established powers. But much research suggested that most people formed the core of their beliefs and values at an early stage of their lives through family influences and were capable of treating television very selectively, paying close attention only to ideas and evidence which confirmed their existing views. Counter‐arguments have suggested that television is more important than this because it does tend to structure images, agendas, and beliefs in various ways, and that those ways function generally to support acceptance of the status quo.
From the 1980s onwards the political nature of television began to change rapidly. States increasingly abandoned their attempts to be monopoly providers of what was on the airwaves and to control what their populations were able to watch. This was partly because of political changes including the collapse of Communist regimes, but it was also the case that each technological change which occurred, including video and disc technology and the spread of the internet, made control more difficult. Global television companies such as CNN, the Murdoch empire, and Al‐Jazeera were able to offer images across a variety of borders so that what people watched was increasingly determined by individual choice or community fashion rather than by the state whose boundaries they were within. By the twenty‐first century the mid‐twentieth‐century liberal nightmare of a totalitarian state controlling the images and opinions its population could access was being replaced by fears of the power that new technologies were giving to private, ‘extremist’ organizations.