New year obituary: The death of appointment television

TV boxesI spent an idle half hour on 30th December 1986 looking through the TV schedules in the New Year issue of the Radio Times – a simple matter back then with only 4 channels to worry about – circling with a red biro all the stuff I thought I might like to watch. If only I hadn’t then had to remind myself to sit down and watch them when they were actually being broadcast, I might even have been able to enjoy some of them.

It wasn’t long till we had a better solution of course. Videoing stuff on rather large VHS video tapes meant you needed a new box under your TV, but finally let you record something to watch it later, as long as you got all the programme’s timings and other details right, and assuming it was broadcast as planned and didn’t overrun. The effort involved meant that you really had to want to watch something, so those bulky tapes became prized items, named and stored.

Programming your video became slightly easier with the adoption of VideoPlus+ codes – tortuous number sequences allocated to each and every programme, which when entered into your video recorder magically came up with the right date and time for the broadcast you wanted to record. After a brief foray into laser disks, next came DVDs with their size advantage and superior quality. They were clearly a winner, but the fact it took ages before you could record onto them made sure the VHS format stuck around for years – with the dual format VHS/DVD player still persisting in many houses even today.

DVD player

And then our patience was rewarded, and we got what we thought we’d needed all along: the world turned digital, hard disks got big enough to hold lots of programmes, TVs somehow started recording stuff inside themselves, iPlayer and its equivalents meant you could start to catch up on things online, Sky launched their Sky+ box and Virgin did the same with TiVo. Now, there’s no red-circling needed. Instead, I flick through the listings for my favourite channels either on the web or on the TV, press a single button to record anything that even remotely takes my fancy – either a one-off or an entire series – and create a cache of good telly for any time I feel like watching it (mostly when I’m ironing: it’s not all glamour in the 21st century).

All these changes mean old-style appointment viewing is now limited to special occasions, flagship series or live broadcasts – and as a consequence, the number of times the family congregates in the living room to watch something we all have a shared interest in has dropped dramatically. With the possible exception of Christmas, we no longer ask if there’s anything interesting on TV tonight. Instead, we contemplate the mysterious cache of TV that we’ve already recorded and wonder whether we’ll ever make any inroads into it.

Even when we are watching, we’re often multi-screening – busying ourselves on tablets, laptops or phones – with the TV playing a bit-part in the background. The minimal effort now required to actually record something means that our commitment to viewing it is equally low. We treat electronic storage as a near-infinite commodity, and as a result we value what it contains substantially less.

Perhaps that’s why many of us still have a box somewhere full of precious and often grainy TV programmes, trapped magically inside 240 cubic centimetres of black VHS plastic.

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