Category Archives: TV

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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Revisiting the Munich Massacre

Almost immediately after I left for university, my parents began the process of moving to Munich, where Dad was starting a new job. By this week in 1985, he was already living in Germany, so I made my first trip to see how he was getting on.

Dad at the Olympiapark in Munich

Then – as now – I was a fan of the Olympic Games, and more than anything else I wanted to visit Munich’s iconic Olympiapark, with its sweeping, transparent canopies and miles of exposed metal ropes. The park was as memorable as I expected, but the atmosphere of the place was also suffused with the aftermath of what had become known as the Munich Massacre.

Black September militant at the 1972 Olympic GamesOn September 5th 1972, eleven days into a sporting spectacle which the Germans had subtitled, ‘the Happy Games,’ eight Palestinians belonging to the Black September movement broke into the Olympic village – just a stone’s throw from the Olympiapark – and took hostage nine Israeli athletes, coaches and officials. They immediately demanded the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails plus the founders of the German Red Army Faction, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. There followed a stalemate over some 18 hours in which events in the village were relayed live around the world – at one point even alerting the kidnappers, who were watching too, to the fact that a police rescue attempt was under way.

After a series of failed negotiations and offers from the German authorities, the Palestinians and their hostages were transferred by helicopter to the military base at nearby Fürstenfeldbruck, where they had asked for a plane to take them to Cairo. The Germans hastily planned a further armed assault involving snipers and a fake plane crew, coordinated via the airport’s control tower.

The rescue was a disaster. The police had underestimated the number of Palestinians based on earlier reports and found themselves short of snipers, the disguised plane crew decided at the last minute to abandon their mission, and the kidnappers realised almost immediately that an attack was planned. After a chaotic gun battle and a grenade explosion in one of the helicopters, all the hostages and five of the eight militants were dead.

Reporting on events as they unfolded for ABC in America, sports reporter Jim McKay’s description of the outcome eventually came to define the terrible events of that night:

We just got the final word … you know, when I was a kid, my father used to say, ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

In the aftermath, IOC President Avery Brundage took the controversial decision to allow the Games to continue, famously saying, “The Games must go on.”

The three surviving kidnappers were imprisoned pending trial, but released a few weeks later in exchange for the passengers of a hijacked Lufthansa jet – events which many have claimed were staged.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich, tells the story of the Israeli reaction to the massacre, Operation Wrath of God, which targeted members of both Black September and the PLO – including those believed to be involved in the events in Munich. Only one of the attackers – Jamal Al-Gashey – is still believed to be alive, living in hiding somewhere in Africa.

The events of the 1972 Games were a watershed for the Olympic movement in terms of heightening security concerns and complicating sporting politics. As late as the Games of London 2012, the IOC rejected a campaign for a minute’s silence to mark the 40th anniversary of Munich, with President Jacques Rogge stating that it would be “inappropriate.”

My visit to the Olympiapark in 1985 proved to be the first of many, but the stunning architecture and wonderful setting have always felt tarnished by the events of thirteen years earlier – events which originate in a conflict which sadly shows no sign of coming to a definitive end.

Is this on now or are you just watching it?

Diary date: 7th March, 1985

In between playing an awful lot of squash and revising fairly fruitlessly for a Swedish exam this week, my nineteen year old self seems to have spent a significant amount of time watching what might now be considered classic 80’s TV. Neighbours, Bullseye and Countdown all get a mention in my diary at one point or another.

TV options on a typical Virgin Media screen

Back then I had a small, portable black and white TV set in my room at university capable of getting BBC1 and ITV (or rather ITV1, as we have to say these days) on a good day, and BBC2 on a very good day. Channel 4 had been launched two or three years previously, but actually receiving it was still a distant dream. My remote control was a bamboo pole that just about reached the TV from my bed.

These days, we’ve got more channels than we have time to watch, and more ways of consuming them than we have time to understand. We’ve even got new ways of talking about what we’re doing. If you’d told me in 1985 that you were going to watch something on catch-up, or via live streaming, or that you’d been browsing online movies through your games console, I’d have thought you’d been reading too much William Gibson.

My favourite example of the way language adapts to new technology like this came the other day. I was sitting in front of the living room television and one of my children asked me, “Is this on now or are you just watching it?” Without me realising it, ‘watching’ something in our house has become a short-cut for viewing anything that is not currently being broadcast on a specific channel.

I guess we can’t complain that we weren’t warned about the pace of change when it comes to this kind of media. Back in October 2005, Bill Gates was clear that even TV technologies that seemed new at the time like Blu-ray DVDs would inevitably be the last of their kind:

Understand that this is the last physical format there will ever be. Everything’s going to be streamed directly or on a hard disk. So, in this way, it’s even unclear how much this one counts.

The reality is that everything always counts at the time it’s happening. Back in 1985 – when I was angsting about Swedish exams and changing TV channels remotely with a bamboo pole – Bill would have been a busy guy. Later that year, Microsoft launched a new operating system called Windows 1.0.