Tag Archives: Television

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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The death of a time and a place for everything

Diary date: 12th May, 1985

Amazon LockerI did two utterly unremarkable things this week in 1985, but they were exactly the kind of things I started followthehumming to help me spot.

First off, I went to the university library twice to do some research on Swedish canals (sounds odd I know, but don’t be alarmed, I’ve written before about how this forms part of my secret superpower). The library itself was about three miles away, so going there wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, eating as it did into valuable drinking time.

Secondly, I waited at home all evening for a phone call that never came (don’t worry, I’m over her now – or at least I was until I started re-reading my diaries!).

What on earth was I thinking? Why didn’t I just turn on my tablet, connect to the nearest wi-fi and do my research sitting in Starbucks? Or just put my mobile on vibrate and head to the nearest bar to drown my sorrows in anticipation of what was about to happen?

Clearly the fact that the technology involved was a distant dream at the time didn’t help, but what these stories really bring to life is the very different relationship we had with ‘place’ in the 80’s.

Back then, place sat high on the list of stuff you needed to keep an eye on. If you agreed to meet someone somewhere at a certain time, the arrangement was locked and loaded. Once things were under way, you couldn’t alter your plans without leaving someone stranded. Today, we don’t even agree to meet up, we just agree to agree to meet up later, details to be confirmed – with at least the one consequent benefit of it now being very hard to be late for anything.

Activities happened in predictable places. Phone calls were taken wherever the phone was  plugged in – a draughty hall in my case. Watching TV happened in the living-room with everyone crowded round, rather than in isolated pockets of the house and on lots of different devices. Books were browsed and bought in a bookshop. ‘Computing’ happened three feet in front of the television into which you’d plugged your ZX-81. Video games were played in a seedy arcade. Listening to your music library happened wherever your parents had set up their ‘Music Centre’ – the enormous record-and-cassette-tape-playing monster that has now been replaced by the ubiquitous iPod. Even living itself was location-specific, and took place either in the kitchen or the living-room, probably the only two rooms where your mum and dad thought it was acceptable to turn on the central heating.

Place continues to evolve. With Amazon Locker, the world’s largest online retailer has decided that even the home is not sacrosanct. The items you’ve bought from them can now simply be delivered to you as an individual – wherever you are.

As technology changes, so the idea of place is gradually becoming more fluid and more personal.

Place feels less and less like something external with which we interact.

Instead, it has started travelling with us.

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.