The gogglebox. The tube. The idiot box. If you were born after 1950 and haven’t spent your entire life living in the remotest Amazonian rainforest, you will have grown up with television. Maybe your family didn’t actually own one until the 1970s, or maybe you think it’s mostly full of puerile rubbish and never watch. But we now take that luminescent screen sitting in the corner of our living rooms for granted. Like sliced bread or global warming, TV feels like it’s here to stay, despite having existed for little more than half a century.
But even though the television has become a standard household appliance like a fridge or cooker, viewing figures have reached saturation. The World Cup may still be garnering billions of viewers every four years, with FIFA claiming increasingly inflated figures each time. However, the general trend for the most popular examples of everyday programming is down – in fact, considerably down. Until the London Olympics in 2012, the top ten most-watched programmes in the UK were all from the 20th Century, and most from the 1980s or earlier. The most popular episodes of the most popular programmes, usually soap operas, used to achieve 20 million viewers or more on a regular basis. In the 21st Century they are lucky to surpass ten million. The US is even further down this route, with half of the top ten programmes ever dating back to the 1970s. Some new formats have engendered a mild renaissance, in particular the hybridisation of reality programming and talent show best epitomised in the UK by ITV’s X Factor. But these still haven’t returned viewing figures to the glory days of the 20th Century.
Running parallel to our familiarity with TV, we now think it’s perfectly normal that films are around two hours long and we see them in large darkened public rooms. The trend for 3D hasn’t altered this fundamental format in any serious way. Yet this was also a format that took a few decades to form. Before D W Griffiths’ seminal 1915 epic Birth of a Nation proved that films longer than an hour could garner large audiences, movies were much more varied in length. Indeed the first actualité movies were just the duration of a single reel of film. Edison also conceived the movie as a personal viewing experience rather than a theatrical performance to be seen by large groups.
In contrast, television has clearly become a more domestic pastime, watched alone or in small groups. But there was no guarantee at the beginning of the 20th Century that these would be the forms our foremost duopoly of audiovisual entertainments would take. During the 1936 Olympics, for example, Germany broadcast near-live footage of sports events to salons and clubs equipped with screens, in an early precursor of today’s sports pubs and bars, or the giant screens redestributing live sports occasions to parks and public squares. Television wasn’t conceived as a home device. But that didn’t turn out to be the dominant format when TV took off around the world after the Second World War, primarily driven by the US and UK.
Since then, TV has settled into a relatively stable form during the 20th century. More channels, and the remote control’s ease of changing between them, have given viewers greater control over what they watch. The VCR and more recently the PVR have allowed us to choose when we watch our favourite programmes. Satellite, cable and digital TV have expanded the choice still further, and the TiVo has made it possible to fit our viewing habits even more closely around our personal preferences rather than vice versa. Yet we still watch programmes on the (increasingly large) screen in our living rooms with similar formats to the ones we did in the 1950s. There are game shows, dramas, news, documentaries, and comedy.
But as the 21st century gets into full swing, TV’s dominance has come under increasing attack. Thanks to the rise of the home computer, Internet and smartphone, more and more of us are obtaining our audiovisual content in different ways. At the beginning of 2012, YouTube was delivering over three billion videos a day to 800 million users a month. Even by May 2010, BBC’s iPlayer was receiving 123 million play requests a month. According to Comscore, by mid 2007, 75 per cent of Internet users in the US were watching 181 minutes video per month online. An ICM survey for the BBC in 2006 found that nearly half of those watching video online consumed fewer hours of television as a result of their online viewing. The trend has continued upwards since all these statistics were reported.
The format of that content is changing to fit the new way we’re watching, too. YouTube only altered its policy to allow for videos longer than ten minutes in July 2010, and its previous focus on short pieces has encouraged a rather different range of formats than has dominated TV over its reign. Short comedy sketches, video blog diaries, favourite clippings from popular TV shows, and – most importantly – opportune moments from life best epitomised by Charlie Bit My Finger… again! have racked some incredible viewing statistics, with a few topping hundreds of millions of plays. A cat with seemingly ninja-like skills of stealth may be considered puerile compared to carefully constructed TV programmes, but people want to watch such things, and often in great numbers.
Together, these factors raise the question, Are we witnessing the beginning of the end for TV as we know it, or is this trend just a fad? Those with vested interests in the technology and commerce of traditional TV will be hoping the latter is true, but there are many indications that it’s not. The figures show that for decades in the UK we have been watching an average of 25-35 hours of TV a week, depending on the time of year, and that has been spreading over an increasing choice of channels, and this trend is mirrored in most developed nations. The real growth in audiovisual consumption is elsewhere. This book traces the rise of alternative viewing modes and novel formats, looking towards a future where TV itself could become marginal, like music hall and travelling mummery before it. Television may not be about to cease existing entirely. But its dominance is under serious threat.