What is a… TV?

I remember many years ago my father prophesising that one day TVs would become componentised in the way that hifi systems were, with a separation of modules to be able to allow people to buy the functions that they needed. Dad’s maybe not ill-placed to have made such predictions, with the first part of his career spent as an electronic engineer at the BBC. It seems to have (sort of) come true.

My first memories of television are of a small black-and-white set, which was tuned with a dial. There were three channels: BBCs 1 & 2 and the local ITV franchise (Thames and LWT), and for what seemed like large portions of the day there was nothing on at all. Day times would frequently see nothing but lounge music, the test card, or the recently departed CEEFAX on a loop.

Fast forward a few decades, and my own children have a very different experience of television: we are light consumers of television in that we only use the Freeview digital services and so are restricted to a handful (maybe 70 overall) TV channels. We are also slightly unusual in that we have only the TV in our living room – no DVD or BluRay players, games consoles or set-top boxes. In many, many households in the UK the television is merely a screen, with the content coming through a Sky+ or Tivo box. Our own major concession to the digital age, however, is that the Samsung SmartTV we own is connected to the Internet, as as a result the BBC iPlayer service is frequently used (it seems for my wife to watch EastEnders, my kids to watch Postman Pat, and for me to watch the stuff I’ve missed because everyone else is watching iPlayer).

However iPlayer consumption isn’t restricted to the TV – it’s frequently being watched on either laptops, tablets or phones around the house. And very occasionally, when Watford make it onto Sky, I’ll use my “free as part of my subscription to Orange” Sky Sports access to watch the Hornets grind out yet another game on my phone. Oh, and to confuse matters further we’ll often use the television to listen to radio.

So, it seems to me, there are three things that once were combined into a single entity that have now been unpacked as a result changes in technology: TV as in the device(s); TV as in the channels; and TV as in the programmes.

My own children, emerging into a world of streamed content on demand, really will struggle with the concept of either channels or devices. Content is as easily consumed on big screens or small, and if Oscar or Milo want to watch Postman Pat, they can see no reason why they can’t watch him NOW! Timeshifting and on-demand consumption started in the 1970s with the VCR, but the ease and immediacy with which you can do it now makes it a very different prospect.

Ultimately, as with many of the things I’ll be looking at in this series, much of the changes we have seen and are still to see are as a result in the profound shifts that a medium-agnostic network like the Internet have the potential to change our patterns of consumption of content.

The fact is that the TV screen these days doesn’t really care how the video or audio it displays arrives to it: via terrestrial, satellite or cable broadcasting; by network from either within the home, from a closed on-demand service or from the broader Internet. Channels and channel-scheduling mean increasingly little for pre-recorded programming, hence the rise of “event TV” of the likes of X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, a way of broadcasters being able to encourage people to watch content (and associated advertising) at particular times without the huge expense of sports rights or the advertiser-unfriendly miserableness of the news.

The event nature of TV has changed forever… I can remember precisely when my parents got their first colour TV because, bless them, it allowed me to watch the highlights of Watford v Arsenal in the FA Cup on Match of the Day that evening (8th March 1980, for the record, and we lost 2-1). I doubt my kids will have a technology purchase in their lives that will relate to the timing of viewing of content in quite such a way.

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