In a fascinating micro-study a couple of years ago, my colleague Karen Lury looked at how her neighbours were managing the digital transition (‘Close viewing: stories of technology in the move from analog to digital media’, paper to SCMS, New Orleans). This rang bells with me since I was beginning the long drawn-out stages of my own transition. I could never be accused of being an ‘early adopter’ so far as television is concerned. I blame this of course on my parents who seem to have taken the view that television would put us off reading or playing outside or jumping on the furniture or whatever children did in the sunny, suburban fifties. So we had no television at home although it certainly wasn’t banned; we did watch in other children’s homes and I remember being dispatched to a neighbours to watch the BBC’s Shakesperian series ‘An Age of Kings’ in 1960. When we finally got a television in the early 60s, it was not because television’s cultural credentials had won the day but because my father’s passion for sport took over. We certainly had a television for the 1964 Olympics but it was really test cricket and football which were key to the decision to let television in.
Fig 1 – a family photo from the early 1970s accidentally (?) reveals the television set. My current television is set at the same angle to the sofa.
I was lulled into a false sense of security by the ease with which we accepted television’s technological changes as they came along; we moved to colour and added BBC2 and Channel 4. Just the odd tussle with an indoor aerial and it was sorted. Cable/satellite television in the 1980s was not an issue – the combination of Murdoch’s battle with the unions and the physical presence of a dish made it unthinkable. But a VCR was a revelation. The machine was easy to use and though VHS tape was expensive it was worth it both for pleasure and for the work I was beginning to do on soaps. But television remained something I watched in a domestic setting, often doing other things at the same time. I’ve always relished the casual watching of television. I chose some specific programmes but watched many just because they were on and I happened to be on the sofa. And although I watched a certain amount of US television, it was always in a British context (Dallas without adverts, for example). Even when DVD box sets came along, I never really thought of that kind of viewing as watching television. I preferred the arbitrariness, the serendipity, the accidental discoveries of PSB mainstream television.
The problems began in the 1990s as cable television and digital possibilities began to loom. Murdoch’s deep pockets and favourable treatment by the Conservative government allowed him to survive initial difficulties and the PSB commitment to the development of Freeview broke through with those resistant to the cost (and I suspect the principle) of paytv. By the 2000s, it was clear that change in the UK was unstoppable, not just (or even largely) because of viewers wanting more choice but because the airwaves could be used more ‘productively’ if analogue disappeared. In 2003, in Glasgow, around a quarter of our first year Film and Television students said that they had had access to non-terrestrial television at home; in just three or four years, the figure rose to three quarters, in line with Ofcom’s report that, by the beginning of 2006, 70% of UK homes had access to digital television. I really enjoyed teaching about this – issues of regulation, ownership, access, demographies of viewing, ‘competition’, channel proliferation, convergence all made teaching television exciting although, at conferences, the innumerable television executives citing the media use of their ten year old sons (always their sons) as evidence of television’s future was both tedious and alarming.
Figure 2. the TV set finally put out of use in Glasgow in 2011
But still I lived my old-style television regime, watching part of the time on what must have been the oldest rented tv set in Glasgow. Finally, though, with my return to London, I had to move from teaching the digital switchover to living it since the signal was going to disappear in a matter of months. So off I went and got a flat screen (the smallest available (32 ins) which made the shop assistant laugh), a TiVO box which records improbable programmes which it thinks I might like, a range of new channels as well as HD visuals which make EastEnders look uncharacteristically shiny and even more melodramatic.
Fig 3. The new set-up but still relentlessly old-fashioned
Already I feel my habits changing; I’m still resistant to Sky so no HBO on Sky Atlantic for me but I actually managed to watch every episode of Borgen and Homeland though previously I’d resisted programmes for which you had to be hooked into every episode (for similar reasons to those thoughtfully discussed in Cathy Johnson’s recent blog, ‘Why I Stopped Watching Glee Season 3’). That’s why I’ve started the process of my writing an occasional CST blog in this rather self-indulgent way. My television viewing is shaped by my own television history (among many other things) but I can feel that I am now in the process of being re-shaped into the ideal viewer for the non-television age. Television audience research in the 1980s demonstrated the very different ways in which viewers chose to use their televisions, often ignoring the demands and wiles of the broadcasters. Now, in the name of choice, I feel I’m being much more effectively ‘nudged’ into position. History as we know is written by the winners; I wonder if future histories of television technologies will recognize the intricate decision-making so clear in Karen Lury’s account and find a place for the reluctant late adopters.
Christine Geraghty is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Glasgow and an Honorary Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her publications on television include a contribution to the 1981 BFI monograph on Coronation Street; Women and Soap Opera (Polity, 1991); and My Beautiful Laundrette (I B Taurus, 2004). Her BFI TV Classic on Bleak House (2005) will be published in October 2012. She is on the editorial board of the Journal of British Cinema and Television and sits on the advisory boards of a number of journals, including Screen.