No, I’m not planning to write about Goggle Box  -although I’m constantly struck by the contrast between the high-pitched engagement of the sofa-sitters (after all it did win the 2014  BAFTA award for ‘constructed factual’ programmes) and the research conducted by Peter Collet for the IBA back in the 1980s. Then cameras on TV sets revealed mere indifference, if not lethargy -‘viewers’ chatting, snoozing, canoodling, reading the newspaper or leaving the cat as the only audience.  If I remember correctly, only one couple turned on their set at the beginning of a programme and watched it attentively until the end (Collet and Lamb 1986).

The casual glance, half watching a programme, being gripped by this bit or that, leaving the room, coming back, flicking over to another channel. This has long been the normal way of watching television.  I’m reminded of the day I walked into a friend’s living room and asked what he was watching.  ‘Television’ he replied grumpily.   Goggle Box is not representative now and never was.

So what counts as watching television?  Here are some recent experiences from the living rooms of other friends:

It’s Saturday evening and The Voice is about to start. It’s in the schedule, eagerly anticipated; the time has been put aside and we settle down to watch.  The 20-something viewers are clearly engaged with the show -but they’re equally engaged with the twitter exchanges their mobile phones.  OK, they’re watching ‘television’ -but this is an expanded medium. The experience from the single screen is not enough.

In another home there are three young people aged between 10 and 17.  It’s mid-afternoon. What shall we watch?  The living room has a big screen smart television on one wall and a few clicks bring up Netflix offering a wide selection. It includes several BBC series, so why not watch on Freeview?  Well. a subscription to Neflix is cheap, I’m told, and we can watch whenever we want.  The adults want to chat in the living room, so the young people retire to a bedroom, which also has a big screen smart television, to make their choice and watch comforted by their duvet. Are they watching television?  In the end they decided to go for a movie on DVD.

So are we talking about two separate phenomena here: ‘television’ with its interlinked chain of genres, ads, trailers and the rest, many of them live; and ‘programmes’, which are self-contained and may or may not be viewed on a television set?  The arrival of streaming, catch up, the second screen and the rest of the digital innovations, have forced a re-evaluation of television as a medium.  But it has also challenged the notion of a programme. Television studies -from Raymond Williams on- have produced plenty of insightful attempts to define and analyse the specificity of the medium, while the literature on specific programmes is vast.  But have the two been linked?   How often has the analysis of a drama or a comedy series taken into account what comes before or after, considered what ads were in the middle or how and when and where the audience got to view it? Now that the medium is beginning to explode, it seems we’re forced both to look at changes at to the television text, taken as a whole, and to re-consider the definition of ingle ‘programme’.

At this point I have to admit that I’m like the nerdy couple who switch on at the beginning of a programme and watch to the end.  Yet it’s because I’m interested in programmes, that I’m aware that this experience of expansion and proliferation is not new. The medium has long spilled out of the television screen. Well before the coming of DVD boxed sets, programmes could be lifted out of the screen and personalised. For me it started with the arrival of VHS recording in the 1980s.  I was delighted that I could record programmes, watch them at my leisure, stopping and starting at any point -and speeding fast forward through the ads. Alternatively, if I happened to be interested in the ads, I could fast forward through the programme. The shelves in my study are still lined with VHS tapes.  More than 400 of them -some catalogued, some not. Most contain 8 hours of fascinating television history (that’s a 4 hour tape recorded as long play).  The picture quality is terrible -especially as a nearby tower block created a shadow down one side of the screen.

My collection came in handy when I was looking at issues of health over the 1980s. I came to believe that it was worth looking at the viewing experience not just as single programmes and not just as the immediate experience of the medium -how an evening of viewing might be constructed. I was interested in the range of what was on offer about a specific topic.  It was important to consider reflections on a topic across a number of genres -fact, fiction, comedy, news etc -and to consider how they interact with each other.  Of course, few single viewers would see all the programmes. But I would argue that a range of programmes around a topic would work in dialogue with each other and, importantly, with the politics of the day. The meanings of each individual programme shift in the light of others available at the time.

Recently I’ve been getting my tapes out again to re-visit programmes about Bosnia in the 1990s -focussing on programmes, or segments of programmes with a documentary aim. The Balkan wars forced documentary work into a number of innovative formats. The coverage reflected a wide range of the emerging genres of the 1990s;  there was infotainment; experimentation in journalism and reporting styles; black humour and citizen journalism,  as well as space for classic documentary formats. There were clusters of programmes -presented as series, as well as parts and fragments of programmes across the channels.  I would argue that what was on offer was a nuanced view of the conflict -well beyond what any single programme could convey.

To understand the history of television we need to understand the mix between the characteristics of the medium, and the separate trajectory of the programmes it supports.  It’s a complex history.  And I still have that history sitting on my shelves.

Or have I?  New technologies arrive, old technologies become obsolete.  The digital has swept all before it and there are fewer and fewer places where I can play my VHS.  My recorder which transfers from VHS to DVD has broken down, and it’s increasingly difficult to find anywhere which offers that facility. The digital world may expand the viewing experience. It can make the past available through online archives, catch-up and DVD…but what about personal archives? How much is lost?


Pat Holland’s most recent book is Broadcasting and the NHS in the Thatcherite 1980s: the challenge to public service Palgrave 2013