Unlike an increasing number of colleagues, my television viewing is still largely tied to the broadcast schedule. This is entirely due to my being a creature of habit; while I am willing and able to adapt to the new, it’s usually a matter of necessity rather than inclination. When I returned to England’s shores in 2008, after spending several years abroad, it seemed silly not to purchase a DVD recorder (as opposed to a simple player), since VCR was already becoming defunct. My new machine gave me access to Freeview, allowing me dozens more channels than the five terrestrials I’d been able to watch at the time of my departure; however, the only ‘new’ channel to which I became a genuine devotee was BBC Four. I balked at the idea, promoted by my phone/internet service provider with distressing regularity, of expanding my package to include a pay TV service, and when my last partner got a Skybox I realised there wasn’t that much I was really missing out on (apart, perhaps, from Grimm – and as we went our separate ways between seasons 2 and 3, I still don’t know how they got out of that shipping container).
So, broadcast TV it has been for six years or more, and over that time the schedule has formed a reassuring backdrop to some fairly significant changes in terms of personal lifestyle. I was going to write ‘a reassuringly constant backdrop’, but of course that isn’t truly the case. As Benjamin Disraeli once pointed out, change is inevitable – and in a progressive country, change is constant. Given my predilection for fiction programming over factual, my scheduled viewing patterns shift as various programme seasons begin and end; in other words, I watch very few programmes that are shown all year round. But this is fine; it gives shape to my viewing year. September means Strictly; Easter used to mean new Doctor Who. On a meta level, a more gradual change takes place when shows are cancelled, or long-running characters depart. Several of the dramas which were just starting up when I returned to Blighty (Merlin, Being Human) have now ended, while longer-running shows such as Doctor Who, New Tricks and Midsomer Murders have undergone changes significant enough to render them, in some senses, different programmes. In this way, the TV schedule now performs much the same function that popular music did in my younger years, providing epochal marker buoys or points of recall for times gone by. While any track from Blur’s Parklife will forever recall my second year as an undergraduate, what I shall doubtless refer to in the many future volumes of my autobiography as ‘The PhD Years’ will more likely be brought to mind by Matt Smith’s tenure as the eleventh (twelfth?) Doctor, while the shock of not being a doctoral student any more is probably best reflected in the gradual dissolution of the classic New Tricks line-up, James Bolam departing just a month or two before my viva (the beginning of the end…).
In recent weeks, the routine of TV watching has even provided a certain degree of emotional/psychological support. Having taken up a new job in a new town without first procuring a new abode, I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time in cheap hotel rooms, where the one reassuring point of continuity has been the presence of a television set. No matter that one week I was in the comparative comfort of my old flat in Muswell Hill, and the next in a clean but claustrophobic single cell near Old Trafford; Death in Paradise remained Death in Paradise (some might say, unvaryingly so). It was a lovely 9 o’clock staple – apart from the one week where they screened it early due to the EastEnders double bill, which I admit shook me (the schedule change, not the revelation about Lucy Beale’s killer).
Stuck in my little room, I quickly evolved a new routine to make myself feel more at home, watching repeats of The Avengers on True Entertainment between 8 and 9pm, before switching over to Paradise/Midsomer/The People’s Strictly. The former featured the Emma Peel episodes, which I have owned on DVD for several years, but have never really bothered to re-watch. In the alien environment of my hotel, however, they performed the task of old friends. This went slightly awry, I admit, in my penultimate week of checking in, when I realised the evening’s episode was ‘The Forget-Me-Knot’: Emma Peel’s swansong, and Tara King’s debut. Though the show’s subsequent era has its admirers, I’m afraid I never quite got the hang of Patrick Newell’s Mother as a regular character, and knew instinctively that a vital brick in the wall of my support system had been loosened.
Disraeli’s inevitability of change strikes again.
This week, however, I take possession of the keys to my new flat, and another adjustment begins. In the autobiography, this will be ‘The Period of Transition’ – and it looks to be a drawn-out one. Although I now have a place of my own, my belongings won’t be making their way up from London until the first week of April. Prime among these is my television set, which portends a fortnight in which I shall be deprived of the schedule entirely. Might this mark the beginning of yet another transition, forcing me to take my first, tentative steps into the post-broadcast era? Perhaps; it depends on how quickly I’m able to get the internet connection set up. The only fixed TV points of reference at present are Gotham(Monday nights, Channel 5, 9pm) and The Big Bang Theory (Thursdays, E4, 8.30pm – presuming they haven’t already put it on hold again), and while each of these is available via their respective iPlayers, already I begin to grow uneasy. What, I wonder, is the interim alternative? There are always DVDs, of which I possess many. I’m now halfway through the BFI’s excellent restoration of Out of the Unknown, and have barely made a dent in my BBC Shakespeare box set.
Great though these are, it’s not quite the same experience, is it? Rather like reading a classic novel by the fireside, as opposed to dipping into a newspaper. It’s not a question of being glued to the flatscreen as soon as I get in, but I need the occasional yet regular distraction of that broadcast ‘fix’. I wonder how many others in television studies still feel the same?
Dr Richard Hewett is Lecturer in Media Theory at the School of Arts and Media, the University of Salford. He has contributed to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television and Adaptation, and is currently working on a book, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting, for Manchester University Press. Full publication details can be found here.
 He wasn’t speaking about television, but the point stands.
 My tastes have always tended towards the archival (the Kinks, Roxy Music, etc.), but I did use to listen to some new music until the mid-1990s, when my pop antennae finally withered.