Friday, 22 April 2016

22/04/16 - TV

When I was a kid, we only had four television channels. (I realise this is true for almost everyone reading this today, but I’m going to print this out and hide it somewhere to later wow my kids with when they read it in 2028 or whenever, when televisions will be implanted into every teenager’s wrist and everybody will have several hundred of their own personalised channels.)
We had a charming wood-effect television with a screen that seemed a reasonable size when I was a nipper, but would probably look comically tiny now. It had four channels because that was all that was required; each channel knob was twistable so that you could tune them in – no auto-tuning here, you had to wiggle them back and forth to eliminate the crackling black & white static as best you could – and of course there was no remote. Being a deep and cumbersome cathode ray tube affair rather than anything approximating a modern flat-screen, it required its own large table to sit on, and when you turned it off there would linger at the centre of the screen three dots - a red one, a green one, a blue one. This may sound like a dull and insignificant detail, but those three little dots are an iconic symbol of a lost age, something future generations will never experience, like dialling a rotary phone or winding the tape back into a chewed audio cassette. You’d sit and watch the dots fade, they were symbolic of the end of the evening’s viewing.

It was always interesting to see how other people tuned their TVs in their houses. At our place the channels were ordered thusly:
1 – BBC1
2 – BBC2
3 – ITV
4 – Channel 4
This was the way most people tuned their TVs, and it made arguably the most sense. It seemed weird to me that anyone would do otherwise, bloody weirdos, because our way was so obviously the correct way. However, some folk would order it BBC1-ITV-BBC2-C4, while others would tune them in order of preference, i.e. they’d put C4 in P1 if that was their favourite, etc. One of my earliest TV-related memories is of being at my granny’s house and discovering that she hadn’t got round to tuning her fourth channel in, because ‘there was already plenty to watch’. How times change.
I wonder, incidentally, how many kids these days realise that Channel 4 was so-named because the concept of a fourth channel was quite a revolutionary thing? It’s not just because they wanted to be as high as possible in the channel ranking above the hundreds of others that there are today, but they were proud to be the fresh, new number 4 back in 1982.
Similarly, when Channel 5 launched in 1997, it was only the fifth terrestrial channel - that’s why it’s called that. There was no cleverness afoot, it’s just that there weren’t any other channels available to everyone for free. (And yes, it was as bloody awful then as it is now. [Now in 2016, I mean, although I imagine it’ll be equally bad {if not worse} in 2028.])

TV sets gained extra channels over time, for obvious reasons. When I was a teenager I had a second-hand TV in my bedroom which had eight manually-tuned channels, organised like this:
1 – BBC1
2 – BBC2
3 – ITV
4 – Channel 4
5 – [empty]
6 – [empty]
7 – Super Nintendo
8 – VHS
…so even in the mid-nineties, eight channels was an extravagance. It was years before my parents bought a television for the living room that had the luxurious ability to tune itself, and yet more time before the advent of the Sky dish. If the weather was bad and the wind was blowing the roof aerial around, you couldn’t really watch telly. Actually, that’s still kind of true of my Sky dish, but heigh-ho.

One very clear memory I have from my childhood is the arduous and complicated task of setting the video before going on holiday. My parents were teachers and we used to go to France for the entire summer holiday – six or seven weeks – so the act of setting the VCR to record everything that everyone would miss in that time was a real political struggle, as well as a baffling technological quagmire. (We did have a TV in France, but it was a black & white portable with a 10” screen that could only pick up one French channel, sometimes, when it felt like it. And French TV is balls at the best of times, let alone when it’s viewed in postage-stamp scale and infested with tiny analogue bees.) Even though our VCR was a reasonably good one, it only had a 28-day timer - as was standard then - and, of course, could only record one thing at a time, for that is how video cassettes work. And everything would be recorded in chronological order on the same tape, naturally, giving a maximum time of 360 minutes if you put a T-180 tape on Long Play. You’d generally miss the start or the end of most programmes, and find that certain things had been rescheduled so you’d have a random episode of The Antiques Roadshow instead of Blackadder Goes Forth or something.
Honestly, kids today don’t know how lucky they are to have hard disk-based digital video recorders and suchlike.

We really are tremendously fortunate these days. Not only are there hundreds and hundreds of TV channels to choose from [insert shit, hackneyed ‘so many channels and still nothin’ to watch, hur hur’ cliché, then burn it and send it to hell], but the technology by which it’s delivered is truly amazing. OK, my Sky dish may wave around in the breeze and make everything go all pixelated when the weather’s crap, but the Sky+ box itself is bloody clever. We totally take all this for granted. Series-linking? That’s a stroke of genius – how many times in the pre-catch-up era had you missed a vital episode of something because you forgot to set the video, meaning that subsequent episodes didn’t make a lot of sense? Now you don’t have to put any thought into it whatsoever. Live-pausing is bloody ace as well; when I was growing up, if you were in the middle of watching something and the phone rang (or the doorbell went, or the oven went ‘ping’ and you had to serve up your dinner, or you spilt your drink on the floor, or you needed a wee, or you heard a funny noise upstairs, or you felt a bit chilly and fancied grabbing a jumper, or an alarm was going off outside and you wanted to be nosy, or… etc) then you had to weigh up your priorities in terms of importance: was the phone call/jumper/whatever more of a pressing issue than what was happening on-screen? Could it wait until René had hidden the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies inside the large German sausage? None of these concerns need to trouble us now, you just hit ‘pause’ and go and do your thing – you don’t need to bugger about with finding a blank tape and making sure the VCR’s tuned in to the right channel either, it’s all done for you by electrickery. Similarly if someone talks over a punchline, or there’s a cock-up on live TV, or you catch a glimpse of something weird in the back of shot, you can just rewind and check. And you can pause with digital clarity! Oh, frabjous day – pausing a video meant jumping images and squinting. We’re so lucky nowadays.

The most incredible thing of all is the Sky+ mobile app. (I bet similar things are available for Freeview and Virgin and what-have-you, I haven’t bothered to check.) It’s got a full TV guide in it, with colour pictures and detailed synopses and everything, and - get this – you can record stuff on your home Sky box FROM ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. I don’t think people properly acknowledge how awesome - in the true sense of the word - this is. I can be in the pub when someone recommends a TV show to me, and within seconds I can set my recorder at home to capture it for me, ready for me to watch when I get back. Time-travel back to the eighties and explain that concept, they’ll call you a bloody madman. (Although perhaps your time-travelling machine may be of more immediate interest to them than your television recording apparatus.)

You could argue that having thousands upon thousands of hours of television available to us every day is making us rapidly less sociable, consuming our entire existences with show after show about random new subjects. I’d counter that that’s bollocks – the fact that we have these clever means by which to customise and personalise our viewing habits means that our TV-watching is smarter, more refined, less scattergun. I very rarely watch anything in real time, allowing the shows I want to see to build up as an arsenal of cosy entertainment that sits as potential energy in the corner of the room, ready to be unleashed as and when I’m not doing other things. It fits around real life, rather than dictating life’s timetable like it used to.

You know all of this, of course. But it’s useful every now and then to step back and consider these things, I find. If you’d told me as a child that all of this would be possible in the future, I’d have been beside myself with excitement. So it’s nice to feel a little beside ourselves with it all now, just to keep it in perspective. Don’t you think?




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