Pilloried for its effects on children’s health and the adult brain, and decried as the standard bearer of laziness ever since its invention, the television nevertheless remains a cultural centrepiece. But what’s changed over the years?
NOW: New TVs
Size and weight: Slender, lightweight flat screens have restored to most modern houses the rear corner of the room, previously occupied by a box half a metre deep.
Format and picture: Technologies like plasma and LCD compete to fulfil the now ubiquitous HD requirement, while novel formats like 3D are pushed by manufacturers as a way of maintaining TV’s special role in home entertainment.
Channels and programming: Hundreds of channels of utter rubbish. Faux-reality monstrosities command audiences of millions while arts, wildlife and history programming are relegated to dedicated specialist channels like some kind of dirty snob-porn secret.
Place in the home: People watch things more than ever, but the TV has no monopoly over allowing them to do so anymore. The moving image is here to stay, but the TV set and the TV channel…?
THEN: Old TVs
Size and weight: Screen size was generally inversely proportional to the box’s size and weight. The thought of having to shift one was in itself an incentive not to move house.
Format and picture: A haphazard combination of adjustments to the aerial and tuning dial might have occasionally produced a momentarily watchable picture, complete with sound if lucky.
Channels and programming: There were generally somewhere between one and four channels, not all of which would necessarily broadcast for more than a few hours a day.
Place in the home: The result of such brief programming was a cultural experience shared across generations and classes. Notable series became major cultural landmarks, influencing everything from government policy to notions of public morality.
We look back now on a golden age of family viewing and highbrow documentaries, conveniently overlooking the likes of Groucho decrying them even then. Has TV really become stupider, or has it just made us more honest about how stupid we really are, and have always been?
Perhaps Groucho says it best:
“I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.”
– Groucho Marx