The Machinery of Viewing 

1 September 2001

What does television mean to you today? For the millions who view today’s round the clock transmissions, I doubt if very many regard it with any more significance than the kitchen tap: turn it on and the flow starts.

Television: turn it on and out come programmes. Nor is there any sense of wonder in how it arrived in its many forms, be it analogue or digital, satellite, cable or terrestrial transmission.

The television set has become invisible: most homes have multiple ownership; wherever you live you can receive programmes in your home, and its importance in some homes is lessened by the length of time that it is on. Often it is little more than a background noise or wallpaper.

Even buying a television today is so unremarkable that you can just put one of the many different models available in your trolley when doing the weekly supermarket shop.

Yet it wasn’t always like this. Come, follow me, as we go on a trip to a place where television was quite different: the 1960s.

Let’s look in a typical 1960s home. The first thing we note is that most homes have only one television set – if they even have a set at all. T

here are two main reasons for this: firstly, sets come in two sizes only (very big with a small screen for modest incomes and enormous with a small screen for bigger earners).

Secondly, quite unlike today, TV sets are very expensive and the purchase of a new television set is major financial commitment – so a good number are rented.

Let’s take a closer look at Mr. Television Set. He is a smart looking chap with his wooden case (regularly polished), taking pride of place in the room. He is a bit fussy and, to be honest, not very reliable. He likes to warm up before he’s ready to show you anything (in monochrome only), and you will get to know the man who fixes him (and his vanload of valves and other parts).

The repairman may even have to take him away for repair. A million miles away from our colour sealed unit, ultra reliable sets that instantly come on and can be disposed of and replaced in minutes. Yet, temperamental though he is, he is still viewed with wonder at his ability to receive pictures, and Mr. Television Set is not a throwaway product. When you fall for a younger, sleeker model, you will part exchange him at a specialist television/radio shop or chain.

Let’s take a walk around the locality. We can still see quite a few aerial-free rooftops, and in the 50s and 60s there was money to be made in the installation of aerials (as the take up of satellite decades later showed again).

A walk down the High Street will confirm that a television cannot be purchased anywhere other than specialist TV-radio shops, many exclusively covering second hand sets.

No High Street is complete without a television rental outlet, which has a huge customer base due to a fixed weekly rent and the promise of a replacement set when it went wrong, if required. The ease of exchange to newer dual-line-standard and colour sets (throughout the 60s and early 70s) is also an incentive to rent.

What will we see on our set in the 60s? Well, assuming we live within range of a transmitter, the quality of transmission is very good.

The presentation is very formal, and the majority of broadcasts are aimed solely at the adult population, although as the decade wears on, much change will take place.

At the start of the decade, there are just two channels, and even the addition of BBC-2 in 1964 onwards (for those capable of receiving it) did not lead to much additional broadcasting, as it transmits few programmes during the day, and of course there is no overnight viewing.

Generations are captivated by a new science fiction programme “Doctor Who”, where younger viewers will watch from behind the sofa as the Windows Media Clip Doctor fights the evil Daleks (do any of today’s productions have this effect?).

Late in the decade, “Monty Python” changes our perception of televised humour. These are just two examples of programmes in the 60s that will shape the future direction of television in the United Kingdom.

Back to 2002, I hope next time you turn on your set, you will appreciate the variety and reliability of both what you see and the set that you use to view it.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Wednesday 17 July 2024