What is the role of television today and in the years to come? The future of our beloved box is far from clear.
Last Saturday, the triumphant return of the famous Time Lord in ‘Doctor Who’ attracted massive viewing figures for its début episode. As an ardent Whovian this was an exciting event, and the whole family gathered around the TV to enjoy the programme, the first time this has happened in quite a while. If the only thing that passes for true ‘family telly’ is the return of a sci-fi classic from 1963 – what does this say about the current state of television?
A lesser noticed story was the news that two Welsh towns are about to participate in the first analogue switch-off in the country. In Ferryside and Llanstephan in Carmarthenshire, things will become digital only. Due to the large expected profits to be made from selling off the analogue spectrum, the government is keen to convert the entire UK population to digital by around 2012.
As things stand at the moment, the minimum number of channels in every household would become around 30 with the BBC-backed Freeview service. Many homes already receive many more, of course, with Sky and cable subscriptions. This transition to digital has one obvious implication – with more channels, audiences like Doctor Who achieved should become more and more exceptional.
For the companies involved, the solution has been to vastly expand the number of channels they offer into a ‘portfolio’ and then sell advertising airtime in bulk. The BBC has also followed this strategy, in an effort to justify the future of the licence fee. Already, the landscape of television has permanently changed. The more channels you have, the less important channels air to you.
Take a cultural phenomenon like ‘Little Britain’. Most people I know have seen it, but whether they watched it on BBC3, BBC2 or BBC1 at what time is anyone’s guess. With a sketch show based on characters this is unimportant, but plot driven drama traditionally rely very strong on the ‘water cooler’ effect of people discussing the plot of the show the next day. ‘Desperate Housewives’ is a good example of this, although the advance showings on E4 have already divided the audience who can talk about it.
And with PVRs becoming cheaper and more effective, the segmentation is even greater. Television is now often quite a solitary activity – you cannot be sure who else is watching, or when. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of broadband access has meant that the internet offers a much richer experience for people to get their news, entertainment and interact with each other.
In the end, this is a much healthier pastime than passive TV watching on your own. I can watch a piece of content streamed from a broadcaster’s website or produced by amateurs, give instant feedback and criticism on my blog and discuss it with my friends on an instant messaging program. No watersheds or channel schedules to worry about, and the real time interactivity that used to be provided by a family watching TV together can be remade with people right across the globe.
An interesting question will be the effect of all this on the licence fee. Will it simply be replaced by a flat yearly charge on internet access? Will the BBC become subscription only? Will it cease to exist altogether? I believe the case has already been made very strongly by the Corporation itself, whose website is an unashamed pioneer of the future face of broadcasting despite recent cutbacks.
It would be foolish to predict the demise of the television entirely. But the transition to just being a large screen where content is projected, rather than a medium in its own right, seems like it is already under way.
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