40 years ago if you'd turned your television on (and waited two minutes for it to warm up) you'd have had the choice of just two channels. A black and white choice, either BBC or ITV. 39 years and 364 days ago you'd have had three channels to choose from, but more of that tomorrow. Nowadays we have rather more than three channels to select from, although some would argue there's rather less worth watching.
I grew up in a TV world very different to that available today.
i) Throughout my childhood there were only three channels, so when I toddled into school in my short trousers and asked people if they'd seen The Goodies yesterday, they probably had. Nowadays when I go into work I don't bother asking people if they saw Nighty Night last night because they probably didn't. More likely they were watching something completely different on any one of a bewildering range of other channels. We have so little television in common any more.
ii) When there were only a few channels, everybody had the same selection. Then along came cable, satellite and digital, and suddenly some people had channels the rest of us didn't have. Now those willing to pay more can watch sport the rest of us can't, watch films fresh from the cinema, watch comedy before it appears on terrestrial and buy diamonique the rest of us can only dream of. TV used to be about quality, now it's about inequality.
iii) Good television used to be hard to miss. With just three channels it was easy to be a discerning viewer, keep an eye on this evening's highlights and watch them all as required. Nowadays it's far too easy to overlook a TV gem somewhere in five pages of listings, or to find yourself sitting through the same episode of Little Britain for the eighth time while you wait for them to repeat the one you accidentally missed first time round. We watch more now, but we see less.
iv) When I was a child, changing channels required getting out of my seat, walking across to the big cathode ray tube in the corner and pressing something. Nowadays we can switch channels at the press of a remote, so we do. Sofa, so good. No sooner have the adverts appeared, or the credits started rolling, than we start flicking through a myriad of other channels in a desperate but fruitless search for something worth watching. Worse, other people can change channel far too easily too, usually during something we're enjoying, switching to something we won't. We're all butterfly viewers now.
v) I grew up in a land without video recorders, which meant that if I missed something I really missed it. If I loved a particular programme I still only got to watch it the once, so all my rosy-glowed TV nostalgia is based on single viewings. Today's children can watch whatever they like whenever they like, and then replay it all again thanks to video and rental DVD. And they do, over and over and over. Saves parents having to talk to or play with their offspring now that they have the perfect inanimate babysitter. Television isn't special any more, it's too easily re-viewed.
The screen in the corner of the room dominates our modern lives. Stand in a room, switch on the television and watch. Watch people turn round to see what's on. Watch children stop playing. Watch as conversation suddenly halts. Watch everyone slowly hypnotised by the flickering picture. Sure there's still plenty on television worth watching, as last night's Baftas prove, but we'll now watch any old rubbish just because it's on. I reckon we're in danger of raising a whole generation of undiscriminating couch potatoes afflicted by TV-induced Attention Deficit Disorder. And I reckon... ooh, have you seen what's on... sorry, where was I?
2004: multi-channel television nirvana/hell