Does television still exist?

Does television still exist? If television was once defined by technological scarcity, flow and the schedule, but is now experienced as plentiful, fragmented and individualised, then is it still television at all? Throughout its history, in most of the world, television has been controlled and regulated by state bodies. As well as commercial value and aspects, television has played a pivotal role in socialisation throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Here in the United Kingdom, the world of television has been regulated by the government.

The government also fund the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) through a form of taxation whereby every household with a television set is liable to pay an annual television license fee. Although the government fund the BBC, the BBC is not controlled by the government and therefore is an independent company. They do however have to follow their stated mission, which is ‘to inform, educate and entertain’, as laid down by Parliament in the BBC Charter; and it is also required by its charter to be free from both political and commercial influence and to answer only to its viewers and listeners.

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There are of course commercial channels in the United Kingdom which are also terrestrial. These are ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. These channels are allowed to show advertising for a limited period of time on every hour of broadcasting. The fact that all of the above terrestrial channels now all have multiple channels is an important point to note in the new age of television. In the United Kingdom there are also several cable and satellite television options available which give access to hundreds of non terrestrial channels. These include Freeview, Virgin Media, BT Vision and Sky.

An important aspect of television which has changed over the past decade or so is the increase in subscription to non terrestrial television services such as those mentioned above. In the past television was ‘scarce’, meaning that people only had, and could therefore only watch the terrestrial channels and what was on them at the time they tuned in. However, now television has moved into an age of ‘availability’, meaning that television is readily available to the viewer. There are a ridiculous number of channels and shows to choose from at any time of the day.

In the era of scarcity, programme-makers generated ideas for programmes and offered them to their senior management. Management selected what they considered the best of these ideas, with an eye to generic mix and the overall social purpose of their channel. The offers of ideas from programme-makers drove the whole system along. In the era of availability, this system has begun to atrophy. Instead a demand led system has developed. (Ellis, 2000. p132)

In this era of ‘availability’, it is now scarce for households to not have some form of television extra to that of terrestrial channels. To not have subscription TV seems to somehow disable you socially, be it by not having money to afford it, or by not being able to watch a certain channel or show that everyone is talking about. According to National Statistics, in April 2007, 2 in 3 UK households had digital TV service.

With digital Television there has also been a rise in technology for ‘On-Demand’ or ‘Anytime’ TV, as well as the increasing number of people owning digital set top boxes with recording capabilities. The history of cable television in Britain is rarely discussed within the context of historical development of British broadcasting. As a result, its appearance (…) is that of a new development and even a motor of the information and technology age. (Negrine, 1985. p103)

Although the public are still watching television programmes on television, they are no longer watching the programmes at their scheduled times. Services such as Sky + enable viewers to record the programmes they chose to watch on to their set top box and view them at their own leisure at a time convenient to them. Today, the idea of “appointment television” seems increasingly quaint. We no longer watch television in living rooms, whose furniture has been arranged to maximize viewing.

With these new “sets” (or ways) to watch television programming, we are seeing a similar shift from efficiency to control. VCRs showed a glimpse of the shift towards control. However, with the improved interface and storage capacity of Tivo and other DVR systems, the process of recording television and obtaining control became much easier and evolved our relationship to the medium. (Cha, 2006)

The viewer now needs to be in control of what they watch and when they watch it otherwise they will simply not bother. An even more recent development of recording and storage systems within digital TV services is that of the ‘On-Demand’ service. This was first made widely available to watch on your television by Virgin Media. The principle of ‘On-Demand’ is that the set top box automatically stores certain programmes; however they are of the choice of the digital television supplier, which are then available for the viewer to watch whenever they wish within a set period of time. For example, on Virgin On-Demand, episodes of EastEnders are saved for a full week.

As well as giving the viewer the choice of when they wish to view the programme without consciously having to set it on to record, as is necessary with recording facilities, it gives the service the vital element of ‘Catch Up’ which is important for many people in their busy and contemporary lifestyles. Sky Plus have also recently introduced their ‘Anytime TV’ facility which has the same function as that of Virgin, however it is notable that Sky mostly records and stores movies as opposed to television programmes. BT Vision also has their own version called Vision TV, which also records movies and programmes, but also stores full series and seasons of popular television shows such as ‘Lost’.

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