Modern Television Choice: Erasing Family Memories of the Future
The nervous look at the clock, the rush to finish your homework (or the lie to say it was finished) the exhortion to a parent to drive faster to get home, the devourment in silence of a lovingly prepared family meal. All of these were to satisfy and meet an invisible deadline. A deadline imposed by a group of individuals you would never meet but a group who would have a profound impact on the development of your family unit and would shape the structure of numerous schoolyard and workplace conversations over the coming days and years. These people were known as TV schedulers. A group who once held more sway over a nation than any political party or religious movement could ever hope.
They decided when our families would eat, study, take exercise, socialise and even sleep. This faceless tribe would incur the wrath of the people should they dare reschedule or postpone the transmission of a weekly ritual due to some once off cultural, political or sporting event. They would be rejoiced to the heavens when they announced the return of a family staple, which usually helped soothe the passing of another summer and impending return to monotony of schoolbooks and blue/white collar travails.
But now this group no longer hold power with an iron fist made of pixels. They merely make suggestions to the masses and take solace in their role of lifeline to a small group that must still abide by their time laws.
Apparently it was all much simpler, and better, then. You knew where you stood. Growing up in 80's rural Ireland meant that for 7-8 months of the year your entertainment was fairly certain to be of the indoor variety and centered around the square behemoth in the corner of the living/sitting/front/good room (delete whichever adjective does not apply to your family situation)
Most homes just had 2 channels, RTE1 & RTE2, while others were blessed to have 4 more in the shape of the "English" channels BBC1, BBC2, ITV & Channel 4. If you were in 2 channel land, as I was, you had a very simple and structured week and of course less room to be discerning. The tv shows and viewing arrangements could be put in a number of brackets.You would have watch alone shows for kids such as Anything Goes, Scratch Saturday, FortyCoats and Bosco (tolerated long past acceptable age due to lack of options)
Then there was father & son viewing events (not being sexist here it just fits the narrative) such as Sports Stadium, The Sunday Game or any sporting event RTE could secure the rights for. The Monday night hour long NFL highlights show being a personal favourite.
There was the sibling viewing shows such as Top of the Pops which gave us our only real taste of what an A-Ha video looked like and made us wonder why they all had smoke billowing around their feet every time they performed/mimed.
And then of course there was those family events, the shows that would bring you rushing around the screens at a designated time each week for a familiar theme tune which was like a warm comfort blanket being thrown around you. That little tingle of excitement as you entered the unknown with your favourite characters each week. This being pre-social media days or "spoiler alert" times you were very unlikely to know what was about to unfold. They also evoked a certain feel and association with the time of the week. The Late Late Show for example brought with it an unmistakable Friday night feeling and that Monday was years away. Dallas brought that post Saturday night bath mood and the slight worry of Sunday mass and of course the nations staple, Glenroe, brought that unmistakable Sunday night feel with it. The feeling that you didn't want it to end because you knew once them end credits rolled and that familiar strain began, the weekend was over and it was suddenly just another school night.
But you didn't mind too much because you had all been together. Dad and Mom offering their opinions on various characters and storylines. A few " Shhhhh's" when someone was talking over an important part. Confusion, usually if Grandparents had come over and would refrain "which one is she now?", and the general awkwardness when a slightly racy scene would come on. But it all made for a cocktail of togetherness and a common bond with all families in the area who you were pretty certain were all doing the same.
Set the Video!!
But times and viewing habits changed. Slowly at first, with the advent of user friendly VHS recorders. People could take a chance on maybe going out while one of the less important shows was airing and trust a painstakingly programmed video recorder to do the job and watch it at their leisure on their return. 50% of the time they returned to disappointment, having recorded the wrong program, set it for the wrong channel, there was no tab on the tape (ask your parents) or the video was dirty (not what you think). But mostly for the revered shows, no chance was taken and the schedule of watching was adhered to and the video was mostly used to record movies that you were actually watching at the time so you could re-watch them 297 times in 3 months.
The Sky is Here
Then it arrived. Usually only viewed on trips to the city, those big grey spaceships perched on the sides of houses. What viewing wonders did they hold, would we ever know, did they still get Glenroe? They became more and more commonplace. Channels upon channels suddenly being beamed into our fragile set. Suddenly the questions in the school yard and workplace weren't as straightforward as they once had been. The question "Did you see..." being answered more and more with " No, I was watching...". Still you tried to keep the watching in unison together at home but somehow it didn't feel the same. There was a sense of un-fulfillment with what was once accepted as the best we could hope for in entertainment. We had been shown a wider, shinier world and we were no longer happy with Teresa Lowe and her big hair on Where in the World.
Fathers and sons still came together for sport but now opinions were shaped not by the father and those on RTE, but those from further afield in Sky football studios in bright suits. The son hanging on their every word, the father cursing Barry Venison for having usurped him in his sons need for knowledge. Within the family unit a new war raged. With 30 odd channels and now widely variant viewing tastes the battle to watch what you desired at a certain time became a cold and calculating one. The delivery of the phrase "who is paying for the Sky?" was usually the key shot fired in these battles and lead to the Discovery Channel securing record viewership in our home. There is a sense that TV companies were waiting until all family units were at their weakest following many lengthy battles to suddenly present them with hope. A concept so alien and distant from early 80's rural Ireland that we were more likely to believe moving statues. They presented it in conjunction with a now well established tool called the Internet.It was "Pause, Rewind & Record Live Television".
We now arrive in the future.
"Roads, where we're going we don't need roads" said Doc Brown once when traveling to this very year 2015. He was wrong in that roads are still very much required,but if he said we don't need tv's he wouldn't have been too far off the mark. Not know when we can watch TV without a tv set. Watch it on your phone, on your laptop, PC at work, in the bath, on the bus, under the bed, on a boat, while being a shepard minding your flock, its no wonder the family unit no longer gathers together for a TV event, no matter how much Gogglebox portrays that they do. We are in a golden age of television making and ways to watch it if not a golden age of communal watching. We now have the following and various mediums of entertainment, Sky Plus, Netflix, Tivo, millions of illegal movie streaming sites online, thousand of sites to illegally watch live sport online. Everything on demand. An instant gratification society. Where once if you missed an episode of something it was lost in the midst of time now you just check online and you'll find it and likely find the next 3 episodes that haven't even been shown on tv yet. Gone are the days when you frantically scrambled through tapes to find one with space to record Baywatch, no its about clearing out space on your SKY+ planner and ensuring series links are in place. Our "did you see?" conversations are all but dead. Its now all about recommending box sets and downloading entire series and gorging on numerous episodes in one go. There will be no family gathered round the tv memories for this generation of children, just memories of buffering signals and the watching of 12 episodes of Breaking Bad alone in a darkened room.
"Do you Remember that ad?.."
While I both embrace and regret the swathes of vast choice in our modern viewing society, my greatest lament is that our children will have no memory or affinity with advertisements the way we did. Our lack of flicking options meant we actively watched ad breaks and stored them deep in memory. A boom time for advertisers who knew they were getting bang for their buck. 20 years later and you can still recall the jingles and bad acting that came our way every 15 minutes. Now we either reach for the remote to flick or fast forward or our phones to engage with whatever social media is dominating our lives. Our children will not have the "Pat the Baker" jingle resonating in their ears nor will they belt out the Pennys christmas song when old enough to venture to the local hostelry. Our kids will be the hardest generation to sell to due to lack of attention span so marketing and advertising is now facing the greatest challenge of their industry. Never had they so many mediums to advertise on but therein lies their greatest adversary. At least us kids of 80's Ireland will always have the memories of these...... and will always know how to cross the road.
Did lack of choice color our view of TV in the past?
Was lack of alternatives the reason we look so fondly on our favorite TV shows from history?
© 2015 Brian Cosgrove