The golden age of TV belongs to a bygone era
By the end of the month we'll all be watching digital TV. But will there be anything worth staying in for, asks Michael Wolsey
Published 02/10/2012 | 08:00
Accepting his Emmy at the recent awards, Homeland actor Damian Lewis told celebrity guests they were working "in a golden age of television". Even allowing for the hyperbole of award ceremonies, it seemed an exaggerated boast - unless Mr Lewis was judging on quantity, rather than quality.
As I write, I am looking at the Sky menu on my television. I have scrolled through the entire list and have discovered that, should I have the time and inclination, I could watch 943 channels.
Some of these are devoted to repeating the content of other channels one hour later, in case I missed a bit the first time. And some are for high-definition viewing. But even discounting these, there are more than 500 channels on my set.
Forty-two of them are devoted to soft porn, with titles like Redhot Mums and Dirty Talk. At least three are for gambling. Twelve are for teleshopping.
One channel devotes a large part of its schedule to re-runs of Judge Judy, another mostly shows old episodes of Star Trek, a third alternates between re-runs of Friends, Mash and South Park.
Many channels feature so-called 'reality' TV shows, with titles such as Hell Date, Teen Mom, or Sixteen and Pregnant. There are, of course, some good programmes among the dross, but this tide of tat and trivia leaves the "golden age of television" sadly tarnished.
Perhaps it is technical advance that Damian Lewis had in mind. Things have come on a bit since the time of Tony Hancock, a popular comedian in the early days of British television.
In one sketch, he called a repair man to look at his broken TV. "Have you been kicking it?' asked the man, bewildered by marks on the box.
"Of course I've been kicking it,'' replied Hancock.
"How else would I change channels? One kick for the BBC, nine kicks for the other lot.''
This raised a laugh from audiences familiar with the quirks of 1950s' television sets, all of which had buttons marked one to nine, but only two channels: the BBC on channel one and ITV - "the other lot'' - on channel nine.
Indeed, at the time this sketch went out, the nine buttons were even more puzzling to viewers in Northern Ireland, since only one of them worked - UTV didn't arrive until 1959, six years after the BBC reached our screens.
Today, Mr Hancock would change his channels with a remote-control device, or maybe voice-control.
He would have his favourite programmes pre-recorded.
And he would probably be grumbling about the advance of digital television which, by the end of this month, will have completely replaced analogue TV.
By October 24, at the latest, you'll be watching digital TV, or none at all.
You will get a better reception and, if you've been viewing terrestrial TV via an old-style rooftop aerial, you will get more channels.
But will the programmes be any better? When British TV had just two channels and Tony Hancock kicked the set to change them it produced extremely fine comedy shows, Mr Hancock's Half Hour among them.
By the time available channels had soared to the dizzy heights of four, they were screening shows such as Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part and The Likely Lads, which have gone into television history for their ability to make viewers laugh, cry and squirm with embarrassment.
The BBC specialised in one-off, quality drama, producing a classic play once a month and a new play once a week.
News and current affairs were important. Both the main channels screened news bulletins at peak times and the 6pm bulletins were usually followed by a magazine-type show, of which the BBC's Tonight was the most famous.
The big current affairs programmes - Panorama, This Week, The World in Action - were also screened at peak times. They had generous budgets and could afford the best journalists.
In drawing these comparisons, I do not mean to suggest that there is no good television around these days. Sky Atlantic and HBO have produced some wonderful drama, such as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. Sports coverage is impressive, in volume at least. And British TV seems to have cornered the market in period drama.
But you must pay to watch Sky (on the double for Sky Sport or Movies) and the period dramas are churned out because they sell well abroad.
Commerce rules "the golden age of television". In any case, the days of mass audiences are over; the days when a popular, or controversial, programme would be watched by everyone, or so it seemed - your friends, your neighbours, your work colleagues. If you missed the programme, you missed the whole point of the next day's conversations.
With a few exceptions, such as the opening of the Olympics, this no longer happens. Viewers are now their own programmers.
They use their televisions to watch DVD boxed sets, or films from Netflix. They record programmes they like and watch them when it suits. They use the screen for Nintendo's Wii, or other computer games.
It may be a golden age for TV sets, but not for television.