Will the Revolution be Televised?

By Phil Chafer, 2 October 2008

The revolution in TV communication is already here. The once humble TV capable of a simple one-way delivery of information has developed into a sophisticated 2-way interactive medium. But how many people out there have noticed? More importantly how many have benefited?

The elite versus popular dichotomy is one familiar to those debating the cultural impact of television. From the advent of the BBC's first terrestrial channel we saw the Reithian mission to educate pitted against a fear of populist entertainment. The more terrestrial and satellite channels, the more the 'purist' fears intensified. The polarisation was one of the `progressive' nature of TV as the magic lantern that transfixed imaginations, straddling generation gaps and normal social boundaries versus the lowest common denominator - the force that killed the art of conversation, and which brought sex violence and bad language into the parlours of the pious. The independent commercial channels posed a threat when they mixed entertainment with the capitalist emphasis on the market - TV advertisements were primed to sell, sell, sell. The liberal agenda of Channel 4 confirmed Mary Whitehouse's worst fears and the moral debate again focused.

Paralleling these debates were changes in political manipulation within government and television hierarchies. Sky is explicitly pursuing its key mission - to sell advertising space. While the government more hopefully exerts pressure within the BBC. The elite versus popular dichotomy has shifted into the 'controllers' versus the `businessmen'. Murdoch being the epitome of the latter. Social control or viewer control is the agenda of the microcosm (the living room).

Yet the institution of national television networks has never been in jeopardy, why? Viewers have little influence over content and only a semblance of democratic control. The TV has however developed its own cultural framework underpinned by the schedule as the ultimate in the homogenised living room culture, we have the national ubiquity of the broadcasting networks; everywhere, at the same time, the known, pre-defined broadcast information (only the plug being pulled on live shows transgressing rules of conduct). At a cost, the discerning viewer can buy in satellite channels as an alternative schedule but how long before this too becomes a feature of every front room?

The next big step away from scheduled broadcasting is the interactive TV system. Open access channels appear to be the most direct threat to institutionally controlled broadcasting as they produce an I anarchic' simulation of the existing system. Interactive TV however, in its many guises, suggests radical departures from traditional modes of production and consumption including the schedule and the concept of the channel. The trend towards interaction (CDrom, CDi, games consoles) is already without definition a procedure that traditional TV has slowly started to exploit. Children's shows have phone-in interactive virtual reality games, Mazda, Elle and Mitsubishi have commercials designed to be recorded and viewed later. Thus illustrating the twin pressures exerting influence on ranges of service, improvements as a result of scientific and technical improvements and consumer lead initiatives. Which is the prime mover? There is no doubt that there has been a general revolution (or swift evolution) in communications technology. TV at present remains a throwback to the pre-digital era of analogue systems but with the development of HDTV and the sophistication of broadcast technology information that describes a television image will in the near future be a widely available form of digital multimedia. The solipsistic space of broadcast entertainment is soon to become as intelligent and accessible as the internet already provides. With the media hype surrounding the internet (the sexiest network for the metrosexual broadsheet reader) the future of TV became a fresh cultural concern as well as a lucrative business. Cable companies have delivered high bandwidth 'video on demand' systems direct into homes allowing complete although selective unscheduled viewing. Other systems mimic this by delivering bespoke polarised schedules, an unequivocal cause for concern. Soon to be available national over-the-air systems extend the teletext concept and allow play-as-you-watch scenarios. It is the latter together with editorial gimmicks and home shopping facilities that catch the headlines but these are obvious by-issues. The important cultural debate no longer rests on high versus low moral issues but on the underlying concept of 'Fat Controller'. Who if anyone decides what is seen and what is available, the 'institution' of televisual information again becomes an issue and not an conclusion.

What does this mean for the 'average' household, perhaps it is the biggest threat to the 4.4 person family unit since television invaded the post meat-and-two-veg chit chat. What will little Johnny have left in common with the old man should they never of had a shared viewing experience? For over thirty years the television has been the centre of most household's social gatherings. Computer games companies and Hollywood videos both exploit it yet without a definable schedule or mode of viewing to return to the television as a domestic focus is up for grabs. The technology is there to transform the television into the most intelligent machine in the house but will underpinning philosophies keep pace with business exploitation? The activity of watching the television is going to be revolutionised but it remains to be seen whether those in charge will grasp the philosophical possibilities as well as the fast buck. Will the revolution be participated in or will it be watched?