Goodbye terrestrials

There was no specific date, or time, when it started, but somehow domestic T.V. is in the process of slipping from being a must-have, to merely an add-on for the modern home. Of course it was always optional, but invariably something that every household would choose to own as a matter of course. A required fixture in the set dressing of domestic “normality”. The T.V. had several functions; a window to the world, a means of delivering entertainment media, and even a tool for educational purposes (often a secondary or tertiary concern, sadly). More often than not, it took on the role of a giant electronic pacifier - into which adults and children could “plug-in”, whilst hours of their lives drifted by.

Then there was the social bonding that came as a result of mass exposure. Last night’s T.V. became the focus of “water-cooler moments”, one of several terms that only exist because of television itself. Whether by the water-cooler, in the workshop, or on the school playground (get ‘em while they’re young), viewers could enthuse, criticise, and share their thoughts on recently broadcast revelations. Somehow this flickering image became ‘important’, perhaps too important - what the hell were we doing with our lives?

These are undoubtedly interesting times. The above model is still the norm for a large amount of old-school media consumers. Modernity caught up with them (or vice versa) in the form of cable, satellite, freeview, multiple digital channels, video and DVD. Aside from the last two; it’s essentially been an expansion of the original T.V. format: a screen in the corner of the room, with an increasing number of channels to access. With the “bolt-on” additions of video and later: DVD, the task of “tuning-in” your equipment was replaced with auto-locating SCART & HDMI technology, as soon as was practical. For the benefit of those old-school non-techie T.V. enthusiasts, these signal formats can automatically seize control of the screen when activated, making their use as smooth and as ‘T.V.’ as possible. User input can be as simple as “on” or “off” - nothing too taxing there (and I’m deliberately leaving out tape and solid-state recording).

In parallel to this established normality, interesting things have been happening since the mid 1990’s with the wholesale adoption of mobile phones and domestic internet access. Initially these only hinted at their true potential until the early 2000’s brought both 3G and broadband to the masses. Now it’s plain to see that these technologies can deliver everything that T.V. offers, plus a lot more besides. Should you wish; you could drop your television into a skip and fill up your entire week with online content instead - though whether your time would be better spent as a result is debatable.

The internet, at all stages of development, has been “on-demand” by its very nature; a convenience that T.V. has only recently been able to offer in a bid to (frankly) keep-up. In doing so it has, of course, had to embrace and utilise the internet; a move that surely concedes to the “if you can’t beat ‘em; join ‘em” mindset” above all. Unsurprisingly - and somewhat anachronistically - terrestrial television providers have retained their financing and licensing models with included adverts on independent broadcasts and (currently un-policeable?) license fees for online viewing in the case of the BBC. Both of these have appeared after a to-good-to-be-true period of unfettered free access; well it was nice (and a little idealistic) whilst it lasted.

It is worth pointing out that the T.V. licence model is still supported by the vast majority of UK households, who continue to legally own a set capable of receiving digital terrestrial BBC broadcasts. The shift is in the origin of the media viewed. Increasingly the content is streamed from various other digital providers, including free internet or pay-per-view sources. Ebuyer writes:

“So, what is the alternative? Well, online streaming services are on the rise. Netflix are spearheading the on-demand viewing revolution, as number of entertainment hunters swap traditional methods for online streaming. Netflix added 4.9 million new users in Q1, and that figure will only increase. They are joined by Amazon’s Prime streaming service in battling for top streaming spot in the UK.”

Walking dead advert at the cinema

It raises the discrepancy between the increasing terrestrial licence fee and the diminishing amount of terrestrial broadcasts viewed by the licence holder’s household. Frankly: is it worth it? More seriously: is it justified? If you watch only a few hours of terrestrial T.V. per week, or even per month then: how can it be justified on a personal level? Of course it isn’t “justified” per se; it’s a choice on one hand and the law on the other. Currently, the shift toward alternative content is lead by a younger generation who may have never known life without a multitude of other viewing options. This is of course: the new “normal”.

Perhaps it will only take the loss of the previous generation, the last to grow up with a conventional T.V. in (almost) every home, to trigger the format’s demise? By that time, the likely course of events will have seen the ‘terrestrials’ blended ever further with online, on-demand content and pay-for-access packages, such that the limitations (and the weakening “justifications”) of a rigid broadcasting network no longer apply.  

The BBC has already stepped into this arena, with the seemingly ignominious ‘dumping’ of

BBC Three to online-only status. Whilst ostensibly a cost-cutting endeavour and widely criticised as demeaning to the character and content of the channel itself; it may turn out to be its under-estimated launch into the future of television. Who’d have thought it?