This post was prompted by an article by Kim Akass for the CST blog. Critical Studies in Television is a great source of musings on television, pitched between academic research and cultural commentary.
Last year marked a personal milestone as I moved out of my shared student digs and moved into a disarmingly grown-up flat with my disarmingly grown-up partner. However, I realised that I myself was not yet a grown-up: grown-ups pay Council Tax, grown-ups take bank holidays, grown-ups know where the meter is, and grown-ups have TV licences. When TV Licensing started bombarding us with the standard reminders to pay up, my partner and I discussed the matter (like grown-ups) and discovered that we were not legally required to obtain a TV licence because we don’t have a television set.
There is no broadcast television in our house.
This is ironic for a number of blatantly obvious reasons:
A) I study broadcast television.
B) When not studying broadcast television, I advocate for the retention and preservation of outmoded formats, because I am a film and TV archive nerd.
C) At any given moment the BBC will be playing in our flat, via iPlayer or the DAB radio. On the bus, I’m most likely to be listening to podcasts of Thinking Allowed, Test Match Special, Words and Music or Mayo and Kermode. I would not be enjoying any of these services were it not for the good licence fee payers, many of whom also pay taxes (thank you, all).
There is an episode of Friends where Joey tries to impress a woman by mentioning his role in the soap opera Days of Our Lives.* The woman apologises, replying that she doesn’t own a TV. Joey is blindsided: ‘You don’t own a TV? What’s all your furniture pointed at?’
Last week, Kim Akass ruminated on everyday life without the crucial flow provided by television. I wonder if Raymond Williams ever considered everyday life without the TV schedule, with all its interstitials and advertisements, never mind life without the television set. It’s a weird and brave new world, and one I’m not yet ready to face. So, in Blue Peter style I crafted my own makeshift television set out of an old 22inch monitor, speakers, amplifier and a slew of wires connecting to various media players. The Xbox provides access to games, DVDs and our shared server for downloads of our music and movies. There’s also the PS3, which can play Blu-Rays. There’s the laptop, which gives us access to all free online media players such BBC iPlayer and 4OD, and the services we subscribe to like Netflix and Mubi. Lastly, there’s the DAB radio that doubles as an iPod dock, and we play the Today programme over breakfast in yet another bid to be grown-up. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a TV set. And yes, our furniture is pointed towards it.
I grew up in the era where digital and analogue media existed side by side, and I’m constantly reminded of it. There is no reason for us to watch TV (whether DVD, streamed or downloaded) on our faux TV set, for our computer is bigger and boasts better resolution. But when you grow up with the flow of television, it becomes a complex and comforting act to settle down in front of the set. If I close the curtains, I can pretend I’m watching Doctor Who on Saturday night and not midday on Sunday.
Strangely, it’s not just the experience of watching the television that we’ve recreated. Yes, we watch things out of sync with the broadcast schedules, but there are still distinct patterns to our viewing. Of course, part of this is simply practical: my partner has a ‘proper’ job and so isn’t free to watch the goggle box until after dinner. Nevertheless, we watch the bulk of our tv shows between 7pm and 11pm on weekdays, and most of the time we just shift the schedule a day forward: Sunday is Doctor Who day; Tuesdays is Only Connect; Wednesdays is The Apprentice, quickly followed by You’re Fired. We also tend to only binge on things that we’ve seen before, like The West Wing or Community, while lazily knitting or ironing. If we miss something while it’s being broadcast, we often forget to catch up (most recent example of this is Broadchurch, because we forget that ITV player exists). We tried to frantically catch up with Arrested Development in time for the new season, but we could only handle four episodes at a time – not because it was bad, but because it was new to us, and we needed space to digest what we’d seen. Also, it was bedtime.
Then there are the occasions when our plans are foiled by a bad internet connection. Those moments also carry a weird nostalgia for when I lived with my parents in the shadow of Alexandra Palace. While it was thrilling to live where British television began, the reception was beyond crap (well, Ally Pally is really old, it’s not too surprising). I have – honestly! – never seen a single evening’s programmes broadcast on Channel 5 because we never received it before the digital switchover. In fact, my obsessive Neighbours habit was only broken when the soap was poached from the beeb in 2008. If I don’t know it’s there, I don’t miss it.
So, in many respects, our faux TV set is doing an OK job at imitating the real thing. I miss live broadcasts sometimes, particularly the Eurovision Song Contest and the cricket. We plan on switching out the monitor for a projector someday, and then we might revisit the question of whether to get a digital television box. The choice of what to watch on it will be daunting.
*As an aside, I cannot be the only British person who assumed Days of Our Lives was a fictional soap opera, right?