The leisure time of most people, born in the Western world since the 1940s, has been dominated by the television in the corner of their living room.  Writers like George Orwell, from a pre-TV generation, were shocked by the impact he saw the new medium have on society.  Television has been around for about 70 years and, in that time, has undergone extraordinary changes in technology, organization and content.  It experienced more rapid growth than any previous medium until the web.  A newspaper or magazine publisher today runs a business which would be familiar to Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries. But, to a pioneer of television the TV we now experience would be unrecognisable from its origins in the 1940s.

If this book had been written in the 1990s this chapter would have begun by describing television as “the most powerful and popular, medium of all time.”  In that decade the free-to-air broadcast television networks were still the undisputed kings of the media. But since digital technology has become widely available conventional broadcast TV has lost its crown and is beginning to experience the decline and re-invention familiar to its older cousins of print, cinema and radio.

TV started as a tentative physics experiment in the late 1920s to explore ways of making a telephone call with pictures. It was halted by the Second World War - to the great benefit of radio. But then, in a very short space of time, it came to dominate media habits and economics.

There used to be three, distinct, technical elements of television:  production (cameras, editing and recording machines), transmission (broadcasting towers and cables) and viewing (cathode ray tubes). These old, analogue technologies have all been overtaken by superior digital alternatives which offer better, cheaper and quicker ways of making, distributing and accessing programmes. This has taken away the monopoly power of the original TV network operators.

When we talk about newspapers or books or magazines we tend to mean the physical media themselves – the things we touch.  We do not think of booksellers or newsstands as the medium – simply as the retail outlets. With television, however, it is the whole system that we describe and it is the names of the big broadcasters - BBC, ITV, ABC, CBS and NBC that have defined the industry.

 Also we used to think of the piece of furniture that we looked at as “the television” when it was really only the front-end delivery machine of a complex system.  And even today, people often call their plasma screen “the TV set” when it is no such thing – it is really a computer monitor. In just a few years that will change and to hear people calling their screens “televisions” will be as archaic as describing radios as “the wireless.”

In the digital, multi-channel and mobile world the old way of thinking about the medium of television is redundant.  It is now more usefully thought of as the combination of sound and moving pictures, viewed on a screen, where and when, you want, rather than as a box in the corner of the living room and a broadcasting organization which scheduled your evening for you. Ben Silverman the co-Chairman of NBC Entertainment was quoted, appropriately on a BBC programme on the future of television, as saying:

“If you ask me what business I am in - I say the video business as opposed to just television.”[i]

The origins of television, technically, creatively and managerially, are to be found in radio.  In both the USA and the UK the established institutions that dominated radio were, rightly or wrongly, handed the keys to TV by their respective governments.  And it is attempts by governments to keep control of the broadcast spectrum that has so influenced the institutions which have run the TV industry.

This chapter is organized into three main sections: the development of the technology that brings us television; the legislative and commercial structure that delivers it and the resulting evolution of the programmes that we watch.


[i] Media Revolution 19 Feb 2009 BBC2 TV