Lost in Translation 288: Evolution of TV Viewing

Viewing habits have changed drastically over the past few decades. Changes in technology are allowing for more choice of not only what to watch but when. Lost in Translation will take a look at how watching TV has evolved.

The first electronic television set was invented by Philo Farnsworth in 1927, using cathode ray tubes to display the images on a screen. The first TV station, WRGB is still on the air today having started in 1926 for mechanical TVs. Between the ubiquity of radio and the Great Depression starting in 1929, it took time for the new medium to be accepted. Radio already had been accepted and had support and listeners; television was a new luxury at a time when basics couldn’t be afforded. Once World War II started, though, TVs started to sell commercially. With the war effort needing more people working, basic needs could be covered by wages, leaving room for a luxury.

By the Fifties, TV had replaced radio in the family living room. Four networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and, from 1946 to 1956, DuMont – provided programming, with independent stations filling in gaps. Programming was either live or prerecorded, and if a viewer missed an episode, they had to wait for summer reruns. The rerun itself was new in the Fifties, first used with I Love Lucy (1951-1957), allowing viewers a second chance to watch an episode. As a result, most series were episodic, one-and- done stories that didn’t affect what came afterwards. Once second-run syndication began, with I Love Lucy being the forerunner there, too, viewers had more opportunity to re-watch a favourite episode. That’s not to say that multi-part episodes didn’t happen. Splitting an episode over two or three parts meant that viewers would have to tune in the following weeks to see how the story ended. They were rare and used for key episodes in a series.

Colour came along in the Sixties, with NBC the first network to go to colour-only in 1965. Reruns and syndication were both well in place, allowing viewers to watch a missed episode or re-watch a favourite one. Time-shifting of viewing, though, wasn’t widely available. With radio, as long as someone could be around to start and stop the tape recorder, a show could be recorded to listen to later. Recording a TV series would have to wait for the Sony Betamax, released in 1975. Networks weren’t thrilled with the idea of audiences recording their shows, but after the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Sony’s favour, they didn’t get much say. The original Betamax tapes could only hold about an hour’s worth of programming. The VHS format, released in 1976, originally held two hours and, later, could get up to six to eight hours of programming. Audiences could record a show and watch it anytime, as long as the videotape recorder, or VCR, was properly programmed.

VCRs gave audiences a way to watch when they were available. Broadcasters and advertisers, though, remained focused on the live audience. The VCR had a drawback – it could only record one thing at a time. If there was a conflict in what to record, only one show in a time slot could be chosen. However, this gave audiences a bit more flexibility if they were at home; they could record one show while watching another. The other catch was that the VCR could record or replay, but not both at the same time.

The Eighties saw the role of cable expand. Originally mainly used to provide a clear picture from over-the-air broadcasters, both locally and from elsewhere, specialty channels bloomed and spread, giving audiences something else demanding their attention. To fill the time, the new specialty channels cycled their line up every eight hours, giving viewers a chance to watch a show that might air when they’re not available. With the expansion beyond the Big Three networks, four when Fox started in 1986, viewers had much more to choose from to the point where one VCR wouldn’t be enough to keep up in a household.

The first commercial digital video recorder (DVR), also known as personal video recorders (PVR), came out in 2001, taking advantage of the revolution in home computing. By using digital storage such as hard drives instead of magnetic tape, the PVR removed the need to store video cassettes and allowed for even more hours of storage. As the technology improved, PVRs were able to both record and replay at the same time and to record from multiple channels at once. With the expanded storage, a viewer could binge watch an entire season at once.

The year 2001 also marked the beginning of commercially available broadband Internet service. As the speeds increased, the ability to stream TV-quality video improved to the point where cable, once the main delivery method for television, started to wane. Streaming services could offer entire seasons at once, either of old series or, especially recently, new series only available through the service. Binge watching is commonplace today, something not even possible in 1951.

Going back to the VCR and its successor, the DVD, both provided another way to catch up on missed episodes – the outright purchasing of entire seasons. With the VCR, a full season would be bulky and take up storage space. Stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video rented out prerecorded, commercially available tapes of movies and some TV series. The DVD, which allowed for more storage space in a digital format, made it possible for entire seasons to take up less physical room than two episodes on a VHS cassette and provided another revenue stream for the studios. Viewers using this route had to wait until the season was over and risked the series not being renewed due to lack of live and time-shifted audiences for the advertisers.

Time-shifting and binge watching provides producers a way past the problem of viewers missing an episode. Today, a viewer would have to work at missing a show with the options available. Studios can produce multi-part episodes and even series with both season-long and show-long arcs without having to worry that the audience will miss something crucial. While shows like Babylon 5 and daytime soap operas paved the way for the idea of ongoing storylines that aren’t wrapped up in one episode, it took advances in technology to bring the concept to prime time. Even in sitcoms, the idea of characters remaining static is being left behind. Development happens over a season and over the run of a series.

To add to the mix, televisions aren’t the only way to watch shows today. With laptops, tablets, and smartphones, viewers aren’t stuck to the one room with a TV anymore. Online streaming, built-in DVD drives, and downloads allows viewers to watch anywhere without needing an over-the-air antenna or a cable subscription. The audience has grown but it also has fragmented. Lowest common denominator programming now competes with specialty channels aimed at a narrower audience who no longer has to negotiate for the use of the lone TV set. The challenge is finding viewers in a fragmented populace.

When it comes to adaptations, today’s television is much friendlier to longer works than before. In the past, shows adapted from elsewhere either took the characters and created new situations for them, e.g., M*A*S*H and The Incredible Hulk, or turned the work into a major event miniseries, such as Roots and Lonesome Dove. Today, books are being turned into TV seasons; A Game of Thrones being the forefront with such series as Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, adapted as The Shannara Chronicles, following to take advantage of the demand. Even older series being remade are less episodic, as the new Battlestar Galactica can attest.

With the changes in how people watch TV today, television may be the best route for adaptation. While each episode is far shorter than a movie on the silver screen, a season of television provides for more time to delve into the characters, the setting, and the plot. Viewers are more willing to follow a season-long arc now that they don’t have to worry about missing an episode, thanks to time shifting. Television might be regarded as being lesser than film, but the medium now provides for more for both creators and viewers.


This article was originally published at Seventh Sanctum.

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