The way we watch television – where, when and how – has certainly changed over the last 40 years in the UK. I am old enough to remember there being only four channels and the excitement over the launch of Channel 5 in 1997. A few years before that, Sky had introduced the “multi-channel” concept (i.e., having more channels that you could watch) and I can still feel the thrill when a satellite dish was installed outside our house and we were able to watch themed channels for the first time, including channels that showed only movies and cartoons. Sky initially offered only 20 channels but to TV viewers back then, that was a lot of TV.
Cable TV came to our neighbourhood in the late 90s and our family switched to Cable and Wireless. I loved the way we could have the cable channels in every room in the house just for £5 extra more per room and the way that the signal was not affected by the weather. Cable and Wireless later merged with NTL which in turn was acquired by Virgin Media in 2006.
Being the geek that I was, I also tried the alternatives to Sky and cable. There were companies who offered pay channels without the need for satellite or cable, but by using an existing TV aerial. ONDigital was the first to offer such a service, later rebranded as ITV Digital. The service did not take off and was replaced by Freeview which offered extra channels for free – via a special box and aerial. Freeview was a success – the idea of a one-off payment for a box for a bunch of free channels had plenty of appeal. Top Up TV emerged in 2004. It was essentially a Freeview box with the option to add paid channels and a video-on-demand service. It lasted until 2013.
The world of TV changed even more with the advent of the internet. The terrestrial channels, beginning with the BBC, started to offer access to their programmes online. Netflix and other streaming services were introduced. People were no longer at the mercy of TV schedules. Viewers could watch their favourite shows when it suited them. The idea of “binge watching” was born when someone can watch a season of his favourite show in one sitting.
This is how I watch my shows now: online. In the 80s, the UK would get the watch American shows several months after they had been broadcast in the US. But now, the whole world can watch the same episode at around the same time. Access to television shows is immediate and on demand. Waiting is obsolete. Watching TV has become a universal experience.