Loneliness On-Demand

I clearly remember when I felt that TV as I knew it had truly died.

It wasn't video that did it. Video may have killed the radio star but it was a close friend to TV, enabling people to enjoy their favourite soap opera even if they'd planned to go out for the evening. If anything it helped, giving TV a shot in the arm - no more did people say Oh well it's just a TV show when real life got in the way of their planned viewing. Instead they'd tape it, a word which we still use today even though there's no magnetic tape involved.

Oh have we got a video? Weird that the technology that inspired that raw excitement and freed us from the shackles of TV scheduling is now obsolete and almost forgotten. Remember how magical it was at first? Re-record, not fade away.

No the death of TV occurred far more recently.

There were many enhancements along the way that served only to bolster the screen in the corner. VHS's companion technology the Laserdisc was stillborn because what people wanted to do was record programmes, not buy something ready made - but once they got their head around the concept of Yours to own! pre-recorded VHS took off, followed by DVD which was basically Laserdisc in a far more compact and familiar form.

DVD recorders and PVRs were simply more sophisticated versions of blank videotape and made keeping up with the TV simpler. You could rely on them to record whole series of TV, thus enabling you to binge watch them in the same manner as DVD box sets. Even this was not the death of TV although it contained many of the elements that would become associated with it.

No, the death of TV was when I first experienced iPlayer on a television set.

iPlayer in itself was a major leap forward of course, a kind of retrospective video recorder. Now you no longer had to remember you were going to miss something in advance. It was enough to remember that you had missed it as long as you did so within a week. People could recommend you watch something they'd enjoyed last night. And yet while watching iPlayer was restricted to your computer or tablet it was still a novelty, something added on to TV, a tool not an executioner.

But when iPlayer became available through the TV itself it killed the old model. No longer did you have to know when something was on and take your favourite programme into account when trying to organise your life. Now you could sit down in the evening and wonder what to watch - and instead of having to choose from what was on or from what you'd had the foresight to record you had the whole of the previous week's schedule. The question "What's on TV?" became redundant.

TV was dead.

It took a while to sink in of course and whilst it was just iPlayer I could pretend that TV as I knew it was still in with a chance. But gradually as the new services came in it was clear that each of them was another nail in the coffin of broadcast TV. When they were introduced more often than not they were at first only available on your computer, phone or tablet and therefore didn't seem to add to the threat but ever since that first occasion I came across a TV plugged into a router the ways of getting programmes from the internet onto the set have been increasing. Apple TV. Smart TV. Chromecast.

The only thing that still ties TV into the old days is the fact that it is still being broadcast through the air - but for how much longer will this last? Analogue transmissions have gone the way of the dinosaur and perhaps digital transmissions are just a staging post on the journey to the fully on demand experience of the future, the last gasp of a dying paradigm.

It is incredible that I can watch HD TV coming down my internet connection when you consider that only fifteen years ago it took me well over an hour to download the trailers for the next episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - one megabyte video files the size of a postage stamp which lasted thirty seconds at most. And this delivery method sees an end to interference - whether the static and ghosting of the old analogue signal or the abstract colourful glitching of the bad digital connection. The worst that can happen now is that the picture might pause for a few seconds and a spinning wait cursor may appear.

Some companies are taking on board the new model of what could be a new golden age of post-TV. Netflix are producing their own series and releasing all episodes of a season at the same time, reflecting what the consumer wants. The anticipation is still there and if anything is bigger and analogous to a film coming out in the cinema as on release day you can get to see all of the new season should you have the time. Other content providers are dipping their toe in the waters of the new model - whilst some condemn the forthcoming movement of BBC3 to internet-only as a mere cost-cutting measure, it could well be that it ends up being a bold pioneer, the first BBC channel in the new universe.

But on-demand TV has an unexpected downside. Something is missing which I didn't know was there. I can now start watching at any time, pause if I need to go to the toilet, rewind if I didn't catch something. The picture quality is higher. And yet...

When the credits roll I begin to feel uneasy. A lifetime as a viewer of traditional broadcasts has programmed me to expect the announcer, the trailers, the start of the next programme. Instead the screen goes blank and the service logo appears. Silence fills the flat. I have no lifeline to the outside world, I can't go and make something to eat whilst the news chunters away in the background.

I am cast adrift into a cold black digital void. These colourful high definition programmes are discontinuous packets of information rather than a link to other people. I realise that I am alone in a solipsistic universe, now choosing when and what to allow into my cartesian theatre.

On-demand TV is a lonely experience.


Cathy said…
I do record things on my PVR, watch iPlayer, LoveFilm Instant, etc. but I still prefer to watch things at their 'proper' time, e.g. watching Eastenders at 9.30pm on a Wednesday would be weird; it should be watched at 7:30 on a Thursday night (or the other days when it's at it's proper scheduled timeslot).

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