Television: 75 Today

75 Today

As with many great inventions there are competing claims as to who got there first. However, for the Brits and lots of others the Scotsman John Logie Baird is widely regarded as being the first man to bring everything together to produce moving images and sound which were of high enough and good enough quality to capture the public's imagingation and attention. He got help from a very unusual quarter.


Selfridges is a big Department Store on London's Oxford Street. It has a special place in the history of television. Baird enlisted the shop's support with his mission. Selfridges allowed Baird to demonstrate his televisor to the public. It happened in late 1925 and early 1926. This cunning PR helped Baird attract the gaze of the recently formed BBC who were soon to play a crucial part in helping him to refine and develop his wizardry.

Two years later, in 1928, Selfridges started accepting deposits for different kinds of TV sets, on sale at prices between £20 and £150. A brand new motor car could be acquired for about the same price as the top end TVs. I guess the same is true today so it shows you the market Baird was pitching into.

Collecting down payments on the TVs was another bit of showmanship. Baird and Selfridges were creating a buzz. The story was public TV broadcasts would soon begin and these lucky people would be the first in the queue. Unfortunately these lucky people had to wait eight more years.

Happy Birthday to you

2nd November, 1936, was the day the BBC started regular television transmissions to the public. There were thought to be only around 100 TV sets in Britain at the time. It is very doubtful if any of them were in houses anywhere outside of London. Incidentally in many of the histories this November moment is referred to as the beginning of broadcasting "high definition" images. Given that those first images were composed of 240 black and white lines going out at a rate of about 25 frames per second it shows how the meaning of words can change over relatively short periods of time.

So this week TV celebrates its 75th birthday and various events have been staged to commemorate the historic day. Prior to November, 1936, there had been many ad hoc mechanical and later electronic projections of images, latterly using a cathode ray tube as the vehicle for showing the pictures. In 1935 Germany started broadcasting some very low resolution images for 90 minutes on alternate days of the week. In 1936 the Olympic Games in Berlin had been televised but, other than for a handful of the elite in Berlin, overwhelmingly anyone else wanting to watch had to go to special viewing booths called "Public Television Offices". Excluding Berlin these existed in only two or three other cities.

Strange sights

The BBC started its great and uncertain project from Alexandra Palace, a magnificent building sitting high on a hill in North London.There had been a trial in the USA back in the late 20's when, every day for two hours, a moving image of a papier mâché model of Felix the Cat sitting on a revolving gramophone record was transmitted. Today you would get an Arts Council grant for something like that but then the surreal depiction could only be seen by a select group of engineers who were working on improving the equipment.

The USA and several other countries were not far behind the BBC in establishing regular broadcasts to the public. The rest, as they say, is history. Not all of it glorious.

Growth figures

We've all heard the statistics about the growth of the internet as compared to the growth of TV and other technologies. It took television 13 years to generate an audience of 50 million viewers in the USA. It took the internet just four to reach the same number. Today we have over two billion internet users and rising. Given the way TV is now beginning to move online, subject to bandwidth constraints which presumably will be solved eventually, that means internet usage and access to TV will, or certainly could, become more or less co-terminus.

Thanks to the internet TV could therefore soon be reaching remote parts of the world where TV has never been seen before. Imagine being in the Ethiopian Highlands and, via your mobile phone, tuning in to "Big Brother". It makes all those sacrifices made in the name of scientific progress seem worthwhile. I wonder what they will make of Coronation Street in East Timor?

Internet enabled TV sets start moving

However, more immediately and closer to home, the long awaited and long predicted sales of internet-enabled TV sets are beginning to take off. In the USA a survey published in February of this year revealed that around 25% of all new TVs bought in January had been connected to the internet. Actually these weren't all internet-enabled TVs, but they were all new and used a range of devices to bring internet connectivity and internet content to the screen. The fact that such a large proportion of buyers of new sets were doing it at all is the key indicator. Every TV manufacturer selling into North American and European markets is now making internet connectivity a standard feature of its offerings.

Assuming we will continue to live in a world where family houses have a living room or common room of some kind, and in that room young and old will occasionally gather together to watch TV broadcasts, we are not far from a time when, on the same large communal screen in the home, two entirely different types of images and sound will be readily accessible.

One set of images will come from TV companies probably constituted more or less as we know them today. The pictures and accompanying stories will emerge from a highly regulated environment. They will observe all sorts of rules about taste and decency, follow solid editorial, ethical or journalistic standards. They will either have no advertising or they will limit the kind of advertisements that are shown and the length of time they are visible. Perhaps above all in this context they will also observe the "watershed". This means that particular types of material e.g. involving sexual imagery, violence or bad language, will only be broadcast after a certain time. In the UK that is 9 pm although some networks occasionally go later than that if there is an unusually challenging element included in the broadcast content.

9 Songs meets Alien Chainsaw Massacre

However then, at the flick of a switch, a press of the remote control or whatever, the viewer will be somewhere else altogether. The viewer or viewers will be on the internet. Most definitely there will be lots of content available on the internet which is every bit as good, often better, than much that currently comes from traditional TV outlets. But then there's the rest of it.

It's not hard to imagine where all this is going. It won't take many instances of harrassed Mums walking into the living room to find their four-year-olds watching 9 Songs meets Alien Chainsaw Massacre for the balloon to go up. Big time. Blood curdling screams will pour forth from the suburbs and the Daily Mail. And when both of these move together it is like an avalanche which can potentially sweep away everything in its path.

Everyone in the supply chain has an interest

Somewhere in the supply chain someone will have to get a grip and make sure everyone isn't killed in the regulatory landslide. The Authority for Television On Demand (ATVOD) is getting to grips with controlling TV-like content available over the internet where there is at least some UK engagement with the editorial processes, but for the kind of things I am referring to frequently the relevant actors will all be offshore.

Set top box manufacturers, TV set manufacturers, the ISPs, the mobile phone companies, cable or satellite companies are, in effect, the facilitators of this new environment, so they all have a very obvious interest in ensuring this is properly resolved. I hope they get that.

What a happy thought on which to greet this auspicious anniversary. Do you think John Logie Baird would ever have joined in with I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!? Pretty sure Lord Reith wouldn't.


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