Cartoon by Alina Miao

TV’s evolution since the 70s

Reports about the death of linear TV have been grossly overstated. Or have they? It is often said that the days of appointment-to-view television are behind us, as streaming rules the roost and habits change. Is this the case, or was it ever so? It’s time to turn back the clock and find out. 

Back in the 1970s, there were only three channels in the UK: BBC1, BBC2, and ITV. Channel 4 would arrive in 1982, but for now it was a triopoly (or duopoly, given there were only two broadcasters). It was a significant decade for the old box. Sales of black and white licences hit their peak in 1970, with the purchase of colour licences overtaking those of their more outdated counterparts in 1977. And yet, these were the days before VCR (videocassette recorder) had truly cemented itself as an option for viewers. More people than ever were watching TV, yet choice remained limited.

It served as a way to bring widespread attention to issues that may have previously been consigned to small audiences

One thing that was no different to today is the buzz that is generated by the hottest new shows. But while today this fever is driven through social media, back then it was the written press that drove intrigue, encouraging readers that they would be missing out if they failed to tune in. Shows, like Dallas, gained traction and built audiences accordingly. 

Never before had TV played such a dominant role in society, and it wasn’t something it took lightly. Whether it be Coronation Street or Top of the Pops, TV had the ability to shape and control culture. But it was also a decade in which it took on a greater social awareness. The BBC gave birth to Play for Today, which gave space and airtime for some of the nation’s upcoming writers and a fair number of taboo subjects too. It served as a way to bring widespread attention to issues that may have previously been consigned to small audiences. 

TV served as a lens through which contemporary society could view itself and how it was changing

But this wasn’t something only restricted to the more serious outputs. Many comedies, such as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and The Good Life, broached important and developing subjects such as class and individualism (see my article in issue 1 of this term). TV served as a lens through which contemporary society could view itself and how it was changing, getting audiences to think as well as laugh. It was a notable if gradual shift away from a more punchline-centric brand of humour that had come before. 

Just as TV said something about the way Britain wanted to be, it also explored its more challenging and provoking edges. Programmes like Love Thy Neighbour were reviled by critics for their conspicuous racist attitudes, but they also typified a nation struggling to understand the consequences of mass immigration and multiculturalism. Historian Gavin Schaffer has considered the role television played in shaping attitudes on race in the period, arguing it had a significant impact on presenting the new nation to audiences. With TV’s newfound national power came responsibility. 

Other programmes exposed the more sexually liberated side of 1970s Britain. The poorly aged Confessions of a Window Cleaner fed a new culture of smut and soft pornography as seedier content weeded its way onto our screens. The consequences of a more permissive society were being felt on the screen, no matter what viewers may have felt. 

While much of the nation might have been united in only having a few channels to pore over, many still assigned themselves to either the BBC or ITV camp. The former, the markedly older of the pair, was seen as slightly more middle-class and traditional. The latter, meanwhile, was more associated with vulgarity. The two rivals may have later converged in audiences, but in the 1970s, a divide remained. 

But there are perhaps fewer times in history when the small box has exerted so much influence

As the end of the decade hit, Brits were united in having nothing to watch, not just metaphorically, but also literally. Strikes forced the BBC off the air in the middle of December 1978, as well as a halt to production in the spring of 1979, delaying the completion of the final episode of Fawlty Towers. Not all were that bothered by the news. As Joe Moran outlines in his book Armchair Nation, it elicited a rather bemused reaction from a Guardian reader. “Should it matter one jot that Fawlty Towers fails to appear? Are the mass of people, after all, the helpless improvident ‘gammas’ of [Aldous] Huxley’s Brave New World? What manner of homo sapiens is evolving when it betrays all symptoms of addiction, and is distressed when the drug known as pap is temporarily withdrawn?” I suspect she wasn’t a fan. 

Such an observation does ground us against seeing TV as some almighty and omnipotent creature. Just as today many bemoan the effects of social media or influencer culture, many too viewed television as the route to a dumbing down of society. But there are perhaps fewer times in history when the small box has exerted so much influence. There may have been less on, but just about everyone was watching. 

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