Armchair Nation: an Intimate History of Britain in front of the TV
by Joe Moran
Published in 2013 by Profile Books, ISBN 9781846683916.
There are two sorts of television history which do not mix very well.
Technical histories cover television as a branch of science or engineering and such books can be hard reading for those who are not familiar with basic physics and electronics. More recently the histories have been centered on the television programmes and their impact on viewers. For example in 2005 the American PBS network broadcast a documentary entitled "Pioneers of Television" which was entirely about entertainers such as Milton Berle, Carol Burnett and Sid Caesar, with no mention of America's technical pioneers such as Zworykin and Farnsworth.
Joe Moran's new book bridges the gap between the technical impact of television, and the programme impact. Much of the early technical impact, in the UK anyway, centres around John Logie Baird's public demonstrations in the 1920s and early 1930s. These were reported widely in the press but hardly at all on radio, because the BBC was very cautious about television. As late as 1952, they were only broadcasting television for 5-6 hours per day. Two events caused the BBC to change course from radio to television; one was the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and the other was the start-up of independent television in 1955.
Moran describes the impact of television in terms of very readable anecdotes, among which he smoothly inserts some telling statistics. As the years wore on, the technology continued to improve, but its impact was gradually overlooked in comparison to the impact of the programmes. Television reached a sort of plateau after the arrival of colour in the 1960s, but before the mass audience was fragmented among many competing broadcasters. Today, the technology is more advanced than ever, but there is a groundswell of discontent about programme quality as well as a surge of publicity about individuals who have abused their inflated status as "television celebrities".
Television is 88 years old and it continues to grow and change. The old monolithic centralised broadcasting culture, epitomised by the BBC until 20 years ago, is being replaced by more interactive and individualised forms of television. Moran's book will help us to steer through these complexities, on the same principle that the good driver often glances at his (her) rear-view mirror.
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