One of the more cheery seasonal discoveries I’ve made recently is that,
although Britain may be a nation of couch potatoes, with extra TV sets
becoming part of the standard bedroom furniture, we are not as atomised
as we think we are. I’d long assumed that TV viewing was going the way
of magazine publishing and Internet surfing, ever more specialised, with
the rise of special interest zones and niche cable and satellite pushing
the trend forward: children watching cartoon channels, men watching
And that the launch of pay-per-view this year, with two highly
successful heavyweight boxing matches, was a foretaste of what was to
come: ‡ la carte viewing which valued audiences not by size, but by how
much they were prepared to pay, or in the case of shopping channels, how
much they spent.
But what commentators and politicians have failed to grasp is that there
is another very distinctive trend at work. 1996 should be remembered for
a marked rise in social viewing: pay channels, and above all, PPV are
bringing groups of like-minded people together for special events. It
brings to mind all those 1950s pictures of suburban families, with mugs
of cocoa, huddled rapt around their new TV set. Except that now I’d
wager cans of lager would be more in evidence.
I suspect this pattern is a hidden force, partly responsible for the
fact that there has been no major public revolt about the way pay-TV has
gobbled up major sporting rights. The House of Lords got cross earlier
this year, but nothing changed. There is a consultation going on over
whether the ‘listed’ sporting events should be extended: you’d never
know. If you really want to watch something there are ways to do it
including going to neighbours, friends or relatives. As PPV movies
arrive, the trend will grow.
There are now 40,000 public houses marketing themselves as places to
watch Premier League football: about 40 per cent of licensed premises
and a majority of the largest ones. An independent study of the
Bruno/Tyson fight recently released by BSkyB showed that an estimated
3.546 million people watched it live, although only 660,000 homes
subscribed: a pattern repeated for the Tyson/Holyfield fight.
One reason for the renewed importance of the main TV set in multi-
channel homes is that there is no system to automatically feed satellite
signals around the home to the other sets.
But if you think that this is an interim phase consider the further
point: as people upgrade their sets and move to wide-screen and high
definition formats, the quality of pictures and the additional things on
offer will make the main set ever more attractive. So, if you settle
down to watch the Queen this Christmas in the company of others console
yourself with the thought that you are actually bang up-to-date.