MEDIA: How multi-channel viewing has forced social change

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 football.

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

football.



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.



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