A very brief history of TV & my rambling thoughts
Monday 6th July 2020
15 minute read
As I’ve mentioned previously,
I love film. I love TV.
I’m aware this isn’t a unique interest - I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t love it.
Even if you aren’t someone who has a Netflix subscription, goes to the cinema often, or keeps up with the countless shows and films that are being pumped out of streaming services, pretty much everyone (who has access) has a favourite movie.
Everyone has something they found hilarious, moving, memorable, thrilling.
There are countless individuals who go even further, bordering on obsession...
...why are you all staring at me?
But it makes sense - why do you think so many of us have dreams to work in this world, and break our backs in the process?
It’s a multi billion dollar industry for a reason.
The power of storytelling through moving image is unstoppable, and it’s something I’ve always found incredibly fascinating.
The same way Grandmaster Flash fixated on the way the washing machine, ceiling fan and bicycle wheels spun, I’ve always felt a surge of joy and intrigue when I discover something new about how what we consume on screen is made.
If we’re close, you’ve definitely heard me me say this before;
“I miss my uni lectures”.
Now, who the hell says something like that?
Lectures are synonymous with boredom, but hohhhh no no no no, not for me!
I was lucky enough to have film and television studies as a module (insert heart eyes emoji).
I was that diligent note taking geek in the lecture theatre, my fingers typing at the speed of light in an attempt to take down every morsel of information I could.
One of my favourite lectures was about the history of television.
I regularly find my notes, just so I can read through it for fun. My heart aches a little knowing I’ll never sit in a film studies lecture with my professor, Neil, ever again.
So I thought I’d immortalise it through this blogpost, in my own way.
It definitely doesn’t cover everything, I’d have to write 1000 books for that, but it gives a little insight to how the TV we know today developed.
Electronic television emerged in the late 19th century, but it’s widely considered as post world war two - even though it had existed for several decades, it took a long time to develop. It was never seen as a commercial way of showing entertainment, more as a step forward in personalised interaction; almost like FaceTime.
In the 1930s, Joseph Goebbels utilised television in its infancy as propaganda for the German masses. It had become the optimal means of persuasion, broadcasting speeches, films and documentaries directly into people’s homes.
By 1948, in the UK, radio listeners had dropped from 9 million to 3 million. TV had begun to advance, even at the disdain of the prime minister Winston Churchill (lol wasteman), who referred to television as a “tuppenny ha’penny Punch and Judy show” - he refused to give any TV interviews, stating that it had no part in the coverage of politics. Oh, how wrong he was loool.
In 1953, over 20 million people had watched the Queen’s coronation on television, and by 1966, 32 million people watched England win the World Cup.
Although it had become more widely accepted by the 1950s, aside from informational broadcasting such as the news, TV was seen as low cultural form - populist, escapist, disposable, commercial, feminised, repetitive, generic.
Simply put, ‘anything with women concerned can’t be worth studying’. Lol.
Talk shows, game shows, soap operas and sitcoms dominated North American television in particular.
However, by the 1960s, TV started to understand itself more.
Writers and directors aimed to turn TV into theatre - and they were successful.
Films about homelessness - shoutout to Ken Loach - , middle class Britain, and sexual abuse were being aired on television, subsequently having a huge impact on their audiences.
Comedy and humour reached a new peak, as well as escapist shows inspired by espionage that followed after the popularity of the James Bond novels and films.
By the 1970s, ‘serious’ TV began to emerge, and thrive. The World at War (1973), a 26 episode documentary series chronicling the events of the second world war, aired on television.
At the time, it was the most expensive factual show ever made - it’s considered a triumph of the 20th century and is regarded as a landmark in British television history.
In 1977, Roots came on air.
It received 37 Emmy nominations, and was watched by an estimated 130-140 million viewers (more than half of the U.S. population at the time) the largest viewership ever attracted by a television series in US history.
It was the first time mainstream television shows were talking about issues that cinema wasn’t - it had the scope to tackle things that no one wanted to talk about.
Personally, I think for the time, it was necessary to shed light on what happened during slavery, as many had, and still do, have misconceptions due to white washed history books and conservative propaganda.
However, there’s an obsession with black tragedy in Hollywood, even to this day in 2020, which I can’t get behind. It allows white people to turn a blind eye to current injustices because ‘that was so long ago, you’re free now, what’s the problem?’
Plus, a lot of these films carry the white saviour complex, and I’m tired of it.
Maybe I’ll talk about this in another blogpost, before I get carried away loool.
Back to TV - by the 1980s, television began to enter the realm of cinema.
Heimat (1984) is a series of short films about life in Germany throughout the 20th century, depicted through the lens of an ordinary family.
The films were broken into 32 episodes and aired on television - it received critical acclaim around the globe, many stating that it never felt like a television show, but a cinematic experience - even Stanley Kubrick named it as one of his favourite films.
Not only did it cover life in Germany, it explored interpersonal relationships and the rise of corporate greed in western civilisation. This was one of the biggest turning points in how television evolved over the next few years.
In the early 1990s, TV consciously attempted to deviate from standard generic forms - engaging with the play, the documentary, literature, costume dramas.
It tackled complex and taboo subjects, in a way that cinema couldn’t do in a 1-2 hour time frame - all a result of how the stand out productions mentioned previously were gaining traction.
TV, although moving at considerable speed, was pretty static for about 30 years.
When the 90s came along (’95 gang ayyy) TV began to be perceived as works of art.
Twin Peaks (1990-1991) is one of the most important shows in the history of television.
Twin Peaks, 1991
Mark Frost, co-creator, worked in TV through the 1980s, but David Lynch was most notable for his work in film - The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Dune - which was unusual for the time.
Twin Peaks was a part of the American avant grade that employed surrealist art, untelevisual in the way in encouraged its performers to act.
Although cancelled after two seasons, it was largely celebrated - it was and still is considered high culture TV, one of the first great examples of post modern television.
If you haven’t watched it, it’s difficult to explain - it has a strange, otherworldly, surreal nature. Sexual undertones, a beautiful score that was stylistically different from other TV shows, but at the same time followed the generic traits of a TV show.
To say it’s generically hybrid is to do it a disservice - it is a horror film, a 50s drama, soap opera, cop show, transgressive and commercial, all in one.
What do I mean by post modern television?
Postmodernism is a complex philosophical movement, a rejection of the traditional, in short. When you apply that concept to television, you get intertextual complexity, self consciousness, and a relevance to fragmented media, landscapes and audiences.
NOW, this is where things get really juicy.
In the 1990s, HBO - which stands for 'home box office', if you didn’t know - was renowned for their high quality television.
But everything changed when HBO started making their own shows.
Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, Band of Brothers, The Wire, When the Levees Broke, Flight of the Concords, True Blood, Bored to Death, Boardwalk Empire, Veep, Game of Thrones, Insecure, Big Little Lies, Watchmen, Westworld, Euphoria, I May Destroy You, True Detective - I can go on.
HBO is synonymous with quality, and it’s for good reason.
You’re probably wondering why - these shows, like Sex and the City (1998-2004,) were only possible because of the TV channel that broadcasted it - it was uncensored in a way we hadn’t seen before, it was transgressive, allowed to be ‘taboo’.
Because it wasn’t reliant on advertising.
Okay, let me explain - TV shows are sponsored by advertisement, so if a brand is going to support you, you pretty much had to listen to what they wanted.
So if you, as a writer or director, wanted to include something controversial (in their eyes), they have the power to axe it.
Yeah, it’s mad.
An example - in 1999, Beck’s beer pulled out of of sponsorship deal with Channel 4’s Queer as Folk because of a sex scene in one of the episodes.
They claimed it was ‘financial reasons’ but it was pretty clear - they benefited from sponsoring them, because the audience was around the 18-34 age group, but withdrew when they got uncomfortable. Lollll.
As HBO is a premium television network, they don’t require advertisement. This contributed to a new wave of quality, high culture TV.
There are several markers of these types of shows that are familiar to us now, but not so much at the time.
Narratively complex - e.g. ‘previously on…’ - difficult to follow without the help of reminders.
Generically hybrid - a blend of genres; for example Stranger Things - it’s detective, horror, sci-fi, teen thriller, comedic, nostalgic - there are so many genres within the one show, you can’t really place it in one.
Self conscious - TV shows that know they are TV shows. e.g. Community
Conspicuous authorship - it’s sold around their authors.
Transgressive/uncensored - a breaking of ‘social taboos’; sexuality, identity, religion, race, etc.
Non commercial - they are works of art. Difficult to unpick and watch, purposefully alienating and unconventional.
All of these new wave shows contributed to academic critical attention - there was a huge upsurge of writing about TV in general. The Guardian’s episode by episode guides emerged, which was unusual for television. Nothing was being spoon fed - shows were becoming 10 hour films, split into 45 minute episodes.
Then came the post broadcast era.
I think anyone around my age (24), and older, reallyyyy knows how much television viewing has changed since the boom of streaming services.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I just flicked through TV channels.
None of us are watching things at the same time anymore, which completely alters the way we talk and think about TV.
I think the closest I’ve felt to pre-streaming TV is Love Island.
Yes, I watch Love Island.
Judge me all you want, but I think a lot of us watch it for the nostalgic community feeling we get from everyone watching it at the same time and talking about it together online, and in person.
Whenever I watched an episode the day after it had aired, I would realise how boring it actually is loool.
But watching it live on TV and scrolling through the hashtag on twitter, as people react to what’s happening - that’s what makes it fun!
I think that’s also one of the reasons we love No Signal radio, and the NS10v10 game show.
Of course, listening to the songs you love, especially ones you’ve forgotten about, is going to be enjoyable.
But the community aspect of listening together, and live tweeting your reactions - whether it’s joy, or rage - adds to the entire experience.
They’ve really done something magical.
Shoutout to the No Signal team <3
Back to TV - streaming has completely altered the television industry.
Production companies know the likelihood of their show being watched increases tenfold when it’s on a service like Netlfix or Amazon Prime Video.
A perfect example of this is Money Heist.
When the first season aired in Spain on cable, the viewership was relatively high - around 4 million.
Then it began to drop, so by the time they got to season two, they decided to cut the show.
The cast and crew said their goodbye’s and parted ways.
Then, Netflix bought it and added it to their international catalog.
It wasn’t a flagship, it wasn’t being promoted at all, it was just in the catalog, as are thousands of other shows on Netflix.
But then people started to watch, and started talking about it online - and it grew and grew and grew.
It’s now one of the most watched shows in the world, and season 3, 4 and 5 were green-lit by Netlfix, which also meant a much larger budget.
They went from a digitally inserted landscape of the Phillipines in season 2,
to filming across the globe, closing down central Madrid, a military helicopter, massive stunts and a load of other stuff in season 3 and 4 that I won’t mention for the sake of spoilers (omg who else can’t wait for season 5?!?)
Point is - streaming services and the post broadcast era has brought about a myriad of television shows, and although there are some negatives to this - such as high budget shows that are terribly made and written - the pros outweigh the cons by a mile.
Stranger Things, Narcos, The Crown, Orange is the New Black, BoJack Horseman, Mindhunter, Sex Education, Dark, Big Mouth, You, Ozark, Atypical, Santa Clarita Diet - just to name a few.
It has completely altered the way we consume TV, and although I sometimes miss the feeling of collectively watching shows at a specific time of day, I don’t miss it that much. Loool.
The shows I’ve had the privilege of watching whenever I want, however I want, has increased my love of TV more than I thought possible.
I mentioned in another post that I can spend hours watching behind the scenes footage, and I still do that with TV shows. The more, the better!
During the later seasons, HBO's Game of Thrones uploaded extensive behind the scenes clips on their YouTube channel, showing the ins and outs and incredible amount of talent, time and work that goes into every tiny detail of each scene and each episode.
Then, ‘Game of Thrones: The Last Watch’ was released - it shows unprecedented behind the scenes footage, focusing on different sectors of the crew - prosthetics, wig, costume, production designers, location scouts, even the head of snow.
The 2-hour documentary covers the final season (that we do not speak of), emphasising the staggering scale of GoT, focusing attention on the often overlooked crew members who work themselves to the bone to create the magical world we see on screen.
It’s one of the only documentaries that feels true to what I have experienced at work.
No, I haven’t worked on anything as grand as Game of Thrones, I haven’t even worked on a feature film, but the process for low budget films and shows is pretty much exactly the same, just on a smaller scale.
I felt so SEEN.
When you know how much goes into filmmaking, you appreciate what you’re consuming so much more.
That’s why it bothers me when people are so quick to critique without leaving any room for appraisal.
I have this metaphor, or analogy, whatever you wanna call it.
Filmmaking, and all the in-betweens, whether it’s makeup, or lighting, or any other department in industry, is like a meal.
Say you eat a bowl of pasta.
If it tastes good, you rave about it, you tell people, you want to eat it again!
However, if it doesn’t taste quite right, you complain.
All you focus on is what’s missing, even if you don’t know what it is.
If you’re familiar with all the ingredients that make that dish, you can appreciate all the different flavours.
Ooh, I taste garlic, butter, a hint of nutmeg is it?
A slight kick in the throat - chilli?
If something is missing, it might not be as great as it could be, but you can appreciate the work that has been done to get it there.
And I see this a lot when it comes to what we consume - because there is SO much out there now when it comes to TV, the standard has increased, and it often comes to splitting hairs.
A show could be 10/10, but we still complain, even if it’s as something as small as a continuity error.
I do it too, and I believe filmmakers should be held accountable if something is wrong - my point is, let’s appreciate the things they get right, just as much as we point out the things that go wrong.
Until you’ve been on a set, you’ll never truly know how hard everyone works to get it perfect.
For example, let’s say there’s a two person scene, and it’s being shot on a set that only has room for one camera.
It’s being shot at 8pm, but the scene needs to look like it’s 7am.
Lighting team has to set up to make it go from night, to a morning sunrise.
The room it’s being filmed in was empty when it was rented for filming - art department has to fill it with things that make it look completely lived in.
Not just a bed and a desk, but they have to make it look like someone has lived there for years.
Wall hangings, books, clothes, etc.
Camera crew - they want variety when it comes to the shots so the audience doesn’t get bored, and the message of the story is communicated, so - an over the shoulder shot of both actors, close up, singles, two shot, a wide.
The camera has to be set up for each of these angles, and the actors have to say their lines over and over again for every single camera angle.
Maybe they’ll say it in different ways, for variety when it comes to editing.
Every time the camera angle changes, lighting needs to adjust to make sure everything is consistent.
One of the actors decides to push their sleeve up in the middle of a line - the costume designer has to make sure the sleeve stays up every time the line is said, and the script supervisor keeps an eye on this to make sure it’s correct every time, for every camera angle, every take.
One of the actors decides to put their hair behind their ear - again, the hair stylist had to make sure they do it for every camera angle, at the same word, for every camera angle, for every take.
This goes for art department too - say the character is eating an apple, and they take a bite.
They have to do that over and over again, apples at the ready.
If they’re holding a book, and put their book down on a side table, the book has to be in the same spot every single time.
If the actor is crying, touching their face, or simply hot under the lighting - cause boy, trust meee, it gets hot in there - makeup has to be there at the ready to fix anything that could look different, make sure they don’t look shiny under the lights, keep everything the same.
This example only covers 5 jobs, out of thousands.
This example only covers one scenario, out of millions.
Now imagine your favourite TV show - that 2 minute dialogue between actors you probably forgot about - doesn’t seem so insignificant now, does it?
If you’re intrigued, a great YouTube series is Notes on a Scene by Vanity Fair.
It’s typically a director, or a head of department like costume, makeup, or cinematography, and they comb over every detail of a scene from a film they’ve worked on.
My favourite ones are probably
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out,
Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite
and Todd Phillips’ Joker.
IMDb and Insider often do behind the scenes footage on YouTube too - to be honest, if you just search the name of a show or film you love with ‘BTS’ (not the Kpop band) after it, you’ll find it.
Another favourite - Insider has a great 10 minute video on how 1917 was filmed to look like one shot - it’s mind blowing.
Would HIGHLY recommend all of these!
I think we all take for granted how much of a great deal we’re getting when it comes to television.
There’s a common misconception that the industry is so glamorous and we don’t have to work hard, because we love it.
"Do what you love, and you'll never work another day in your life."
Ha. This simply isn’t true.
We may be passionate, but we work insanely hard.
And although shows may be more accessible to us now than ever before, there are still thousands of people working on all of them to give us ALL the feels when we watch it on our TVs, laptops, tablets and phones.
I kinda went on a tangent there, but I think it’s pretty apparent how invested I am loool.
I don’t know if I would ever be able to fully explain in words what it all means to me.
I think anyone who is passionate about anything knows the feeling - when your heart does a somersault and it feels like there’s a little ball of light in there, glowing and growing, ready to burst out of your chest.
I could try and attempt to name every single thing I love about it, but the list would never end.
Sometimes it’s as simple as the way a camera is angled, or the way an eyelash catches the light, a facial expression, the delivery of a seemingly insignificant line.
I’m sure someone out there has captured it in words, in a way that I cannot.
All I know is, I’ll never stop adoring it, and I feel so blessed that I found my way into a world that brings me so much joy.
We truly are in the golden age of television and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Please sir, I want some more.
Fill the bowl up and let it overflow!