Watching the Coronation with the neighbours in the dark

edits this blog. Twitter: @chblm

David Dimbleby's TV Guide to the Galaxy (1988)

The Coronation was famously the catalyst for many television sales in 1953. Those early adopters, as we would call them today, found themselves not just the envy of their friends but often hosts to their friends too - as neighbours assumed a TV was for the entertainment of the whole street.

I came across the phenomenon back in 1988 (a mere 35 years after the Coronation) for a programme I made to explore the coming multichannel television revolution. There was already what seemed like an absurd number of channels to pick from in the US, thanks to cable, and in Japan, thanks to satellite. Many other European countries had multichannel TV and Britain was predicted to be next.

The senior citizens we interviewed in Acton (above) remembered their first encounters with television, and bemoaned its effect on family life. Before television, the whole family would assemble for what the ex-dustman speaking above called ‘a good old ding dong’. Those days were gone.  

Early viewing was at least communal, even if people were sitting in the dark together. My interviewees were already looking back nostalgically to those days. There had been a transition from communal viewing to the age of multiple sets with different members of the family watching on their own in separate rooms.

We interviewed the US media commentator Neil Postman who also complained about the trend towards solitary viewing. “Culture …is a group experience,” he says, whereas television is “a privatising event.”

Does all this sound familiar? In the past few years there’s been a further shift. Today, every individual’s media world is different. Nobody sees exactly what anyone else sees online. Even sitting in front of a television set, a viewer is less and less likely to be watching a live transmission.

The commercial imperative is to atomise the audience - offering individuals exactly what they want to see and providing advertisers with precisely the demographic they want to reach. It’s a capability that the internet turns out to be almost perfectly designed to deliver.

But those ‘water-cooler moments’ (or, let’s be British, ‘tea-break moments’) are still possible. Watching the Olympic Games opening ceremony was all the more powerful for knowing it was happening live and that you were part of an audience of millions.

We’ll never get back to the television of the 1950s when transmission on the BBC (the only channel) started at eight o’clock and usually consisted of about four programmes.

If the price of today’s almost unlimited choice is a degree of bamboozlement, it’s probably worth paying - if that means we can all pursue our own interests.

No behaviour, social or technological, that was possible in the ‘good old days’ is impossible now. So, if you fancy an evening’s television with your friends with the curtains closed, why not invite them? Isn’t that what Facebook is for?


David Dimbleby’s TV Guide to the Galaxy was first shown on BBC One in November 1988.

The People’s Coronation with David Dimbleby was shown on 3 June 2013.