Blog post

How we watch TV

From collective experience to solo binge

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by
Rebecca Haselhoff (opens in new window) (Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision)

Have you ever lived without a television? Nowadays, it seems almost self-evident that we would have a TV in our homes, or at least access to a high definition screen that allows us to watch all the videos, movies and TV series that we want, whenever and wherever. This blog explores how people have watched TV from the 20th century to today: from collective living room entertainment to more personal experiences on a small screen in the palm of your hand.

The first TV broadcasts

The digitalisation of our society has led to a significant change in how we consume audiovisual content. “Watching television” can have many different meanings these days, and mean different things to different people. For some people, it means watching a talk show on a big screen with the whole family in the living room. For others it might describe watching their favourite TV series in one go, by themselves, on a laptop or smartphone.

Although the television had been invented earlier, the first experiments with TV broadcasting started to emerge in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The following clip, for instance, shows the first broadcasting tests from a television studio in New York in 1937:

For quite some years, though, the concept of broadcasting remained novel to many people. The following clip shows how the concepts of television and broadcasting were explained to cinemagoers during a French news programme in 1951. Presenter Jacqueline Joubert takes a moment to describe how a TV programme is filmed and how moving pictures are transmitted from the film studios to the screens in people’s homes:

All major events in the world could now be captured audiovisually and broadcast to people’s TV sets. Around this time television started to replace radio as the dominant medium in people’s daily lives. This led to a new style of home entertainment. Families and friends would gather in front of the little square box in someone’s living room, and enjoy an hour of television together.

Colour TVs and more channels

In the early days of broadcasting, “watching TV” simply meant tuning into the daily or weekly show that was aired on a specific day and hour of the week, on the one available channel. Over the years, however, the world of television would see many changes. During the 1960s and 1970s, broadcasters upgraded their black-and-white transmissions to colour. The following clip shows a Dutch report from 1966 in which colour television was introduced and demonstrated by NTS (Dutch Television Foundation) for the first time in a “colour TV studio”:

More channels and TV shows slowly began to emerge. People could now choose from a variety of different TV programmes that aired on different broadcasting channels and different times during the day. Due to the rise of VHS tapes in the 1980s, it became possible to record a specific programme from your television onto a tape, allowing you to watch your favourite TV show at a time of your choosing.

TV in the palm of our hands

The early 21st century saw another important technological revolution in the world of television: the end of analogue viewing and the rise of digital television.

The digital revolution and the commercialisation of the internet massively changed how we watch television. The digitalisation of TV allowed people to watch hundreds of channels from all over the world, offered on-demand and in ever higher quality. Moreover, the rise of laptops, smartphones and tablets allows people to watch their favourite programmes on many other devices besides just their TV set. Besides gathering together with friends and family in front of the big screen, people now carry around their own private TVs wherever they are.

With the development of video and streaming platforms such as Youtube, Netflix and Amazon Prime, people seem to be focused on their personal little screens more than ever before. Terms like “binge watching” have entered our language, indicating how people’s TV watching patterns have drastically changed with time. The act of “watching TV” does not only reflect a collective, scheduled moment of home entertainment anymore. Now it includes watching all 24 episodes of that newest Netflix series in one go, or watching your all time favourite film whilst travelling by train.

Watching television has become a much more private experience that can be enjoyed completely by yourself, wherever you want, whenever you want. Watching movies and TV on the screen of your smartphone would have been unthinkable during the early days of television… or would it?