Jonathan Durden: Technological expansion limits choice

The recent case concerning Sean Hodgson, who was wrongly imprisoned for 27 years, has made me wonder what it must feel like to be released into what is essentially a very different world from the one in 1982 when he was convicted. Cast your mind back to the year when Argentina landed on South Georgia Island, precipitating the Falklands War, when Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney went to the top of the singles chart with their song Ebony And Ivory, and the TV sitcom Cheers premiered. It is a time that we are far removed from now.

But are there some circumstances where the past has come full circle to meet with the present? During the time of Hodgson’s incarceration are there some aspects of media or consumer behaviour which have remained intact or are perhaps set for an imminent comeback?

The answer, I believe, to both questions is yes, but with a twist.

In 1982 BARB measured only five television channels: BBC1, BBC2, ITV, and in its inaugural year it included Channel 4 and S4C. Sky began transmitting in Europe, but it was largely dismissed, unmeasured and unnoticed.  In 2008 there were 297 TV channels reported, excluding the unreported ones, mobiles and the online swarm of alternative platforms.

To be fair, and despite decades of the threat of audience fragmentation, the main channels and cornerstone shows have proved to be surprisingly robust given the explosion in competition since then.

The most-watched TV event in 1982 was a Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me, which drew 22.9 million viewers. Coronation Street hit a maximum of 18.95 million viewers and Bruce Forsyth managed 16.85 million with the cringe-worthy Play Your Cards Right. All of the top ten ranked shows were from ITV – a statistic that is unlikely to make a return any time soon.

Today Coronation Street still manages a respectable 13 million viewers, with all offerings from the Simon Cowell stable reaching equivalent figures. Brucie is still keeping pace with his Strictly Come Dancing.

At this point I could slavishly compare the decline in circulations for print, and audience numbers for radio and cinema, and plot a curve for advertising revenues. But I will spare you that, as you are probably already familiar with these trends, and, anyway, it is not relevant here.

But what does deserve a mention is that according to last week’s survey from TNS, people in the UK are spending 28% of their leisure time on the web. The figures for the US and China are 30% and a staggering 44% respectively.

Last month eMarketers predicted that 17 million households in the UK, or 67.2% of the total population’s homes, would subscribe to broadband services by the end of 2009. That is a huge shift, but it sits alongside and does not entirely replace the more conventional entertainment pursuits.

I conclude so far from these crude measures that people like the familiar, that they trust what they already know and, like a toddler who can endure the comfort of a continuously repeated episode of Peppa Pig, we are generally reluctant to embrace the full range of possibilities opened up to us through technological expansion. “Build it and they will come” is not a universal truth.

So, logically, the next raft of technologies will become ever more skilful at filtering and honing our preferences for us, basing their assumptions and suggestions upon our declared and cumulative behaviour – and hence reducing our content. This may apply to broadcast, online or anything, and might result in some readers only seeing the sports sections or crosswords from a limited range of pre-shortlisted sources.

The 1982 scenario when all that was available on TV was a programme you’d never select except through desperation will never return. But while annoying at the time, this occasionally led to an unplanned mind-expanding experience. For example, in the Eighties, I remember that on Mondays at 8pm there was only Panorama on BBC1 or World In Action on ITV. In preference to no TV I would be forced to be educated and informed. No bad thing.

However, if Top Of The Pops was a possible third option, I would never have taken the documentary route – and been the poorer for it. “Be careful what you wish for” is a platitude that is profoundly true. “You can have too much of a good thing” is another that springs to mind. In other words, are our options becoming more limited from this explosion of media choice?

A couple of years ago my son was brutally attacked and left for dead, bludgeoned beyond recognition in a crowded high street. The horror of it spurred me into seeing if it was possible to follow three particular programmes that offer a diet of messages reinforcing that gang culture is cool, around the channels and schedules for 36 unbroken hours. It was.

So perhaps it isn’t George Orwell’s Big Brother vision of 1984 which we should fear most, but worse, a warped version of Sean Hodgson’s 1982, where we can brainwash ourselves by having automatic selectivity through the curse of excessive choice.


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