A Christmas Story

Temporal issues

Temple is a great word is it not: half a place for expressing faith in a crowd, and half a place for thinking to yourself (the side of the forehead…).  Lovely contronym there.

And then there’s temporal, a word that covers the part of the brain that processes sound and long-term memory, but also relates to TIME.  It’s an under-valued attribute when media consumption is discussed, as I will argue below…

These discussions about television, for those of you who DON’T work in the field, are increasingly dominated by WHEN the TV schedule will die off, by people who believe that the whole notion of TV channels consumed ‘live’ and programmes being ‘broadcast’ is comically old-fashioned. As evidence for this sudden change, they point to what happened to other types of entertainment that are, like the ghosts of Christmas Past and Future, a vision of the future.

Music, The Ghost of Christmas Past: TV, look at what happened to the muuuuuusic industry. No more paying to hear something…


Books, The Ghost of TV Christmas Yet to Come: No more broadcasting or scheduling, it’s publishing… Scaaaary.

Consider music, books and television.  These are a few, as Julie Andrews might sing, of my favourite things.  But, as Big Bird might also sing, one of these things is not like the others.  It’s television, and that’s because TV viewing is temporally specific.

The others are not.

Music – a personal library

Our ability to access music has been utterly transformed by its downloadability and portability.  I haven’t bought a CD or downloaded anything on Itunes since being given a Spotify Premium subscription a year ago.  It has transformed my musical life for ten quid a month, topped up by the remarkable BBC 6 Music, and the occasional live performance.  I’m getting more pleasure from music now than like, evah, and I write as a former DJ on the mighty WUVT FM.  Like most people these days, I don’t need music in physical form any more and it is easier than ever to explore new brilliant music.  But what I am doing is accessing databases of music to listen to on my own as and when.  There’s no sharing or time specific element to it unless it’s a performance.

Books – a portable archive

And consider books.  I can’t walk into a book shop without experiencing the peculiar mixture of pleasure and torture from the abundance of options.  It is spoiled, if I’m honest, by the gap between the cost of books in the shop and the price I’d pay online, but the books themselves are magnificent and so enticing that it’s like entering Willy Wonka’s factory.  At the Cambridge Wordfest, literary festival last weekend, we got to meet the authors too… amazing information, powerful stories and all the rest.  Obviously the books can be read electronically too.  But it’s a personal thing, and as with music these are one-offs.  Also, it’s worth saying, I struggle to read more than one or two each month.  The idea that TV programmes are like books is silly.

Television – a series of live performances

And then there’s television.   People say, well what goes for music goes for TV.  Eventually we’ll get TV in the same way that we get music – recommendations from critics or crowd wisdom and so on.  TV schedulers will go the way of redundant music company bureaucrats.  Or they say that TV will go the way of books – no-one tells us when to read books (how absurd!).  Broadcasters will disappear, they say, to be replaced by publishers – probably the programme makers themselves putting out programmes when viewers want them.

But TV is different in three ways.

First, TV is best consumed socially.  Books aren’t, and music can be, but isn’t usually.  We watch together in a comfy room because it enhances the pleasure.

Second television is episodic.  Television is usually about series, related episodes which build on each other.  Music can be, and fans of, for instance, Ian Rankin, like to buy all his Rebus books.  Books, curiously, come out in different forms, with the first iteration – the hardback – less popular than subsequent versions, more expensive and with less in it (reviews, updates and that).  But TV programmes emerge at periodic intervals in manageable episodic chunks… because that’s how we like them (and how many of them are made).  Perhaps that will change, but would box-sets work well if they were released at the start?

And third, television has a temporal element- it is time specific.  We can now choose when to watch the programmes (and many of us do from time to time), but why would we want to wait when it has a specific release time, and when the live launch provides the chance to bond with others doing the same thing at the same time.  Yes, we can now build our TV viewing around other things in our lives instead of the other way round, but if we happen to be free, why defer the pleasure?  And the part of TV that is NOT episodic, the sport and news events, are the one-offs that lend themselves to live transmissions in the first place.

People used to joke ‘my body is a temple… it’s big and round‘… for me television is a temple.  Because like other temples it involves the heart and the head in the same way as music and books. But it also creates an event with other people. Like Christmas, in fact. Television actually has much in common with Christmas… it’s a social, episodic, temporal occasion that had survived the knowingness of children, health alerts, secularism and all the rest.  But TV is better than Christmas in one respect – it happens every day.


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