In Air, On Show and Out of the House

I’ve been travelling a lot in the past few weeks during which time I’ve encountered television in places you don’t normally find it. Let me be clear. When I say television I mean on-air broadcasting which is how most of us have experienced the medium for the majority of its history and the way many of us continue to want to receive it, despite numerous programmable alternatives. While you’re increasingly likely to encounter television in places it was previously absent from (taxi cabs, train stations, public transport) it’s usually some truncated or synthesized version of TV not a broadcast feed.

One of the places I was surprised to find TV on the air was in the air. Virgin America flights now feature a Dish satellite feed of US network television stations which can be watched for the majority of the journey. Technologically this is not a shock. If you can get Wi-Fi in the air there’s no reason why you can’t also receive transmissions from a satellite. But airlines have previously been content to offer television as individual programmes to help forge a broad package of entertainment options and create pay-per-view and affiliation revenue opportunities. So why switch to broadcasting?

TV in-the-air!

Perhaps it’s a realisation that so many of the pleasures of television come from the act of watching not necessarily what is being watched. For the first time on airline television the rhythm and process of flipping between channels is available to passengers and they can consider what they want to watch when and for how long. This is not normally accounted for in discourses of ‘choice’ in television but is crucial in determining how in control viewers feel. It may also be a relatively cheap and straightforward way to make passengers feel at home when in flight, an effect I’m sure airlines expend far more money and effort in other departments to concoct. Nothing suggests sitting on a living room sofa like the muscle-memory spasms of hitting buttons on a remote even though nothing suggests it less than being sandwiched in a row of cramped seats inside a metal cylinder. I suspect it might also be linked to the success that broadcast television has had sedating annoyed visitors during prolonged periods in waiting rooms.

There a TV in here somewhere?

I’ve been to museum exhibitions about TV but last week was the first time I’ve attended an exhibition where the curators have tried to create a working model of on-air television in the gallery. The Gallery of California History in The Oakland Museum of California features an exhibit in which historical footage of American television from the 1950s plays over the screen of a replica period TV set with different content appearing when you turn the channel dial. On one station there’s a commercial, on the other a scene from a sitcom, the next a public information special, and when you go round the dial again there’s something different on each station. A neat gadget for sure but does it capture the broadcast TV experience?

The Golden Age of Television?

The exhibit is judicious about the combinations of content that simulate the process of watching television. It’s important that when we turn the dial we get a different kind of programme, or no programme at all. That said, the schedule is a touch heavy on commercials, falling back on the cliché of American television as pure advertising, which I suppose on balance is more accurate about TV of the time than the ‘golden age’ myth but still misleading. I like that sometimes you tune into a station partway through a programme, and get the experiential bit of encountering past TV that you won’t get in most exhibits. And there’s an armchair to sit on while watching, which sounds less important than it is. Of course you’ll never fool yourself into thinking you’re in a 1950s middle-class American home but every little helps when the point is to feel and live history. Precious few TV history exhibits care enough to provide this level of detail, and almost never in a throwaway installation inside a vast exhibition.

Because television is so closely identified with the domestic, it’s always jarring when TV appears outside the home. Maybe not so much when a specific TV programme or customised loop is shown in public but definitely when you’re watching a broadcast away from the sofa (unless you’re in a furniture store) or experiencing the comforts of home viewing in a public building. Pretty soon, however, it becomes a home from home, a re-lived domestic experience.

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