Being Modern: Niche TV

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The Independent Culture

In the beginning, John Logie Baird created the TV. And the TV was without content, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the screen. And Lord Reith moved upon the face of the screen. And the Lord said, "Let there be light entertainment": and there was light entertainment. And the Lord called the light-entertainment provider the BBC Television Service, and the darkness he signalled with a long, high-pitched beep.

Yup, that's how it all started, back in 1934, and it would be another 20 years before Auntie was joined on the box by (whisper it) a commercial channel. Mercy me, who would've thought that Gibbs SR could not only turn your teeth white as snow, but keep your breath fresh and your gums healthy? Yay for sodium ricinoleate!

In 1967, the imaginatively titled BBC2 joined BBC1 and ITV, and once they'd added the teletext services Ceefax and Oracle seven years later, there was enough content to keep even the most attention-deficited kid happy. So when Richard Whiteley came along in 1982 to launch Channel 4, it was a damn sight harder to mind your P's and Q's while tussling for the control of the remote. Bliss, thy name was channel-hopping.

Bliss, thy time did not last long. Not because of the thudding arrival of "films, football and fucking" on Channel 5, but because we saw our American cousins with their myriad cable channels, and thought: we'll have some of that.

And lo it did pass that we became in thrall to the satellite. And suddenly, despite spending a small fortune on umpteen "packages" that inevitably included many channels we would never tune in to, we couldn't find anything to watch any more. Want faith channels? You got 'em. Music-video channels? By the truckload. You want channels dedicated to advertising, Arsenal, Audi, Amateur Babes (ahem. Apparently they operate out of Unit 5B in Willesden – not so sexy now, huh)? Well, anyway, you got them too. And do you want them? No, of course you don't. You just want a nice cup of tea and a biscuit and a sit down with the news. Well, we could have had that in 1934, thank the Lord.