According to a new survey by OFCOM, at the height of the lockdown in April the average person watched television for six hours and twenty-five minutes a day, up almost a third on the same month last year.*
With people locked in their homes, and those who could get out faced with closed cinemas and theatres, it was inevitable that there should be a rise in viewing. But six hours and twenty-five minutes? After reading the papers online, complaining about Johnson, taking care of emails, zooming relations and colleagues, walking round the garden, eating and drinking, complaining about Johnson, where are there so many hours left in the day?
Some of the answer lies in the flexible term ‘watched’. In the late 1980s, with a tv in every home, sociologists led by Laurie Taylor began to enquire into what actually happened when the screen was lit up. They found that in many households the television tended to be switched on permanently, providing the same kind of generalised warmth as the fireplace, but otherwise disregarded unless a particularly popular programme brought the family together. For the most part the life of the household went on much as before, with its members occupied with their particular concerns. They cited the response to their inquiry of a thirty-one year-old housewife: ‘We have it on but we don’t sit watching it. We turn it on first thing in the morning when we come down and it’s on till late at night. I’m out in the garden, doing the gardening, going back and forth – I’m not watching telly all the time – it’s just there and it’s on.’**
I am part of that vanishing generation which had no television at all until mid-way through my childhood (our first set was acquired from our cleaner when I was about nine). My responsible parents decreed that their children could only watch this enticing invention for an hour a day, leaving the rest of free time for homework, playing in the garden, talking to each other. This at least meant that we watched every last minute of our allocation and I still regard it as sinful to have a television playing to an empty room.
The Ofcom finding that there has been a surge in subscription television may mean something. We too have joined the art-house channels MUBI and Curzon Home Cinema. These are vastly superior to the repetitive menu of Film 4. But they are a tough challenge at the end of another wearisome day. A current MUBI offering is described thus:
“Defined by its director as a work of ‘futurist ethnography,’ this gem of Brazilian underground cinema is a dystopian sci-fi at once witty and visually thrilling. Powerfully commenting on modern-day racism, Adirley Queirós’ third film digs into the very heart of both past and present politics.”
Instead we decided late yesterday evening to start watching a re-run of The Blues Brothers on Netflix. Stylish fun with a knock-out cameo by Aretha Franklin.
And it only lasts two hours and thirteen minutes.
** Laurie Taylor and Bob Mullan, Uninvited Guests (London: Coronet, 1987), 184