The telephone gave us a long-distance voice. Radio took away the wires; television added pictures. But the real revolution occurred well before all of that: In one fell swoop, the telegraph allowed messages to travel not at the pace of a man on a pony or a speeding locomotive but at the velocity of an electron. In like fashion, the colossal library of Netflix may be impressive, but the videocassette recorder was a revolution. The rest, which a reeling industry is still trying to sort out, is digital gravy.
It is orthodoxy to say that television, in 2015, is in the midst of radical change. We can watch a bewildering amount of material at will, and portable devices let us do so outside of the home. What’s more, a significant increase of highbrow programming now defies the old idea of television as the “idiot box.” Yet for all the advances that online distribution and digital technologies have brought, the real revolution came about 30 years ago. By 1985, viewers could see a show after it had aired, and their choices had increased greatly. They could watch a hand-held TV at the beach, and some shows had already started to exhibit serious artistic ambitions.
The heart of today’s transformation of television is storage. Viewers have access to vast quantities of programming, according to their tastes and schedules, stored on DVRs, DVDs, on-demand cable and satellite channels, and online services. Not so very long ago, if you wanted to see “Citizen Kane,” you had to hope for a retrospective screening at an art house, or wait until it played on television. In 1977, the tens of millions of people who saw “Roots” had no choice but to stay home for eight consecutive nights and watch the broadcast on ABC.
The introduction of the home videocassette recorder was the medium’s most important sea change. Now people at home could record and collect movies and television shows and watch them when they pleased. By 1985, more than 20 percent of American homes had a VCR, twice the number from the previous year. In 1985, the first Blockbuster Video opened. Blockbuster was a rental franchise, which, like the neighborhood stores before it, made it possible to watch thousands of movies and TV shows without having to record them off the air in the first place. Setting the timer on a VCR was a little harder than it is on a DVR, and driving to Blockbuster to rent and return tapes was a lot harder than clicking on a title on Hulu, but 30 years ago the big step had been made. If they took the trouble, viewers had control over what they saw and when.
Storage capability catalyzed demand for inventory. Although in the mid-1980s, the extensive repertory that online services have today did not exist, radically increased choice was already a property of the evolving medium. Cable television was adding lots of channels and content alternatives. ESPN made its debut in 1979, CNN in 1980, MTV in 1981. Fewer than 20 percent of American homes had cable in 1980. That more than doubled by 1985.
Even portability, one of the glories of today’s new media, was making inroads 30 years ago. Although Sony’s miniature Watchman never took off in this country — it could not connect to cable and it could not play tapes — it provided a dress rehearsal of sorts for what it would be like to carry a TV around in a purse.
Much has been said about how digital technologies have ushered in a new “golden age” of television, especially now that Netflix and Amazon Prime are offering classy original shows like “House of Cards” and “Transparent,” and now that auteurs like Woody Allen are signing up to do online series. Once again, however, this process started in the 1980s. By fall 1985, broadcast schedules, spurred by cable competition, included a growing number of prestige programs that broke from standard TV fare featuring flying nuns and talking horses.
The network lineups that season included business-as-usual silliness like “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider.” But they also included series like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Moonlighting” — shows that began to present literate, serialized stories in complex cinematic styles. Within a few years, pedigreed film directors like Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Penny Marshall, David Lynch, Tim Burton and Oliver Stone were all doing work for television.
The TV revolution took a lot more effort to enjoy three decades ago. You needed to check listings, set timers and rewind tapes. And some things — HDTV, social media interaction, cats playing pianos — would not arrive for another decade or two. Many of the required elements of change, however, were already in place.
As we look upon images of Pluto or Mars sent from 21st-century spacecraft, we might wonder how we ever got to the moon and back with nothing but the stodgy technology of 1969. We might also recognize that the real transformation of television had already begun in those quaint, analog days before the Internet.
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