As the world celebrates World Television Day this Saturday, people will be reflecting back on a rich history that has helped shape the world of media and the general zeitgeist over the decades. From black and white television to color, and today, to smart TVs, televisions have continued to evolve.
The content broadcasted on them similarly changed too over the years, influencing and shaping (often consciously) the general opinion on a multitude of topics.
According to a textbook titled Understanding Media and Culture, “Since its inception as an integral part of American life in the 1950s, television has both reflected and nurtured cultural mores and values. From the escapist dramas of the 1960s, which consciously avoided controversial issues and glossed over life’s harsher realities in favor of an idealized portrayal, to the copious reality television shows in recent years, on which participants discuss even the most personal and taboo issues, television has held up a mirror to society.”
Television took some time to arrive in the Middle East, and after it did, most of the prominent broadcasting channels were government-owned, as television was seen to hold massive potential to sway public opinion on issues of political and cultural nature, as it clearly did in the West. By the early 90s, many independent broadcasting channels and networks began to finally emerge, like MBC and Al Jazeera.
Today, TV is a mainstay component of Arab life, possibly more so than in the West. That’s because the trend of streaming services like Netflix only recently began gaining traction here, around the mid 2010s, and the region is generally more traditional in its watching habits than more developed parts of the world. This is partly due to internet speeds that are years behind those enjoyed in countries like the US, UK and Germany.
Looking forward, based on existing trends, it’s clear that the internet will continue to merge with television. Smart TVs are cheaper than ever, and with countries like the UAE boasting internet penetration of 99%, online content will increasingly be consumed on smart televisions.
This is both an opportunity and a threat. It’s an opportunity for media distributors who sell content on the web, but a blow to traditional broadcasters that have yet to make the leap online, or whose income is derived mainly from traditional broadcasting. Consumers today favor streaming and on-demand content, meaning they want to consume media at their convenience – at the time and place of their choice.
So while the days where entire families would gather around the TV to watch the latest episode of Full House or Friends are mostly gone, new opportunities are now presenting themselves, where the ‘family’ becomes the entire international audience of a show like Game of Thrones, and where the post-episode discussion occurs around water coolers, on Reddit, and on messaging services like WhatsApp, where the whole world participates.
TV will have to find a place to belong amidst all this change.