As a child during the 1980s, I was never told television would give me square eyes or rot my brain. In my household, watching TV was a shared family pleasure. It required canny negotiation skills in order to determine which programme everyone had to watch and who had to get up to switch the dial between the four channels for which we had reception.
After our wooden-framed television packed it in, we were forced to make do with a 36-centimetre model. During this period of strained vision, we were selected as potential candidates for receiving a “people meter”, used to compile ratings figures.
I was strangely excited by this prospect, but then highly disappointed when we were informed that the underwhelming size of our screen disqualified us from eligibility. Presumably advertisers weren’t interested in what poor people were watching. Television was a formative part of my childhood—from cartoons before school, to repeats of Bewitched in the afternoon and Video Hits marathons on Saturday mornings.
Where, at the time, TV bore the brunt of criticism about negative effects on children’s development, today games are the more likely target.
Television viewing habits have also radically transformed, with most family members now likely to have access to their own television, or on-demand services on their computers or tablets. Thanks to the internet, Australia is no longer kept months, or even years, behind popular imported shows.
We have a multitude of ways to access content that do not involve sitting on the couch at a specified time and being compelled to watch advertisements. We have access to a greater number of free-to-air and pay TV channels, though it can still seem as if there is “nothing to watch” regardless.
Where once television programmes had noticeably lesser production values to film, TV has entered a renaissance age, with quality dramas adopting sophisticated scripts, lavish sets and extensive casts. Actors who would have once shunned television roles are now more willing to switch between the big and small screen.
In this column, I plan to write about television from Bruce Gyngell’s Australian welcome to television in 1956 to the present. I’ll tackle analysis of individual shows and genres, as well as thinking about how ads represent the world. Square Eyes will cover local and international programming for both child and adult audiences. It will also consider the importance of Australia’s own television culture and how we respond to local productions.
Television might seem a frivolous subject for academic attention in comparison with world politics or science. Yet it is a key part of our story-telling culture that helps to form society’s shared beliefs, shaping the ways of life we promote or condemn, the types of consumer goods we desire or shun, what we find funny or the frightening, and the kinds of people we aspire to be.