Watching Connacht play Ulster on BBC 2 Northern Ireland on a Saturday evening isn’t odd for someone living in Ireland – except that the television set is in a house in the south-western corner of France, in sight of the Pyrenees. It’s not even subscription television, a simple satellite dish and old Sky box, on which the subscription card has long expired, and the free to air channels are available to anyone who turns on the set. ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ might be lost on most French viewers, but to expatriates, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie appear as old friends. Multi-channel, satellite viewing is odd – it means being able to watch whatever you choose, but it means also that the sense of community that television sometimes, oddly, created is disappearing rapidly.
A few years ago, an interview with American actor and singer David Soul was a reminder of how television had once been. The interviewer had asked how celebrity life had been and he had responded that he and Paul-Michael Glaser, his co-star in ‘Starsky and Hutch’, had not been celebrities, they had been stars. He was right. It was the time of three channel television in Britain – BBC 1, BBC 2 and ITV. BBC 1 on a Saturday evening drew huge audiences; to be a star of a programme screened on a Saturday evening was to be known to tens of millions. The ‘celebrity’ culture had not yet appeared, airtime was too rare for it to be wasted on people who were famous for no reason other than being famous.
Even more than on television, radio presenters were people whom it seemed everyone knew. They were part of daily life; acquaintances, friends even. Until 1974 in Britain, there was only the BBC and the presenters on Radio 1 and Radio 2 were household names and regular companions. It is hard to imagine a broadcaster of the stature and longevity of Terry Wogan emerging now in a situation where audiences are fragmented between dozens of options. Wogan was a genius – a man who could switch from the hilarious to the grave, from the banal to the profound, within seconds. Yet despite commanding audiences of millions, there was always that sense he was a personal friend, that if you met him and said, ‘Hello, Terry’, he would smile and ask how you were. The opportunity to be a successor to Terry Wogan just isn’t there anymore; Radio 2 takes its place amongst the menu of other stations on the FM dial.
Maybe it doesn’t matter much whether we have three or three hundred stations, but the old ways did create a sense of shared culture; people would watch programmes and talk about them the next morning; workplaces would be tuned into Radio 1 or Radio 2, everyone listening (or being forced to listen!) to the same daily line up of presenters. There is no longer that possibility, apart from another rugby fan, to whom do you talk about watching a rugby match on BBC 2 Northern Ireland?