The Royle Family (BBC)

    On the box: why communal TV is back

    4 May 2020

    While it has been widely observed that we are watching far more television during lockdown, it’s not just grown-ups who are turning to television sets to find escapism, relief from boredom and the latest coronavirus news. It seems that lockdown has spurred even teenagers to start watching proper television programmes on that strange, large, stationary rectangular object in the corner of the living room.

    According to study from Barb, reported in the Sunday Times last week, younger adults aged 16 to 24 are not only watching 22 per cent more conventional programmes than before lockdown, they are doing so on old-fashioned networks on television sets, with the proportion viewing via portable devices falling from 1.7 per cent to 1.4 per cent. Three times as many young people aged 16 to 34 are watching BBC daytime television compared to a year ago. Lockdown has even generated a trend for teenagers and young adults to sit on the sofa to watch entertainment or the evening news with their parents. No wonder: in these worrisome times, it’s natural that families want to spend time together.

    This is welcome news. As the original series of The Royle Family reminds us (it was created before the ascent of the smartphones), the television set in the late 20th century was for many the traditional hub around which families would come together as one. Communal television viewing for families – especially working-class families – was the customary occasion when a family did its most chatting and bonding, using programmes such as Grange Hill or Brookside as conduits to discuss relevant everyday issues that maybe pertinent to their lives, such as bullying, drugs or homosexuality. For the participants in Gogglebox, it does much the same today.

    Of course, not everybody approved, especially the respectable middle classes. Television was widely deplored for having displaced the dinner table as the place the family assembled in the evening. Gogglebox used to be a term of derision applied to a device blamed for destroying precious evening dinner time, in which mother and father used to ask son and daughter how their day was, how school was going, before they were shooed away to do their homework.

    Yet even middle-class families were prone to employ the TV as a means of domestic binding. When I grew up in the 1980s, our family was capable enough of doing so, whether it be sitting down to watch the Rugby Five Nations, The World At War or films such as The Sound of Music or The Longest Day. TV had its positive role to play.

    By the 1990s, however, television had become a problem. Or rather, an excess of it had. Households had forgotten how to turn television sets off; they now served as evening sedative apparatuses from hometime till bedtime. Breakfast television had begun in the 1980s; a decade later night-time television arrived. Second sets could now be found in kitchens and, most fatally, in teenagers’ bedrooms. They were indeed stupefying family time, shortening attention spans and taking us away from other stimulating and edifying pursuits, notably books. TV had already made reading too much effort.

    With the dawn of the internet and advent of the smartphone in the new millennium, matters got even worse. It wasn’t merely that families were no longer sharing the same television experience, or that teenagers were secluded in their own rooms watching anything from a plethora of cable television channels. Teenagers weren’t even watching television programmes. YouTube clips had become the order of the day. Even an hour-long drama or a thirty-minutes soap had become too much bother.

    The revival of the Royle Family this past Christmas and the continued popularity of Gogglebox hints at a spirit of nostalgia and longing. It suggests that we feel we have lost something in the evolving digital revolution, that there is something to be said for the communal TV viewing experience.

    If, in days past, everyone would have watched the Morecombe and Wise Christmas Special, or would have asked ‘who shot JR?’, Gogglebox reveals how the Great British Bake Off or Strictly Come Dancing still provide for a communal, national watching experience. If the smartphone epitomises a fractured, atomised society, the television set still represents a society that sits together.

    We may regret the reason why, in the past five weeks, families are once more coming together to watch with hope and fear the latest coronavirus headlines, or more happily, The Repair Shop or some other harmless but vital distraction. But it’s a good thing it’s happening nonetheless.

    This development reminds us, and it should remind our baby-boomer parents, that the television set wasn’t and isn’t a bad thing after all. It may be an ersatz, soporific hearth, but like fireplaces of old, it’s a fine place around which families come together.

    Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)