In the early days of radio, people sat down of an evening specifically to listen to it. It was their chosen activity, the thing that they did. Gradually, as the broadcast hours of radio increased, the cost of radio sets came down, and perhaps the novelty wore off, radio started to become more incidental.
Video, as the song goes, then started to kill the radio star. Families gathered together to watch the evening’s broadcasts. This is what the BBC Yearbook of 1946 had to say about it:
Viewing television is a very different activity from listening to sound broadcasts.
The radio set can remain on for hours at a time; you can enjoy it as background to reading, writing, homework, or housework. Some people can even enjoy it as background to conversation, darts, or bridge.
The television set demands your attention; you cannot enjoy television from the next room. You must sit facing the set, with the lights down or shaded, and if you are a normal viewer you will find yourself very reluctant to be disturbed during a programme that you enjoy.
Despite the recent renaissance of the living room, brought about by huge household investment in home cinema systems, bigger screens and PVRs, TV has still slipped progressively into the background over the decades. IPA Touchpoints data over the past decade has shown that around half of all TV viewing is classified as a ‘secondary activity’. So while TV clearly still has its appointment to view moments, viewers no longer sit in rapt fascination, “facing the set, with the lights shaded” the moment the box is switched on.
Today’s reports from Pew Research that a growing number of teenagers are deserting the PC in favour of smartphones as their primary means of accessing the internet suggests that ‘surfing the web’ is now likely to follow a similar path, moving away from a dedicated sit-down experience to something more mobile, more all-pervasive, more spontaneous.
This should already be forcing web designers, advertisers and researchers alike to radically re-appraise the way we reach and engage with young people. It’s not just about shifting what we do onto smartphones. It’s about redefining what we understand by ‘internet’.