Spot the difference – 1957 vs. now

The one thing that HRH Queen Elizabeth II is probably most proud of in her now diamond-encrusted reign is, of course, the development of British TV over her reign into the world-class industry it is today.  Her coronation was the prompt for many British families to invest in their first TV set, so they could gather round and squint at tiny TV screens that the average tablet would now put to shame.  Three years of set growth later, and the jewel in HRH’s TV crown, commercial TV, was born in 1955.  She must be thrilled at how well it has performed since then.

It seems timely then that, as the nation puts up bunting, buys trestle tables, orders mountains of sausage rolls, gallons of lager, and forgets to put on any sun cream, we take a quick look at how commercial TV has changed during the last five decades.

How can we do this? Well, as it happens, I have in my possession a rather wonderful presentation entitled ‘Independent Television: The First Two Years – A TAM Report’. TAM stood for Television Audience Measurement Ltd.

This is an illuminating, nostalgic read and we’re going to find a suitable place to share it online soon in its entirety. In the meantime, it is interesting to have a look at how things were then, back in 1957 when it was written, and compare them to how things are now.

One point of order: I’m in no way saying the datasets from 1957 are comparable in the strictest sense to what we use now – in fact I’m breaking all my own rules here – but let’s have a look anyway. Just a bit of fun.

In 1957, according to TAM, the average viewer watched 2.3 hours of commercial TV a day. Fast-forward 55 years and we know, thanks to BARB, that we’re now watching over 2.5 hours of commercial TV a day. That’s not to mention all the extra stuff we watch on other screens.

This may not seem all that remarkable, but consider that the people in 1957 were the early adopters and that owning a TV probably transformed their home lives and there were only 2 channels to watch. It is a part of the furniture now, much less novel but no less loved.

In 1957, 4.1 million homes (one in four then) received commercial TV. This, TAM says, was a dramatic increase on the 1.8 million homes that had it the year before. TV was the new technology on the block back then and people were clearly very keen to get the shiny new kit in their homes. These days, pretty much everyone has at least one digital TV set, but the TV tech race continues. Now, though, it is among new types of TV screens like connected TVs, tablets, smartphones and laptops. The technology has developed, but the motivation remains the same.

In a section of the TAM presentation called ‘Do TV commercials sell consumer goods?’ we are told that ‘Of 30 brands which started TV advertising during the period under study [1955-‘57], 28 showed increased consumer purchases by ITV homes compared with other homes’ and that ‘of 12 brands which ceased, or substantially reduced TV advertising, 10 showed reduced consumer purchases by ITV homes compared with other homes’.

Plus ça change. We’re lucky to have far more rigorous ways of examining this now, but the principle is the same: TV is the most effective way to sell things and the best profit generator, and cutting TV is disastrous.

So it seems that though TV is the fastest-moving part of the media world at the moment, many of the core strengths haven’t changed very much even in 50 years. This is because human behaviour is pretty consistent; the reasons we loved TV then are the same as now.

I could go on – about how shared viewing is still the norm, for instance – but I won’t as I have to figure out how to erect this table and this beer won’t drink itself.

  • Neil Mortensen
    Neil Mortensen
    Former Research & Planning Director, Thinkbox
  • Posted under
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