Thursday, 11 March 2004

The Death of TV

my Guardian column Easter 2004

Technology certainly changes things, but sometimes the things that get changed don't notice until it's far too late. Over Easter I enjoyed a one day workshop with children from all over the world, visiting London to be part of the wonderful ChildNet Academy. The children's ages varied from 11 to 18 and they were a lively mixture of nationalities, cultures and capabilities. With colleague Neil from the 'lab I was challenging them to storyboard, film and then edit a 100 second video telling a story of romance between two objects, but with a tragic ending. I'm still chuckling at the ingenuity of what they produced. However, whilst they were completely absorbed in the detailed editing of the videos that they were producing, a BBC camera crew arrived to interview old mate Bill Thompson about Google's new mail service. Bill's daughter Lili happened to be one of the Academy networkers this year and thus he was there too. The children were immersed in a huge bustle of creativity, surrounded by their own cameras, the lab's Powerbooks and various other bits and pieces of increasingly pocketable technology; the BBC crew had a grand camera, the usual sound and lighting kit, and a mission to capture Bill's wise thoughts. The TV crew showed no interest, professional or inquisitive, in the work the children were busy with, despite the chaos of cameras, computers and the cacophony of throbbing soundtracks. The children were busy making their own TV, but significantly they showed absolutely no reciprocal interest in the TV crew's predictable approach. As the TV crew tried to usher children out of the background so that they didn't "spoil" the shot the children simply shunned the TV crew. In that moment the Death of TV was signposted as clearly and as vividly as could be imagined. Technology empowers everyone to contribute and participate and it was abundantly clear that none of these global children, gathered together in Kensington, will tolerate the passive role of couch potato that characterised their parents. This rebuttal of a passive role is causing significant revolutions everywhere. In music the historic role of companies like EMI would be to seek great new bands, mould them a little, then package them up and market them to eager fans. Nowadays those "fans" are downloading music from each other, often illegally, before editing it - perhaps adding a spoof rap from samples of their least favourite politician - before contributing it back to the swapfest of peer to peer file exchange that fills teenagers' lives. Already stock exchanges are asking serious questions about the role of companies like EMI. Why can't the TV companies see that they are next for the tumbrils of new technology?

As if to confirm the distance that all this has travelled in my lifetime, two colleagues in the lab, Tim and Jonathan, busied themselves over Easter helping the BBC with a celebration of the 40th anniversary of pirate radio in the North Sea. BBC Essex manned a lightship off Harwich, as a tribute to the far-off days of Radio Caroline. Tim and Jonathan set up a texting service direct to lightship, and mounted webcams to watch the studio and the seascape via the Internet. But as tens of thousands of aging baby boomer's TXTed the ship and watched the studio live, marvelling at the power of these new changing technologies and the Peter Pan looks of the venerable DJs, Essex children were ignoring this passive old world and learning about a creative new one from each other. Rock and roll was always based on youth challenging establishment, but this time around the youngsters have rather better tools, including video, than a very big radio mast on a rusty ship.

Back in the 1990s I made a Horizon TV programme entitled "The Death of TV". In Kensington and Harwich this Easter that moment might finally have dawned, but much more importantly for learning everywhere it felt to me like two more large steps towards the rebirth of creativity. And if a creative, active generation are rejecting packaged pop and passive TV, how long will it be before they demand a voice and a role in shaping their curriculum too? Not long I hope.

© Stephen Heppell 2004