Television magic—it’s the future

This amazing illustration from Television Magic, a 1978 book on my shelf, provides a tantalising glimpse of the exciting role television would play in transforming our lives. As a seven-year-old, I marvelled at this world that would come to define my career. And while boiler suits as a fashion statement thankfully haven’t caught on, the writers and illustrators of this Marshall Cavendish children’s book were remarkably prescient.

The TV landscape in 1978 was strikingly different, at least in the UK. Only three linear channels and no daytime TV other than programmes for schools. Few people owned a TV, with rented sets being the norm—partly because they were unreliable and mostly because they were very expensive. Most households had only a single set, many of them monochrome. The original 405-line system hadn’t yet been switched off. Even a home phone line remained an expensive luxury for many.

It’s important to note just how much the cost of electronic devices has dropped. The 1978 Argos Catalogue has only three TV sets for sale, all 12-inch black-and-white portables priced at around £70. That’s £400 ($500) in today’s money, comfortably enough to buy a 50-inch 4K smart TV or a mid-range smartphone—two devices that bring every one of the predictions in the picture to life.

“A large, flat screen on the wall”

This prediction, often shared in the 1970s, of course became true with flat HD plasma and LCD screens gaining widespread adoption in homes around the time of the 2006 FIFA World Cup—I was quoted in the Financial Times talking about it at the time.

Don’t forget just how expensive the original flat TVs were: the bullet-proof 40-inch Sony Bravia that is still my main living room TV cost an astonishing £1,800 in 2007. At least it’s lasted.

What the writers of 1978 failed to predict was the way this technology would continue to develop: the screen of the future would not only be bigger and flatter, but would be of immeasurably better quality with OLED 4K (and 8K) screens supporting HDR images and spatial audio.

And they missed how the screen would gain connectivity beyond the antenna. In fact, the prospect of multi-channel cable and satellite TV was overlooked altogether in this prediction.

“Thousands of programmes are stored at a central video library”

I can only conclude that an 18-year-old Reed Hastings also received a copy of Television Magic for Christmas 1978, as he clearly copied their idea. Well almost—he decided not to implement a coin-in-the-slot payment mechanism, and sensibly adopted credit card subscriptions instead.

It’s this far-fetched prediction more than any other in the picture that has really transformed the modern-day television landscape, even though it took the technology and consumers another 30 years before the idea fully caught on.

Interesting to note that the other on-demand prediction in the picture, “the collection of videotape cassettes and videodiscs” came and went in the meantime, with VHS tapes dominating home entertainment through the 1980s and 90s and discs enjoying their moment in the spotlight in the 2000s. The home video industry’s ridiculous high-definition disc format war of 2007, as Blu-ray Disc competed with HD DVD, helped seal the fate of over-priced sell-through content as consumers recognised the benefit of subscriptions and realised they never needed to “own” content after all.

“A boy sets off to record a carnival”

Inevitably a boy in 1978, but the idea of creating your own content certainly caught on—initially with the rise of consumer-grade camcorders in the late 1980s capturing weddings, birthdays and childhood mishaps in blurry washed-out colour.

Of course it was the smartphone with high-quality video recording capability linked instantly to social media sharing platforms that drove the exponential rise of self-created video. Handily that same gadget took the place of the three separate devices our boy of 1978 had to carry.

The crucial thing that the illustrator of 1978 could never have foreseen was the rise and rise of user-generated content as a distinct new content genre, with thousands of creators making great content and earning a good living through YouTube.

And while the future technology in the picture was all fantastically expensive and beyond the reach of most people reading the book, the dramatically-reduced cost of professional-grade tools today has democratised the whole business of content creation. This has unleashed creativity and opened up access to the “television” industry in a way utterly unthinkable 42 years ago.

“Two children play one of the many telegames”

Perhaps an easy prediction to make in 1978 when the Argos catalogue already shows the Binatone TV game available for just over £10. What the sages of the era failed to forecast was that hours-long video of young people playing “telegames” would itself become a TV phenomenon.

Of all the tech, this proved remarkably consistent over the subsequent 42 years. That early Pong-clone game has evolved through multiple generations, with cartridges, then discs and now internet connections delivering the content. Even the newest PS5 console still plugs into the TV screen and allows children to play games.

Of course what’s different is that the console now allows those children (and adults) to play games against others anywhere in the world. It’s just as likely that the games will be played on a PC as on a console. And they’re now becoming a gateway for other types of content, with movies starting to be delivered within games.

It’s likely that the PS5 will be the last-generation of hardware-based consoles as cloud gaming picks up pace and moves the compute power to generate high-framerate immersive graphics into cloud data centres.

And yet us children of 1978 were just as captivated by batting a white blob back and forth across the screen as today’s youngsters are with Fortnite.

What? No video phone calls?

Unusually for a “future of television” picture, there’s no mention here of video phone calls, an near-ubiquitous feature of other TV predictions, and one that proved remarkably resistant to adoption despite endless illustrations of excited people talking to their grandchildren from a futuristic (and huge) screen in the corner of the living room.

And there is a lesson for us all. Just because the technology enables it, doesn’t mean consumers want it. It took the simplification of video calling technology within mobile devices before it gained traction with services like Skype and Apple’s Facetime.

But even the slickest technology needs a use case, and it took the global pandemic and millions of people working at home in front of their “telescreens” for video calling to become an every-day activity. And there’s one other area where the predictions missed the mark big time. All of the screens in the picture are firmly anchored to a surface. The idea that the dominant screen of the future would be pocket sized and unencumbered by wires didn’t cross the minds of the 1970s futurologists—yet of course the mobile device has turned out to be the defining feature of the future of TV.

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