So Christmas Day has passed for another year and I hope Santa was good to each and every one of you and that you got what you wanted.
But what did you want?
I ask that because traditionally, the gifts I ask for are predominantly either DVDs or games, but this year I found myself struggling to think of that much that I really wanted. Now I know what you’re thinking – “Someone start playing the world’s smallest violin” – but the point I’m making is that things are very different from even a few years ago, and a whole world away to what things were like in the 80s and 90s when it comes to media.
In this article I’m going to compare how things have changed over the years and go over the advantages and disadvantages of those changes.
Once again, I suspect I know what you’re thinking – “What Disadvantages?!? Is he off his FACKIN NUT?!!?!” – but bear with me, as I begin my comparison with TV and Film…
The Difference Between Then And Now – TV and Films
Cast your mind back to the 1980s and 90s. The Dark Ages. The Time Before DVD (a format which is already on its way out I might add) or worse, the Time Before Downloads! Eeeek.
An extreme yet accurate example of the quality of video recording we'd have found acceptable in the 80s and 90s
You remember videos, right? Clunky black rectangles that would clutter up your house, offer a meagre 2-3 hours of footage, be of a generally terrible quality and cost a ridonkulous amount of money? Hell, if you’re like me you’ve probably got a loft full of them that you haven’t thrown out even though you probably don’t have a VHS player anymore, and even if you did you couldn’t actually use it because your new 50″ flatscreen TV doesn’t have the input to connect it up?
That’s right, looking back on it now, the VHS was shit.
Back then you would only keep the most important things that you recorded from the TV because there just wasn’t enough space on the tapes or for the tapes. Yes, you could always double the amount of bang for your buck by recording stuff in Long Play but then not every video recorder offered that option and would play LP recorded stuff at double the speed, and even if it did manage to work, the chances are the blank tape you paid £10 for back in 1993 (or in today’s money £16) would offer the most awful quality playback imaginable. Also, if you missed the chance to record a TV show, that was it gone until one day it might be on UK Gold or come out on video commercially.
Speaking of which, what about buying commercially available VHS tapes of your favourite TV Shows or Films that you didn’t manage to record the one time that they were on TV? Well you’d have to limit yourself again because of space but also because of cost.
Back then a film would cost £15 on video – keeping with 1993 as a standard year, that’s £24 of today’s money – so you’d only buy the ones you really liked. Back then you’d actually look forward to whatever film the BBC were putting on TV on Christmas Day because the chances are you didn’t have it. Yes, it was available for rental, but that’s just not the same!
TV shows? Slightly less expensive (most of the time) but you’d be looking at a lot of videos again.
Take Blake’s Seven for example. In the early 90s the BBC released Blake’s Seven on video. Now, if I said to you today that Blake’s Seven had come out on DVD then you’d be right to expect that I meant that the entire series was released in one handy DVD boxed set that could fit nicely on your shelf, and you’d be right.
But not in the 90s. Back then it was released on video two episodes at a time, with a new tape coming out every other month at £12 a go. So 52 episodes meant 26 tapes, released gradually over 2-and-a-bit years for a sum total of – in 2011 money – £520. No, that’s not a typo, that is Five Hundred and Twenty Pounds of today’s money. And yet we did it without a second thought. That was the price and that’s what we paid.
Now you can buy the Blake’s Seven complete collection off Amazon for £40 (or the price of two of the videos) and even today you’d probably sway about it thinking “Is it really worth that much money?’
You ask that because the reality is that you can easily just go online, type in Blake’s Seven and bang, you’ve got the ability to watch the episodes for free on Youtube or download them.
Now in 2011 there is so much more. There are more channels, there are more ways of watching, and crucially there are better and more effective ways of keeping the films and TV shows that you watch. You can record stuff to your Sky Box in HD quality and keep it for as long as you have the space. You can transfer anything from the Sky Box onto a DVD or even a blu ray. If you miss a show you could watch it on iPlayer on your PC or TV. And – whisper it – you can download stuff.
So now we have a situation where you can buy thousands of hours of TV or film for the same price as what you paid for a mere 90 minutes of material back in 1993 and you get it in higher quality, and once you get it, you can keep it knowing that there will be no degradation in that quality. Now, if a TV show is on, you can have it stored on a hard drive forever, meaning – however unethical it is – that you don’t actually need to even buy it.
Krusty's Funhouse. An example of the sort of crap game we'd play in the 90s.
And there’s also so many more ways of watching this stuff. You can watch it on your phones, your portable media players, on planes, in cars and out and about.
What About Games?
What about games?
Apart from the fact that they all look and in most cases play better, they are also far less expensive. The average game for the SNES back in 1993 would cost £97.50 of today’s money, while Street Fighter 2 genuinely cost £154 of 2011 currency. And let’s not forget you get far more bang for your buck. I was speaking to someone the other day who has sunk 220 hours of his life into Skyrim. Many a game in the early 90s had about as much depth as a puddle, and yet some of them were almost impossible to complete despite this because you only had 3 lives and had to finish the game in one go. Hell, in the 80s some games didn’t even bother to have an ending!
But even if you wanted to play these older games – and many do – you can play them all on free emulators on your PC or phone!
Music – or any audio format – is probably the biggest change of all in recent years. Even as recently as 2000 I’d struggle along with a cassette walkman, meaning I could only put about 2 hours of music onto one tape, which I had to record manually from the original source (another cassette, a record or a CD player) and could only listen to it in the order that I recorded it. Yes, I could have got a portable CD player but these were awkward, cumbersome things that you couldn’t take to the gym or into any ‘on the move’ situation.
You’d also happily buy the same CD again because you either lost it or damaged it. One little scratch and a song would be ruined forever.
I remember going to Orlando in 2003 and my brother was taking his Dr Who Audios with him in CD format, meaning that he had a bag full of CD cases. It was a ridiculous way of doing things but seemingly acceptable at the time.
Now I have an MP3 player the size of a 50p piece with a hard drive big enough to have my entire music collection on it, arranged in any order I want and played in any order I desire. There is no way for the quality to degrade and therefore, as long as I don’t accidentally delete it from the multiple places I’ve got it stored on, I never have to buy it again.
Or, if I want to, I can listen to as much music as I want on Spotify.
Imagine Having All This Back Then?
If you’d offered me that in 1993 I would say you were living in a fantasy world. It would seem like paradise. And it is, of course it is…and yet it’s not.
What’s Wrong With Paradise?
The problem with having so much media available at our fingertips is that it has a direct effect on our tolerance levels towards it.
Despite all the problems I outlined with video tape, we accepted it as the norm. You would happily sit down and watch a video that looked like shit because that’s all there was. These days, people will argue about the 720i version of a TV show not being a good enough resolution to watch because they could have got the 1080p version. Yesterday upon opening a Christmas present from his nephew, my dad was annoyed to have only got the DVD of something because he asked for the Blu Ray. That might seem like madness, and it is, but people will always want the very best quality available.
It also means we watch things and enjoy them less times. I ask anyone who grew up in the 80s or 90s to prove me wrong on this, but I bet that you watched the far smaller number of videos you did have time and time and time again. I know I did. You would watch the videos you had so many times that you could genuinely find yourself able to quote almost every line.
I probably watched taped episodes of Red Dwarf, Dr Who or Fawlty Towers more than 30 times each. I’m sure I’ve watched every Wrestling event from the 80s and early 90s a good 4 or 5 times (compared to rewatching almost none of the events for the last 10 years) and I’ve certainly sat down to multiple viewings of my favourite 80s films like Back to the Future and Star Wars.
We did it because that’s what there was, but I think we enjoyed them more.
And we’d also give more of a chance to TV shows and films that might not be all that good.
Don't cry Dr Karl, I'll get back to your show at some point.
Now, as we almost enter 2012, things are very different. You don’t really watch anything other than something you’ve really enjoyed more than once, even though you’ve got a permanent copy to show for it. I look at the films I’ve watched this year and have reviewed for this blog and I could honestly say I’d watch three of them again in my life, but I’m in no hurry.
And that’s because we’ve just got so much to watch. British TV, American TV, Old TV, TV you have on boxed sets. I think purely because of a lack of time I’m about 150 episodes behind on Neighbours, yet I have them all available to watch. I’ve got the whole of Game of Thrones on my Skybox to watch, I haven’t seen any of Homeland, I’ve to catch up on Misfits, I’ve still not seen the second series of Being Human – let alone the third – and my friend leant me the entire boxed sets of Dawson’s Creek and ER but I’ve had no time for them at all and more likely wont have in the foreseeable future.
Even with shows I love, like Grey’s Anatomy, Dexter or the West Wing, I don’t have time to give a second viewing even though they sit there on my shelves.
And we’re also far less willing to take a chance on something that might not be all that good. “Well that only gets a 7.5 on imdb, I’m not watching that!” So even though we’ve got all this stuff to watch, we’re probably missing out on a load more media that we would enjoy but we let other people dictate our opinion and willingness to try something new.
And when it comes to games, things are just as bad.
I – like a lot of my friends – have a massive backlog of games. There are games I have barely touched or haven’t even tried that I bought in 2010. But because there are so many new and high quality releases and they are relatively inexpensive, we just keep buying them.
Naturally, the concept of replaying the same thing over and over again until you finally crack it – like I did with Double Dragon or Super Mario Land – is a thing of the past. Now, if you pick up a game that offers as few lives as your average game of the early 90s – like for example the Japanese top-down-shooter Radiant Silvergun, which is available on Xhox Live Arcade – you scoff at how ridiculous the difficulty is and put it down to being a game for autistics. Back in the 90s you’d relish the challenge.
And of course, we can now play online with anyone in the world…except for our own friends in the same room.
There are no counter arguments for music though. It’s unequivocally better in the MP3 era.
So Are We In A Better Or Worse State Now?
Well of course things are better now, there’s no doubt about it. The volume and quality of the media available to us now is of a far higher, longer lasting and easily stored quality to anything we had in the 80s, the 90s or even the early parts of the 00s. That is terrific. In theory, someone could give a friend or a loved one a hard drive filled to the gills with 500gb of TV shows and films at a cost of the hard drive (say £50). But the relative price of what it contains means you are giving that person a gift with a real value of almost £100,000. It’s unbelievable (and unethical…but the point stands).
But I believe the trade-off is that we have so much now that we appreciate things far less. Can you honestly tell me of a film that has come out in the last 5 years that you have watched as much as your favourite film from the 80s or 90s? I doubt it.
Would you really bother to watch a film or a TV show that gets an average or poor review? Probably not.
Do you even have time to watch everything you want to watch? Highly unlikely.
In many ways we are Rich Beyond the Dreams of Avarice.
But still…I happily take that.