IT is 75 years since the death of John Logie Baird, so to mark the anniversary I thought we might do a bit of time-travelling. What if the great Scottish engineer could travel forward through the years and see what his invention has become in 2021? And what if the children of 2021 could travel back to see what TV used to be like? People say TV isn’t as good as it was. But maybe the lesson of the past is simple: we should be grateful we’re not stuck in it.

To start things off, it’s worth thinking about what television was like when Baird died in ’46. During the Second World War, the BBC’s TV service was shut down completely, but when it started up again, you could see the roots of what it would become. There was nascent children’s telly (Muffin the Mule), news programmes, and early live televised events (the 1948 Olympics for example). Yes, it was crude and there wasn’t much of it, but the viewers of today would recognise the beginnings of what we have now.

What you’d also recognise is the fear. Almost as soon as TV was invented, there was concern about where it might lead. Could it turn people violent? Would it encourage them to commit crimes or have more sex? And would it discourage them from doing more worthy things, such as reading a book? One of the fears in the 1940s was that TV would kill off radio and one of the fears 75 years on is that TV is making us fat because of all the adverts for junk food. They’re different concerns but they both come from the same source: we may love Baird’s invention, but we fear it a little bit too.

The difference between the 40s and now also shows us something else, which is that TV can be a bit of an illusion and play tricks on our minds. I’m willing to bet that when television started again in 1946, there were men sitting in armchairs saying that it wasn’t nearly as good as it was in the 1930s, and the trend has continued. The criticism you often hear now is that TV is not the shared experience it once was. We used to sit down together and watch the same thing, whereas now we’re much more likely to be on our individual phones or tablets. It is the death of the collective and the triumph of the individual and this is said to be A Bad Thing.

But the time-travelling reveals something slightly different. Let me tell you about the Harker family. A few years ago, just as a little experiment, I asked the Harkers, who live in Shawlands in Glasgow, if they would go back in time and spend the evening watching a night of programmes from the 1970s. There was dad Geoff, mum Clare and their two sons Harry, who was 14, and James, who was 11. The plan was to see if television in the so-called golden age really was better and whether we could learn anything about how television is made now. The results were quite surprising.

Anyone over 50 will be familiar with the shows we sat down and watched. There was The Six Million Dollar Man ("A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him."), Basil Brush (“boom boom”), The Generation Game ("Nice to see you, to see you nice”), and Dick Emery ("Oh you are awful but I like you") as well as Doctor Who and Starsky and Hutch. The kids were banned from looking at their phones for the night and instead had to sit through an evening of television as it would have been on Saturday October 29, 1977.

Some of the old shows went down better than others. Doctor Who and Basil Brush were big hits with the kids – which probably explains why the shows are still around now – whereas The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky and Hutch were flops, even though they were massive successes at the time. In the case of The Six Million Dollar Man, Clare noticed that 20 minutes into the episode, there hadn’t been a single female character. As for Starsky and Hutch, the female characters were mainly girls in bikinis (the episode we watched was set on Playboy Island). It’s fair to say the representation of women on television has improved immeasurably.

The shows that did work with the modern family, such as Doctor Who, tended to be the ones that worked on different levels, with bits for the adults to enjoy and bits for the children. Everyone in the Harker family thought that, with a few exceptions such as The X Factor and The Simpsons, television had lost its ability to aim at everyone in the family in this way. Perhaps it is this that explains the loss of the “collective experience” that so many people get nostalgic about.

However, it’s worth noting what the family thought after the experiment was over. There was a lot of the 1970s telly that they liked, but when I asked them if they would go back to the 70s, they said definitely not. James showed me the vast list of channels he had access to and said there was no way he would swap it for three channels in the 70s. His mum also felt the same way. "There is potential access to things that are unsuitable,” she said, "but television does educate and our kids benefit from the best of it." The increased choice has also been good for the family's education: at almost any time of the day, they can switch on and watch one of their favourite history documentaries or whatever else they fancy.

Perhaps it is this – the vast amount of difference and choice - that John Logie Baird would find most bewildering if he travelled forward from the 1940s, but perhaps the choice is also television’s greatest achievement. The dad of the family, Geoff, made the fair point that choice doesn’t necessarily mean quality (“80% of it is rubbish you just flick through”) and he said he sometimes spent more time on the TV menu than actually watching programmes.

However, what the choice also means is that girls do not have to watch shows with no female characters. It means gay people can find programmes that include realistic portrayals of the LGBT community. And it means that families do not have to sit through programmes that only some of them enjoy. The choice frees them from the past. The choice is the future of television.

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