Every Saturday, the Daily Mail must be bought for my mother. The newspaper itself is incidental to the weekly television guide included in the magazine. The programmes for the week are planned carefully, mostly the BBC 1, 2 and 4, with an occasional excursion into ITV and satellite channels.
The single most important element of her viewing has always been the local news, access to which has sometimes been erratic.
There was one evening when the ITN news ended and we waited for the West Country news. It seemed odd, the stories did not relate to anywhere we knew. Then came the weather forecast, would there be rain in Somerset in the morning? We were never to find out, instead the following day’s meteorological predictions for Birmingham were shared by a woman whose accent was definitely not Bristolian. Afterwards, a caption appeared on the screen, “ITV Central.”
“Oh dear,” said my sister, “the storm must have been stronger than we thought, we seem to have been blown North.” The idea of being blown three counties northward by a strong gale conjured visions of it landing on the Midland equivalent of the Wicked Witch of the West. All it would need would a young Dorothy to step out of the town into a Birmingham Land of Oz.
Rather than the sudden displacement of an entire community, the explanation seemed more likely to be that the digital television set had switched from its default signal to one from a neighbouring region.
Once, when visiting my parents on holiday, I had switched the preferred BBC satellite channel from that for the West to that for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. My mother had come in to watch the evening news and had followed the stories for some minutes before declaring, “There is something wrong with this television, this isn’t our news.”
More recently, the Freeview box decided High Ham had moved south-west and carried stories of Devon and Cornwall instead of Bristol and Somerset. Only a search through the various control options had revealed that it was possible to change the default channels; Bristol was recovered and all was right with the world.
Digital broadcasting can bring an abundance of choice, but also a dislocation. Gone are the times when one’s choice was entirely determined by geography. Terrestrial digital television has some geographical reference, but satellite digital broadcasts allows the potential to listen to anything from anywhere. And if the television does not provide adequate choice, then online broadcasting adds innumerably more opportunities.
The extension of choice brings with it the loss of a community dimension. Like the local newspaper, the local television news brought one the news of one’s own place, it created a sense of shared stories, a sense of identification with a place, a sense of being part of somewhere. Digital dislocation breaks the ties of former times, it is as if one had been suddenly gathered up in the wind and set down in a distant city.