Wright's Aerials
The other side 

Due, I suppose, to the way television has developed, the word 'channel' has ended up with two entirely different meanings. Actually, they aren't entirely different — it would be better if they were — they are related in a way that causes endless confusion. By now you're ahead of me of course. We have ‘channel’ as in ‘8MHz wide slot somewhere between 470 and 860MHz’ and ‘channel’ as in ‘Channel Four’. (Let’s not mention ‘S’ channels or satellite channels or VHF FM channels or DAB channels!). Understandably the public thinks that ‘channel 1’ is the same thing as the button on the remote that has a ‘1’ on it, and is synonymous with BBC-1. By an extension of this logic channel 47 must be what you would reach if you pressed the ‘up’ button 46 times, or (clever ones only) pressed -/-, 4, 7. So when I mutter “I’m just changing the UHF output channel of your satellite receiver to channel 55 so that you don’t have Bilsdale ITV in the background’ the customer will say, with some agitation “But we’ve always had satellite on channel 6! We don’t want to click all the way up to 55!”

“There’s no need to be alarmed,” I say. “There’s no need for your index finger to wither and die from extreme RSI. Satellite will be on channel 6 again just as soon as I’ve re-tuned your telly.” Result: total customer confusion. Perhaps I should just do it and keep my gob shut. The trouble is, I’m like Mr Butcher, my dentist. He always gives a running commentary as he works. “OK, I’m just going to have to use the slow drill. Hold tight. It won’t hurt a bit.” I nod agreement, my mouth full of scaffolding. He’s right, it doesn’t hurt a bit. It hurts a lot. He’s a good technician but his chairside manner leaves a lot to be desired and sometimes his commentary is disturbing. “I’m going to hold your forehead so you can’t move when I do this next bit” and “I’ll try to extract cleanly, but I expect the tooth will disintegrate and you’ll end up with splinters in your gum. Can be fatal if you get an infection in it you know. Never mind, I’ve got a waiting list.”

Anyway, back to this channel business. At first there was no need for the word ‘channel’ because there was only one. You turned the television on and, after about half a minute the sound started, and then after another half minute you could see a picture. It was BBC Television. Not BBC-1 or BBC-2 or BBC-3 – just ‘BBC Television’. If we’d known about channels we would have said “There’s one channel available” but in fact there was only half a channel available, because apart from schools programmes BBC Television started at teatime and finished at bedtime, and bedtime was earlier in those days than it is now.

When transmissions started from the BBC’s second station, Sutton Coldfield, TV engineers suddenly became aware of channels. Customers moving house and taking their TV set from the London area to the Birmingham area needed their sets modifying for the different frequencies. When you bought a new set you had to specify ‘London or ‘Birmingham’.

As ITV spread across the country in the mid to late fifties people had a choice of viewing for the first time. Only technocrats would say ‘Let’s change channel’ though. Most people would say ‘What’s on the other side?’ or ‘’Turn it over.’ The television was a coin. Heads we watch BBC, tails we watch ITV. If the decision was made to ‘see what’s on the other side’ father (always father) would heave himself out of his armchair and kneel in front of the set. Grasping the large inner knob of the tuning control he would click it the requisite number of times. Channel Two, Channel Three, Channel Four . . . click, click, click. It wasn’t wise to wrench the knob round in one swift move – that would ‘damage the cogs’. On reaching Channel Ten the outer ring of the tuning control would be edged backwards and forwards to find the point where ‘sound on vision’ (wobbles on the screen in time with the sound) and ‘vision on sound’ (a noise like a motorbike that was worse during the adverts) were roughly equal, in the hope that neither would be too irritating. After about a minute mother would say “Oh, this is rubbish, turn it over again,” and father, grumbling, would do the whole thing in reverse. He wouldn’t turn it the knob anticlockwise though, because that also could damage the cogs. He would click up to Channel Thirteen, and the next click would be Channel One.

Twenty years later the rot really set in, when Channel Four started. Here we had the first formal acknowledgment that each television service was called a ‘channel’. Lots of people had two ITVs and they were used to what they’d got, so we used to say '‘Channel Four is on channel five. Got that?”

Then Channel Five started up, and then after a while they decided to call themselves ‘five’ – without a capital. Well I’m sorry, but the conventions of language overrule a set of dingbat marketing men every time as far as I’m concerned. If it’s a name it gets a capital. Even if it’s your name and you don’t want a capital, you get one. It’s compulsory. I call it “The channel that used to be known as Channel Five (but is actually received on real UHF channel 37 in these parts).”

In the early days we used the word ‘programme’ – as in ‘Third Programme’ and ‘Light Programme’. How nice it would be if we had retained the word for television use. Apart from anything else, it would have familiarized people with the UK spelling, which seems to be on the way out. And it’s rather nice, is ‘programme’. It suggests that a sequence of entertainments has been prepared, by humans, with their own hands, using care and skill. But there’s a snag. We use the word ‘programme’ to mean, well, programme. You know, like ‘Neighbours’ or ‘Royle Family’. Ah well.

A very old TV engineer once told me about the time when he started work as an apprentice. On a high shelf in the workshop he saw a box labeled ‘channel blocks’. He mused for ages about the high tech product that must be inside. Finally he discovered that the boxes contained those yellow cubes that you drop into the urinals to reduce the smell.

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