In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers showed their first ten, very short films to a bewildered, intrigued and possibly even frightened audience in Paris’ Grand Café. Thirty years later, John Logie Baird offered his first, flickering television images to an equally bemused world but in the rather less august surroundings of Selfridge’s department store in London.
Both mediums – film and, to a much greater extent, television – provided the world with an unprecedented opportunity to broadcast, to share, to exchange, to teach and to learn. An open invitation for all to take the stage, to entertain, to charm, to engage and to amuse. To tell a story, to sing a song, to read a poem and to open the window on the world. A universal suffrage.
And how quickly was that invitation taken back. The studios and distributors quickly gathered to themselves the path to market for the Lumieres’ bright idea, whilst the governments of the world, soon followed by their preferred commercial licensees, harnessed the power of Baird’s invention, so dictating to the audience what they should and would watch. And when.
The brave new world of broadcasting was thus emasculated and it will remain one of history’s sadder footnotes that having thus mandated Baird’s genius, the BBC then ignored him, awarding their first television contract to Marconi.
The good news is that, no matter how well built the wall might be, ultimately, it will come tumbling down. Joshua proved the point outside Jericho and, more recently, the world watched in surprise as the fissures opened in the masonry of Berlin.
Communication and choice were too important to remain the preserve of the few and the ghosts of the Lumieres and Baird now settled on what was, at first, no more than a telecommunications oddity. Stung by the ideological challenge of the Sputnik, the US began work on a brand new, trans-national communications platform that would return all previous telecommunications to the dark ages. The project started life in the secretive corridors of the Advanced Research Projects Agency but, within a matter of years, had migrated to the rather more benign corridors of academe where it became the internet. A remarkable telecommunications network shifting huge volumes of text-based information between the universities of the world.
Good secrets, however, are never kept for very long. Roll the clock forwards to the 1990’s and the internet had become a universal concept. The ‘world-wide what?’ had become the world-wide web. It wasn’t perfect. It was slow and downloading any substantial amounts of audio and video might easily take forever. For the time being, at least, any potential threat to the studios, distributors and the television monopolists that might be posed by the web, was slight. The more prescient observers might talk of it but competition from the internet was surely a nonsense. And, after all, the late 90’s saw the advent of the much vaunted digital broadcasting platforms.
There are none so blind, however, and what the conventional distributors and broadcasters refused to see was that their sheltered fiefdom was about to be exposed for the self-serving, stifling and almost Luddite environment that it had become.
Internet delivery, in terms of broadcast, had been laborious. A telecommunications network that had initially linked radar systems and, at a later stage, the academics, had been ill-suited for transporting two-hour films and concerts from the Royal Albert Hall. Broadband changed all that, more or less overnight. As with any data transmission medium, broadband has its limitations but its technology and capacity allowed for the big question to be asked once again, the difference being that this time, there was realistic hope of an answer.
Could the internet be used as legitimate and all-embracing delivery vehicle for all manner and size of multimedia applications? In other words, could the worldwide community finally have access to the broadcasting democracy that had been Baird’s original vision?
The developments of programmes such as those now offered by IPGOS suggest that the answer has to be very much an affirmative ‘yes.’ The democratic circle is now complete, although it seems a pity that it took some eighty years for that process to conclude.
Perhaps the last word should be left with one of the godfathers of the internet, the IPTO’s first chief executive, JCR Licklider, who observed that the medium ‘had the potential for being a unifying human revolution.’
Happily, he will now be proved correct.