Television Tales: 1990s
This week we are continuing my meander around television through the decades. Television, that cultural icon sitting in the corner of most people’s lounges, which has been blamed for all sorts of degeneracy over the years – until the internet came along and pinched that mantle. Previously, we’ve looked at the very early days, up to the 1950s; the 1960s; the 1970s; and the 1980s. This time, we are going to look at the 1990s.
At the start of the decade, British Satellite Broadcasting was launched, although it was later to fail and merge with Sky Television. The latest ITV franchise auction took place in 1991, resulting in all change across the country, including the takeover of my own region, the south west of England, by Westcountry Television. In the middle of the decade, several new satellite channels were launched and in 1995, a licence was finally granted for the fifth terrestrial channel. Called, unsurprisingly, Channel 5, it was launched in 1997, as was BBC News24. In 1998, digital satellite channels were launched for the first time, including BBC Choice, which became a staple channel for me when I was travelling around the world, and ITV2.
New programmes which debuted in the 1990s included Mr Bean, One Foot in the Grave, and The Simpsons. Chris Tarrant asked for the first time “Who wants to be a millionaire” and a generation of kids grew up to the sound of “Eh-Oh” as the brightly coloured creatures Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po invited us to join them in Tellytubbyland. The last ever episode of Come Dancing was aired in 1998. It was an institution that had been part of our lives for nearly fifty years. I hope the original presenters and participants would approve that the name at least is still on our lips today, albeit in a very different programme.
There was an element of channel hopping throughout the 1990s. University Challenge, which had started out on ITV, before going off air for seven years, returned in its new slot on BBC 2. Thunderbirds, StingRay and Captain Scarlet also made this transition. At around the same time, live broadcasting of Premier League football moved from terrestrial to satellite TV and became a paid-for subscription service.
There were some major events televised during this decade. In 1991, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and regular broadcast schedules were put aside to cover events in the Persian Gulf. 1997 saw the terrible accident in Paris that took the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. For many of us, the sight of masses of flowers outside Kensington Palace or two young princes walking behind their mother’s coffin have to be lasting memories. And earlier in the same year, I sat up all night watching the results of the election that ended two decades of Conservative government and eased Tony Blair into Downing Street. Whatever one’s politics, it made fascinating television.
But for me, the most iconic image of the 1990s was a much more positive one. In February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster Prison after 27 years incarceration and into the history books. I was working in southern Africa during those years, and the change in mood and behaviour over the next few years was a delight to observe.