Sir Arthur on TV

Last week I reread an old classic SF novel, and noticed some remarkable details in this passing comment by one character about the fictional 21st-century Utopia:

"… there are too many distractions and entertainments. Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder people are becoming passive sponges — absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!"

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End, 1953

Of course, in this passing reference Clarke probably wasn’t trying to make a serious prediction. Nevertheless, Sir Arthur’s astute understanding of the future growth and effects of TV is impressive, all the more so given TV’s primitive state when he wrote that in 1953.

Some perspective. According to Wikipedia and TerraMedia, in 1953 the first commercial TV licenses were granted in the states of Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, and South Dakota. Canada had only just begun its first regular TV transmissions the year before, and the states of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming wouldn’t issue their own first licenses until 1954. 1953 also saw the first TV coverage of the Academy Awards, and the launch of TV Guide.

How did Clarke do? With the benefit of hindsight, let’s see:

  • Three hours a day? Right on: A recent global study reported that the average TV viewing time per person worldwide is just over three hours per day. In the United States, it’s four and a half hours per day. The Japanese top the list at five hours per day.
  • 500 hours of content per day? Far more: At 16 hours per day, that would equal a mere 30 radio and TV stations. In 2006 the United States alone exceeded 2,200 TV stations and 13,700 radio stations. [CIA factbook] That’s not counting programming on "channels" like On Demand and YouTube.

As we often say today, "Who knew?" In this case, Sir Arthur did. Last month he turned 89, and his literary output is still going strong. Hats off to the man!