Appropriate, therefore, that the funeral on Monday ended the dominance of television that began when he came to the throne.
Now, the divide between social media and television in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s death has highlighted the way new media is changing culture. On social media, the queen often discussed and, in many cases, denounced Britain’s history of colonialism and her handling of royal scandals. Television, on the other hand, stuck with a script to commemorate and celebrate its 70-year reign, especially in the first 24 hours. The social media narrative initially challenged and perhaps changed what appeared on television.
Yet for all the revolutionary disruption and fragmentation of media already created by the Internet, television remains the main teller of national life in countries such as the US, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
“Yes, the time of the Queen’s coronation was when British people realized that television was an essential piece of furniture in modern life … and the glue of post-war British culture,” said Thomas Doherty, a media and cultural historian at Brandeis University.
Although he acknowledged the great changes in the media landscape between 1953 and today, he still added, “I think the latest send-ups and tributes will have a large audience: drama, spectacle, ritual…the universal shared experience of television. It moves forward.”
Viewership predictions for the US are a more complicated matter, thanks in part to the five-hour time difference between the UK and America’s Eastern Time Zone. CNN, for example, will start broadcasting live on Monday at 5:00 a.m., which is 10:00 a.m. in Great Britain.
The time difference between US and UK viewers, as well as working hours, may mean that more Americans watch more videos on the Internet and social media than live TV during the day. Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University, believes the time difference is enough to affect Monday’s audience size.
“The time difference will make a big difference and yes, people will take advantage of the time shift, something that started with head VCR owners for the Charles-Diana wedding in 1981, and now it’s much easier,” Thompson said.
Although Thompson expects a “very large” audience, he doesn’t see it disproportionately against the 1953 coronation.
“I don’t think this funeral can capture the world’s attention the way the coronation in 1953 did, or the wedding in 1981. There may be more spectators, but there are also more people. It’s the identity and position of the monarchy. It’s less than a decade after the Second World War. it was very different, and the menu of things people could pay attention to was much smaller then.”
How the Queen ushered in the age of television
At the Queen’s inauguration in 1953, the Americans could only get full coverage with a delay. NBC and CBS News, the two major television news outlets of the time, filmed the events in Britain and then flew them across the Atlantic for network coverage in the June 10, 1953 issue of the trade magazine Variety.
A notable aspect of the way the American networks packaged their coverage was the introduction of commercials. This had a big impact on the way television developed in Britain versus America, according to Doherty.
“When footage of the coronation was shown on American television, the networks naturally sold advertising,” Doherty said. “And the British were upset that the cigarette adverts were disrespectful to Her Majesty. This strengthened the British in their view that television should be supported by the government and paid for by television taxes and left them without considering the advert. A model for television like ours.”
While Thompson and Doherty appreciate the growing power of digital media and acknowledge that their days as TV’s main storytellers are coming to an end, they don’t think Monday’s funeral will mark the end of the TV Age.
“I don’t think the Queen’s send-off will mark the media’s swan song,” Doherty said. “If something like 9/11 happened again we would all turn to our televisions, drawn to the simultaneity and universality of collective experience and the hypnotic power of the bigger picture.”
Thompson agreed: “I don’t think the funeral will be the last big global event of the TV era,” he said. “But alas, future major global televised events are likely to be catastrophic: an assassination, a terrorist attack, an intentional or accidental nuclear event, a massive natural disaster, a pandemic, a coup in a major North American democracy… something . everyone will have to see it.”