The Pace of Change in U.K. Media: 26 years later

My trip to London in March gave me numerous opportunities to research and play tourist, and one of the things I planned to observe on my return there–after more than 26 years, actually–was how the media landscape had changed.

Some changes were blazingly obvious: Nearly every transaction I undertook in my 2019 trip involved my phone. In 1992, I had access to a single pay phone and a calling card that I could afford to use once a week, on Sundays, to talk to my family for about fifteen minutes. In 2019, my cell phone stayed almost constantly in my hand, and while calls were significantly cheaper than in 1992, I actually used it most for everyday things. I had constant access to information on it, and I think I used the Maps feature the most. I could, and did, map out a walk or a transit route to the places I wanted to go, and it steered me right every time.

In 1992, I got lost on Fleet Street, though I did eventually find my way back to the Tube station by looking at all the clearly marked signs in the city center, I appreciated the 2019 map-at-hand. It even told me when there were delays on the trains, construction on streets that could slow traffic, and blocked sidewalks.

It was brilliant.

Tickets to the play I went to were confirmed to my phone. My London Explorer Pass actually came with an app that allowed me to get tickets electronically, then helpfully kept track of the places I’d gone and had yet to go. While I bought an Oyster card for use on the public transit in London, I could also have downloaded an app to have the card on my phone, something I made note of for later trips.

I looked up museum hours and locations, made split second decisions and choices about where I’d go based on information I found in my hand, and occasionally paid for a taxi with my mobile wallet. I also used it to text, take pictures, and converse with my family in the States over video chat.

I do use my phone regularly for most of these things in the States, too, but the ease of use in 2019 Britain really highlighted the speed of the changes that have taken place since 1992.

A second, less obvious media change lay in the television choices.

In 1992, Harlaxton College had one television room, and limited channels. My host family in town had one television, and one license for it. Programming was fairly limited. The idea that televisions had to be licensed seemed novel to me at the time.

In 2019, I didn’t even notice a difference in programming, frankly. My hotel rooms each had a television with dozens of channels and access to Netflix and other streaming services. My friend’s home had a television with cable and WiFi access.

Programming wasn’t a focus on of my trip at all. However, I noted that BBC Radio still is going strong with original programming, the local media landscape is rich with original work, and British programs in general remain popular. I was happy to see I could take my favorite home with me; “The Great British Bake-Off” now can be viewed on Netflix. And I think that might be the biggest takeaway. There’s a LOT of crossover programming available in both countries in a way there wasn’t in 1992. Except for limited BBC partnerships with PBS, things seemed pretty restricted in 1992. That isn’t the case in 2019.

Finally, I noticed a decided preference in Britain for paperless transactions. While cash is still accepted most places, most Brits have chip-and-pin cards they use for virtually all transactions. It’s rare to find a place that isn’t equipped to handle the cards, and occasionally I got a clear look of “ah, yes, you’re a tourist” when I pulled out cash. (Cash, because it was cheaper for me to take a hit on currency conversion pulling cash once from an ATM than it was to take the individual fees that occurred with each cashless transaction in a different country.)

Food for thought.

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