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How The World Came To Call Television Audiences ‘Viewers’

by : Hannah Smith on :
How The World Came To Call Television Audiences ‘Viewers’Alamy

It seems so obvious that most of us have probably never given it a second thought.

But in the early days of television, calling audiences ‘viewers’ wasn’t as simple as it might have seemed. In fact, the debate over what words should be used when talking about television was so complicated that it caused a ‘crisis’ at the BBC – at the time the UK’s sole broadcaster. To sort things out, an official sub-committee had to be launched to decide on the right terminology once and for all.

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Formed in 1935, the ‘Sub-Committee for the Invention of New Words’ was tasked with finding a parallel name to radio ‘listeners’ that could be used to describe people who watch television.

Early television sets (Alamy)Alamy

Seems straightforward, right? Yet according to documents that have survived from the sub-committee’s reports to the Advisory Committee on Spoken English, the group had some pretty out-there ideas.

Some of the suggestions made by the sub-committee at least had their roots in the word ‘television’, with ‘teleserver’, ‘televist’, ‘teleobservist’ and ‘televor’, all offered up as potential solutions. But the list gets progressively more far-fetched, with some, like ‘optavuist’, ‘auralooker’ and ‘seer’ sounding more like words you’d use to describe someone involved in a magic show, and others, like ‘glancer’, ‘looker’ and even ‘looker-in’ coming across as downright creepy.

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Eventually, the sub-committee landed on a theme, listing words like ‘viewer-in’, ‘visionnaire’, ‘visionist’, as well as bizarre alternatives like ‘vizor’ and ‘vizzior’, before ultimately settling on their preferred choice – ‘televiewer’.

Television set (Alamy)Alamy
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Once the suggestion made its way to the main committee, it was shortened further to ‘viewer’ before being finally approved.

But according to historian Jurg Rainer Schwyter, the new standard didn’t immediately catch on, with the British public initially disapproving of the word ‘viewer’ when it was first announced by the BBC. In classic Brit fashion, the broadcaster received hundreds of letters opposing the use of the word ‘viewer’, and suggesting alternative terms, most of which were dismissed as ‘very poor’.

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Clearly, people eventually got used to calling themselves TV ‘viewers’, but I think we can all agree that ‘visionnaire’ would have made bingeing Friends for four hours straight sound a lot more classy.

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Hannah Smith

Hannah is a London-based journalist covering news and features for UNILAD. She's especially interested in social and political activism.

Topics: Film and TV, BBC, Now, television

Credits

Smithsonian Magazine
  1. Smithsonian Magazine

    Why Do We Call TV Watchers ‘Viewers’?