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Why Do We Call TV Watchers ‘Viewers’?

It all goes back to a quirky BBC subcommittee working in the 1930s to change the English language

A cameraman at the coronation of King George V. (Youtube)
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The year was 1935, and television was in its infancy both in Britain and the United States. During this year, however, the British Broadcasting Corporation formed a sub-committee to sit down to devise a name that paralleled the use of “listeners” when describing consumers of radio. That committee reported to the Advisory Committee on Spoken English, which is responsible for creating many of the conventions that were standard to the dialect of English spoken by BBC broadcasters before and during World War II.

According to historian Nick Kapur, the sub-committee went through a number of unlikely choices, ranging from the supernatural (auralooker, seer, teleseer), to the futuristic (optavuist, optovisor, teleserver, televist, teleobservist, televor) to the just plain weird (glancer, looker, looker-in, sighter, viewer-in, visionnaire, visionist, visor, vizior and vizzior). “The Sub-Committee ultimately chose none of these, settling on “televiewer,” which was shortened by the main committee to just “viewer,” he writes.

"Viewer” remains the industry standard to the present day, although it took a while to catch on with the public. Informed of the new term by the BBC, the public instead sent in completely different suggestions, which the BBC rejected as "very poor,"  writes historian Jurg Rainer Schwyter. “Unfortunately, the full list of these words is not in the BBC files,” he writes, but it’s reasonable to assume that the public’s suggestions weren’t any better than those produced by the Sub-Committee.

The Sub-Committee itself went on to other adventures, attempting to do for British word use what the broader Advisory Committee was doing for pronunciation. Among many other things, it advised calling televisions “view boxes,” Kapur writes. Some other suggestions it made did stick, such as using the word "servicemen" to refer to members of the military.

As for the newly christened television viewers, they swelled in number, in Britain at least. “Britain had a regular television service many years before the United States,” wrote Ronald H. Coase for the journal Land Economics in 1954, thanks in large part to the BBC. By the time that the organization got around to coming up with a word for television consumers, television (originally distributed on radio frequencies) had been around for about a decade and there were around 10,000 receivers in use around the country, he writes.

In November 1936, the BBC set up its first television station in London. People in the London area were able to receive BBC transmissions, and TV started to take off. By 1939, Coase writes, the number of TV sets in the U.K. was abuot 20,000. In between, the BBC televised events such as the 1937 coronation of King George V after his brother’s abdications. The newly christened “viewers” were able to see the event firsthand from the comfort of their homes.

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