Among the inventions made possible by George Owen Squier are the US Air Force – Squier was an army officer, and the Wright brothers’ first military passenger – and the internet, which he expedited by inventing the “multiplexing” that allows multiple signals to travel along a wire at the same time. In 1922, Squier proposed a use for this technology: rather than broadcasting radio to be picked up by anyone, people could subscribe to have their favourite music sent into their homes over a wire. The service, Wired Radio, offered more reliable and better-quality sound than radio itself, but the cost meant it was mainly popular with shops, where it was used as musical wallpaper. In the decades that followed, it became synonymous with anodyne commerciality, especially under the new name Squier gave it: muzak.
Today, almost every household in the US (87 per cent) and more than two thirds of British homes subscribe to at least one streaming service; the typical American household has five. Streaming has replaced the old video rental business and is eroding the much larger and more significant TV networks: more than half of American consumers have dropped their cable or satellite services in favour of streaming, and around half of remaining cable customers say they plan to do so. The streaming boom has produced a new era of quality TV and huge investment in production, but it is also switching people around the world from watching a profusion of locally produced TV to a much smaller slate of programmes that are mostly made in one country. Have the streaming wars brought us better TV, or more muzak?