Great Service, Great Sets
1 Jan 2004 14 comments. tbs.pm/1952
These days, renting a television set or video recorder is very much a dying habit. Changing technology, huge advances in reliability over the years, and falling prices for equipment has severely reduced the rental market – so much so that today, marketresearch.com estimates that only 10 per cent of television sets are now rented.
Checking out the website of Boxclever, a company formed out of the remains of the once mighty Radio Rentals and Granada in 2000, now struggling with debt problems and recently bought out by foreign banks, reveals that renting a television these days offers no advantage over buying. Should I want to, I can rent an average Hitachi television for £12.99 a month. Assuming the television lasts ten years, this means I will fork out £1599 during the lifetime of the set. On the other hand I could possibly go to my local branch of Comet and buy the same television for £200. Even if I go for a credit deal, I’ll still be saving at least £1200 that I would have given to Box Clever during the lifetime of the TV. And quite possibly, in a few years’ time, the price of the same or a comparable television could have fallen by half. So you can see why, except for the very poor, the rented television – and indeed video recorder – market has joined churchgoing and pipe-smoking as a dying pastime.
In my part of the world, what was Radio Rentals shut up shop just after Christmas following a stock clear-out. This now leaves Whitehaven with no television rental shop, although a company based in nearby Workington, which operates out of an industrial unit with a phone number, does offer nearly-new TVs and videos for rental, with special deals to single parents and the like who now make up the bulk of the rented market. However, with Boxclever closing over 250 branches over the past 3-4 years, the only surviving high street rental chain appears to be heading for oblivion, even though the company’s website does offer a far larger range of products – such as washing machines, Freeview boxes and DVD players – than the old Radio Rentals ever did and is advertising itself aggressively online. The days of rented TVs and VCRs are indeed coming to an end.
How times have changed. In the late seventies, Whitehaven, a town of 30,000 people, had six television rental shops, or electrical shops that ran a lucrative sideline in renting televisions and videos. The arrival of VCRs at the end of the seventies managed to keep the television rental business buoyant in the first half of the eighties, as few people could afford to fork out £ 600 to buy a VCR at the time. Radio Rentals and the like spotted a huge market in rented videos.
One of the biggest concerns in the Whitehaven of the seventies was British Relay. Rather like Rediffusion in other areas, British Relay employed cable television rather than the conventional aerial system. As reception in Whitehaven town centre was often poor due to it being in a valley, and newer public housing estates had no chimneys, British Relay’s cablevision sets were a familiar site in houses in the town.
My parents owned three of these sets, as the two houses we rented were wired up to British Relay and fitting aerials was difficult in houses without chimneys. The first was a 20-inch black and white set that gave excellent service; the other two were reconditioned valve-powered colour sets that were about as reliable as a chocolate fireguard (though this was typical of most valve colour sets, not just those from British Relay). The valve sets were British Relay-branded Pye models, while later transistor sets were made under licence by GEC.
The service offered to British Relay subscribers, apart from better reception, included an extra ITV channel – in our case Granada – which meant that when Border was showing some 0-0 Scottish football match, we would often switch across to Granada to watch a film. I can remember as a nine-year-old at school making a few of my friends very jealous when Granada premiered the Bond film, “Thunderball” the night before Border, and seeing it before the supposedly better off kids on the private estates with their aerials, Bushes and Fergusons. Being from a housing association estate did have its advantages at times.
Another option you had on British Relay TVs was to use them as a radio: the four television presets, at the flick of a switch, became the four national radio networks, quite useful at the time for Radio 1, as the reception on 247m MW was often poor and the cable reception was better.
I actually lived down the road from the British Relay mast for Whitehaven. The mast, which was 50 feet (15m) high, faced the Bigrigg relay, the main transmitter for Whitehaven and Egremont, and obtained its signals from Bigrigg. It relayed the programmes via a sizeable box wired up to the mast, and distributed the signals through cables. The estate I currently live on, built in 1977-78, was completely wired-up for British Relay, and most houses still have the cable boxes and sockets, although no one uses the system now and the mast was demolished in 1990.
One of the reasons why British Relay fell out of favour locally was to do with company politics and poor customer service. British Relay was taken over in 1978 by Visionhire, who decided to let the cable vision system die a slow death in Whitehaven. No new cable vision sets were made for rent after 1978, and customers often complained that when they upgraded from a black and white to a colour set that they were given an ancient valve set instead of the later GEC transistor models.
In addition, the cablevision models cost four pounds a month more to rent than a conventional set, and, even though it was difficult to fit aerials to houses without chimneys, people were to be found rigging up aerials to the sides of their houses or in the loft, and switching to conventional televisions. The story of British Relay locally could be repeated for the whole cable television industry in Britain, which has been one long story of missed opportunities.
The main supplier of conventional rented televisions in Whitehaven, in common with the rest of the country, was Radio Rentals, supplier of my next set after the British Relay model blew up. Formed in 1932 to rent out radio sets, Radio Rentals had moved into televisions and ultimately videos. The company (along with DER, who also had a shop in Whitehaven) was owned by Thorn EMI and produced Ferguson TX sets labelled with the Baird brand name, which was synonymous with Radio Rentals. DER also labelled sets with their own brand, but they, too, were Fergusons in all but name. However, as the latest TX models were too expensive for us to rent, we were given the option of renting a “good as new”, as the advert stated in the shop, older model. This proved to be nearly as much trouble as the British Relay set, as it was a ten year old TV – one of the first transistor models, that had been given a service and a clean up in the shop.
While it might seem laughable to younger readers that anyone would want to rent a ten year old television, you have to understand that people were much poorer 22 years ago and new televisions, even to rent, were expensive, so renting a reconditioned “good as new” set was often the only option available. At least the television did look nice: it was a classic of early seventies design, in a teak cabinet with opening doors and a nice chromed control panel. When new, it would probably have been a good television, but not at ten years old. After three years of persisting with this teak terror, we finally asked Radio Rentals to give it a decent burial – the tube had packed in – and decided to invest in one of the new generation of JVC flat screen televisions from the Co-Op. At last: no more reconditioned junk and fuzzy pictures for us, and the television would be ours after we paid it off.
It is hardly surprising that renting started to go into decline as the eighties progressed. While the falling costs of new sets contributed to the decline of renting, the often-inferior customer service and worn out products offered to poorer customers could not have helped. (Another option offered to poorer viewers – I had a relative in South Shields who had one of these televisions as late as 1993 – was to have a colour set ‘monochromed’, which reduced the rental by half.)
Along with British Relay/Visionhire, Radio Rentals and DER, most of the electrical shops in Whitehaven ran a sideline in rented televisions. The Co-Op, who used to have their own branded rental televisions made by GEC until the mid seventies, had a large rental section in their electrical department. NORWEB – the electricity board shop – rented out Fergusons, while Colorvision, as well as selling Decca televisions, also rented new and used sets.
On an industrial estate we also had a depot for Telebank. Telebank specialised in coin-operated sets. Again for the benefit of younger readers, a coin-operated television, rather like the coin-operated electricity meters and gas fires that were still widespread in the seventies, worked from a slot meter. If you wanted to watch an evening’s television, you would put, say, 50 pence in the slot and the television would work for four hours. Once the four hours had expired, the television would go off and you would have to put in another 50 pence. Every week a rep from Telebank would come and collect the money from the meter. Occasionally people would be tempted to break into the meter and every month at the local Magistrate’s Court there were a few cases of Telebank meters being broken into. Coin-operated televisions, which still exist today though on a very small scale, were usually found in the poorest households, who could not afford monthly rental, and to be honest were a ripoff as the meters guzzled money. Personally I’m glad this demeaning type of television rental has virtually disappeared.
It’s easy to see the contribution that falling TV prices has made to the demise of the rental industry. Last year I bought a Samsung colour portable with full remote control for £ 70. Twenty years ago the same kind of television would have cost £ 200, the equivalent of over £ 400 today. Renting makes no sense when it is so much cheaper to buy a television, and the old problems with television reliability, which made renting a viable option in the seventies – where a faulty rental set was repaired or replaced as part of the deal – have almost disappeared. My main television is seven years old now and has never developed a single fault, while the JVC that preceded it lasted 12 years until it gave up, in almost all of that time the television never developed any problems.
There is not a single rental shop left in Whitehaven today. Thorn EMI merged DER and Radio Rentals in the eighties. Granada, famous in the seventies for their “great service, great sets, rent Granada” adverts and their Finnish-made Finlandia televisions, by the end of the eighties became the biggest player in what was a declining industry, buying out Telebank, Co-Op Rentals and Visionhire, the local British Relay shop undergoing three name changes in ten years. Rediffusion, once a big player in cable television and branded sets in the seventies, closed down their television factory in Bishop Auckland in 1986 and wound down their rental business.
By the end of the eighties, Colorvision had closed down their Whitehaven shop and NORWEB had ended their rental business as it proved more profitable to sell new televisions than to rent them out. Rather like other once-thriving British industries like coal mining, changing times have seen the once-mighty television rental industry reduced to a shadow of its former self.
Ironically, the old British Relay/Visionhire/Granada shop in Whitehaven was taken over by Genesis, a white goods and television shop. Wonder if they could do me a deal on a neat 20 inch British Relay black and white set? I still have the cable box and the socket. Possibly the salesman, who is quite young, would think I was insane and throw me out of the shop.