Floating somewhere between cinema and radio, yet comfortably furnished in 98% of American homes, is the television, according to the 2000 Census. Undeniably, television is a dominant cultural force that has aided in generating the term “media” as a somewhat unavoidable household presence in the life of a modern human, a ubiquitous presence as common as a couch and taken just as casually for granted. What is television? The question seems facile, but the term, with all its meanings and power, amounts to much more than the Magnavox or Sony TV set in one’s living room.
In simplest terms, the OED defines television as “a system for reproducing an actual or recorded scene at a distance on a screen by radio transmission, usually with appropriate sounds; the vision of distant objects obtained thus.” The term originates from “tele” for “far away” and “vision” for “a thing seen” or “the act of seeing.” The term was coined rather straightforwardly to describe a new audiovisual medium that allowed the sight (and sound) of something hundreds of miles away comfortably in one’s own home.
What complicates the definition of television is the instability of its placement within a larger system of media. From its conception, television was advertised as a natural outgrowth of the radio and cinema (Crafton 150) due mainly to technological precedent but also due to its situational and cultural antecedent in radio. The television was seen as a logical replacement for the radio as the new family hearth around which to gather for news and entertainment. When television was still in experimental stages of invention, AT&T, in an attempt to “claim” television as a natural outcrop of telephone technology rather than radio, saw the medium as an opportunity to “illustrate two-way long-distance telephone conversations” as well as “to present current events and entertainment in formats indistinguishable from the Movietone Newsreel and the Vitaphone short.” (Crafton 151) Yet television is not merely radio with pictures, nor is it cinema in the living room. Television is somewhere murkily in between, sometimes conflated or conjoined with cinema and radio, though more often antagonistically related. After the popularity of television burgeoned, the film industry went to great lengths to differentiate film from television through exciting technologies like Technicolor and Cinemascope–the latter providing the most lasting distinction between cinema and television on a strictly visual level, widescreen v. 4:3 (or 16:9, in many modern televisions) aspect ratio.
The tension between cinema and television has become much more pronounced than the antagonism between television and radio. Whereas television and radio are distinguished by the former eliciting sight and sound and the latter strictly emanating sound, television and cinema are both audiovisual media on a relatively flat screen, differentiated more by size, location, and the technological specification that creates the spectacle (television is electronic whereas cinema is technically mechanical). The tension has sparked a plethora of arguments concerning form and content that can be characterized mostly by cinema represented as the artistic, larger-than-life, spectacular, hot medium (McLuhan 1964) and television as the commercialized, intimate, cool medium. In fact, both media can be seen as helping to create, or at least evolve, the other: “technogenesis” or “the process by which one cultural technology contributes to the construction of the other.” (Stokes 4) Movies often take television as their target of criticism (Videodrome, Murder by Television), highlighting the antagonism analyzed in On Screen Rivals. Through such films, cinema can be seen as attempting to contain television within a diegetic narrative and therefore containing the threat that television poses of stealing the cinematic audience.
Defining McLuhan’s theorization of television in Chapter 31 of Understanding Media brings to light the medium’s controversial role in media discourse. For McLuhan, television is a “cool medium,” one with which the viewer participates actively, rather than passively as one watches a movie in a dark theatre. The construction of television as a cool medium is partly due to its technology and visuality compared with film: the pixilation and generally poor, digital, blurry image quality (likened to a mosaic) as opposed to the crisp analog of film invite the viewer to “complete” the picture, complete the medium, which forms a highly participatory circuit completely unlike in the movie theatre, as the viewer has nothing to “fill in” with a movie that is already so much larger-than-life. Yet the “filling in” is complicated by the fact that the motion is filled in by both mediums, and more pronouncedly in cinema, which does not have interlaced graphics. “The TV image requires each instant that we “close” the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses, rather than the isolated contact of skin and object.” (McLuhan 273) McLuhan then declares television the fulfillment of the romanticized notion of synaesthesia: while cinema is audiovisual, television is “tactile” and “textured,” yet another way to pull the viewer into a circuit of participation. Though television is not as detailed visually as cinema, McLuhan also declares that the “TV mosaic” has the power “to transform American innocence into depth sophistication.” (McLuhan 282). Television is, ironically enough when we consider the lack of intelligent programming, the medium of “depth.” McLuhan treads into more controversial territory with this statement, leading to one of the fiercest debates of television: its valuation. Is television good, bad, or both for those 98% of Americans and billions of worldwide viewers?
In analyzing television’s depth and content, Adorno severely criticizes such quasi-mystical technological positivism. Examining the phenomenon of television from a sociopsychological standpoint, Adorno denounces the medium’s oversimplification of characterization that completely exteriorizes and stereotypes characters and situations to the point where the concept of suspense or unpredictability is abandoned but maintained superficially. (Adorno) Directly contrary to McLuhan’s theorization that television is unlike film partly because characters are not what they seem, Adorno calls to attention the “threat of inducing people to mechanical simplifications by ways of distorting the world in such a way that it seems to fit into preestablished pigeonholes.” (Adorno 255) On a more epistemological level, Adorno is addressing content, which McLuhan dismisses somewhat under his end-all-be-all “the medium is the message.” Adorno charges that the content is dangerous, specifically because the medium addresses the psyche on multiple levels and, pacifying the psyche with lighthearted fare, such as sitcoms, more subtly imbues the unguarded viewer with cultural biases and stereotypes, despite the protest of consciousness. In conclusion, Adorno addresses the task of theorists in confronting the menace of television as an unwitting psychological, technological force: “We propose to concentrate on issues of which we are vaguely but uncomfortably aware, even at the expense of our discomfort’s mounting, the further and the more systematically our studies proceed. The effort here required is of a moral nature itself: knowingly to face psychological mechanisms operating on various levels in order not to become blind and passive victims.” (Adorno 259)
Between two such eminent theorists lies the fundamentally ambivalent nature of television: is it a tool of cultural connection that links humans in the “electronic implosion” (McLuhan) with fellow humans to create a “global village,” or is television a damaging psychological mechanism that has the potential to prey on the subconscious on a level unprecedented in other media? The debate has been continuing for decades and is nowhere near a conclusion.
One difficulty in debating television is its sheer omnipresence and ability to envelop both the masses and the intelligentsia in its circuit. How can one step outside of the circuit to examine the impact of television when one’s own psyche is inevitably wound together with the television as part of culture and coming-of-age? At this point in time, we are approaching generations of adults raised on television and raising their children on television. It is a rarity to meet someone who did not watch television as a child. The rest of us, those 98% or more, felt the presence of Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and older shows like Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers (and a host of others; the sheer list of sitcoms to draw from the mind raised on television is daunting) in our childhood as vividly as afternoons outside playing hide-and-seek. How do we step outside this influence, this massive overdose of pop culture and audiovisual stimulation since birth, to analyze television’s influence on our lives? Is it the medium itself that is potentially damaging as a whole, or is it simply the content, as Adorno indicates? With over 500 channels to choose from, content seems to be a flimsy argument that has weathered with time: we can watch movies (both theatrically released and made-for-TV), documentaries, surgeries, news, sitcoms, Britcoms, talk shows, music shows, music videos, wedding videos, dramas, soap operas, live operas, live plays, sports, pornography, makeover shows, zoological explorations…can we really criticize content when the content not only spans the globe but every possible genre? Today we even have a fireplace channel so that a couple can curl up before the TV and enjoy a warm, cozy, fluorescent hearth. What would McLuhan have had to say about such an inversion 40 years after his declaration that television had replaced the hearth as the focus for family gatherings?
Daunting, but inescapably powerful, television is a cultural force that only grows stronger, like grafting itself onto ipods, which now play videos; computers can now be hooked up to cable modems and play TV channels. Television is finding its way into waiting rooms, onto buses and planes and hypnotizing children in the backseat of the family SUV. Its omnipresence can be seen as another outgrowth of television and cinema’s mutual cultural antagonism. Whereas cinema used Cinemascope, surround sound, and other enveloping technologies to enhance the cinematic experience and make going to the movies continually alluring, television retaliated by expanding its scope–now it not only populates living rooms, but kitchens, ipods, etc. Television is now in bars and clubs and malls, whereas cinema is still confined to the theatre or multiplex, or has even absorbed by television. With the threatening power to influence and indoctrinate, or at the very least, penetrate and inundate, bright young minds of over 98% of children, television is as important to understand as a social function as family dynamics and parenting methods. As such, the debate over the good, bad and polemical, but unavoidable, phenomenon of television could very well last for another 50 years before the medium is pinned down to some satisfaction.
Adorno, T. W. “Television and the Patterns of Mass Culture.” The Critical View of Television. Ed. Horace Newcomb. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Essay originally published in 1954.
Crafton, Donald. “Mindshare: telephone and radio compete for the talkies.” Allegories of Communication. Ed. Jan Olsson. London: John Libbey & Company Ltd, 2005.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the extensions of man. New York: Signet Books, 1964.
Stokes, Jane. On Screen Rivals: Cinema and Television in the United States and Britain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.