The trouble with television

William Uricchio

Uploaded 15 September 1998 | 5,900 words


The trouble with television

Ubiquity. Fleeting images radiate from unexpected corners in airport lounges and duty-free shops; they accompany our daily transitions from work to relaxation, and from relaxation to sleep; and they synchronize disparate fields of our experience with the rhythms of transmitted joys, sorrows, and news. Whether lambasted or praised, studied or ignored, television's ubiquity has encouraged a certain complacency regarding the medium's identity. Television's capacities - both representational and, in a fuller sense, medial -- remain more taken-for-granted than interrogated. Despite television's steady growth in terms both of audiences reached and hours per day viewed, it remains more comfortably pathologized as a cultural symptom than explored as a cultural form. For all its myriad presences (and perhaps because of them) - home entertainment, large-screen stadium installations, surveillance and security operations, Web TV and other internet applications, and video art exhibitions to name but a few - the question of what, precisely, television is seems remarkably difficult to answer.

The reasons for this situation are, needless to say, overdetermined. The medium's dominant broadcast traditions have been disparate, ranging from the state traditions of the French and Soviets, to the public service models of the British and Dutch, to the proudly commercial construction of the Americans. Although the geo-political and technological developments of the last two decades have encouraged widespread program distribution and convergence, the discourse, financing, and to some extent public expectations of these broadcast traditions remain intact. Confusion regarding the medium's identity has also been stimulated by the academy, where competing notions of television have been institutionalized. Mass communications, within the social sciences, have long tended to focus on media effects and policy; whereas the more recent appearance of television studies within the arts and humanities (where they are most often allied with film studies) have demonstrated a more textual and sometimes historical interest - developments complicated by cultural studies' involvement in both social science and humanities traditions.

While factors such as ubiquity, divergent broadcast traditions, different intellectual constructions, etc., all offer good reasons for the problems with television's identity, in the pages that follow, I would like briefly to focus on the medium's techno-cultural environment and transformations as elements in the problem. Television, I will argue, has from its start been in a state of transformation, mutating and redefining its capacities and its relations to viewers and other media, while inhabiting a dynamic media landscape. As both cultural practice and as a medium, it has taken on several distinct forms which offer ways of reading television's contemporary status. This concern with what might be termed the "televisual" is by no means new. (1) Scholars such as John Hartley, Lynn Spigel, Roger Silverstone, and Richard Dienst have taken up the issue of television as a medium distinct both from textual issues of programs more familiar to the film studies tradition, and from the social effects discourse more familiar to the social sciences. (2) I hope to complement the larger project in which we are all involved, and in the process to raise questions regarding television's mediality and the construction of modern subjectivity.

(1) I am aware of John Thornton Caldwell's Televisuality: style, crisis, and authority in American Television (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994). Caldwell uses the term "televisuality" to address the post-1980s turn to stylistic exhibitionism in the US. Mindful of Caldwell's critique of "high theory," I nevertheless use the term "televisual" to address television's medium-specific identities, referencing an argument I developed in "Cinema als Omweg: Een nieuwe kijk op de geschiedenis van het bewegende beeld," Skrien 199: 54-57 (1994)

(2) John Hartley, Tele-ology: studies in television (London: Routledge, 1992); Lynn Spigel, Make room for TV: television and the family ideal in post-war America (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990); Roger Silverstone, Television and everyday life (London: Routledge, 1994); Richard Dienst, Still life in real time: theory after television (London: Duke University Press, 1994)

Television's transformations might be relegated to the "merely" historical were it not for the continued pressure they bring to bear upon the medium. Put more productively, the continued transformation of the medium - a transformation masked by the medium's seeming ubiquity - offers an opportunity to raise some questions regarding the underlying definition of television. An example may be in order. Depending upon age and local circumstance, many viewers may well have witnessed far-reaching changes in both the domestic television receiver and television's use over the past two decades. In the Netherlands, for instance, most people from their mid-twenties onwards have seen television change from a two channel broadcast system to a 35 or more channel cable system. Cable has not only made expanded network programming available from Dutch public and commercial companies, but from the US, UK, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Turkey, Morocco, and other nations as well. And, it has opened access to community television services, to multi-national efforts such as Arte, and to pay-per-view services. Satellite service has extended this process a hundredfold. With cable and satellite has come teletext service, offering a simple form of interactive hypertext, itself quickly growing more complicated thanks to an increasing number of teletext-telephone links. Interaction of a different kind is available with the infrared remote control. The ease with which channels can be changed, facilitated by controls designed to allow switching between two channels or to permit scanning, quickly achieved linguistic prominence with the term "zapping". Zapping offers viewers something quite fundamental: the ability to watch television as distinct from watching a program on television. The commercial introduction of the video cassette recorder in the mid-1970s offered an equally profound transformation: the ability to time shift, to depart from the rhythms of broadcast transmissions and to assert one's own temporality upon the medium. Add to this such developments as miniature (wristwatch- and palm-sized) receivers; picture-in-picture possibilities (allowing the viewing of two channels simultaneously); multiple soundtrack availability, etc., and it is clear that the viewer's relation to the television set in the corner has changed rather dramatically within less than 20 years.

Zapping, the narrowcasting which has followed in the wake of satellite and cable programming, the VCR and time-shifting - these and other changes have fundamentally altered the notion of broadcast television, of the conception of programming, and of viewer access and interaction. Yet the curious thing is that these changes seem anything but dramatic. To a public looking forward to the promise of ever-newer technologies, it seems as though television has been standing still - a view evidently shared by more than a few television scholars. In a world of CD-ROMs, virtual reality, and dreams of the holodeck, television, despite its fundamental transformations, seems respectably stable if not old-fashioned.

The challenges facing television's identity in the short to medium term will be posed by the digital and high-definition systems now on the horizon, as well as by growing convergence with internet applications. In this later case, developments such as the internet web-cam seem to offer something like existing surveillance television (and in curious ways, harkens back to some of the original conceptions of television) - point-to-point visual connection. But digital television, as well, seems to be recasting itself along the lines of the internet with working prototypes for "clickable" interaction and information. The promise of adaptive interfaces, in which "smart" televisions will learn household viewing habits and accordingly pre-select and store appropriate programs, of video-on-demand, and of enhanced interactivity, through which viewers can move through program layers to select additional information or services, should be consumer realities within a decade or so. And while offering new possibilities for representation as well as considerable grounds for critical consideration, how will these developments relate to more familiar notions of television? If the past is any indicator, they will be easily assimilated under the ever-accommodating cover of television. But in the process, the notion of television as a meaningfully delimited term and as a medium-specific entity will again be extended and mutated to embrace new technological possibility.

Ample research has demonstrated our cultural and perhaps cognitive predilection for understanding the new in terms of the old. (3) Like the "horseless carriage", television provides a familiar form for many new technologies to make their way into the domestic sphere, into everyday life. But while helpful in easing the transition to the new, this practice is not without costs. On one hand, the radical potential of new technologies tends to be given form, or marginalized, or contained by the dominance of the old. On the other hand, the meaningful definition of the pre-existing technology tends to be eroded and lost in the process of ever-changing practices and technological capacities. Perhaps it's the curse of academic culture, but there is something unsettling about losing precision of meaning. Occupational peculiarities aside, the media technologies which have had such a central place in the construction of modernity can only be appraised if there is a systematic frame of reference for their articulation of time, space, event, and subject. The emphasis here is not so much on determining ideal-typical definitions for their own sake nor on an essentialist quest; rather, it is on being able to distinguish among the various strands of mediation which have contributed to the construction of modernity, and of being able to chart their various relationships and impacts.

(3) Wiebe Bijker, The social construction of technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987)









That the media landscape has been in constant upheaval is a given, but the interactions of media forms and publics can only be apprehended if we can sort out differences among media forms. A look back at media history as well as at the present state of things shows that even this basic issue has its difficulties. Technological convergence has posed a great problem, as evidenced by 1920's recording technologies (film-based sound systems; Baird's television on wax disks) or contemporary digital technologies (film and video special effects, editing, sound work, exhibition). In these cases, the materiality of a particular medium has been displaced to a material base associated with another medium. Depending upon how media definitions are constructed, the replacement of film's photo-chemical base for an electro-magnetic base may be seen as having little bearing on film as a cultural practice, or may be seen as threatening the very ontological underpinnings of film and video media. Tracing the cultural reception of these transformations, however, at least offers a clue to the conceptual impact of shifting technological forms and the manner in which (new) media identities take form.

Elsewhere I have written about the intensive debates over television's identity which took place in Germany during the mid-1930s. (4) Acutely aware of both the financial and ideological implications of the medium's identity, various factions in the German electrical industry, the government, and the National Socialist party fought over the vision that would shape television. Was television the technological completion of radio, with which it shared a common technological heritage and industrial base? If so, should it be conceived as a domestic medium with radio-like programming? Or was it more like film, with which it shared imagistic conventions? If so, then should collective public viewing and cinema-like programming be expected to dominate? Or was it more like the telephone, offering individual, point-to-point communication possibilities? If so, then should television simply complement the existing telephone by offering visual service? In fact, all of these models and more were actively put to use in Germany and elsewhere between 1935 and 1944. But the arguments deployed in the support of these views offer vital insights into how the medium was being conceptualized, and at the same time, how it jostled for position in an already well-established media landscape.

(4) William Uricchio, ed., Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens: kritische Annäherungen an die Entwicklung bis 1945 (Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1991); William Uricchio, "Television as history: representations of German television broadcasting, 1935-1944," in Framing the past: the historiography of German cinema and television, edited by Bruce Murray and Christopher Wickham (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992): 167-196.

These tensions were by no means unique to Germany. The first two decades of public broadcasting in the Netherlands (1950s and 1960s) gave rise to a series of struggles on the part of television directors determined to achieve professional recognition. As in many nations, radio defined the meaning of broadcast culture and television's introduction was greeted with suspicion. Within broadcast organizations, this suspicion was complicated by professional jealousies, fears of central government involvement in the technologically-intensive television sector, concern over television's high costs, and post-war anxiety about "Americanization." The Dutch situation was further complicated by the pluriform identity politics of "pillarization", by which protestants, catholics, conservatives, socialists, etc., were all given their own media infrastructure. Dutch television directors understandably felt relegated to second-class citizenship within the broadcasting companies. (5) Looked down upon by their radio colleagues, fragmented by their pillarized organizations, they turned to relevant external constituencies such as journalists, and theater and film directors for support. In the process, various arguments were mounted which positioned television in terms of these other media practices, recasting television's identity in a manner that recalls the earlier German debates over the medium. Unfortunately for Dutch television directors, but perhaps fortunately for the television medium, their efforts with these other professions were also marginalized. While the struggle for professional identity ultimately led Dutch television directors to strike, the process itself revealed, much like the German experience, the difficulty of coming to terms with television. Moreover, both the German and the Dutch situations indicate that the process of defining television as a medium had less to do with the medium's material conditions, i.e. its specific technological base, than with television's position within the cultural imagination. This imagination was actively articulated by a range of special interest groups - the industrial, professional, and political constituencies just mentioned. But it played out in a forum prepared by a mix of technological possibilities and popular expectations, themselves given form by a wide spectrum of cultural forces (science fiction literature, popular journalistic reports, amateur associations, fanciful extrapolations from new technological developments, etc.). (6)

(5) Leo Akkermans has published a number of articles on various aspects of this struggle. See for example, his "Amerikaanse toestanden. De eerste slag in de strijd om commerciele televisie," Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis (1998): 93-101.




(6) Susan Douglas has offered a detailed picture of how this process operated for radio, and Carolyn Marvin has done the same for such developments as electricity and the telephone. See Douglas, Inventing American broadcasting, 1899-1922 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988) and Marvin, When old tehnologies were new: thinking about communications in the nineteenth century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

To see the relationship among television's technology, its imagined capacities, and its disparate cultural practices, one could look to parallel struggles in other nations, to patent and licensing disputes, to the patterns of the medium's deployment and domestication, even to the development of television's linguistic definition as it took shape in dictionaries. (7) George Shiers' extremely useful bibliographic listing of early television-related developments shows that beginning around 1922, increasing numbers of inventors and journalists indicated in print that television was immanent. (8) But in fact, one could go back at least to the invention of the telephone to see well-developed conceptions of the medium which would later bear the name "television." I have argued elsewhere that a conception of the medium took hold in the last quarter of the 19th century which would in crucial ways determine the distinctions among moving image media. (9) Inspired by the telephone, early notions of the televisual assumed that moving pictures would be seen simultaneously with their production, that is, that the medium would serve as something like an electronic camera obscura or telescope, bringing spatially distant scenes into direct visual proximity with the viewer. From 1876 onwards, an articulated notion of television as a "live" moving picture medium offered a counterpart to the "stored" moving images seen, for example, with Muybridge's projected zoopraxiscope of 1880, Edison's Kinetoscope, and eventually with what we today celebrate as projected moving pictures (1895). The difference between these two basic approaches to moving picture technology was in some senses the same as that between the telephone and the gramophone. Both mediated the grain of the voice from sender/recorder to receiver, and both created an illusion of presence and even liveness. But only the telephone, like the period's sense of television, linked subject and object in real time. The gramophone like the film medium was by definition temporally disjunctive. Although we have since lost sight of the period's options - and indeed, although our own sense of television is hardly restricted to the simultaneous, dependent as it is upon videotape and film material - the period itself elaborated upon the differences between these two approaches to moving imagery. Cartoons in Punch linking the telephone and television ("telectroscope"), false reports of television's invention by Alexander Graham Bell in Nature, and detailed accounts of television's many applications of simultaneity in science fiction literature such as Le vingtieme siecle by Albert Robida, all enjoyed reasonably widespread circulation before 1884. Just as importantly, much of the technological apparatus necessary to produce television was in place by 1884 - the year Paul Nipkow filed rights for his scanning disk which would form the basis of working television systems through the mid-1930s. Indeed, the range of evidence is such that one could argue that film, when it finally emerged, appeared as something of a disappointment to those expecting simultaneity with their moving images - a view with serious implications for our reading of early screen practice.

(7) Consider, for instance, the treatment of television in the Oxford English dictionary, presumably written in June 1911. Entered as part of a group listing for words beginning with tele-, television is defined as a "vision of a distant object or scene by means of an apparatus (not yet perfected) which electrically reproduces an image of it at the receiving end" with further reference to "telephote" which means among other things, "to transmit an optical image to a distance by means of electricity." The 1933 supplement includes a specific reference to television, largely maintaining the earlier definition. The compact edition of the Oxford English dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971): 3251, 3253.

(8) George Shiers, compiler, Early television: a bibliographic guide to 1940 (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997)

(9) For the most recent publication on the topic, see William Uricchio, "Television, film, and the struggle for media identity," Film history, an international journal 10:2 (1998): 118-127.

Simultaneity, I want to argue, was a defining characteristic of 19th and early 20th century television. Although much of our consideration of moving image systems has tended to focus on visual representation (with the acoustic enjoying something of a boom at the moment as well), the temporal has been rather neglected. Yet one can trace a long-term interest in technologies of simultaneity - an interest that created television in the first place, and that remains very much alive within today's media systems (athough, ironically, rarely television). 18th century optical telegraph systems, 19th century wired and wireless telegraph and fax machines, and the 20th century's radio, television and internet all in their various ways attempted to facilitate simultaneous communication over distant spaces. Just as importantly, all shared certain developmental and discursive traits. The literature on these technologies usually attributes the development of technological infrastructures to military interests, and accordingly inscribes the use of simultaneity for communication, mapping, and surveillance within this offensive or defensive framework. But a less appreciated motive to stimulate technologies of simultaneity had to do with the construction of national identity and the modern state. Patrice Flichy argues, for instance, that the idea of France as unified nation in the 19th century owes much to a conception of instant access to its farthest corners, and thus the simultaneity of state power and knowledge over the complete geographical domain. (10) Arguing from a trans-national perspective, Stephen Kern has found that the infrastructures of simultaneity were crucial for such practices as the establishment of universal time - practices easily repositioned withing Foucault's notion of the mictrotechnologies of discipline characteristic of the modern era. (11) From the viewing subject's relation to the image, to pragmatic military concerns, to tangible articulations of the nation-state, to the western discipline of uniform temporality, a wide-range of ideological strategies have been embedded in the various technologies of simultaneity.

(10) Patrice Flichy, Tele. Geschichte der modernen Kommunikation (Frankfurt aM: Campus Verlag, 1994 (1991))

(11) Stephen Kern, The culture of time and space: 1880-1918 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983); for Michel Foucault, see especially Discipline and punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1979 (1975))

A particularly clear instance of the role of simultaneity in constructing the modern subject can be found by returning to the German example mentioned earlier. From the late-1920s into the late-1930s German broadcasting authorities urged both the electronics industry and consumers to put "a radio in every house" by coordinating the design and pricing of the "people's receiver." The campaign was a massive success with the public and it encouraged broadcasting journalists and engineers alike to theorize the potentials and implications of a public defined by a technology. Various media technologies were seen as part of an elaborated system which could help to extend being beyond the site of its physical embodiment, to extend real-time participation in distant events, and in the German case, to redefine the Volkskorper. This goal can be seen in any number of examples, but one that I would like to sieze upon has to do with the need to distinguish television's capacity for simultaneity from cinema's necessary rupturing of time. Especially after the start of war, proponents of simultaneity saw their case literalized through the development of television guidance systems for rockets and torpedoes. Produced in quiet co-operation with several American-based multi-national electronic firms, the guidance systems permitted a pilot to "see" his target from the perspective of the missile, guiding it to successful contact. At the war's end, Allied intelligence found one factory that was producing 300 miniature cameras a month with semi-skilled slave labor for the still-experimental television missile guidance program. The idea of television as the technological fulfillment of the camera obscura in the sense of simultaneity and contiguity takes on sinister dimensions with this little-known development, and certainly goes far beyond the post-facto surveillance use of film to confirm troop movements or document bombing damage. (12)

(12) For details on this discussion of German broadcast efforts, see Uricchio, "Television as history".

Perhaps the most revealing insight into how television's embrace of simultaneity would reposition if not eliminate the power of the storage medium of film - and in the process, help to construct a new form of subjectivity -- appeared in a top-secret report produced by the German Post Ministry in 1943. The Post Ministry had long been engaged in a bitter conflict with the Propaganda Ministry, a conflict based on the culture clash between career civil servants (the Post) and NSDAP hacks (Propaganda). With the Post responsible for television's apparatus and technology-intensive live broadcasts, and Propaganda responsible for programming, disputes were inevitable over everything from time allocation to the sharing of radio licence fees. Late in the war, however, senior officials at the Post Ministry drew up a secret plan for post-victory Europe that they felt would render the Propaganda Ministry redundant. The plan called for a live cable television news network to connect Greater Germany and the occupied territories. Round-the-clock live television news, the Post's domain after all, would simply do away with the need for premeditated propaganda and filmed programming. The live connection between the leadership and its followers, the extension of nation through shared event, would constitute the neural network linking the new Germany, constructing the new Volkskorper anticipated in the loudspeaker experiments of the late 1920s. Thanks to such diverse factors as German engineering education, the divergent efforts of philosophers such as Juenger, Benjamin, and Heidegger, and the massive state-stimulated electronics industry, Germany offers a particularly good example of the interworkings of media systems in pursuit both of common goals and autonomy, a pursuit with direct implications for media identity, cultural practice, and the notion of a modern subjectivity.

One can, productively I think, pursue the notion that such consequences of technologies of simultaneity as the annihilation of distance, the construction of media-linked communities, and the creation of experiential rhythms (World Cup finals, media events), have done much to reposition the romantic subject of the 19th century. Although lamented by Adorno, Horkheimer, and many other cultural critics for whom the passing of the previous century's aspirations and cultural values represented a step downwards on the evolutionary ladder, the notion of mediated culture that I have been discussing must be more fully considered on its own terms before being rejected out of hand. This is not to deny that on institutional and textual levels there is a great deal of which to be critical (and ideology critique is indeed a useful entry point to the problem). Rather, it is to suggest that the connectivity afforded by technologies of simultaneity is the source of its radical potential.

But what about television? It seems, with several notable exceptions, to have abandoned its claim on the simultaneous. CNN makes much of its abilities to connect the planet with its coverage of the latest disaster, the Italian broadcaster RAI-3 sometimes offers remarkable encounters with simultaneity in the wee-hours of the morning (for example, live transmissions from a grocery store surveillance camera at 3AM), and trans-national rituals seem to occur somewhat unpredictably (e.g., Princess Diana's funeral, which linked over 2 billion live viewers), but these are the exceptions. And indeed, if current scenarios for digital television and video-on-demand are accurate, television's reliance on stored material will only grow greater. The question is, has the ubiquity which masks television's transformations blinded us to such fundamental changes that we have lost sight of what is televisual and what isn't? Could it be that the internet web-cam, linking viewers in "real" time with the Parliament building in Ottawa, Canada, or with Joe's couch in Cleveland, USA or with myriad other locations, is the keeper of the flame? Are the internet's MUDs and live "interactive" sex sites, together with grocery store surveillance cameras and intrusive medical applications of television, the remaining manifestations of technologies of visual simultaneity? With the former's rather problematic image-refresh rate -- a "live" image every four seconds -- (and in the case of the sex sites, their problematic conception), and the latter's rather limited notion of mediality, things may indeed have reached a low point. But seen more broadly, the explosive growth of mobile telephones and thus connectivity of a non-visual sort, and the scenarios for the communications systems now on the development horizon, all suggest that the mediated modern subject is continuing to change, and that in place of broadcast-constructed collectivities a network model of connectivity is fast taking form.

Television's role in all this? In one sense, 19th century discourse on television - Albert Robida or Punch magazine, for example -- seems to have anticipated precisely some of the developments now evident in internet applications of the televisual. Point-to-point visual connectivity has been achieved, and while technical barriers remain, the experience is already reasonably well integrated into the social fabric. In another sense, perhaps we are seeing a shift in the engagement with simultaneity from the image to the acoustic and especially to data-streams. Digital television may well recapture and enhance this latter direction, but so far as I can tell, development effort is being targeted to a conception of television as something closer to a home movie service with a telephone link for orders and billing.

The trouble with television? Seen one way, it has mutated into the very storage medium that it was defined in opposition to - as if the telephone were to transform into the answering machine. Its defining engagement with simultaneity has been displaced, in part, by the internet, the mobile telephone, etc. Seen another way, its apparent familiarity may both mask and ease the transition to a somewhat accelerated set of transformations in the media landscape. The problem is that both perspectives require a more careful consideration of what precisely television is, what practices it affords and what capacities it allows. Although rather mundane factors, television's ubiquity and familiarity remain substantial barriers to this task.

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