Podium: The dream world of television

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Mark Hall

From a lecture on `the literature of television' delivered by the academic at Butte College, Oroville, California

IN THE beginning, no one knew what television would be. One New York Times reporter, covering the 1939 New York World's Fair when TV was first introduced to the public, worried that: "people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn't time for it. Therefore, the showmen are convinced that for this reason television will never be a serious competitor of radio".

In 1946 Thomas Hutchinson, in his book Here is Television: Your Window to the World, predicted that TV would direct our lives in a fresh, exciting direction. "Television means the world in your home and in the homes of all the people of the world. It is the greatest means of communication ever developed by the mind of man. It should do more to develop friendly neighbours and to bring peace and understanding on earth, than any other single material force...".

Meanwhile David Sarnoff, president of the RCA and one of the pioneer developers of radio broadcasting, was just as enthusiastic about his company's newest electronic wonder: "As a medium for showing the housewife at night the models of dress and hat to go on sale in the morning, television will prove the most effective sales agent in the history of merchandising," he predicted. "Tight purse strings will be relaxed!"

Another radio pioneer, Lee De Forest, was also enthusiastic about TV's potential. In 1947, he predicted that TV would be a vital part of a new world. "A population which once more centres its interest in the home will inherit the earth, and find it good. It will be a more mature population, with hours for leisure in private homes, away from today's crowded city apartments. Into such a picture ideally adapted to the benefits and physical limitations of TV, this new magic will enter and become a vital element of daily life. This new leisure, more wisely used, shall eventually produce new outlooks on life, and new and more understanding attitudes towards living." What an enchanting dream.

Obviously, it is far more an indication of De Forest's own wishes than of any realistic social prediction.However, it is an amazingly accurate reflection of a powerful and widespread cultural desire in America; a wish captured almost perfectly by television programming. The happy suburban families De Forest describes are the TV families living in video-land: Their children may be unruly once in a while, but parents with "new and more understanding attitudes towards living" manage to solve any problem within 30 minutes. TV has not changed our lives in the ways Sarnoff and De Forest predicted, but the fantasies they conjured up decades ago remain alive and well in the daily schedule of video fare.

As TV became a common sight in American homes during the Fifties, it did not take long for social scientists to become alarmed about what they saw as its negative effects.

In 1956 Dr Eugene Glynn, in his book Television and the American Character - a Psychiatrist Looks at Television, concluded that: "...certain types of illnesses - especially depression and schizophrenia - and the use they make of television can be most valuable. Those traits that mentally sick adults now satisfy by television can be assumed to be those traits which children, exposed to TV since infancy and all through the character-forming years, may be expected to develop."

Dr Glynn goes on to list the emotional needs that TV is supposed to satisfy. These, he says, are the ones we can expect to see develop into character traits by heavy TV viewing. "Watching these adults, one is deeply impressed by their unconscious longings to be infants in Mother's lap."

There has always been a fear that TV is a dream world from which we are powerless to escape. It is this fear that has given rise to serious attacks on television and to countless studies of the medium's physical and mental effects. This viewpoint reflects an attitude different from that expressed about other popular arts: movies, radio, music and magazines. These may be attacked as a waste of time, and addictive, but they are not seen as dangerous to our social and cultural survival.These fears are not without some truth. Because of its links with massive commercial interests and because it is a powerful medium of deceptive advertising, TV is obviously different from books, newspapers, CDs and movies.

We cannot overlook the fact that TV is the most influential form of communications that has ever existed. For the first time, billions of TV viewers can watch the same programme simultaneously. Never has mass communications existed on such a global scale.