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Television: The Most Popular Medium

Domestic Ideals and Family Amusements: from the Victorians to the Broadcast Age

By: Cameron A. Straughan

Student # 205337985

November 18, 2002

Melvin DeFleur et al. provide an interesting, well-informed account of the history and the significance of TV. The history is tenuous at best, so it’s to their credit that they ended up with such a well-organized, easy to read text. In fact, I found the story of the invention of the TV so compelling, and at times dramatic, that I’m surprised it has not become a TV movie of the week! After all, the TV world is a world where, according to the authors, the growth rate of every aspect of culture and technology has generally enjoyed explosive growth, with a few pitfalls and plateaus along the way.

The only let down was the authors did not get into the VHS vs. Beta story – a battle similar to Microsoft vs. Apple. In fact, to this day, people still defend Beta as the higher quality product (of course, most broadcast quality shows shot on video are shot using Digital Beta).

This chapter demonstrates that the creation of the TV was a continuum of events that transcended borders. In fact, the TV was such a culmination of technologies, and the efforts of various inventors around the world, that it does not seem possible for any one country to claim it as their invention alone. In this regard, maybe the invention of the TV was due to something in the air that sparked a collective effort – like Jung’s collective consciousness, there was something going on that caused inventors around the world to try their hand at it. If you consider the TV as a collective vision, as I do, then it is a good example of an invention that was participatory in nature. However, while technology was shared between various inventors, there were – of course – disagreements and lawsuits.

I thought it was interesting that DeFleur et al. mentioned that taverns played a significant role in popularizing the medium, with big crowds showing up to watch certain events (i.e., sports). Here, I’d agree with McLuhan’s idea of tribalism!

It is also interesting that the TV, like many other technologies, had a history of military application before transitioning into civilian use (radio and the Internet would be other examples). This doesn’t mean that TV is not still in use as a military application. It is still used for psychological warfare (i.e., hegemony). Along these lines, the authors mention the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. However, in the way of a better example, the US still has a special TV station in Florida that broadcasts it signal to Cuba, even though the Cuban government blocks the signal. The sole purpose of the station is to transmit US foreign policy (propaganda) to Cuban civilians, in an effort to undermine communist control.

Reading this chapter left me wondering how patents were awarded, and broadcasters got licenses, without knowing the impacts that TV would have. In this regard, I think the TV is the ultimate symbol of technology run amok! In my mind, the TV was rushed out into mass production to relieve post WW II malaise. The TV, and especially its carefully manufactured content, would instill national pride and help keep the country afloat during trying times.

Broadcasting American values into the homes of millions was especially important with the rise in Communist power after WW II. Clearly, there were threats and problems, and I think that TV was mass produced to keep people comfortably numb within their nuclear families. To be fair, the post war baby boom also played a major role. TV was seen as a strategic means by which to engage and entertain growing families. Unfortunately, the TV as baby-sitter has been with us for over 50 years!

While I’m on this train of thought, the American TV industry – and by proxy the American way of life – are also protect by FCC policies that determine the lines per screen for US TV sets. This ensures that neither Japanese or European technologies, each with different lines per screen, can corner any of the US market.

Yet, although most people at the time apparently regarded TV as innocuous, were there any major opponents to its introduction? Was TV met with the same scorn as, for example, The Catcher in the Rye or Elvis Presley records? Any neo-luddites going around smashing TV sets? While there appeared to be very little resistance in the initial stages, TV was, however, heavily criticized in the 60’s.

It’s interesting that it was in the 60’s that people started to complain about the violence on TV. If you consider the music that came from that era, and films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, it was already a violent, tremulous era – not to mention Kent State and the Vietnam War! Thus, I’d argue that TV was merely reflecting what was going on in society. It’s just that people weren’t accustomed to having it in their living rooms. They were no longer safe and naïve. TV viewers would have to deal with the harsh realties of the world around them vis-à-vis their TV sets.

Along these lines, I was troubled by the fact that very few studies were conducted to determine the impacts TV would have. Sure, the FCC studied technical aspects and sought to increase broadcasting capabilities, but it doesn’t appear that any effort was put into discovering how audiences were reacting to the new technology until the 1960’s – almost 20 years after TV’s introduction into consumer markets. The author’s concede that the public knows very little about the TV medium, but I’d say that no one really does!

DeFleur et al. do point out the problems inherent in trying to survey audiences, including problems with defining the “audience”. Interestingly, they also mention the “people meter”, which is an in situ survey method. I’ve mentioned before that an in situ method is the only way to go, since it is more accurate in catching immediate audience responses.

Regarding advertising on TV, I seriously wonder if people buy enough of those products seen on TV to make it worth advertiser’s time (and money). I guess so, yet I can not recall the last time I bought something because I saw it on TV – if ever! Yet, if Home Shopping Network can be such a success, I suppose that TV is perfect for manufacturing needs – convincing people to buy that which they really don’t need.

In the end, having read the chapter, I’m shocked and confused by the TV broadcasting industry. Within such a capitalist driven industry, are broadcasters really interested in entertaining anyone? I don’t think that is their primary concern. Maybe it was at one point, or maybe some shows are created because they have some artistic merit, but ultimately the thirst for advertising dollars takes over. If anything, this article has made me more cynical about watching television than I was before (yes, it’s possible) – and I only watch 3 hours a day, compared to the 7 hours a day that people watch on average!

Lynn Spigel’s Domestic Ideals and Family Amusements: from the Victorians to the Broadcast Age is a unique critique of TV in that it places the TV firmly within the context of the home. More importantly, Spigel provides an important gender-based critique of TV. In fact, this is one of only two articles I’ve read by women during this course, which is surprising! Within the home context, Spigel provides an excellent historical backdrop for her arguments. The way she wove together history with social, cultural, and economic factors reminded me somewhat of William’s work – except for Spigel’s unique gender-based lens.

Part of Spigel’s uniqueness is her humorous account of how the radio infiltrated American living rooms. The humour is derived from the clash between technology, decorum, and changing gender roles within the household.

I liked the emphasis Spigel placed on analyzing the rise of the Bourgeois. As I’ve stated previously, I believe they had to exist before TV, and the mass culture that helped fuel it, could exist. I was also fascinated by her description of the rise of suburbia and the reasoning behind it. What I found odd was that people were trying to escape the evils of the urban centre, yet ever since the early puritan settlers people in North America have generally feared the wilderness. Thus, the only “safe” place for people to live was a narrow boundary between the evils of the wilderness and the evils of urban centres. No wonder that the US is living in a culture of fear! Maybe Michael Moore should look at that in his next documentary.

Spigel’s description of Victorian “experts” enforcing highly arbitrary moral codes still resonates today. Nowadays, the US is more anal about TV and movie content than ever before, so much so that even a re-release of E.T. – The Extraterrestrial has been altered so that government agents carry walkie talkies – not guns. Of course, now any film can have its opening delayed if it does not reflect the current political and social climate favourably. As Spigel aptly points out, some things never change!

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