Legacies of the Television Age


Television: as I have discovered from teaching university students in several countries over the past ten years, the word is fast losing its meaning. What does the concept of television really refer to? To that clunky box which once used to sit in the corners of our parents’ or grandparents’ lounge rooms? To a schedule of daily and nightly programs that viewers consulted and sometimes slavishly followed? To a technology involving cameras, studios, hosts, live audiences and videotape? All of this is increasingly hard to conjure and explain to a young crowd whose daily experience of audiovisual content is as material they download to their laptop computer screens, or scan on YouTube.

The singular word medium, hidden in our daily talk of plural media or mass media, has an intriguing connotation. Just as a psychic medium is the channel through which otherworldly spirits supposedly talk to the earthly realm, TV is what the Surrealist André Breton once called a ‘communicating vessel’ or, in modern parlance, a delivery system. A medium carries messages from one place to other, from those who craft them to those who receive them. In itself, a medium is neutral – it is simply a passageway. It pre-exists the content that fills or flows through it. But the form, the shape and the technology of that passage is in constant flux.

In any media history, we cannot help but be affected – sometimes nostalgically – by the rapid turnover of technologies that shape how products are made, and then how they are conveyed through a particular channel in order to consumed and experienced. I recall the first moment, in the 1970s, that movies became accessible in a form that was radically different from either their celluloid projection onto a big cinema screen, or their random appearance in the schedules of broadcast television. Suddenly, they were transferable onto videotape – big, one-inch tapes that quickly disintegrated after being threaded up one too many times into heavy playback machines. I remember enthusiastically encouraging one of my fellow media students in that period to grab some of these tapes and catch up on rare classics of cinema history. But no, she politely refused, meekly explaining: ‘I prefer to wait for them to come on TV, because then it’s like a gift’.

This same fan of film and TV went on to write a lyrical piece for the student newspaper titles ‘The 7 O’Clock Parallel’ – about the alternate zone she would gladly enter, as a spectator, five nights a week, whenever the American comedy series M.A.S.H. was broadcast. Her reverie sums up what TV once meant, as an institution, to millions of viewers: a limited number of channels and viewing choices, fixed schedules, usually a blackout around midnight, and the familiar paraphernalia of announcers’ voices, advertising breaks, station logos and jingles. It was all, somehow, a strangely reassuring constancy and solidity – a parallel world. And this other world arrived into a more-or-less stable viewing situation repeating itself in most homes: the square, boxy TV set in its pride of place, chairs and sofas arranged around it. The set, the setting and the settee: all this, too, is part of the medium of TV as we once knew it.

This was the era that the celebrated Italian theorist and novelist Umberto Eco calls, with a smile, Paleo TV: now an ancient precursor of what was to follow, in the form of Neo TV and, finally, Post TV. Neo TV refers to the cable revolution, the explosion of hundreds of available channels and the ability for viewers to pre-program and record their choices. Post TV is the contemporary, digital media landscape, where downloading and other forms of access give rise, for instance, to the cultural phenomenon known as binge viewing: individuals or groups of friends watching an entire season or complete run of programs such as Breaking Bad on a computer or mobile device, or hooked up to a larger, customised screen. The ‘parallel world’ of TV spectacle still exists – and much of the content, the types of programs produced for it, remains broadly the same – but now this stream of content is time-shifted, managed and controlled by consumer desire. In place of the familiar face or voice of broadcast TV’s host or announcer figure, we have the DVD or Blu-Ray box set: a different kind of anchor for a different media world.

Of course, today all forms of TV – Paleo, Neo and Post – coexist; in media history, nothing new ever completely replaces what is old. Likewise, certain rituals of viewing may be maintained, depending on your habits or your inclination. What matters now, most of all, is the fragmentation and diversification of what once was, monolithically, TV.

How have artists dealt with – and intervened in – the legacy of TV? They have tackled every possible manifestation of TV as a medium. Some make sculptures from the actual TV set, multiplying and stacking them, with or without picture transmission; others subversively restage the domestic viewing situation in installation pieces. The content of classic TV programs and formats – news and current affairs, sitcoms, cartoons, generic cop/crime shows – has been mercilessly pilloried and pastiched down the decades. But what artists, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, seized on above all was a particular, technological item of the televisual medium: video.

Video – videotape, lightweight video cameras and electronic video editing – quickly became the lingua franca of a new kind of multimedia art around the world. Video technology brought together, for a brief while, the political art of community and educational groups with the avant-garde art of experimentalists. Melbourne boasted, for instance, the institution of Open Channel (that name is significant) – which, on any given day, would turn its equipment and its studios over to artists and social workers alike. Video – and all the new possibilities for production, exhibition and distribution it allowed – was seen as the opposite of TV.

Today, although the word ‘video’ is still used liberally, the material thing itself – videotape – has become obsolete, just as negative film is no longer (or only rarely) used in digital still cameras. In historic hindsight, the ‘democratic revolution’ attributed to video was greatly exaggerated. In that period there were still gatekeepers and ideologues minding the technological means of video, because little of it was available to the average citizen. Domestic uses of videotape tended to tread the same path as old-fashioned home movies on Super–8 film: they stayed within the walls of suburbia, becoming part of people’s personal lives, but only occasionally emerged into the ‘public sphere’ of either commercial or alternative media. Basically, you still needed a university degree, or friends in the art world, to be part of the video scene.

This is what has dramatically changed in our current digital age. Whatever you film, with a camera or on a telephone, you can edit on your computer; and whatever you edit, you can upload to a public platform such as YouTube or Vimeo. No one may ever watch your work but, on the other hand, it may go ‘viral’ or, more modestly, find a small, international community of viewers who are into what you are into – whatever that may be. Naturally, the mainstream media corporations will still try to instil in our heads the belief that there are incontrovertible standards – that work by audiovisually trained and skilled professionals will always be superior to the efforts of everyday amateurs – but general belief in such values is declining by the minute.

The type of art that appears online, often invented for this new medium and its conditions, finds that it must compete with an enormous explosion of ‘user-generated’ material. It becomes harder to tell artists from hobbyists, professionals from amateurs, scholars from fans. Isn’t this, all in all, a good thing? The old TV set has blown apart and its fragments become part of a much larger, shared audiovisual landscape – a culture that mixes viewing and listening with making, consuming with critiquing, and that blurs the previously separate realms of leisure-entertainment, work and private, inner life. Maybe this is what the great German essayist Walter Benjamin was anticipating, all those years ago, when he mused on ‘the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility’: its once revered aura may fly away, but so many other possibilities are unleashed. The set, the setting and the settee have been permanently unsettled.

Adrian Martin was film critic for The Age from 1995 to 2006 and is now Adjunct Associate Professor of Film Studies at Monash University, Melbourne. His most recent book is Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (2014), and he is co-editor of the online magazine LOLA (www.lolajournal.com).