The "Errors" of Television

Radio programmes will continue in undiminished splendor; they will improve; they will be dominant; and television will be offered 'as a supplementary entertainment.' No doubt this is largely true; there are technical reasons and financial reasons for the slow infiltration of telecasting. But the promoters are obviously uneasy. They know that the time will come when they will be trying to sell electric light bulbs and kerosene lamps over the same counter. The manufacturers now sell some two million radio sets a year, on the assumption that they are the very best sets on the market. Will the customer be as willing to buy if he knows that a television set, which includes a perfect radio set, is also on the market?

The quick collapse of the silent moving picture haunts the promoters of television; and the calm assurance of their own technicians is ominous. An engineer was taking me through a television studio and referred to his own post as the 'monitor room.' When I asked him what the word meant, he replied: 'Oh, that's just a hangover from the old radio days.' Engineers in television are notably cautious in expression, but one cannot talk to them for five minutes without knowing that to them television is the natural and inevitable fulfillment of radio, and radio is only an outline to be filled in by television. Once it is launched, the promoters will have a hard time keeping it supplementary.

At first they will undoubtedly send out separate programmes, but after a sufficient number of sets have been sold they are going to create programmes in which, they hope, the audible portion is interesting enough to stand by itself. I seriously doubt whether the effort will be successful. If we go to a moving picture and the sound track fails for a minute or two while a race between police and bandits is going on, the movement on the screen may be sufficiently interesting; but if the picture faded and the dialogue continued, even if the dialogue were by a master, who would listen? There is a sound and simple principle which will defeat the attempt to make a single programme do for television and radio: either the blind listener will feel that he is missing something important, or, if he does not, the listener who also has television will not be seeing anything important.


So the problem of promotion slips almost imperceptibly into the problem of programmes. If we assume that the programme directors will somehow free themselves from their obligations to radio, we shall find three separate elements available for telecasting. The first is any actual event at the moment it occurs a parade, a football game, a strike. The second is a dramatic sketch or a songanddance number transmitted from the studio. The third is any moving-picture film.

Almost all the experts in the field are sure that the first of these, the telecasting of events directly from their scene of action, will eventually form the staple of the television programmes. The British Broadcasting Corporation, which has a regular television service of an hour every afternoon and an hour every evening, has experimented in this field. It has a ramp leading to an outside terrace from which it can telecast any event occurring in that particular street. But both the engineering and the financial problems of the newsreel side of television are still largely unsolved. For instance, the cost of wiring alone, for the Coronation ceremonies, was estimated at five dollars a yard.

For a telecast from the studio, radio broadcasting has to transform itself virtually into moving-picture making with powerful lights and high make-up for the actors. Until recently, it was also necessary to build up scenery-- walls, façades of buildings, or whole rooms; now an ingenious method of faking these properties has been devised which will reduce the cost of studio telecasting considerably. Nevertheless the expense is great, and most of the people available for doing the work well are in the movie studios; and when all the labor has been done the man at the receiver sees exactly what he would see if a movie had been made of the same action and telecast to him. Telecasting movies is at present the cheapest and most varied of the three elements. The film is run off before the scanner and all the problems of controlling and governing the object to be telecast are mechanically and perfectly solved. The moving picture is, in fact, so adaptable that it may be used as an intermediate step in telecasting actual events. The highly developed mobile camera with wideangled lenses can cover a wider area than the scanner in television, and it has been found possible to photograph, develop, and fix the film, ready for telecasting, in less than thirty seconds; and an ingenious method for delaying the accompanying sound of any event so that will exactly synchronize with the picture has already been found. (I am indebted for this information to a little book, <i>Television</i>, written by M. C Scroggie, a British engineer.)

Unfamiliar with the techniques of the stage and the film studio, and unprepared for another huge investment in men and materials, the makers of television programmes will naturally turn to the ordinary moving picture, which will probably be as prominent in early television as music was in early broadcasting, the film instead of the phonograph record. And here we strike at the heart of difference between the two forms, because listening to music and looking at a moving pictures absorb our energies in quite different ways. It is a difference in the degree of attention. This is so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning, but because it is obvious we are only aware of it in extreme cases. For instance, you may like or dislike to have the radio going while you are driving your car, but to keep looking at a television screen on your dashboard will be in practice impossible.

Yet within radio broadcasting itself there are degrees of listening, and almost imperceptibly the demands upon our attention have been varied. I do not know whether the sponsors have ever worked out the psychological implications of the two kinds of programmes. The sponsor who offers a good popular band knows perfectly well that people will play bridge or read the newspaper while the music is going on and expects them to snap to attention when the commercial talk is uttered in a commanding voice - that is, he is counting on contrast. The sponsor of a gag comedian, on the other hand, demands sustained and close attention. Comedians and their gag writers put down 'four "sock" gags a minute' as a minimum for keeping a programme going well. And this means that you cannot divert your attention for a moment if you want to get the point of the joke. However commanding the advertising may be, it cannot compete with the comedy itself; the advertiser must count on the fact that his listeners are already attentive and will therefore continue to be. Actually, in many cases, a bit of music is played and the commercial announcement follows this slight relaxation of attention. In other cases the 'plug' is worked into the comedy. But the strain of listening is totally different from that of merely hearing.

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