The "Errors" of Television

The image on the television receiver makes no such compromise. The thing moves; it demands complete attention. You cannot walk away from it, you cannot turn your back on it, and you cannot do anything else except listen while you are looking. At first guess the sponsor who goes before the scanner will imagine that this is the long-desired ideal, the conquest at last of indifference or casual interest. He will think of the television programme as a feature film with a commercial plug added. I suspect that he will be wrong. The physical conditions of the moving-picture house will not be duplicated. At home we shall not be compelled to sit through a dull episode in silence, hoping for an exciting one to follow. We will, in short, look into the mirror of television only so long as the movement upon it is of surpassing interest.

In the experiments I have seen, under 'theatre' conditions, only actual newsreels, in which each episode ran for not more than two minutes, seemed short enough. I, who have listened to half a dozen songs in succession on the radio, found that a second chorus to a brief and attractive popular song was tiresome when I had also to see the singer and her accompanist. The same thing was true of a quite excellent dancing act. In fact, the only element in the skillfully varied programmes which did not seem to me overlong was an old movie 'short' by Robert Benchley, and this was a tribute to Mr. Benchley's humor and not to anything that occurred on the mirror screen.

I put down brevity as a first qualification, although it is possible that as we grow more used to television we will endure longer exposures. A parallel in the development of the talking picture may be helpful. Talk made a supplementary demand on the attention of the movie audience, and because directors overemphasized it they slowed down the moving picture while endless dialogue was uttered. It took several years before dialogue was put in its proper place and action restored to its dominant position. In the change from radio to television the proportions are reversed: it is not a secondary but a primary demand on the attention that is being offered, not a slower medium but a far more rapid one which is being added. Because radio has been addressed exclusively to the ear it has been comparatively slowpaced. Speakers have made their points carefully; comedians build up their important gags with almost maddening delays and often repeat the 'wow' in case it has been missed in its first explosive splendor. Whenever a physical object is an essential to a dramatic sketch, radio has to 'establish' it in the minds of the listeners and to keep referring to it so that it shall not be lost to the mind's sight. The moment television is added, the dynamics of a programme must be changed and the rate of presentation must be accelerated. Trial and error, particularly error, will determine the proportions of this change, but the basic error would be not to know that so far as television is successful the degree of attention has gone up in a geometric progression and that therefore the duration of attention must correspondingly go down.


I am thinking of the pleasures of a programme and of the principles on which it should be based, but my ideas would be in a vacuum if I did not also consider the advertising which will inevitably accompany the programmes. It is in this department that television may make its most serious errors, because while the radio stations may know what is desirable and may study psychology and esthetics, the last word is still the sponsor's word. The commercial sponsors in radio have seldom. received proper credit for their accomplishments. They took radio away from centralized authority; they took it away from the pedantic and from the too serious enthusiast for instruction and by the process of exhausting their own materials they compelled radio to have an infinite variety. In all these things they may have gone too far, but their direction was right. Oddly enough it was in their own field, and not in aesthetics, that they made their greatest mistake. They chose between two principles in advertising and chose the wrong one. The principle of associating your product with something that agreeable is the one they abandoned; the principle that repetition makes reputation is the one they overemphasized. And now in television they not only can mention their product, but in most cases can actually show it to you: the very package of face cream or breakfast food which you can buy tomorrow and for the wrapper of which -plus ten cents in postage - your child can get a drinking mug (also made visible).

Before the sponsors plunge into this new field, they should take thought of what happened in the movies. For thirty years efforts have been made to use the moving picture commercially; for thirty years the effort has failed. The moving picture can be used for propaganda; it can advertise the delights of flying, but not the delights of flying in a particular kind of plane; of drinking milk, but not milk from any particular herd of cows. Stubborn resistance against the injection of advertising is now ingrained in the moving picture audience. Although television is not the same thing as the moving picture, it will appear to be so nearly the same thing that the spectator will apply to it the same standards. Television will make advertising too emphatic too emphatic even for the advertiser's good.

Let me offer an example. Last winter I heard a dramatized plug on the air. It began with motorcar noises, the screeching of brakes, the tough voice of a motorcycle cop threatening to arrest the speeder -- and then the discovery that the violator of the law was none other than the charming young woman who a week before had recommended to the officer a certain hand lotion which, in those raw and rusty days, had prevented his hands from becoming chapped. I am aware that this sounds like a burlesque of radio advertising; I not only vouch for its accuracy, but feel sure that every reader has listened to something equally absurd. Set before you on the television screen, the traditional 'burly policeman' (and one may be sure that the tradition would be respected) showing his gentle and unchapped hands wouId be howlingly funny and the mind would drift off to the secondary and very disturbing thought that a traffic officer who failed to make a necessary arrest was an even greater menace to society than a reckless driver. The image on the screen, being of such high potentiality, would destroy what the spoken word could create.

If the advertisers do not retreat to the principle which they have abandoned, - that of associating their product with something desirable, -- if they insist upon their bangbang emphasis, they will reach the zone of indifference within a short time and speed to the zone of hostility soon after. It is to be noted that modifications of the advertising technique have occurred within the past few years and that the method of 'kidding' the commodity has robbed the announcer's plug of some of its horrors. But for years the advertising was disturbing, tasteless, overinsistent, and even downright offensive. To me, a manufacturer of nothing but a buyer of many things, a telecast advertisement would be most effective if in the course of, perhaps, a dramatic sketch a character made use of an easily recognized cigarette or coffee and, without even mentioning its name, expressed satisfaction. This would divide the emphasis by five, let us say, on the assumption that the attention in television as compared to broadcasting was multiplied by five. But I would consider myself a hopeless victim of wish fulfillment if I believed for a moment that such a restrained standard of advertising would prevail.

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