The "Errors" of Television


Let us assume, however, that radio advertising will be intelligent or that we shall become hardened to it; of what will our studio entertainment then consist? The experimental programme makers already know that the public has become accustomed to the disembodied voice; the public gets some sense of personality over the air. Handsome as I am sure all news commentators are, the sight of them reading their comments, which audiences generally imagine are impromptu, would not be a particular gain. It is ungallant to say so, but quite possibly some of our vocalists are not as beautiful as their voices; and one man who advertises a hair tonic lives in mortal terror of the coming of television, because he is almost totally bald.

In broadcasting circles, news commentary, advice to the lovelorn, instruction in any subject, and even political oratory are lumped together as 'talk programmes.' Following that shrewd classification, I postpone for a moment considering the rest of the average radio programme and note that statesmen may not find television an unmixed blessing. There has been an advantage in the sourceless voice. It has been nothuman, even superhuman. In the newsreels Father Coughlin, for instance, lost much of the authority he exerted over the air; Huey Long, on the whole, gained; Mr. Roosevelt, in my opinion, loses a little, but I do not believe that this is a universal judgment. But in any case the politicians will fall under the law of compression which I suggested above. An actual audience in a stadium or convention hall enjoys the contagion of the mob and will sit for an hour and clap hands and throw hats in the air, but when only two or three are gathered together the spectacle of an orating man will not be nearly so absorbing. We shall be thrilled by the spectacle of a nominating convention, but before a debate or an ordinary radio speech is telecast the astute politician will want to be sure that his audience will have something agreeable, but not distracting, to look at which, in nine cases out of ten, eliminates the speaker himself.

The greater part of sponsored broadcasting at the present time is divided between the dramatic sketch, the comedian, and the popular orchestra, each of these used separately or in combination. Obviously the dramatic sketch stands to gain most by the addition of sight -to gain most and to require the most energetic overhauling. The moment a sketch is made visible, it will require settings, properties, and actors in place of simple readers from manuscript. And again, because of the concentration of attention, the momentum will have to be accelerated.

At present, all of a fifteenminute programme can concern itself with the question of whether a young girl's party dress makes her look old enough to compete with her sisters. The famous breach of promise suit in 'Amos 'n' Andy' was stretched out over a period of months; the entire technique is that of the comic strip, each broadcast limited to a minute incident. But the moment these things are seen as well as heard, they come into competition with the. moving picture, which in some sixty minutes the time of only four broadcasts develops half a dozen amusing or illuminating incidents, three or four major episodes, and at least one dramatic climax. Successful sketches on the air have lived by cumulative interest; any single quarter hour of the Goldbergs or Amos 'n' Andy might be tiresome, but the listeners have memories of the past and definite anticipations of action in the future, involving characters in whom they are interested. That is why the sketches can afford to be slow. The new mechanism destroys that privilege because it renders characters completely and instantaneously and must launch them into a decisive action which, I suspect, will have to be fairly complete in itself. The serial dramatic sketch may therefore prove unsuitable for television, and in its place we shall probably have the more compact condensation of plays which now usually runs for half an hour on the air.

About the comedian it is frankly difficult to say anything definite. Obviously the pun, which is the recurrent staple of radio comedy, gains nothing whatever through vision. The fantastic imaginings of Stoopnagle and Budd, by far the most distinguished of radio entertainers, lie in a realm of fancy which a Walt Disney or an intelligible Dali might illustrate, but merely to see them talking would not be an advantage. The old stage comedians such as Wynn and Pearl and Cantor would be as good as they ever were and would present, in substance, vaudeville sketches.

Ever since the days of the phonograph the public has become accustomed to listening to music without seeing the performer. The picture has reversed the process, but the intelligent musical film has seldom used its orchestras for more than a background and has even thrown in a complementary action when songs are being sung; what most people remember about Stokowski's work in <i>The Broadcast of 1937</i> is the movement of his hands. Radio jazz bands are now full of galvanic comedians, and their antics could be telecast with some advantage, but I suspect that television will bring to the foreground, not the orchestras, but dancers who will work with them. The great opportunity television offers is to the one art which radio has never been able to encompass - the art of dancing, particularly the ballet.


I have been discussing so far the elements of the usual commercial programme but it is reasonable to assume that the poor relation of the air, the unsponsored programme, will also appear in television. The great fault of educational programmes so far has been not so much that they were too serious or too informative: they simply were not as skillfully and entertainingly presented as the sponsored material. Clearly a programme of information and ideas can gain even more by television than a programme of jokes and music. Here is a blackboard for the mathematician, a laboratory for the chemist, a picture gallery for the art critic, and possibly a stage upon which the historian can reenact the events of the past, or the news commentator the headlines of today. Moving-picture exhibitors now use travelogues and scientific films to vary their programmes; commercial radio has not found any way to adapt the same material. Yet underneath the obvious tendencies of current programmes one can discern a slight inclination toward 'using educational material; it comes close to the surface in the 'cavalcade' programmes dramatizing various periods of history.

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