The "Errors" of Television

I think it probable that a skillful adapter might break through the timidity of the sponsors and create an educational programme of considerable commercial value, especially if he offered such a programme in one of those recurrent moments when sponsors are panicstricken because all the familiar types of programme have grown stale and they are casting about for something new, something to set such a vogue as was created by the comedians or by the amateur hours. Television will at least have one advantage: the educational film short will certainly be used, and, as it is often very well made, it may take the blight of futility from the educational programme. Many of the significant interests of intelligent human beings have been stuffed away into the dark corners of radio programmes; it would be a pleasant irony if television brought them to light and proved that they were valuable for commercial purposes.

The moving picture will not merely supply its readymade films for telecasting. As the new entertainment becomes more expert it will demand films expressly made for television, and presently it will have a profound effect upon all our moving pictures. I confess that there is a great deal of speculation in all of this, but I am convinced that because television will be shown in the home to single individuals or very small groups, because it will be sponsored and therefore each fragment of it must be comparatively short, the tempo of the dramatic or musical numbers will be rapid; just as the movies are more compact than radio, television will approach its points and its climaxes with far less lost motion than the movies now do. And no matter how often people are told that they must not compare the two forms, they will compare them, and the movies will have to cut out their waste material in order to compete. It would be a good thing. They have become dignified and a little lethargic in their methods; they will have to be energized all over again.

This will be particularly painful to the movie makers who are now drowning themselves in a sea of color, apparently persuaded that if the face of Marlene Dietrich and her hair and her clothes are in a series of brilliant hues (especially her face), the whole moving picture can stand still while the audience enjoys the pleasure merely of looking. In almost every case, so far, color has slowed up the movies. Yet color will not save the movies from the competition of television. It will be sad news to Hollywood to learn that as long as eight years ago color television was actually demonstrated; and Mr. Scroggie says that, although the difficulties are great, they are statistical rather than instrumental. So, if the invasion of color conquers the movies, it will only temporarily make them different from television. And once the movies recover, as they did from their temporary surrender to the talking mechanism, the sharpness and brevity of a television drama will make the ordinary talking moving picture seem as slowgoing as a play by Clyde Fitch.


In order to simplify the problems of television, I have written as if television would be launched immediately on coasttocoast networks. The chances are ten to one that early television will be regional and not national. For technical reasons, not yet fully understood, telecast impulses begin to fade at the optical horizon line; to increase the range, the sending apparatus is usually placed at the top of a high building, but even from the Empire State the images travel some forty miles and then are lost. The cost of picking up these electronic signals and rebroadcasting them would be prohibitive until television is virtually as popular as radio is today. Moreover, there is a good commercial reason for encouraging regional activity, and that is the difference in time between the relentless demand of television to be attended to will make network telecasting commercially wasteful. Regional telecasting will favor local stations and possibly encourage experiment both by the programme makers and by the sponsors. Considering the comp1. cated problems which must be solved, the difficulty of creating a fully developed national system of television at one stroke is actually a blessing.

And the best of the blessing is, of course, that the effect of television radio will be so gradual that we may be able to preserve whatever in radio is desirable. In a study made by Malcolm M. Willey and Stuart A. Rice, over one hundred and fifty separate effects of the radio were listed, and under many of these general headings ten or more in detailed items appeared. Because of radio, more of us took setting-up exercises in the morning, with possible improvement in our health; old songs were revived, as new ones quickly exhausted their popularity. Those who could not read found a new interest; oratory was restored to its ancient glory in Presidential campaigns; the difference between the city and the country was made less, vaudeville artists got jobs, book sales increased; farmers knew the price paid for stock and grain in Chicago and Minneapolis; newspapers for the first time had rival in both of their important functions, giving news and advertising goods. Radio has been used for directing traffic during holiday jams when motorists were warned of points of congestion and advised to detour; millions of people, totally indifferent to social movements and international affairs and totally unhabituated to reading about such things, have become aware of them through news broadcasts and commentary; hundreds of millions of people were auditors at the drama of the abdication of King Edward VIII.

So radio touches our lives at every point. It is desirable for us to know what price we have paid for the creation of this incomparable engine of social influence: we have certainly created a habit of almost indiscriminate, almost apathetic listening; through the air has come a really incalculable number of stupidities; much that is trite and tasteless comes with what is intelligent and bright. A critic of society would have a delicate job to determine how far radio has corrupted and how far improved the public taste, and the very existence of a power so great as that of radio seems menacing to many observers. The highminded do not like to ace the actual situation in radio, which is that all of its desirable effects are based on the habit of listening which as created largely by programmes triviaI and banal in themselves. In countries with highly centralized authority it is possible that people listen to the radio because what they hear is important; and the extreme form is obligatory listening as it is practised in Germany. In a democratic country the emphasis is on the other side: radio is important because people listen to it, even when it is trivial; the audience which listened to the radio debate on the Supreme Court was created in the first place by Ed Wynn, Rudy Vallee, Amos 'n' Andy, and Kate Smith.

This unforeseen result, the creation of an audience which can be influenced to political action, is the thing that makes radio programmes important and justifies all our speculations about television. For the audience which television will create will be more attentive and, if properly handled, more suggestible even than the audience of radio. The question we are allowed to ask is whether all of radio's errors have to be repeated by television. Considering the advances made both in radio and in the movies, cannot television start off at their highest level instead of going back to where they began? The tendency of most new forms of entertainment is to take over the second-rate from an earlier type: as the silent movies took over melodrama from the stage, as radio took over the dialect comedian from vaudeville. The practical reason is that these secondrate elements are familiar and commercially dependable; the entertainment which adapts them to its own uses purges its older rivals but has to spend a long time rising to their level. It would be a great thing if television could from the start combine the best of the two forms of entertainment which ultimately, I believe, it will supersede.

And yet I have a feeling that the most important thing for television is to make sure of its own popularity. Like the moving picture and the radio, television would act against its own nature if it did not try to be virtually a universal entertainment. I see no reason for thinking that this universality is any bar to excellence. Commenting on a rough division of the arts which I once made, Professor Mortimer J. Adler has recently written: 'Great and lively art have this in common: they are able to please the multitude.' Professor Adler offers 'the work of Walt Disney as lively art that also reaches greatness, a degree of perfection in its field which surpasses our best critical capacity to analyze and which succeeds at the same time in pleasing children and simple folk.'

At least twenty years of popular work which was not great, which was often offensive to reasonable taste and of doubtful effect on the people, preceded those comparatively few works in the movies which can stand beside Disney's masterpieces. One of the reasons for this long delay was the indifference of the intelligent public. Perhaps a more alert and critical citizenry will help television more rapidly over its difficulties.

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