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(Video Ergo Sum cont'd)

Acknowledging, then, that television has swept over western culture with astonishing speed and radical impact to become the medium of all media, what can we say of its technological message, the message that is specific to the medium? Television is a medium whose very nature repudiates the path of intellectual knowledge. In the presentation of information, factual or fictional, its essential form is drama -- dramatic music, dramatic graphics, dramatic titles, dramatic delivery by announcers, dramatic cutting from one scene to another, one shot to another, and -- not least, certainly -- dramatic advertising pitches. Given the choice between two visual images, we will always take the stronger, the more dramatic one. What is being transmitted through this form, therefore, is predominantly emotional information. Eliminate these dramatic devices and you have no program. In fact, you don't have what we mean by "television". Nothing is more boring than a camera that never changes its angle or shot, nothing less likely to attract an audience, and so less capable of sending messages. Do you ever see a crowd around the monitors of security cameras? Without dramatic changes, we have entropy. If knowledge is measured by facts, names, dates, grasp of geography, of logical argument and the rational assessment of issues, then exposure to network news on television has no bearing on the acquisition of this kind of knowledge.17  

If the information that television transmits is predominantly emotional, the mechanism by which this information is transferred lies in a complex system of audio-visual codes. Of all the technical forms of television, the cut, I believe, is the most fundamental, the one that most determines the hidden message of the medium, as type does with print, and rhyme and meter do in poetry. Unlike the editing of feature films, where the cut follows the demands of linear story telling (I'm speaking of film in its popular narrative form), cutting from one television image to the next grew from the necessity in the early days of television to provide more than one picture of what was going on in the studio, be it a play, a panel discussion, an informational presentation, or a children's game. Originally these studio productions were live, which gave television its special drawing power, despite poor quality pictures. The illusion of being present at a live happening is what I think still makes television appealing to large masses of people for large amounts of time and accounts for the high sales value of its supposed "reality". Viewers are able to share in the studio event in real time but in a manner unlike real life. The different viewpoints provided by cutting from one camera to the next, from one angle to another, are not freely chosen by viewers, as we might allow our eyes to stray across a hall or church gathering or theater stage in an experience directly affected by other members of the audience or congregation, as well as by the total scene in front of us. In viewing a television program, the changing viewpoints are determined for us by the studio director according to a logic -- a language, if you will -- which is peculiar to television itself.  

Each time a cut is made a message is sent to the viewer saying, "look for meaning in this cut." On television, the cut is more potent in its ability to attract attention than the action taking place between cuts. It is what sets television apart from film, although many of the conventions of film are still apparent in television. Try turning the sound down and note what catches your eye; it is the cut linking image to image rather than action within each image. Yet it is the sound as often as not that provides the excuse for the cut, a complex relationship between the two senses like the intertwining of the DNA helix. For this relationship will often supply the organizational force holding together a composite image made up of different shots, as in a news story. When the eye and the ear are competing against each other, usually the eye will win. But we need the ear to help us interpret the image, even if this is only music, which always sends a strong emotional signal. Television, indeed, is heavily dependent on its verbal elements, the talking head being its commonest form, whether in factual or fictional shows or, at its most debased, in the sound bite of news. For we should note that in his hidden language, what must be avoided at all costs is visual boredom. The intellectual content of words spoken is on no importance, all that matters is the sound made by the words. Unlike human speech in print culture, where words are carriers of thought and the expression in sound of human reason, in television culture speech plays the same role as a piano accompaniment in the days of silent movies. It's a redundant tool to inform us of mood and to assist us in reading the pictures, often aided, of course, by other sound effects, such as laughter and applause. It's enough for us to understand the fury in the words without our seeking, like Desdemona, to understand the words themselves.  

With cutting from image to image providing one form of conditioning agent in the language of television, another comes from our habituation to the small size, rectangular shape, and poor quality of the visual frame itself. Tidily enclosed by the box of the television receiver, the television frame is a frame within a frame. It presents us with a world under our control, a world domesticated by our actual homey surroundings. In these surroundings we are not called on to suspend disbelief since we don't disbelieve our own home, our furnishings and family snapshots. On the contrary, we willingly commit ourselves to a belief in the reality of the images. And the more the images can be made to appear as real reality, the more we believe them, especially when it comes to "harm-inflicting actions."18  

In itself, a television image is dull. It is so lacking in arousal that we need exaggerated sound and devices like the cut to maintain interest. Where the film frame utilizes every part of the screen for movement and effect, and with great beauty of color and composition, the small size and poor quality of the television frame -- at least until recently -- force us to present our representation of reality center screen. All that happens must happen before our eyes, and the images must hold "instant meaning" for most if not all of the viewing audience, so we rely on symbols and stereotypes to provide this instant meaning, like the codewords of speech. There is neither time nor readiness to explain what is unusual or difficult.19 It follows, I think, that for most of the population what cannot be shown on television by a comparatively small repertoire of symbolic images does not exist. Reality is picture: without pictures, no reality. The result is a television world of grotesque disproportion, which presents, for instance, a major political problem when it comes to dealing with the images -- or, more to the point, the lack of them -- coming from closed societies like the Soviet Union, as we saw with the series of eight videotapes on Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner, produced by the KGB with hidden cameras from August 1984 to June 1986 and widely disseminated in the West.20  

Index of Papers   1  2  3  4  5  6  References 


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