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(Video Ergo Sum cont'd)

A further aspect of the television frame needs mentioning. The present ratio of the frame -- four parts horizontal to three parts vertical -- cruelly restricts what we can show of the outside world. The big landscape, the tall building, the vast expanses of ocean, sky or space -- none of this can be adequately represented on television. The ratio of the frame makes it impossible even to present a person standing upright with full effect. Too much unnecessary visual information is coming at us from the space on either side of that person -- visual noise. It is the same with trees and the steeples of churches. The television frame forces us to look at the world as flat, horizontal, with no horizons. It does not invite us to raise our eyes to the heavens. Do these mechanical factors leave a psychological imprint?  

To compensate for the limitations of the television frame, we must concentrate on detail, on close-ups, on a mosaic-like montage of images, and a dazzling array of visual tricks. But in thus reducing the cosmos to the dimensions of a television screen, we introduce a new visual scale where small objects become unusually large and large objects small. Surely over time and with heavy viewing our visual perception of the natural world must change, and is it not the case that the world of ideas already suffers from a similar distortion?  

Emotional arousal is what visual images are best at achieving. They are much better suited to this function than to making rational statements or even, according to Gombrich, to the expression of feelings.21 If drama is the essence of each image and sound effect which make up a visual message, each television program is structured on the fundamental dramatic principle of conflict, complication, resolution, or as I like to simplify it, the problem-solution formula. In fictional programs -- serial dramas, Masterpiece Theater, sitcoms and soaps -- the employment of this dramatic principle is logical. Such is the weight of these programs in the daily schedule, however, that the formula has come to dominate all other programs, including those which are supposedly non-fictional. Here is a senior news executive instructing his staff: "Every news story should, without any sacrifice of probity or responsibility, display the attributes of fiction, of drama. It should have structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, a middle and an end. There are not only the essentials of drama; they are the essentials of narrative."22  

So how does it work? A typical news story would run like this: There's trouble again in the Middle East (conflict); the Arabs say one thing, the Israelis another, and the Soviets are trying to make things worse (complication); the President of the United States sends a special envoy to sort it out (resolution). The principle works just as effectively in television advertising. You're going out on a date, but (problem) you have BO! Solution - our soap!  

In one form or another, the problem-solution formula underlies virtually every television message, and this fact, to my way of thinking, must build up in audiences a deep-seated expectation that all problems have solutions. Is not this expectation, so characteristic of the American psyche, present in the way we deal with religious as well as political affairs, moral and intellectual issues? If there are problems that have plagued mankind since the Garden of Eden, the solution is to change the ground rules.  

I'd like to illustrate the necessity of studying the technical forms of television by describing a small visual event which I happened to catch as it was being transmitted live in the summer of 1985. I say small, but as a leaf thrown on the surface of a river will show the direction of the current, so these small television events tell us of the strength of the hidden force beneath.  

The event took place in a courtroom in Rhode Island as the second trial of Claus von Bulow reached its climax. Had von Bulow attempted to murder his wife by injecting her with insulin? The jury sent word that they were agreed on their verdict, and a delay of fifteen minutes ensued so that the media could be ready, along with other participants such as von Bulow's current mistress, who until now had hidden herself in the control van of Cable News Network.23 There was one camera in court, supplied by a Providence station and providing continuous coverage on a pool basis for the networks.  

Here was live television with a scene of dramatic actuality ideally suited to the medium. Now I must interject a personal comment. When I joined the television service of the BBC, straight from university at a time when television was virtually unknown at home and at school, I joined a group of men and women whose education, like mine, had been in the classical tradition of the Western Enlightenment. Products of a literate culture, we thought in terms of a literate audience. We were taught, and we believed it, that you showed the audience the source of the information you were transmitting. If you were quoting from a document you showed the document, if there was a speech you recorded the speech, or the portion of it you wanted. Afterwards, perhaps, or on the side, you might take shots of the audience or other relevant material. That's how literate people, print people, people of the enlightenment, think.  

To return to the courtroom in Rhode Island. You are in control of the one camera in court. As the foreman of the jury stands up to announce the verdict in this highly publicized trial, a verdict eagerly awaited and much speculated upon, where do you point your camera?  

I put this question regularly to my students, all typical Late Twentieth Century North American Persons, children of the television revolution. With rarely an exception, the class says: you point your camera at von Bulow. Why? Because we want to see his reaction as the verdict is given.  

In terms of their own transformed consciousness, the students are undoubtedly correct. Today's television audience does not want to see the source of factual information, because the medium is not transmitting this kind of information at all. It is transmitting emotional information. News is theater, a spectator sport, and what we want is drama. Here's NBC's Reuven Frank again: "The highest power of television journalism is not in the transmission of information but in the transmission of, sorrow, shock, fear, these are the stuff of news."24 

Index of Papers   1  2  3  4  5  6  References 

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