Ergo Sum cont'd)
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?
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?
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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
There was one camera in court, supplied by a Providence station
and providing continuous coverage on a pool basis for the networks.
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.
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?
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.
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 experience...joy,
sorrow, shock, fear, these are the stuff of news."24