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(Video Ergo Sum cont'd)

The three main networks all carried the von Bulow story, ABC and CBS making it their lead item. Their three audio-visual packages were virtually identical, for ABC and CBS, an average of five seconds per shot, for NBC, four seconds.  

Analyzing the stories shot by shot, with their sound elements, we can see that what we have in each case is a composite image which says in sum "a trial", "a verdict". These are no more the direct reporting of a live event than Seurat's paintings are direct accounts of life on the banks of the Seine. Instead we have a tableau as in Madame Tussaud's waxworks museum, or better, a television equivalent of a musical -- "Monday in the Court with Claus". What television news gives us is a representation by means of types. The shots are chosen for their symbolic value, a value which derives more from fictional portrayals in the real soap operas and drama series to be seen every day and every night on network television than from the few cases of actuality like von Bulow's which merit the attention of network news. Not for nothing did the news media call the von Bulow trial a soap opera. They would not have reported it had it been anything else.  

Jurists I have spoken to express concern that by allowing television into the courtrooms, the real life actors in these real dramas are turning out performances to match those of their fictional counterparts. A recent report on New York City's police pointed to the same concern. According to this report, the public's perception of police behavior was based on its fictional representation in television serial dramas, behavior the real-life police found unreal and unprofessional. Nevertheless, some real-life police begin to ask themselves if they ought not to adapt their behavior to that of their fictional counterparts in order to retain the good will of the public.25 Study after study, like those conducted by the Media Institute in Washington DC, reveals a contrast between reality as portrayed on television and reality as described by statistics and sociology.26 But which reality is psychologically convincing?  

Theodore White wrote of emotional participation. I have suggested that it is in television's forms that we should look for the medium's affective power, notably in the power of visual images mediated by editing techniques in which music and sound play important parts. I do not say that the manifest program content is of no importance, but its interest lies mainly in showing us how age-old themes are being adapted to the new medium's technology.  

But if television is creating its own symbolic world, what has happened to the symbols and rituals of the pre-television age, particularly those used in religious ceremonies? The question, of course, is central to our discussion of today's values and icons. Can the traditional Christian liturgies, for example, be transferred successfully to the television screen? How is the word to be expressed in a television age?  

Many of us have been troubled by these questions for a long time. We find it hard to reconcile ourselves to the reality of television and are tempted to take a negative position. Muggeridge likens television to a twentieth century golden calf.27 But we can't, of course, tell how things will work out in a hundred years from now, and we must remember that each new mode of communication contains its predecessors within it. I can imagine scribes meeting with mulled wine in their refectories in the early sixteenth century and complaining that style was being destroyed by this new uniform type, and the authority of the church was being undermined in matters of education and morals by these upstart, self-promoting printers, and all for commercial gain. Are there not various churches today, not ecclesiastical ones, who take the same line?  

To return to the thesis advanced by Walter Ong, that a radical change in the technology of communication leads to a radical change in human consciousness, I venture to suggest that, paradoxical as it may seem, one consequence of prolonged exposure to the technology of television is to increase the tension between what we see and what we believe. Is what we see orderly or anarchic? There are those who argue that regular viewers of television are left with a greatly strengthened sense of chaos since the general impression given by such prolonged viewing is of an unstable world where disasters, natural and man-made, are the norm, where verbal and physical strife is seen to be uppermost in all public and private conduct, and where moral confusion reigns in the affairs of government, corporations, and private life. Television, on this view, is a blend of nihilism and hedonism. The people sit down to eat and drink and rise up to play. This television world is a world "without much coherence or sense" in Neil Postman's eyes, the eyes of one devoted to literacy and rationalism.28  

Index of Papers   1  2  3  4  5  6  References 


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