S1E4: Television's Terms of Engagement
(The following is the manuscript for episode four of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on September 11th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
Before I begin this episode, two quick disclaimers:
One: in the previous episode, I know that my description of the history of communication left a lot out and is super simplistic. I also know that it ran the risk of sounding as though pictures or images were completely alien to the world prior to the advent of television. Those were deliberate choices on my part. I wanted to isolate one particular form of communication and trace it through history so that we would have a contrast for this episode as we look at television and the changes it brought to society as it became the dominant medium of the day. Obviously, there were beautiful things to look at during the age of books – there is an entire history of art that runs parallel to the history of printed communication – just as there were plenty of books to read in the age of television, and there’s still plenty of television to watch in the age of the internet. If you want more in-depth analysis and explanations of these subjects, you’ll definitely want to look elsewhere.
Second: just like the episode before it, this episode and the next couple of episodes are geared towards explaining the past so that we can better understand the present. The practical implications may not be quite as obvious at this point in the season, but I promise they’ll become more prominent once we’ve laid the groundwork for our present circumstances. I hope you’ll find all this information interesting and intriguing, but I totally understand if you feel unsure as to what the point is. I promise, in later episodes, we will be asking more questions about what all of these changes have done to our theology, and what we can do in response to those changes, but we have a lot of changes to cover before we can get to that part.
Now, with all that being said, lets go back to the 50s
If you were a kid born in the 50s, your relationship with television was probably just beginning to form. Chances are, if you lived in or close to a city, you owned a television set, or knew someone who did. If you lived out in the country, you were going to be out of luck for a while – only the major cities had television stations, and only television stations were broadcasting television signals, so if you didn’t live near a station, you didn’t have anything to watch. In 1951, President Trueman spoke to 13 million television sets in the first coast-to-coast telecast, but that wasn’t going to be the norm for a while. In addition, if you had a television set, all you had was a grainy black-and-white image to stare at – still pretty cool at the time, but people weren’t going to be content with grayscale forever. In 1954, RCA would introduce the first colored television set, and ten years later, a million of them would be sold in a single year. The history of television is fascinating, but it took a while for the technology to become widely adopted in American society. But when it did (and that date is debatable), it signaled a fundamental shift in American society – and theres no better example to demonstrate this than the debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential Election.
Its hard to believe that presidential debates are a relatively new thing in the history of American politics, but on September 26th, 1960, Nixon and Kennedy would appear on television and radio all over the country in the first of four debates Presidential Election debates. The fact that this had never been done before, combined with the fact that they would be televised, meant that this was going to a huge event, and it was: as the Museum of Broadcast Communication claims, over 70,000,000 people tuned in to watch the debate. But even though the debate was broadcast on television, it was still being carried over radio, and, because of this, something curious happened. As it is with any debate, someone wins, and someone loses, but people were in disagreement as to who won and who lost the first debate, and that disagreement was tied to whether or not the person watched the debate or listened to the debate. Although this has been disputed, its been claimed (and I believe there is some merit to it) that those who listened to the debate on the radio believed that Nixon won the first debate. Conversely, those who watched the debate on television believed that Kennedy won, or at best the debate was tied with neither candidate winning outright. Its hard not believe that the presentation didn’t play a factor here – if you watch some of the footage on YouTube, Nixon doesn’t look all that good. He sounds great – for all of his flaws, Nixon had a great speaking voice – but he looks sick, and the contrast on the black-and-white image makes his face look really pale. Kennedy, on the other hand, looks really sharp and slick. Its obvious he has stage makeup on, and he looks like he is rested, relaxed, and ready to go. But, if you’re listening to the debate on the radio, you don’t know that. All you have are Kennedy and Nixon’s voices, and the substance of their arguments. If you’re watching on the television, you still have their voices and their arguments, but now you have Kennedy’s pleasing appearance to take in as well, and being able to see changes your perception about what you hear. In a sense, people believed Kennedy won…because they could see him.
If you think I’m overstating the significance or the magnitude of this moment, you’re probably right. I don’t believe this was the moment where the script was flipped and suddenly television was calling all the shots. I do think, though, that this was an indication of what was to slowly come over the next several decades, and I think that it illustrates something even more significant than that: the technology of the future was not based on the written and spoken word alone anymore. The technology of the future was found in moving images, and moving images would soon displace the written word as the dominant medium by which we receive our information. As Neil Postman put it:
On television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us conversations in images, not words. - Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”
Now, I think we need to pause for a second to talk about what a “medium” even is. After all, the title of this very podcast is based off a quote from Postman where he states that “no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are”, but what is even a medium, aside from being the singular form of the word “media”? I’ll just let Postman answer that real quick:
“We might say that a “technology” is to a “medium” as the brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put. A technology becomes a medium as it employs a particular symbolic code, as it finds its place in a particular social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts. A technology, in other words, is merely a machine. A medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.” - Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”
In terms of television: the TV set is the technology, and “television” is the medium that arises because of the TV set and because of it being widely available in the homes of most Americans. A technology becomes a medium once it starts employing a particular symbolic code – which, television’s case, is moving images on a screen accompanied by sounds that the viewers can understand. A technology becomes a medium once it finds its place in a particular social setting, which television did rapidly as it became the centerpiece of the living rooms of American households – something we still see to this day. A technology becomes a medium once it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts, which you could argue happened on the night Nixon and Kennedy set a new tradition in American politics in front of 70,000,000 television viewers, and even with the advent of the Internet television still has a significant place in the American economic and political spheres. We could run through this example with books, with radio, with the internet, or with any other mass medium. The technological capabilities alone don’t create the medium, but once the technology is put into use to transmit communications that you, your neighbor, your schoolmates, your congregation, your town, your city, other cities, other towns, other congregations, and other neighbors can receive and respond to in some way, you have a mass medium. And, like Postman stated a bit ago, this medium deals not in words, but in images.
But why is that a problem? What’s wrong with that? To answer this question, it might be easier to rephrase it some: how do you interact with the medium? We will use books as an example. How do you read a book? Well, to read a book (and I’m specifically talking about physical books, not digital books per se), you need to be able to concentrate on the text of the page and tune out distractions for a considerable period of time, you need to be able to understand the language the text is written in (it’s hard to read a book in a language you don’t know!), and you need to be able to parse the vocabulary and grammar of the text and understand what’s being said in each sentence. But that’s just the start. Not only do you need to be able to understand each sentence that you’re reading, you need to be able to understand each sentence in relation to each sentence, each paragraph in relation to each paragraph, each chapter to each chapter. You need to be able to link ideas, concepts, arguments, and illustrations together if you want to understand what the author is saying. This is true of the written word and the spoken word as well. When we listen to speeches, sermons, lectures, or other lengthy oral presentation (or a podcast like this), we process the information in the same way, only through hearing instead of reading. And then, once you’ve done all of that, you trust that everyone else who read the book, or heard the speech, did the same thing – if they didn’t, having an intelligent conversation will be a frustrating endeavor.
So, how do you watch television? Lets take your standard 60 minute evening news broadcast from one of your local FOX or CBS affiliates. In order to watch this broadcast, you still need to give some degree of attention to what you’re watching, but given that the news anchor’s commentary is accompanied with news footage, interviews, and graphs/charts, you only need to be able to understand what the anchor is saying insofar as it relates to the visuals that accompany it, and often times, the visuals do the heavy lifting in communicating the details of the story. There’s no need to describe where last night’s robbery took place, what kind of place it was, and how the owners are responding to the crime – you can see the actual spot where the robber broke in, and get a brief snapshot of the range of emotions the owners feel in an interview clip. And even though you’re being asked to pay attention to this story in order to take it in, you only need to pay attention to this story for this story’s sake – after a minute or two, the broadcast will shift to a different story, totally unrelated to what just came before, and you need to be able to reset your mind to pay attention to this new story. After two or three rounds of this, there will be a commercial break, where you can either pay attention to even small stories told via advertising or take a mental break, and then the news will resume and the cycle of two-or-three minute commitments to attention continues. By the time the evening news is over, you’ve been processing information for an hour, but that information is compartmentalized, disjointed, detached from each other, and while you might have covered a pretty wide range of subject matter, you’ve only done so in a way that skims the surface. This holds true even if you’re watching a crime drama or thriller instead of a newscast – you’re tasked with giving the show your attention for several minutes, and then you know that in a moment of tension or suspense there will be a commercial break, often with a completely different tone from what you’ve just been watching, that you can either pay attention to or take a mental break from watching before the show resumes.
The thing about mediums is that they are not value neutral. They inherently ask us to do certain things in order to interact with them, and they ask us not to do certain things in the same token. They promote certain forms of interaction, and actively discourage others. As Postman states,
My argument is limited to saying that a new major medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content – in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth telling. - Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
In other words, new mediums set their own terms for transmitting truth, ideas, concepts, stories, and information – new mediums create a demand for a new kind of content, and the content of television was unlike anything that had ever existed in the world before. But television, like every other medium, not only creates the content but also creates the terms of engagement with that content, and in order to engage with television, we only need to give a fraction of our mental powers in order to process what we are seeing. Postman again,
“When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, “Let me think about that” or “I don’t know” or “What do you mean when you say…?” or “From what sources does your information come?” This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it.” - Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death.
What makes television such a significant development is that the demands of television were completely different than the demands of the written or spoken word, and those demands had power behind them. Yes, books were still printed and read and discussed, but they were displaced as being the dominant medium for communicating ideas and information in lieu of television, and the way you go about reading books and discussing them with others is fundamentally different from the way you watch and discuss the morning news with others. Our communities were no longer based around the written and spoken word, shaped and formed to interact with each other against a backdrop set by books and the culture of discourse they create. Instead, our communities began to be shifted to television, and the way we interact with each was being reshaped by this new medium we now share.
So what does any of this have to do with theology? Well, it has quite a bit to do with theology – so much so that, in the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we are going to examine the impact of television on the church, and how this new medium gave rise to a new form of Christianity – a form we still see to this very day.