Television – which literally means “seeing from a distance” – has seldom been discussed by either critics or scholars primarily as a visual medium. Yet from the start, key sectors of the television industry itself were fascinated by the possibilities and potential for televisual representation. In the shadow of more “legitimate” art forms in the twentieth century, and cinema’s spectacle-oriented wide screen in particular, television came to be known in largely style-less terms as “the small screen.” But this denigration of television glosses over a great deal of visual complexity and diversity that can be understood within three broad perspectives: the industry, the audience, and scholarship.
First, “the” television industry is not one thing; it is many, each with very different visual imaging practices. Reality television producers, for example, employ very different visual strategies to filmed dramas. Second, “the” television audience, far from being monolithic, splintered into many different forms of visual consumption, decades before digital cable and YouTube. Since the early 1980s, for example, “narrowcast” music videos challenged their niche audience with visual styles far more complex than televised games in sports bars. Finally, scholarship, while largely discounting television’s visual complexity, offered research theories that viewed televisuality on a wide continuum, from the merely instrumental to the sometimes irrelevant. Many scholars who theorized television within either the social sciences or the humanities followed the modernist impulse to find the “specificity” of each communication medium. For television this meant anything but the image: effects, propaganda, agenda setting, content, and/or psychological gratifications.
Television, in short, became many different things to many different industry sectors and audiences. Any discussion of television’s visuality, therefore, must be specific, and explained in terms of television’s varying historical genres, end uses, and modes of production. This article describes the development of the visual characteristics of television mainly from the perspective of the US, where the medium gained its social significance earlier than in other countries, which often followed the path taken in the US.
Industry And Televisuality
Television’s maligned visual status may have fitted early prototypes of television, which glimmered with ghostly, amorphous, black-and-white imagery. But this status ill fits both the ways that production personnel and programming departments in the US conceptualized TV in the 1930s and 1940s, and the ways that television eventually began to appear after 1980, in the multichannel age of cable television and later high definition television (HDTV). Popular critics had their own reasons for ignoring TV’s visual dimension in the 1950s and 1960s. Historian Eric Barnouw (1974) celebrated live drama and method acting as defining features of television’s “golden age” in the 1950s. This view presupposed that artifice and production technique were merely obstacles in the creation of naturalistic, psychological authenticity. In hour-long live anthology dramas, jostled stage flats, sweating actors, and lighting hot spots didn’t lessen television art. They proved that sensitive, nonvisual writers, directors, and actors were “operating without a net” in front of the camera’s disinterested mechanical eye.
Hollywood’s telefilms, however, which came to dominate and displace live drama in the mid-1950s in the US, were produced on 35 mm film. Golden-age critics characterized telefilms as mindless, lowest-common-denominator factory products from studio assembly lines. This judgment made the writer – not the image-maker – king during this period for scholars and critics. Popular mythology at the time – even from Hollywood – seemed to support this artistic hierarchy and write-off of TV’s artistry. Despite Jack Warner’s much-quoted prohibition that no TVs should appear on-screen or on the lot, all of the studios had some interest in developing television, and some were systematically involved in making television a central part of their business plans. Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) , one of the “big five” Hollywood studios, sold its film library to television; Paramount launched theatrical television and pay-per-view; Disney created a weekly synergy between its studio films, television, and the network ABC; producer David O. Selznick brought wide-screen spectacle to event-status television; and Warner Bros offered its underused studio, back lots, and labor to satisfy programmers’ ravenous appetite to fill network and local schedules each night.
The “three-camera,” live, studio mode of production favored by critics spread internationally, in part because real-time “editing” (switching), fewer lighting set-ups, and a singular production site were more economic. Many genres that employed this mode (news reading, telenovelas, game shows) offered few on-camera visual complexities. Yet a second, related mode of production, “electronic news gathering” (ENG), used smaller and lighter crews and increasingly portable equipment to gather late-breaking reality images and transmit them back to the three-camera control room. ENG work, while rapidly cut and catastrophe-focused, works visually, not because of its high resolution, illusionism, or formal beauty, but because of its fragmentary, frenetic, voyeuristic kick. Pressure to include arresting imagery drives TV news coverage, even to the point of creating proxy footage and manufactured illustrations for events not recorded (Griffin 1992). Today, 24/7 cable news has updated both three-camera and ENG by embellishing them using digital graphics, text crawls, and multi-screens. If three-camera started as rote style-less news reading, it has ended as stylistically excessive, videographic, and cluttered.
Single-camera, film-style, location production, by contrast, has served as a workhorse mode of production since the early years of telefilm. In Europe and the US, many series opted for film style, given prime-time drama’s higher budgets and higher stylistic expectations. For years, shows shot on film negative offered far higher resolution, richer contrast and tonality, and more subtle color rendition than shows shot with video cameras. Yet the emergence of HDTV since the late 1990s has meant that the actual capture device (film or chip) is less important than the cinematic look achieved. Many contemporary film critics have naïvely “discovered” that television – à la The Sopranos, Lost, and 24 – are as stylistically provocative and sophisticated as many high-budget studio films.
Yet these same critics ignore the fact that dramatic television has offered viewers highlevel cinematic experiences throughout its history. The A-list film directors that pushed network television boundaries in the US include: John Cassavettes, John Frankenheimer, Paddy Cheyevsky, Michael Mann, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, and Robert Altman, to name but a few. The portable, cinéma vérité-based improvisational television work of Cassavettes in the 1960s, for example, is a direct precursor to many contemporary “improvisational-looking” genres, from reality television to the faux-documentary quality of frantic “real-time” shows like 24 and The Shield (both shot continuously with two mobile hand-held film cameras and edited like documentaries). If dense digital graphics and computer-generated images (CGI) have converted even three-camera and ENG into stylistic showcases, then commercials and music videos (where many prime-time cinematographers, directors, and editors got their training) helped teach television how to integrate and synthesize cinematic and videographic impulses as a standard look across many channels.
While high-production-value series of this ilk still pervade prime-time, new digital technologies, starting in the 1990s, have uncorked an excessively diverse range of video forms and televisual genres, each with their own aesthetic implications. These newer formats, which move beyond the two traditional modes (three-camera and film style), can best be understood in terms of the changing audiences and consumers, and television’s increasingly mobile users.
Audiences And Televisuality
Broadcast television was developed as part of an integrated nationalistic agenda of postwar consumerism and economic expansion, one that rationalized TV squarely within the context of suburban homes and neighborhoods. This domestic setting impacted on the visual approaches that producers adopted and the kinds of visual perception that audiences were able to participate in. While Paramount studios worked hard and failed to make television a large-screen theatrical experience in the late 1940s, electronic manufacturers like RCA/NBC and DuMont in the US succeeded in making television simultaneously an entertainment activity, a desirable new kind of furniture, and a symbol of social status. Sponsors speculated that daytime viewers would be “distracted” housewives, performing household tasks with the television on. Producers therefore created dialogue-driven shows that did not require intensive observation to be understood. Thus, the image in daytime soaps receded under the weight of highly redundant dialogue that allowed preoccupied viewers to periodically “glance” at the screen.
Producers imagined prime time differently, as a collective family activity undertaken with the room lights on. These shows should be entertaining, even if family members chatted throughout a broadcast. Advertisers in the 1940s and 1950s also directly imported from radio broadcasting another factor that devalued the visual: “direct address” audio narration that hyped products on-screen by overtly asking viewers to consider them. In these ways the early viewer was addressed as a distracted, calculating, and “multitasking” viewer. At least in these verbal, multitasking contexts, TV positioned itself in opposition to the darkened, solitary cinema viewer who was willing to suspend disbelief in order to imagine on-screen worlds as real. Marketed as a “window on the world,” TV eschewed illusion, while cinema posed as a “screen” allowing viewers escape from the world.
TV’s initial “de-visualization” – by broadcasters from radio, product sponsors, set manufacturers, and real estate developers – represented only one of TV’s historical strands. Telefilm and commercials would soon bring Hollywood competencies to program production. These influences included expressive and noir-ish lighting, location shooting, wide-screen genres, and film-style storytelling. The latest stage in viewing this televisioninto-cinema trajectory lies in the widespread design and construction of wide-screen “home theaters” in viewers’ living spaces. Digital television (DTV) and HDTV make this transition possible. The diversity of DTV forms makes it difficult to theorize TV cleanly without considering how home TV multitasking overlaps with home cinematic experiences (at least for consumers affluent enough to afford the new digital products and systems). The ability of high definition viewers to actually see all of this on-screen digital detail also has a direct impact on the ways that production groups now strategize, visually design, block scenes, and direct the action for new HDTV and DVD frames (Caldwell 2008).
With the advent of cable and the VCR in the 1970s, the Internet in the 1990s, online downloading, video mobile phones, iPods, and mobcasting (distributing video segments over mobile phones and hand-held devices) in the 2000s, TV soon reckoned with what industry and audiences engaged as television’s “second,” “third,” and “fourth screens.” Audience research began to show that these multiple screens were not mutually exclusive. In fact, viewers frequently use various combinations of screens at the same time, and younger viewers choose multi-screen multitasking far more than older generations. This complicated simultaneous viewing across multiple platforms makes the audience’s visual experience very different (more fragmented, frenetic, and mobile). It also forces TV programmers to develop more complicated strategies for “content migration” and “multipurposing.” The most effective of these strategies must address several increasingly important factors: the scale, location, and mobility of viewing.
Scholars And Televisuality
The first two frameworks considered here – the industry and the audience – show just how slippery it is to theorize about the visual specificity or definitive tendencies of television.
Scholars can research TV as broadcast, cable-cast, home cinema, DVR’d, downloaded, uploaded, YouTubed, hand-held, collected, mashed, or remixed. Each of these activities entails and exploits different aesthetic limitations, and new social rituals for viewing that directly affect the perceptual and cognitive demands of television’s visual experience. This includes gatherings in which groups view entire seasons – only on DVD – through every consecutive episode during a single, sleepless sitting. Others theorize TV’s new second, third, and fourth screens; where, for example, producers attempt to jam 35 mm film images from the series Lost shot on Panavision into the tiny coarse screens of a mobile phone, or into the stuttering quick-time images of screen-cluttered computer downloads. Such phenomena mean that scholars need to keep going back to television as a historically changing source – both at sites of production and consumption – to test and challenge their theories and assumptions about television’s visual communication.
Given its challenging history, some media theorists have framed television in ways that allow us to understand its image-making. Other research, however, seems to have glossed over the complicated technological, production, and viewing developments outlined above. Some early media theorists, for example, by approaching media as propaganda or as having strong effects, inevitably presupposed televised images as deceptions that produced other more significant realities that researchers could examine more substantively. Some forced important distinctions between constantly developing new media technologies – and the forms of image-making “essential” to each – into locked-down taxonomies and one-size-fits-all formulations.
For Marshall McLuhan (1964), television’s “cool,” low-resolution appearance meant that audiences were conscious not of a show’s style, but of a common “all-at-once” viewing experience, shared simultaneously with many others. The global networking of viewers was more important than the screen content or television style. Content analysis researchers also gave some attention to the screen that viewers actually looked at. But content analysis boiled television’s communication experience down into isolatable, scripted actions of one sort or another while showing little interest in how stylistic, formal, and narrative engagement in television’s visual experience might also create important affective, cognitive, and behavioral effects. Media research tied to broad social processes and “liminal” national rituals (Katz & Dayan 1992), in turn, continued to underscore not TV’s visual or formal dimensions, but rather singular events being widely watched in real time through a national TV window.
If McLuhan represented a promising but ultimately limited view of television’s visual dimension (because of his technological determinism and tendency to overgeneralize the effects of each medium), then his British contemporary Raymond Williams (1974) offered some of the most important early formulations of television capable of accounting for current digital production and consumption practices. Specifically, Williams argued that scholars must examine not just the history of a communication technology, but the history of the social uses of technology as well. For television this meant examining the medium’s most fundamental impact, something he termed “mobile privatized consumption.” Later theorists (Negroponte 1995; Levy 1997; and the magazine Wired in general) followed McLuhan’s lead in celebrating new media in the 1990s as the result of a new sense of vast digital “networking” – precipitated by engagement with the wired global Internet rather than with a local visual screen. Williams’s more nuanced view of social usage and media mobility seems a far more accurate description of contemporary uses of television in the age of hand-held video and convergence.
While social scientists tended to avoid the image, or focus on its use and effects, a new generation of television critical studies scholars began to seriously engage with the aesthetics of television, starting in the late 1970s and 1980s. Yet even these studies started with the assumption that television was largely a narrative phenomenon. While early books in this vein mapped out television as a complex art form involving sophisticated narrative and genre strategies (Newcomb 1974, 1976; Allen 1987), later editions by the same authors show a gradually increasing consciousness of and research into television’s visual dimension (Newcomb 2000, 2006; Allen 1992). This shift toward visual aesthetics was due in part to an emerging interest in theories of postmodernism, which took as one focus the pervasive logic of late capitalist societies, which now define themselves through consumer imagery and visual simulation (Jameson 1983).
Cultural studies methodologies began to inflect much of this new work on television in the humanities in the late 1980s and 1990s. Yet oddly, this new scholarship tended to place cultural studies in dialectical opposition to aesthetics (Fiske 1987), or simply ignored the possibility that scholars could study culture from the ground up by researching imagery. Both of these tactics again served to devalue the visual dimension in television, in order to excavate its suspect ideologies. Scholars soon demonstrated how this skepticism about the visual in media scholarship was merely the latest manifestation of a recurring, longstanding suspicion and critique of the visual that has defined and animated European philosophy and western intellectual activity for centuries (Jay 1993; Caldwell 1995).
Unlike film studies, communication research never developed visual aesthetics as a central methodology in the field. One exception that proves this rule is the work of production educators like Herb Zettl (1990), whose textbooks elaborated the visual grammar of television for successive generations of production students in communication studies. Visual studies of television are slowly emerging as important ways to understand the medium. This new interest in the visual comes from several important sources: the development of visual communication as a research tradition in its own right (Worth, 1981); new primary, archival research in television’s industrial history; studies of visual activities in TV fandoms (Jenkins 1992); and studies of the impact of digital convergence on television aesthetics (Caldwell 2003, 2004). In these ways, even as television has developed great visual diversity in the three broad areas examined above, scholars also now pursue systematic visual research from the varying perspectives of industry, production, audiences, and consumption. These multiple approaches enable scholars to understand how television’s visual characteristics differ, depending on whether the viewer/user is: inattentively viewing cable news at the airport; intently screening high definition DVDs in the home theater; downloading series television off the Internet while surfing the net; or watching visual fragments of World Cup matches on a mobile phone while commuting. In these ways television’s wide range of evolving visual characteristics can never be usefully separated from television’s production, delivery, and use.
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