How We Got Here (29)

June 17, 2014

Television

They were both right. This American invention of the 1920s, not put into commercial production until after the second world war had ended, had a totally transformative impact on world culture, but with distinctly mixed effects. Like most American technology of the 20th century, it was technically superb and was continually improved upon, as it went from small black-and-white kinescopes with nine-inch screens to full-color sets with screens that stretched several feet in height and width. But, also like most American technology of the 20th century, the uses it was put to were often trivial or even harmful.

In 1962, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minnow by name, criticized commercial television as “a vast wasteland” of mediocre programming, repetitive, imitative, and unimaginative. He was so right. In television’s earliest years, unless you lived in one of the largest cities, your TV fare was restricted to a choice among three national commercial networks, perhaps augmented by an anemic public-television channel. Even the coming of cable TV (which came, at first, to areas that could not receive good broadcast quality) did little to expand the choice.

Communications-satellite links, and the installation of high-capacity fiber-optic cable in much of the urbanized part of the nation, broke the monopoly of the three networks. Now you could receive hundreds of channels. This transformed the situation, because now a single channel could specialize on one subject, day in and (increasingly) day out. Thus, news channels, sports channels, movie channels, shopping channels (!) etc. If you really wanted to watch Star Trek re-runs 24 hours a day, and you owned a TV remote, you could.

You could, and so could the world, and so American television flooded the world, just as American movies had done, beginning in the 1930s. in effect, perpetual free advertising for a certain version of the American way of life. It had an incalculable effect, but a big one. Some came to hate the “Coca Cola Culture,” others fell in love with a vision of a way of life they never otherwise would have dreamed of, and of course many people were pulled two ways. The one indisputable thing about television is that it changed everything it touched, and it touched everything.

 

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