Extending Experience: The New Segregation

ÉMILE ZOLA’S OBSERVATION that “you cannot say you have thoroughly seen anything until you have got a photograph of it,” now applied a hundredfold in the world of television. By the late twentieth century the man on the spot, the viewer of the experience where it actually happened, began to feel confined and limited. The full flavor of the experience seemed to come only to the “viewer,” the man in the television audience. Suddenly, from feeling remote and away the televiewer was painlessly and instantaneously transported into the experience. Television cameras made him a ubiquitous viewer. The man there in person was spacebound, crowd-confined, while the TV viewer was free to see from all points of view, above the heads of others, and behind the scenes. Was it he who was really there?

Making copies of experience, sights and sounds, for later use was one thing. Conquering space and time for instantaneous viewing was quite another, and even more revolutionary.

BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR, Morse’s telegraph had hastened the pace of business and was speeding news to the papers within a day after it happened. When Bell’s telephone was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, in the very year that Alexander Graham Bell had received his first telephone patent, it was still a great curiosity. Only two years later the first telephone appeared in the White House, under President Rutherford B. Hayes. Scores of inventors, including Thomas A. Edison and Emile Berliner, improved the telephone. By the early twentieth century the telephone had become an everyday convenience, and Bell’s company, overtaking U.S. Steel, had grown to be the largest corporation in the United States. On remote farms and ranches, medical care by telephone saved the life of many a child—and incidentally saved the doctor a long ride, in the days when doctors still commonly made house calls. New businesses were started by Go-Getters who sold their goods exclusively by telephone, having discovered that customers who had formed the habit of throwing away their “junk mail” would still answer every ring. The telephone (like the typewriter, which was perfected at about the same time) provided a whole new category of jobs for women.

By the time the fifty-millionth American telephone was ceremoniously placed on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s desk, it was unusual for any American family to be out of reach of the telephone. The business of government was conducted by phone. The United States possessed more than half the telephones in the world, and by 1972 nearly a half-billion separate phone conversations were being carried on in the United States each day. Still, the telephone was only a convenience, permitting Americans to do more casually and with less effort what they had already been doing before. People found it easier to get their message to other individuals whom they wanted to reach.

Television was a revolution, or more precisely, a cataclysm. For nobody “wanted” television, and it would create its own market as it transformed everyday life. It extended simultaneous experience, created anonymous audiences even vaster and more universal than those of radio, and incidentally created a new segregation.

Back in the 1920’s, as we have seen, young David Sarnoff had had difficulty persuading his RCA colleagues that radio had an all-American future. Earlier commercial forms of communication had routed a message to a specific addressee. He believed that this novelty could prove to be radio’s special virtue. And Sarnoff imagined a democratized world of anonymous addressees. His own experience must have impressed on him the advantages of this way of communicating. In April 1912, when Sarnoff was manning the wireless station which Wanamaker’s in New York had installed as a publicity stunt to keep in touch with their store in Philadelphia, by chance he had caught the wireless message: “S.S. Titanic ran into iceberg. Sinking fast.” He quickly established communication with another steamer, which reported that the Titanic had sunk and that some survivors had been picked up. While President William Howard Taft ordered all other stations to remain silent, the twenty-year-old Sarnoff stayed at his post for seventy-two hours, taking the names of survivors which, along with the name of Sarnoff, became front-page news.

Five years later, when working for the American Marconi Company, Sarnoff urged the marketing of “a simple ‘Radio Music Box.’” His plan, he noted, “would make radio a ‘household utility’ in the same sense as the piano or phonograph.” In 1920 he proposed a plan for manufacturing these radio music boxes for $75 apiece, and prophesied that at least one million families would buy them within three years. He proposed that money would be made from selling advertising in Wireless Age (a magazine that RCA had bought), which would carry an advance monthly schedule of the programs to be broadcast. Sarnoff’s optimistic production schedule for the one million sets proved conservative. Radio was launched on a career that transformed the American entertainment world, as well as the world of advertising and news reporting.

By 1930, advertisers were spending $60 million annually on the radio, a figure that was to be multiplied tenfold in the next ten years. Thirty years after the granting of the first commercial broadcasting license to KDKA (Pittsburgh) in 1920, there were more than two thousand stations and more than 75 million receiving sets. Before World War II, the annual production of radio sets numbered 10 million. By 1960 the national average showed three radio sets per household.

Radio had remained primarily an “entertainment” and “news” medium, allowing people to enjoy the melodrama of “soap serials,” the jokes of Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Bob Hope, the songs of Bing Crosby, the breathless sportscasting of Grantland Rice. The newscaster himself—H. V. Kaltenborn or Lowell Thomas—was a kind of “performer” who told the radio listener in solemn or lively tones what it was really like to be there.

TELEVISION OPENED another world. It did not simply multiply the sources of news and entertainment, it actually multiplied experience. At the TV set the viewer could see and hear what was going on with a rounded immediacy. Simultaneity was of the essence. When you took a picture you had to wait to have it developed; when you bought a phonograph record you knew in advance how it would sound. But now on TV you could share the suspense of the event itself. This new category of experience-at-a-distance would transform American life more radically than any other modern invention except the automobile.

On the surface, television seemed simply to combine the techniques of the motion picture and the phonograph with those of the radio, but it added up to something more. Here was a new way of mass-producing the moment for instant consumption by a “broadcast” (i.e., undefinable and potentially universal) community of witnesses. Just as the printing press five centuries before had begun to democratize learning, now the television set would democratize experience, incidentally changing the very nature of what was newly shared.

Before, the desire to share experience had brought people out of their homes gathering them together (physically as well as spiritually), but television would somehow separate them in the very act of sharing. While TV-democratized experience would be more equal than ever before, it would also be more separate. TV segregation confined Americans by the same means that widened their experience. Here was a kind of segregation that no Supreme Court ruling could correct, nor could it be policed by any federal commission. For it was built into the TV set.

This was again the familiar consequence of having a centralized and enlarged source, now not merely for running water or running electricity. Just as Rebecca no longer needed to go to the village well to gather her water (and her gossip), so now, too, in her eighth-floor kitchenette she received the current of hot and cold running images. Before 1970, more than 95 percent of American households had television sets. Now the normal way to enjoy a community experience was at home in your living room at your TV set.

In earlier times, to see a performance was to become part of a visible audience. At a concert, in a church, at a ball game or a political rally, the audience was half the fun. What and whom you saw in the audience was at least as interesting as and often humanly more important than what you saw on the stage. While she watched her TV set, the lonely Rebecca was thrust back on herself. She could exclaim or applaud or hiss, but nobody heard her except the children in the kitchen or the family in the living room, who probably already knew her sentiments too well. The others at the performance took the invisible form of “canned” laughter and applause. The mystery of the listening audience which had already enshrouded radio now became the mystery of the viewing audience. The once warmly enveloping community of those physically present was displaced by a world of unseen fellow TV watchers. Who else was there? Who else was watching? And even if they had their sets turned on, were they really watching?

Each of the millions of watching Americans was now newly segregated from those who put on the program and who, presumably, were aiming to please him. Television was a one-way window. The viewer could see whatever they offered, but nobody except the family in the living room could know for sure how the viewer reacted to what he saw. Tiny island audiences gathered nightly around their twinkling sets, much as cave-dwelling ancestors had clustered around their fires for warmth and safety, and for a feeling of togetherness. In these new tribal groups, each child’s television tastes were as intimate a part of family lore as whether he preferred ketchup or mustard on his hamburger. With more and more two-TV families (even before 1970 these were one third of all American households) it became common for a member of the family to withdraw and watch in lonely privacy. Of course, broadcasters made valiant and ingenious efforts to fathom these secrets, to find out what each watcher really watched, what he really liked and what he really wanted. But the broadcasters’ knowledge was necessarily based on samples, on the extrapolation of a relatively few cases, on estimates and guesses—all merely circumstantial evidence.

There was a new penumbra between watching and not-watching. “Attending” a ball game, a symphony concert, a theatrical performance or a motion picture became so casual that children did it while they wrote out their homework, adults while they played cards or read a magazine, or worked in the kitchen or in the basement. The TV watcher himself became unsure whether he was really watching, or only had the set on. Experience was newly befogged. The most elaborate and costly performances ceased to be special occasions that required planning and tickets; they became part of the air conditioning. Radio, too, had become something heard but not necessarily listened to, and its programing was directed to people assumed to be doing something else: driving the car, working at a hobby, washing the dishes. Car radios, which numbered 15 million in 1950, exceeded 40 million by 1960. With the rise of the transistor, miniaturized radio sets were carried about on the person like a fountain pen or a purse, to assuage loneliness wherever the wearer might be.

Newly isolated from his government, from those who collected his taxes, who provided public services, and who made the crucial decisions of peace or war, the citizen felt a frustrating new disproportion between how often and how vividly political leaders could get their messages to him and how often and how vividly he could get his message to them. Except indirectly, through the opinion polls, Americans were offered no new avenue comparable to television by which they could get their message back. Private telegrams began to become obsolete. The citizen was left to rely on the telephone (which might respond to his call with a “recorded message”) or on a venerable nineteenth-century institution, the post office.

By enabling him to be anywhere instantly, by filling his present moment with experiences engrossing and overwhelming, television dulled the American’s sense of his past, and even somehow separated him from the longer past. If Americans had not been able to accompany the astronauts to the moon they would have had to read about it the next morning in some printed account that was engrossing in retrospect. But on television, Americans witnessed historic events as vivid items of the present. In these ways, then, television created a time myopia, focusing interest on the exciting, disturbing, inspiring, or catastrophic instantaneous now.

The high cost of network time and the need to offer something for everybody produced a discontinuity of programing, a constant shifting from one sort of thing to another. Experience became staccato and motley. And every act of dissent acquired new dramatic appeal, especially if it was violent or disruptive. For this lost feeling of continuity with the past, the ineffective TV antidote was Old Movies.

TELEVISION, THEN, BROUGHT a new vagueness to everyday experience: the TV watcher became accustomed to seeing something-or-other happening somewhere-or-other at sometime-or-other, but all in Living Color. The common-sense hallmarks of authentic firsthand experience (those ordinary facts which a jury expected from a witness to prove that he had actually experienced what he said) now began to be absent, or only ambiguously present, in television experience. For his TV experience, the American did not need to go out to see anything in particular: he just turned the knob, and then wondered while he watched. Was this program live or was it taped? Was it merely an animation or a simulation? Was it a rerun? Where did it originate? When, if ever, did it really occur? Was it happening to actors or to real people? Was that a commercial?—a spoof of a commercial?—a documentary?—or pure fiction?

Almost never did the viewer see a TV event from a single individual’s point of view. For TV was many-eyed, alert to avoid the monotony of any one person’s limited vision. While each camera gave an image bigger and clearer than life, nobody got in the way. As the close-up dominated the screen, the middle distance dissolved. The living-room watcher saw the player in left field, the batter at the plate, or rowdies in a remote bleacher more sharply than did the man wearing sunglasses in the stands. Any casual kook or momentary celebrity filled the screen, just like Humphrey Bogart or President Nixon. All TV experience had become theater, in which any actor, or even a spectator, might hold center stage. The new TV perspective made the American understandably reluctant to go back to his seat on the side and in the rear. Shakespeare’s metaphors became grim reality when the whole world had become a TV stage.

In this supermarket of surrogate experience, the old compartments were dissolved. Going to a church or to a lecture was no different from going to a play or a movie or a ball game, from going to a political rally or stopping to hear a patent-medicine salesman’s pitch. Almost anything could be watched in shirt sleeves, with beer can in hand. The experience which flowed through the television channels was a mix of entertainment, instruction, news, uplift, exhortation and guess what. Successful programing offered entertainment (under the guise of instruction), instruction (under the guise of entertainment), political persuasion (with the appeal of advertising) and advertising (with the charm of drama). The new miasma, which no machine before could emit, and which enshrouded the TV world, reached out to befog the “real” world. Americans began to be so accustomed to the fog, so at home and solaced and comforted by the blur, that reality itself became slightly irritating because of its sharp edges and its clear distinctions of person, place, time, and weather.

As broadcasting techniques improved, they tended to make the viewer’s experience more indirect, more controlled by unseen producers and technicians. Before, the spectator attending a national political convention would, simply by turning his head, decide for himself where he would look, but the TV watcher in the living room lacked the power to decide. Cameramen, directors, and commentators decided for him, focusing on this view of a brutal policeman or that view of a pretty delegate. As these conventions became guided tours by TV camera, the commentators themselves acquired a new power over the citizen’s political experience, which was most vividly demonstrated at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Even as the American’s secondhand experience came to seem more real and more authentic, it was more than ever shaped by invisible hands and by guides who themselves upstaged the leading performers and became celebrities.

Television watching became an addiction comparable only to life itself. If the set was not on, Americans began to feel that they had missed what was “really happening.” And just as it was axiomatic that it was better to be alive than to be dead, so it became axiomatic that it was better to be watching something than to be watching nothing at all. When there was “nothing on TV tonight,” there was a painful void. No wonder, then, that Americans revised their criteria for experience. Even if a firsthand experience was not worth having, putting it on TV might make it so.

Of all the wonders of TV, none was more remarkable than the speed with which it came. Television conquered America in less than a generation, leaving the nation more bewildered than it dared admit. Five hundred years were required for the printing press to democratize learning. And when the people could know as much as their “betters,” they demanded the power to govern themselves. As late as 1671, the governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, thanked God that the printing press (breeder of heresy and disobedience!) had not yet arrived in his colony, and he prayed that printing would never come to Virginia. By the early nineteenth century, aristocrats and men of letters could record, with Thomas Carlyle, that movable type had disbanded hired armies and cashiered kings, and somehow created “a whole new democratic world.” Now with dizzying speed, television had democratized experience. It was no wonder that like the printing press before it, television met a cool reception from intellectuals and academics and the other custodians of traditional avenues of experience.

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