Blue Flower

Television: television's lost technology

by Frank Beacham 

In a darkened movie theater, watching the media-stoked killing and mayhem in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, I was struck by a deep sense of sadness over yet another of life’s lost opportunities. Once again, I thought, our generation has squandered one of its most powerful tools. Once again, we have chosen the path of greed over the enhancement of our own cultural values.

As a child of the ‘60s, I grew up with the simple, naive belief that the power of television could—and would—be eventually used to make the world a better place. As an idealistic young newsreel cameraman on assignment at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I first saw the machinery that I thought would free television from centralized control by corporate institutions.

It was a sight that astonished me. A young Japanese reporter carried a portable black and white television camera and recorder on his shoulder. This miniature, body-worn TV studio was called a "Portapak." (Back in 1968, all TV news was shot on 16mm film; many TV studio cameras in that era were seemingly as large as Volkswagen Beetles. Cables extending from these cameras were thicker than many human arms and, quite literally, weighed tons!)

Blowing off the lid

I stopped the man and asked about the amazing contraption he carried on his shoulder. He told me Sony would be selling it in America soon and some day in the future personal video recording systems would be cheap enough so that just about anybody could use one to make homemade television programs. At this, my imagination went into overdrive.

A few years later I bought my own Sony Portapak. By then (the early ‘70s) it worked in color and many everyday people were beginning to make documentaries with the dream of having them broadcast on TV. Groups like Ant Farm, VideoFreex, Global Village and People’s Video Theater sprang up to make alternative television. One of the best was a group called Top Value Television (TVTV), who made some terrific counterculture documentaries at the Super Bowl, beauty pageants, political conventions, etc. For a while, at least, it looked like the lid would eventually be blown off conventional commercial television.

But something went wrong. All the rosy predictions about the liberation of broadcast television eventually turned out to be false. Now, a quarter century later, the minicam has spawned the likes of Robin Leach, Geraldo, tabloid television and a cast of characters only Oliver Stone could create. TV’s liberating technology not only has been lost, it has nurtured the sleaziest generation of programming in the history of the medium.

The technological turning point came in the mid 1980’s when—after using the new video technology for a few years to make news segments—the broadcast industry began to adopt the minicam technology for its own entertainment programming. By this time the TV camera and video recorder had been collapsed into a single, hand-held container and the quality of these cheap "camcorders" had become good enough for prime time.

Broadcasters quickly discovered that programming which had once cost a million dollars an hour to produce could now be made for a tenth as much. The doors were first opened for "entertainment magazines" and then a little later for "tabloid" television, which now dominates prime time. The minicam—a tool that was supposed to liberate television—was quickly co-opted by those who already held central control of television.

Looking back, I realize today how naive I was during the ‘60’s in my idealistic views toward television and how the medium might be eventually used as a force for social change. The late producer and actor, John Houseman, understood the broadcasting industry well: "Never has the nation’s entertainment been so consistently unimaginative, so inanely repetitive, so utterly lacking in quality and so horribly, catatonically dull. And never, may I add, has it made so much money."

According to Houseman, as long as mass media is driven by mass marketing methods, "the problem of creating entertainment capable of satisfying the tastes and needs of diverse kinds of audiences will not be faced."

However, changes in media technology have historically altered content, and not necessarily for the best. Harold A. Innis, the Canadian scholar and author of The Bias of Communication, endorsed the theory that control of the means of communication has always represented the main force of history, affecting the destinies of entire civilizations. Long before the age of television Innis wrote that constant changes in communications technology become a crucial factor in determining cultural values. "These technological changes," said Innis, "increase the difficulties of recognizing balance, let alone achieving it."


So here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, armed with the most advanced digital communications technology ever known to any civilization. We have television cameras the size of thumbnails and the ability to beam images into the home as they happen from anywhere on the planet. Yet, as I watch Oliver Stone turn his mirror on the society that television technology helped create, I feel a bit sick.

"The world is violent, and we’re swamped in it in this century," said Stone in a recent interview about Natural Born Killers. "So I mirror that—I’m a distorting mirror, like in a circus. I’m making the point that the killers have been so idealized and so glorified by the media that the media become worse than the killers. I’m making the point that we have reached a proportion that’s almost insane."

In pondering how we dig ourselves out of this morass, I recall the words of the poet, T.S. Eliot: "You cannot, in any scheme for the reformation of society, aim directly at a condition in which the arts will flourish; these activities are probably by-products for which we cannot deliberately arrange the conditions. On the other hand," Eliot said, "their decay may always be taken as a symptom of some social ailment to be investigated."

Eliot’s investigation led him to describe the "steady influence which operates silently in any mass society organized for profit for the depression of standards and culture. The increasing organization of advertisement and propaganda—or the influencing of masses of men by any means except their intelligence—is all against them.

"The economic system is against them; the choice of ideals and confusion of thought in our large-scale mass education is against them; and against them also is the disappearance of any class of people who recognize public and private responsibility of patronage for the best that is made and written."

Many think there is hope for pulling ourselves from the pit of cultural mediocrity when the mass media is transformed by digital technology into some kind of information superhighway. Supposedly the huge capacity of the system will allow for higher quality "niche" programming and greater diversity. However, as a tattered veteran of the video revolution, I wouldn’t bet on it.

When I hear this optimistic scenario about a vast information superhighway I am reminded of a statement I once heard made by former Home Box Office chairman Michael Fuchs at an entertainment industry conference in New York. "Everyone says 500 channels," said Fuchs. "The independent filmmakers raise their hands and say now you are going to have to buy my movies. No! Those 500 channels are going to be re-configured old channels. There’ll be eight HBOs, multiplexed. There will be 100 pay-per-views and there will be 10,000 shopping channels!"

As we learned so well in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s with portable video and again in the ‘80’s with cable television, it will take much, much more than technology to change television. The real media revolution can come only when we—as a collective of determined people—finally assert that our right to our own culture is higher than the unfettered right of a corporation to sell its products. That means the rights of the individual must be equal in all ways to the rights of the corporation. Only then can we begin to deflate the bubble of mindless consumerism, limit advertising pollution and recover media for arts, education and entertainment programming that’s not beholden to some corporate or government interest.

Harnessing the forces of greed in our society may be the biggest battle we face if we want to save our culture, but it is the only real power we have to pull our ourselves from the decaying media cesspool.

This article was printed in New Renaissance Volume 10, Number 1

Copyright © 2000 Frank Beacham. All Rights Reserved.
Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer and producer. He is executive producer of the upcoming Tim Robbin’s feature film Cradle Will Rock from Touchstone Pictures. Visit his web site at: www.