by Gilbert Seldes
Sometime in the middle of 1938, television sets may be put on sale in the is United States. The date is still a guess, but it is not unreasonable; it is the only guess made by experts in the field and they never use an earlier date; sometimes when a problem becomes difficult or an experimental programme shows up some weakness, the date is pushed farther ahead. As television will be, in effect, a combination of the radio and the moving picture, it has an exceptional importance; and since the early programmes of television will be based on the experiments now being made, the citizen may well begin to think about television now instead of neglecting it for twenty years as he neglected radio and the movies. Twenty years from now will be much too late for complaints.
There are three separate sets of problems in the launching of television: the problems of engineering, of financing, and of entertaining; and each of these will determine in part when television is to be started, for whose benefit, and with what materials.
About seven and a half million dollars have already been invested in experimental television and perhaps half a million will be spent annually before any income will appear. In return for this investment, the promoters have machinery which, they seem to believe, may be improved, but will not have to be fundamentally altered in order to give reasonable satisfaction. The potential buyer of a receiving set will not need to know the technical details of this machinery; he can be assured that any receiver he buys will give him the telecasts sent out by all the major systems of transmission. That is because the principal experiments now being made all use the same basic principle. In each one there is an apparatus usually called the 'scanner' which 'photographs' an object; in each one the lights and shades of the object are transformed into electronic impulses; these impulses pass through the air as those of ordinary radio do and the receiving apparatus turns them back into the highlights and shadows which compose a picture. Actually the picture is formed on the end of a cathoderay tube in the receiving set and we see it reflected in a mirror which becomes on a small scale our moving-picture screen. The areas of light and shade are traced with great rapidity in a straight line as if an invisible pencil were making lighter or darker dots, and a delicate mechanism sends the pencil back to the beginning of the line at the right moment; on the screen, which is about seven inches by ten inches, four hundred and fortyone lines are drawn for each picture. These pictures follow each other so rapidly that, by the persistence of vision in the human eye, they seem to be moving.
In the early days of television, the number of lines traced by the imaginary pencil was anywhere from thirty to three hundred and fortythree. With thirty lines, the resultant picture looked like a puzzle made up of white dots on a black background. At one hundred and eighty the picture had the kind of crosshatched background familiar in the first newspaper photographs transmitted by wireless. The four hundred and fortyone line standard, which has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission, gives the clarity and sharp definition of the usual halftone illustration. Although telecasts observed this spring show that pictures tend to be distorted at top and bottom of the screen, the engineers do not believe that this is due to the limitation of the number of lines to four hundred and fortyone; for every increase in the number of lines, a disproportionately larger part of the available wave lengths must be given up, and the engineers are fairly well satisfied that the present standard will be satisfactory.
The differences between the major systems will become important to the consumer if television runs into the kind of patents litigation which disturbed the movingpicture industry for ten years. At present the principal experiments are being made by the Radio Corporation of America, utilizing the inventions of Zworykin, and by Philo Farnsworth, working out his inventions at the laboratories of the manufacturers of Philco radio sets. In various ways these two experimenters are on excellent terms. Philco is licensed under RCA patents; when RCA is ready for commercial television, it will undoubtedly use the National Broadcasting Company, which it owns; but NBC's chief rival, the Columbia Broadcasting System, is one of the principal customers of RCA for radio equipment. A patents fight does not therefore seem inevitable. Moreover, the Federal Government, which brushed aside all technicalities at the time of the World War and consolidated all the available information for radio broadcasting, may have considerable influence on television. Various government agencies are anxious to take over parts of the shortwave band on which television operates. (In Germany the whole business of television has disappeared from the public domain into the secret laboratories of the War Department.) If the promoters of television have to bid against Federal departments, they will in all probability attempt to make a united front.
The first question on which all the promoters might agree would be when and at what level of technical perfection television should be commercially offered. Mr. David Sarnoff, the President of Radio Corporation, has said, 'In the broadcasting of sight, transmitter and receiver must fit as lock and key.' This means that the moment receivers are sold transmitters cannot be altered or improved in certain fundamental respects, because if they were the receiver would be utterly worthless. There is a danger that television may be made rigid at the beginning when it should be most flexible, and this danger is all the greater if no sudden surprises from a rival need be anticipated. Because early receiving sets will cost about five hundred dollars, the producing companies will not dare to let them become rapidly obsolete; the method of yearly models will not apply until sets are actually in mass production. In this way the consumer will be protected, but it may be at the cost of continued improvement.
As a consumer, I can imagine another way of selling television sets, but I am not sure that it is practicable. Television could be offered to the public frankly as an experiment. The price of the receiver would be high and the amount of entertainment at the beginning would be limited yet such a conditional invitation is a possibility. The buyer would be warned in advance that after a specific period the apparatus might be useless that is, he would gamble; as a pioneer he would take his risk for the pleasure of being among the first to enjoy the new entertainment. This would make for flexibility and would give both the engineer and the promoter an additional period for experimentation; moreover it would remove early television from the dominance of the sponsor, who would naturally tend to freeze the system at a given level. In a sense there is a choice between giving a limited guarantee to the public and giving it to the sponsor. Each of these will pay back part of the investment in television, the public by buying sets and the sponsor by buying time on the air; each will wait upon the other; and the promoters will have to make delicate decisions.
The second series of problems, which I have called financial, rises from the relation between television and radio. In brief, the dilemma is this: the promoters of television dare not withhold it and at the same time they hardly dare promote it. All the leaders in the field are involved in the business of radio broadcasting or in the manufacture of radio sets, or both. In these enterprises the investment is many times greater than the already large investment in television experiments. Moreover, the commerce of America now rests in part on radio advertising; as business men themselves say, their factories are 'geared' to a level of production which would inevitably fall off if the power of radio advertising diminished. That is why almost every official statement about television is sure to contain the word 'supplementary.'
Radio programmes will continue in undiminished splendor; they will improve; they will be dominant; and television will be offered 'as a supplementary entertainment.' No doubt this is largely true; there are technical reasons and financial reasons for the slow infiltration of telecasting. But the promoters are obviously uneasy. They know that the time will come when they will be trying to sell electric light bulbs and kerosene lamps over the same counter. The manufacturers now sell some two million radio sets a year, on the assumption that they are the very best sets on the market. Will the customer be as willing to buy if he knows that a television set, which includes a perfect radio set, is also on the market?
The quick collapse of the silent moving picture haunts the promoters of television; and the calm assurance of their own technicians is ominous. An engineer was taking me through a television studio and referred to his own post as the 'monitor room.' When I asked him what the word meant, he replied: 'Oh, that's just a hangover from the old radio days.' Engineers in television are notably cautious in expression, but one cannot talk to them for five minutes without knowing that to them television is the natural and inevitable fulfillment of radio, and radio is only an outline to be filled in by television. Once it is launched, the promoters will have a hard time keeping it supplementary.
At first they will undoubtedly send out separate programmes, but after a sufficient number of sets have been sold they are going to create programmes in which, they hope, the audible portion is interesting enough to stand by itself. I seriously doubt whether the effort will be successful. If we go to a moving picture and the sound track fails for a minute or two while a race between police and bandits is going on, the movement on the screen may be sufficiently interesting; but if the picture faded and the dialogue continued, even if the dialogue were by a master, who would listen? There is a sound and simple principle which will defeat the attempt to make a single programme do for television and radio: either the blind listener will feel that he is missing something important, or, if he does not, the listener who also has television will not be seeing anything important.
So the problem of promotion slips almost imperceptibly into the problem of programmes. If we assume that the programme directors will somehow free themselves from their obligations to radio, we shall find three separate elements available for telecasting. The first is any actual event at the moment it occurs a parade, a football game, a strike. The second is a dramatic sketch or a songanddance number transmitted from the studio. The third is any moving-picture film.
Almost all the experts in the field are sure that the first of these, the telecasting of events directly from their scene of action, will eventually form the staple of the television programmes. The British Broadcasting Corporation, which has a regular television service of an hour every afternoon and an hour every evening, has experimented in this field. It has a ramp leading to an outside terrace from which it can telecast any event occurring in that particular street. But both the engineering and the financial problems of the newsreel side of television are still largely unsolved. For instance, the cost of wiring alone, for the Coronation ceremonies, was estimated at five dollars a yard.
For a telecast from the studio, radio broadcasting has to transform itself virtually into moving-picture making with powerful lights and high make-up for the actors. Until recently, it was also necessary to build up scenery-- walls, façades of buildings, or whole rooms; now an ingenious method of faking these properties has been devised which will reduce the cost of studio telecasting considerably. Nevertheless the expense is great, and most of the people available for doing the work well are in the movie studios; and when all the labor has been done the man at the receiver sees exactly what he would see if a movie had been made of the same action and telecast to him. Telecasting movies is at present the cheapest and most varied of the three elements. The film is run off before the scanner and all the problems of controlling and governing the object to be telecast are mechanically and perfectly solved. The moving picture is, in fact, so adaptable that it may be used as an intermediate step in telecasting actual events. The highly developed mobile camera with wideangled lenses can cover a wider area than the scanner in television, and it has been found possible to photograph, develop, and fix the film, ready for telecasting, in less than thirty seconds; and an ingenious method for delaying the accompanying sound of any event so that will exactly synchronize with the picture has already been found. (I am indebted for this information to a little book, Television, written by M. C Scroggie, a British engineer.)
Unfamiliar with the techniques of the stage and the film studio, and unprepared for another huge investment in men and materials, the makers of television programmes will naturally turn to the ordinary moving picture, which will probably be as prominent in early television as music was in early broadcasting, the film instead of the phonograph record. And here we strike at the heart of difference between the two forms, because listening to music and looking at a moving pictures absorb our energies in quite different ways. It is a difference in the degree of attention. This is so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning, but because it is obvious we are only aware of it in extreme cases. For instance, you may like or dislike to have the radio going while you are driving your car, but to keep looking at a television screen on your dashboard will be in practice impossible.
Yet within radio broadcasting itself there are degrees of listening, and almost imperceptibly the demands upon our attention have been varied. I do not know whether the sponsors have ever worked out the psychological implications of the two kinds of programmes. The sponsor who offers a good popular band knows perfectly well that people will play bridge or read the newspaper while the music is going on and expects them to snap to attention when the commercial talk is uttered in a commanding voice - that is, he is counting on contrast. The sponsor of a gag comedian, on the other hand, demands sustained and close attention. Comedians and their gag writers put down 'four "sock" gags a minute' as a minimum for keeping a programme going well. And this means that you cannot divert your attention for a moment if you want to get the point of the joke. However commanding the advertising may be, it cannot compete with the comedy itself; the advertiser must count on the fact that his listeners are already attentive and will therefore continue to be. Actually, in many cases, a bit of music is played and the commercial announcement follows this slight relaxation of attention. In other cases the 'plug' is worked into the comedy. But the strain of listening is totally different from that of merely hearing.
The image on the television receiver makes no such compromise. The thing moves; it demands complete attention. You cannot walk away from it, you cannot turn your back on it, and you cannot do anything else except listen while you are looking. At first guess the sponsor who goes before the scanner will imagine that this is the long-desired ideal, the conquest at last of indifference or casual interest. He will think of the television programme as a feature film with a commercial plug added. I suspect that he will be wrong. The physical conditions of the moving-picture house will not be duplicated. At home we shall not be compelled to sit through a dull episode in silence, hoping for an exciting one to follow. We will, in short, look into the mirror of television only so long as the movement upon it is of surpassing interest.
In the experiments I have seen, under 'theatre' conditions, only actual newsreels, in which each episode ran for not more than two minutes, seemed short enough. I, who have listened to half a dozen songs in succession on the radio, found that a second chorus to a brief and attractive popular song was tiresome when I had also to see the singer and her accompanist. The same thing was true of a quite excellent dancing act. In fact, the only element in the skillfully varied programmes which did not seem to me overlong was an old movie 'short' by Robert Benchley, and this was a tribute to Mr. Benchley's humor and not to anything that occurred on the mirror screen.
I put down brevity as a first qualification, although it is possible that as we grow more used to television we will endure longer exposures. A parallel in the development of the talking picture may be helpful. Talk made a supplementary demand on the attention of the movie audience, and because directors overemphasized it they slowed down the moving picture while endless dialogue was uttered. It took several years before dialogue was put in its proper place and action restored to its dominant position. In the change from radio to television the proportions are reversed: it is not a secondary but a primary demand on the attention that is being offered, not a slower medium but a far more rapid one which is being added. Because radio has been addressed exclusively to the ear it has been comparatively slowpaced. Speakers have made their points carefully; comedians build up their important gags with almost maddening delays and often repeat the 'wow' in case it has been missed in its first explosive splendor. Whenever a physical object is an essential to a dramatic sketch, radio has to 'establish' it in the minds of the listeners and to keep referring to it so that it shall not be lost to the mind's sight. The moment television is added, the dynamics of a programme must be changed and the rate of presentation must be accelerated. Trial and error, particularly error, will determine the proportions of this change, but the basic error would be not to know that so far as television is successful the degree of attention has gone up in a geometric progression and that therefore the duration of attention must correspondingly go down.
I am thinking of the pleasures of a programme and of the principles on which it should be based, but my ideas would be in a vacuum if I did not also consider the advertising which will inevitably accompany the programmes. It is in this department that television may make its most serious errors, because while the radio stations may know what is desirable and may study psychology and esthetics, the last word is still the sponsor's word. The commercial sponsors in radio have seldom. received proper credit for their accomplishments. They took radio away from centralized authority; they took it away from the pedantic and from the too serious enthusiast for instruction and by the process of exhausting their own materials they compelled radio to have an infinite variety. In all these things they may have gone too far, but their direction was right. Oddly enough it was in their own field, and not in aesthetics, that they made their greatest mistake. They chose between two principles in advertising and chose the wrong one. The principle of associating your product with something that agreeable is the one they abandoned; the principle that repetition makes reputation is the one they overemphasized. And now in television they not only can mention their product, but in most cases can actually show it to you: the very package of face cream or breakfast food which you can buy tomorrow and for the wrapper of which -plus ten cents in postage - your child can get a drinking mug (also made visible).
Before the sponsors plunge into this new field, they should take thought of what happened in the movies. For thirty years efforts have been made to use the moving picture commercially; for thirty years the effort has failed. The moving picture can be used for propaganda; it can advertise the delights of flying, but not the delights of flying in a particular kind of plane; of drinking milk, but not milk from any particular herd of cows. Stubborn resistance against the injection of advertising is now ingrained in the moving picture audience. Although television is not the same thing as the moving picture, it will appear to be so nearly the same thing that the spectator will apply to it the same standards. Television will make advertising too emphatic too emphatic even for the advertiser's good.
Let me offer an example. Last winter I heard a dramatized plug on the air. It began with motorcar noises, the screeching of brakes, the tough voice of a motorcycle cop threatening to arrest the speeder -- and then the discovery that the violator of the law was none other than the charming young woman who a week before had recommended to the officer a certain hand lotion which, in those raw and rusty days, had prevented his hands from becoming chapped. I am aware that this sounds like a burlesque of radio advertising; I not only vouch for its accuracy, but feel sure that every reader has listened to something equally absurd. Set before you on the television screen, the traditional 'burly policeman' (and one may be sure that the tradition would be respected) showing his gentle and unchapped hands wouId be howlingly funny and the mind would drift off to the secondary and very disturbing thought that a traffic officer who failed to make a necessary arrest was an even greater menace to society than a reckless driver. The image on the screen, being of such high potentiality, would destroy what the spoken word could create.
If the advertisers do not retreat to the principle which they have abandoned, - that of associating their product with something desirable, -- if they insist upon their bangbang emphasis, they will reach the zone of indifference within a short time and speed to the zone of hostility soon after. It is to be noted that modifications of the advertising technique have occurred within the past few years and that the method of 'kidding' the commodity has robbed the announcer's plug of some of its horrors. But for years the advertising was disturbing, tasteless, overinsistent, and even downright offensive. To me, a manufacturer of nothing but a buyer of many things, a telecast advertisement would be most effective if in the course of, perhaps, a dramatic sketch a character made use of an easily recognized cigarette or coffee and, without even mentioning its name, expressed satisfaction. This would divide the emphasis by five, let us say, on the assumption that the attention in television as compared to broadcasting was multiplied by five. But I would consider myself a hopeless victim of wish fulfillment if I believed for a moment that such a restrained standard of advertising would prevail.
Let us assume, however, that radio advertising will be intelligent or that we shall become hardened to it; of what will our studio entertainment then consist? The experimental programme makers already know that the public has become accustomed to the disembodied voice; the public gets some sense of personality over the air. Handsome as I am sure all news commentators are, the sight of them reading their comments, which audiences generally imagine are impromptu, would not be a particular gain. It is ungallant to say so, but quite possibly some of our vocalists are not as beautiful as their voices; and one man who advertises a hair tonic lives in mortal terror of the coming of television, because he is almost totally bald.
In broadcasting circles, news commentary, advice to the lovelorn, instruction in any subject, and even political oratory are lumped together as 'talk programmes.' Following that shrewd classification, I postpone for a moment considering the rest of the average radio programme and note that statesmen may not find television an unmixed blessing. There has been an advantage in the sourceless voice. It has been nothuman, even superhuman. In the newsreels Father Coughlin, for instance, lost much of the authority he exerted over the air; Huey Long, on the whole, gained; Mr. Roosevelt, in my opinion, loses a little, but I do not believe that this is a universal judgment. But in any case the politicians will fall under the law of compression which I suggested above. An actual audience in a stadium or convention hall enjoys the contagion of the mob and will sit for an hour and clap hands and throw hats in the air, but when only two or three are gathered together the spectacle of an orating man will not be nearly so absorbing. We shall be thrilled by the spectacle of a nominating convention, but before a debate or an ordinary radio speech is telecast the astute politician will want to be sure that his audience will have something agreeable, but not distracting, to look at which, in nine cases out of ten, eliminates the speaker himself.
The greater part of sponsored broadcasting at the present time is divided between the dramatic sketch, the comedian, and the popular orchestra, each of these used separately or in combination. Obviously the dramatic sketch stands to gain most by the addition of sight -to gain most and to require the most energetic overhauling. The moment a sketch is made visible, it will require settings, properties, and actors in place of simple readers from manuscript. And again, because of the concentration of attention, the momentum will have to be accelerated.
At present, all of a fifteenminute programme can concern itself with the question of whether a young girl's party dress makes her look old enough to compete with her sisters. The famous breach of promise suit in 'Amos 'n' Andy' was stretched out over a period of months; the entire technique is that of the comic strip, each broadcast limited to a minute incident. But the moment these things are seen as well as heard, they come into competition with the. moving picture, which in some sixty minutes the time of only four broadcasts develops half a dozen amusing or illuminating incidents, three or four major episodes, and at least one dramatic climax. Successful sketches on the air have lived by cumulative interest; any single quarter hour of the Goldbergs or Amos 'n' Andy might be tiresome, but the listeners have memories of the past and definite anticipations of action in the future, involving characters in whom they are interested. That is why the sketches can afford to be slow. The new mechanism destroys that privilege because it renders characters completely and instantaneously and must launch them into a decisive action which, I suspect, will have to be fairly complete in itself. The serial dramatic sketch may therefore prove unsuitable for television, and in its place we shall probably have the more compact condensation of plays which now usually runs for half an hour on the air.
About the comedian it is frankly difficult to say anything definite. Obviously the pun, which is the recurrent staple of radio comedy, gains nothing whatever through vision. The fantastic imaginings of Stoopnagle and Budd, by far the most distinguished of radio entertainers, lie in a realm of fancy which a Walt Disney or an intelligible Dali might illustrate, but merely to see them talking would not be an advantage. The old stage comedians such as Wynn and Pearl and Cantor would be as good as they ever were and would present, in substance, vaudeville sketches.
Ever since the days of the phonograph the public has become accustomed to listening to music without seeing the performer. The picture has reversed the process, but the intelligent musical film has seldom used its orchestras for more than a background and has even thrown in a complementary action when songs are being sung; what most people remember about Stokowski's work in The Broadcast of 1937 is the movement of his hands. Radio jazz bands are now full of galvanic comedians, and their antics could be telecast with some advantage, but I suspect that television will bring to the foreground, not the orchestras, but dancers who will work with them. The great opportunity television offers is to the one art which radio has never been able to encompass - the art of dancing, particularly the ballet.
I have been discussing so far the elements of the usual commercial programme but it is reasonable to assume that the poor relation of the air, the unsponsored programme, will also appear in television. The great fault of educational programmes so far has been not so much that they were too serious or too informative: they simply were not as skillfully and entertainingly presented as the sponsored material. Clearly a programme of information and ideas can gain even more by television than a programme of jokes and music. Here is a blackboard for the mathematician, a laboratory for the chemist, a picture gallery for the art critic, and possibly a stage upon which the historian can reenact the events of the past, or the news commentator the headlines of today. Moving-picture exhibitors now use travelogues and scientific films to vary their programmes; commercial radio has not found any way to adapt the same material. Yet underneath the obvious tendencies of current programmes one can discern a slight inclination toward 'using educational material; it comes close to the surface in the 'cavalcade' programmes dramatizing various periods of history.
I think it probable that a skillful adapter might break through the timidity of the sponsors and create an educational programme of considerable commercial value, especially if he offered such a programme in one of those recurrent moments when sponsors are panicstricken because all the familiar types of programme have grown stale and they are casting about for something new, something to set such a vogue as was created by the comedians or by the amateur hours. Television will at least have one advantage: the educational film short will certainly be used, and, as it is often very well made, it may take the blight of futility from the educational programme. Many of the significant interests of intelligent human beings have been stuffed away into the dark corners of radio programmes; it would be a pleasant irony if television brought them to light and proved that they were valuable for commercial purposes.
The moving picture will not merely supply its readymade films for telecasting. As the new entertainment becomes more expert it will demand films expressly made for television, and presently it will have a profound effect upon all our moving pictures. I confess that there is a great deal of speculation in all of this, but I am convinced that because television will be shown in the home to single individuals or very small groups, because it will be sponsored and therefore each fragment of it must be comparatively short, the tempo of the dramatic or musical numbers will be rapid; just as the movies are more compact than radio, television will approach its points and its climaxes with far less lost motion than the movies now do. And no matter how often people are told that they must not compare the two forms, they will compare them, and the movies will have to cut out their waste material in order to compete. It would be a good thing. They have become dignified and a little lethargic in their methods; they will have to be energized all over again.
This will be particularly painful to the movie makers who are now drowning themselves in a sea of color, apparently persuaded that if the face of Marlene Dietrich and her hair and her clothes are in a series of brilliant hues (especially her face), the whole moving picture can stand still while the audience enjoys the pleasure merely of looking. In almost every case, so far, color has slowed up the movies. Yet color will not save the movies from the competition of television. It will be sad news to Hollywood to learn that as long as eight years ago color television was actually demonstrated; and Mr. Scroggie says that, although the difficulties are great, they are statistical rather than instrumental. So, if the invasion of color conquers the movies, it will only temporarily make them different from television. And once the movies recover, as they did from their temporary surrender to the talking mechanism, the sharpness and brevity of a television drama will make the ordinary talking moving picture seem as slowgoing as a play by Clyde Fitch.
In order to simplify the problems of television, I have written as if television would be launched immediately on coasttocoast networks. The chances are ten to one that early television will be regional and not national. For technical reasons, not yet fully understood, telecast impulses begin to fade at the optical horizon line; to increase the range, the sending apparatus is usually placed at the top of a high building, but even from the Empire State the images travel some forty miles and then are lost. The cost of picking up these electronic signals and rebroadcasting them would be prohibitive until television is virtually as popular as radio is today. Moreover, there is a good commercial reason for encouraging regional activity, and that is the difference in time between the relentless demand of television to be attended to will make network telecasting commercially wasteful. Regional telecasting will favor local stations and possibly encourage experiment both by the programme makers and by the sponsors. Considering the comp1. cated problems which must be solved, the difficulty of creating a fully developed national system of television at one stroke is actually a blessing.
And the best of the blessing is, of course, that the effect of television radio will be so gradual that we may be able to preserve whatever in radio is desirable. In a study made by Malcolm M. Willey and Stuart A. Rice, over one hundred and fifty separate effects of the radio were listed, and under many of these general headings ten or more in detailed items appeared. Because of radio, more of us took setting-up exercises in the morning, with possible improvement in our health; old songs were revived, as new ones quickly exhausted their popularity. Those who could not read found a new interest; oratory was restored to its ancient glory in Presidential campaigns; the difference between the city and the country was made less, vaudeville artists got jobs, book sales increased; farmers knew the price paid for stock and grain in Chicago and Minneapolis; newspapers for the first time had rival in both of their important functions, giving news and advertising goods. Radio has been used for directing traffic during holiday jams when motorists were warned of points of congestion and advised to detour; millions of people, totally indifferent to social movements and international affairs and totally unhabituated to reading about such things, have become aware of them through news broadcasts and commentary; hundreds of millions of people were auditors at the drama of the abdication of King Edward VIII.
So radio touches our lives at every point. It is desirable for us to know what price we have paid for the creation of this incomparable engine of social influence: we have certainly created a habit of almost indiscriminate, almost apathetic listening; through the air has come a really incalculable number of stupidities; much that is trite and tasteless comes with what is intelligent and bright. A critic of society would have a delicate job to determine how far radio has corrupted and how far improved the public taste, and the very existence of a power so great as that of radio seems menacing to many observers. The highminded do not like to ace the actual situation in radio, which is that all of its desirable effects are based on the habit of listening which as created largely by programmes triviaI and banal in themselves. In countries with highly centralized authority it is possible that people listen to the radio because what they hear is important; and the extreme form is obligatory listening as it is practised in Germany. In a democratic country the emphasis is on the other side: radio is important because people listen to it, even when it is trivial; the audience which listened to the radio debate on the Supreme Court was created in the first place by Ed Wynn, Rudy Vallee, Amos 'n' Andy, and Kate Smith.
This unforeseen result, the creation of an audience which can be influenced to political action, is the thing that makes radio programmes important and justifies all our speculations about television. For the audience which television will create will be more attentive and, if properly handled, more suggestible even than the audience of radio. The question we are allowed to ask is whether all of radio's errors have to be repeated by television. Considering the advances made both in radio and in the movies, cannot television start off at their highest level instead of going back to where they began? The tendency of most new forms of entertainment is to take over the second-rate from an earlier type: as the silent movies took over melodrama from the stage, as radio took over the dialect comedian from vaudeville. The practical reason is that these secondrate elements are familiar and commercially dependable; the entertainment which adapts them to its own uses purges its older rivals but has to spend a long time rising to their level. It would be a great thing if television could from the start combine the best of the two forms of entertainment which ultimately, I believe, it will supersede.
And yet I have a feeling that the most important thing for television is to make sure of its own popularity. Like the moving picture and the radio, television would act against its own nature if it did not try to be virtually a universal entertainment. I see no reason for thinking that this universality is any bar to excellence. Commenting on a rough division of the arts which I once made, Professor Mortimer J. Adler has recently written: 'Great and lively art have this in common: they are able to please the multitude.' Professor Adler offers 'the work of Walt Disney as lively art that also reaches greatness, a degree of perfection in its field which surpasses our best critical capacity to analyze and which succeeds at the same time in pleasing children and simple folk.'
At least twenty years of popular work which was not great, which was often offensive to reasonable taste and of doubtful effect on the people, preceded those comparatively few works in the movies which can stand beside Disney's masterpieces. One of the reasons for this long delay was the indifference of the intelligent public. Perhaps a more alert and critical citizenry will help television more rapidly over its difficulties.
Volume 159, No. 5, pp. 531–541