‘TV will save the world’ – so said the headline in this month's TIME magazine.
As a title for an editorial, this is of course pure hyperbole. Yet for all the criticism levelled at it, TV has proven a remarkably resilient medium since its commercial inception in the late 1930s.
When TV was in its infancy, Daryl F. Zanuch, head of the Twentieth Century film studios, gave the new medium a big thumbs-down. ‘Television will not be able to hold any market it captures after the first six months,’ he said. ‘People will still soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.’ Clearly, he had a vested interest in killing off any challenge to the power of his beloved cinema. Just as clearly, he got it wrong.
Although TV is now facing its own threats from the Internet and portable digital media devices, it shows no signs of fading to black. In fact, as the TIME the article notes, in some parts of the world TV is the next big thing. In the sub-Saharan Africa, for example, five million more households will get a TV within the next five years – long before they have any hope of widespread broadband coverage. In the developing world generally, four percent of households had a TV in 1995 but that had grown to 60 percent by 2005.
Projections suggest that 150 million households worldwide will have at least one TV by 2013. Despite the hype surrounding the growth in penetration of broadband internet – and the as yet slow expansion of optic-five web communications – TV is still the more accessible medium on a world scale, at least for now.
Some prophets have predicted the demise of television at the hands of new media platforms such as video sharing and social networking. Certainly, the apparent preference of the rapidly emerging Millennial Generation for broadband and 3G mobile media signal a major shift in the demographics for TV viewing.
Already, some in the industry are saying that TV is largely a dead medium for people under the age of 30. Yet in the US, where internet penetration is high, there are still more TVs than people. Few families there are placing all their media chickens in the internet basket.
Usually the teller of stories, TV becomes the story only when things go wrong. Since the 1950s, the medium has been blamed for everything from the corruption of youth to the progressive dumbing-down of popular culture. Yet research has shown the power of television to bring positive change to societies. A study in India showed that when cable TV found its way into remote villages, women became more likely to make decisions on child health care, without reference to their husbands, and less likely to believe that men have the right to beat their wives. What’s more, in areas where programmes are subtitled, TV has often contributed to a significant lift in reading skills among poorer viewers.
As someone who's been involved in TV commentary, presenting and producing for more than 15 years, I've seen firsthand the impact that just one television project can have on a community, or even a nation. A journalist friend of mine was quick to respond to the Asian tsunami in 2005 by pulling together a documentary on why innocents suffer. He skilfully explored some of the bigger existential questions that attach themselves to such disasters. For those of us far removed from the event, his programme offered a sense of perspective; for those closer to the disaster, it may have brought hope as it showed the resilience of the human spirit.
Another friend has produced programmes that place famous football players on the ground in Third World nations and track their emotional reactions to the poverty and injustice with which they’re confronted. The emotional power of these programmes will have a much greater impact on public perceptions than any number of editorials in newspapers. A TV picture really does paint a thousand words.
Television is not always thought of as an educational medium. Lectures and political speeches look cold and uninviting when presented on the small screen. Yet landmark series such as Alistair Cooke's classic America and, more recently, Simon Schama's A History of Britain, have provided some of TV’s finest moments. Programmes like these weave a kind of spell over an audience. Through a combination of an erudite, presenter-driven style and stunning videography, they relate stories and illuminate otherwise lofty or obtuse subjects.
So what does the future hold for the ‘plywood box’ in the corner of the room? Will television survived the invasion of Web 3.0 and Web 4.0?
Barring some Independence Day scale catastrophe in which all of the world’s satellites come crashing to earth at once, the next decade will arguably present TV with its biggest opportunities. As we’ve seen, large swathes of the world's poorest populations are only now discovering television as a household tool. So the potential market for television is far from saturated. At the same time, widespread and high-speed broadband is still a long way off for many in the world’s developing nations.
Yet competitive challenges will force television producers and broadcasters to become both more creative and selective at the same time.
Journalism offers an example of how this may work. The art of the scribbler is facing a challenge from the web, but it will not die just because millions of ‘citizen journalists’ spread their eye-witness reports on Twitter. In the face of a tidal wave of amateur news gathering, people will need skilled journalists more than ever. We, the reading public, will look for experienced professionals who can offer a sense of perspective, making sense of events and fitting them into a larger narrative.
Journalism will, though, need to adapt, perhaps becoming less about news gathering and more about sifting, analysing and contextualising. If newspapers are to survive – even if only electronically – they will need to offer premium services for which people are willing to pay. The raw news may be cheap or free, but the analysis should not be.
Likewise, TV will need to find and concentrate on its unique selling points. The same challenge has faced every established communications medium in history, whenever a newcomer has arrived on the scene. As the power of cinema grew, the theatre had to adjust. In plays, sets were changed more frequently and scenes were reduced in length to match the more fluid approach of movie storytelling. In their turn, movies adjusted to the growth of television, by introducing more of the medium and close-up shot. Before TV, movies will shop long and wide, as if they were theatrical productions that happened to be caught on film, rather than custom-made programmes.
Today, TV is already changing to keep abreast of audience expectations in the wake of computer-driven content. Newscasts now invariably feature ‘send us your comments’ segments, a doffing of the cap to the seductive power of social networking. And while TV screens are getting wider, imitating their bigger cinema cousins, they’re also getting smaller, as scrolling text, multi-screen shots and on-screen graphics eat up viewing space. This is another attempt to copy a competitor, in this case emulating the web’s ability to combine text with video and audio.
To flourish in the decade ahead, television will need to concentrate on what it does best. Broadcast executives will be forced to pare down TVs bandwidth, shedding the pounds, perhaps especially in the areas of so-called reality TV, cheap shock-documentaries and the like. Why should anyone want to watch cheap stunts on scheduled TV programmes when they can watch them on YouTube any time they want? The amateur production values of the web often makes clips seem funnier, or more shocking.
TV will need to divest itself of most of the clutter that does little more than fill a space in the 24-hour broadcast schedule. Among the first to go come the revolution: the dubious comedy quiz shows and various circus-freak offerings that titillate but don’t really entertain.
In short, TV’s entertainment will need to place less emphasis on cheap laughs or voyeuristic thrills and its infotainment will need to be both well resourced and polished. It must achieve this without narrowing the pool of presenters and contributors to a few individuals who’ve been plucked from obscurity by the TV gods. The age of collaboration demands a much wider range of talent.
David Letterman once described TV as the disposable medium, by which he meant that its programming is not designed for a long shelf-life. TV may be more transitory than great literature or movies and not every programme will scale the heights of The West Wing. Yet TV has a unique role to play in easing our stress or helping us to make sense of our complex world.
TV may not save the world, but for billions across the globe it can still make life a whole lot more liveable. For that reason alone, it won’t be fading to black any time soon.