We use it to pick our president and our pickles, be they Clinton or Vlasic. We use it as a lullaby and as a wake-up call. We use it as a babysitter, and not just for our babies; sometimes it's as if we were back in a crib ourselves looking at some oddly diverting kinetic toy. We use it to escape reality and we use it to view the real world, with its wars and famines and hurricanes and floods and rockets to the stars. We use it as solace from some of the very discomforts it causes.
And it uses us all the while we're using it. We are not so much television's consumers, it's been said, as its product. We're being sold by the millions or, on some cable networks, by the thousands, to advertisers that want to reach whatever demographic group we belong to, be it as specific as 12-to-18-year-old girls or as broad as the human race.
Television has occupied only a tiny fraction of the millennium now noisily drawing to a close, but it easily dominates the second half of the 20th century, which is also--mercifully, one might say--ending. TV would have started earlier (it was exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair) but during World War II, the government issued a ban on the making of any electronic consumer goods.
In England, TV broadcasts got going in the late '30s, most emanating from a converted castle, and English viewers sat at home watching vaudeville acts and great actors and ballerinas. They even heard a soprano trill a tremulous ode to "those magic rays of light--that bring television to you!" And then one afternoon, smack in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon, the eye closed. Stay tuned: We'll be right back after this brief World War.
Edward R. Murrow was on his way over for Radio's Last Gasp.
And now, as we reach what seems, on the calendar anyway, to be some sort of pivotal seminal epochal turning point, television may be gasping its last as well. In some quarters, it's been all but declared dead, replaced in the post-video world by the home computer, access to the Internet, and whatever other ancillary technologies erupt. Computer nuts say television will become part of that world, not that the computer will become part of television.
Somehow, we can feel TV reaching that first step toward rebirth, which is of course death. We can feel it in the plunging ratings for the Big Four TV networks, in the sense of stasis stifling what should be a source of constantly refreshing ideas, in the torpor and malaise that beset commercial TV and public TV as well, in the fact that there are "hit" TV shows some of us have never heard of and big stars many of us don't know from Adam. Or Eve.
And in the explosion of commercials for this-dot-com and that-dot-com, we hear importunings to rush to a Web site and "learn more" about aluminum siding or the latest DVDs or the creative anguish that went into the production of Shania Twain's latest CD. Television now carries a ton of advertising for what would appear to be its competition.
At what point will the metamorphosis be complete, and what kind of creature will result? No one can say--at least not with any finality. But it doesn't look as though TV will be extravagantly mourned, that people will be weeping and wailing in the streets as its era is marched off.
American television might have turned out much greater than it has if, as in England, the public-interest aspect of it had taken first priority and the commercial potential second. If public TV had come first in this country--if the federal government had assigned prime VHF stations to public TV in the '50s instead of relegating it to the UHF band (not even available on many sets at first), and if a solid funding structure had been set up that had kept public TV safe from Congress--America might have its own BBC, a TV equivalent of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art and some form of national theater all rolled into one.
The same mistakes are being made with the establishment of the Internet, aren't they? Commercial potential is first and foremost; how do we make money off the damn thing? Oh, and incidentally, what social benefits might also be derived? It's said the Internet will lead to an explosion of knowledge and culture. They said that about television when it emerged, too. And they said it about cable TV, which with its wondrous "narrowcasting" was going to provide diversity such as plain old television had never seen.
What are the big draws on cable? Mostly reruns of old network shows like "Murder, She Wrote." Oh, and of course wrestling. Wrestling, wrestling and more wrestling. When TV first started and there were more hours to fill than there were shows to fill them, programmers filled holes with wrestling and quiz shows. Here we are at century's end and what's big on TV? Wrestling and quiz shows again. What mighty leaps forward we have made.
Certainly television is going through many cosmetic changes. One of the most revolutionary was the addition of the VCR, which gave viewers new power over what they watched and when they watched it. It used to be referred to as "time shifting," though in truth it appears only a minority of viewers ever learned how to tape a show while away from home and watch it when they got back. Newer VCRs, by the way, can set their own clocks, at least in areas (like Washington) where public TV stations emit a certain electric pulse. Thus there's less excuse for the flashing "12:00" than there used to be, though to some people it seems to have become a kind of security symbol, as if it were registering the beats of their own hearts.
Much more recently, set-top boxes from companies called TiVo and RePlay TV have made it possible to record programming on a computer disk, so that when the phone rings at 10:15 on a Thursday night and chatty Uncle Harry is interrupting "ER" again, a viewer can stop the telecast at that point and pick it up again later when Uncle Harry shuts up. Yes, really. You can even freeze-frame a live picture if you want to study the credibility-enhancing fissures on Mike Wallace's face.
Doodads and gewgaws soup up the set but don't necessarily improve the programming. DBS, or direct broadcast satellite, brings cable networks and now, in some areas, local stations into the house far more clearly and dependably than your average loathsome cable system does, but at considerable cost.
Worse, DirecTV, largest of the DBS suppliers, is becoming an unresponsive bureaucracy comparable to cable systems. For weeks after its merger with U.S. Satellite Broadcasting, customers calling DirecTV got a rude recorded message that said, in effect: "Don't even bother to hold. We can't talk to you now. Call back in a few weeks. You got a problem? Tough luck." Jeez Louise! Even arrogant cable systems at least pretend they'll answer eventually, holding out the hope for callers that after 25 minutes of recorded music, an actual human voice will come on the line.
No matter how seemingly miraculous the technical advances, there will always be incompetents, ignoramuses and outright crooks throwing monkey wrenches into the works.
Want a big-screen TV that hangs on the wall? This is a promise the TV industry has been making to consumers for at least 35 years. Well, now you can get one, but the picture is iffy and the screen costs $15,000. You may be the first on your block, but neighbors might be inclined to jeer rather than angle for an invitation to come over.
HDTV (high-definition television) is another wonder that has been around the corner for ages. Public demonstrations were given by Sony and other companies in the '80s. Here it is almost the Aughties, and after years of FCC bumbling, we still do not have a single technical standard for HDTV.
What has happened is that commercial broadcasters have been handed free, from an inexplicably grateful government, additional over-the-air channels in their communities, thanks to something called digital compression.
Additional stations will ride piggyback on the signals of Channels 4, 5, 7, 9 and so forth. What will these additional channels be used for? Oh, a cultural renaissance, of course--more at-home shopping, mainly, with perhaps some quiz shows and wrestling matches thrown in.
And yet, for all the disappointments, for its seeming compulsion to disappoint, we love it, don't we? We love our TEE-VEE. We are not enslaved by it, as professors like to huff, and contrary to such professional alarmists as Marie Winn, author of "The Plug-In Drug," we are not psychologically addicted to it. While some people still cling to the hope that television will foster greater tolerance, compassion and understanding among people (and surely, to some degree, it has), others just cling to the hope that when they get home tonight, beaten up by the world, television will dispense something to make them laugh and forget, or involve them in a fabricated crisis that takes their minds off their own.
Robert Morley, on an old "Jack Paar Program," called TV "the greatest cure for loneliness ever invented." Maybe even when it's grown to wall size and 3-D and is somehow interlinked with the Internet and supplies movies on demand from infinite archives in deepest cyberspace, we will still be most grateful for its individual therapeutic effects. The friend who never says no.
And the first television generation, those who can still recall its arrival on the American scene and in the American living room, have memories of marvels and miracles--of Fred Astaire dancing and Jackie Gleason clowning and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in "The Connecticut Yankee" and Mary Martin flying around as Peter Pan and Marian Anderson singing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and Dave Garroway guiding us through our "Wide, Wide World."
Even if for every hundred hours of insipid banality and pandering tripe there's just one transcendent galvanizing moment, that's really not such a bad average. The sad part is that the more channels and outlets and hours of television there are, the fewer and farther between those moments become. Maybe, as my grandfather used to say of color TV, it'll be just fine once they get the wrinkles out.
Or maybe TV is its wrinkles. Whatever it's evolving into won't be perfect either, but by now, shouldn't we have learned every conceivable lesson in What-Not-to-Do? The first television century is ending, but the Age of Television apparently still has a few more years in it--years to make good on early promises, perhaps, years to make amends for failures and transgressions. The transformation of television may yet be cause for celebration, whether it comes into the house on a wire, a fiber optic beam, or the magic rays of light that brought it there in the first place.