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TELEVISION: Window on the World - Section F: A Vast Wasteland

Jeffrey Syken

“Now, we add sight to sound”
David Sarnoff

When Sarnoff, president of RCA, formally introduced television to the world (from a podium in front of the RCA Exhibit Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair), he heralded it as: “the birth of a new art and a new industry, which eventually will provide entertainment and information for millions.” He was right. There were many others who would be instrumental in the development of “Seeing-at-a-Distance” (a/k/a “Tele-Vision”), some of them you’ve probably heard of such as Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, but there were many others whose names have been lost to history (i.e. Charles Francis Jenkins and John Logie Baird). Although David Sarnoff’s contribution was not technical, it was critical in that it was his vision of television’s potential (and his willingness to sacrifice millions of RCA dollars in pursuit of that vision) that would, ultimately, make the modern television industry a practical reality.

In its formative years, television - a derivative of radio, was seeking a path-of-least-resistance to commercial acceptance. By the mid-1920s, it seemed “Mechanical Television,” whereby a motor-driven spinning scanning disk formed images, was the answer. But there were those who realized the limitations of mechanical television and, instead, pursued an electronic solution, building upon the work of those who came before them. This would lead to the development and acceptance, by 1932, of “Electronic Television” as “the way forward.” Delayed by WWII, after the war monochrome (black-and-white) television would develop both technically and commercially into the fledgling industry David Sarnoff had foreseen. By the mid-1950s, the focus was on Chroma (color) television and, by the mid-1960s, color television had come-of-age. In the ensuing years, the “Holy Grail” would be “Mural TV” (flat-screen). With major advances in electronic technology, that too was made manifest.

Considered to be one of twenty-five “Speeches That Changed the World,” on May 9, 1961, FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow gave a speech to the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) entitled: “Television and the Public Interest.” In the speech, he invited the movers and shakers of the nation’s television industry: “…to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day . . . Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland…” Soon after the speech, someone wrote Minow asking him: “what time does ‘A Vast Wasteland’ come on?” Such was/is the influence of television. By the early 1960s, it was abundantly clear that not since the rise of the automobile was American society being transformed by a new technology, for better or worse. Considering the fact that when watching TV a child viewed a violent act about every fourteen minutes, one adverse effect was “desensitization” to violence. The television industry, to be viable, needs to sell commercial time. One controversial method being experimented with in the late 1950s was subliminal messaging, whereby “suggestions” were being planted in the viewer’s sub-conscious mind, like it or not. In retrospect, a modern-day pundit suggests we have gone from “A Vast Wasteland” to a “Toxic Dump.” Perhaps comedian Woody Allen said it best: “Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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