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TV Guide

Marshall McLuhan has the peculiar notion that television has very strange properties which set it apart from almost every other medium that human beings have ever used for communication. He holds rather para-doxically that television, in spite of its name, is not a visual medium at all but what he calls an audio-tactile medium. This is based on a rather spurious argument of his to the effect that the linear structure of the screen is similar to the movement of the hand feeling a page of Braille, that the electron beam scans the surface of the images which it is transmitting in a manner very similar to the movement of a hand scanning a line of Braille, and that therefore it is a tactile experience.

Now this seems to me to be conjuring a metaphor into a concrete proposal which I think is entirely false. It is perfectly true that television is made up of a beam which scans over several hundred lines, but the fact that the actual movement is a scanning movement and that the movement of a hand scanning the page is a scanning movement doesn’t mean that television is to be subsumed under the general category of a tactile experience. It simply means that the tactile and the visual modalities employ identical techniques when exploring a contour, and this was realized a hundred years ago by the English neurologist Hughlings Jackson, who said that no one ever saw anything without moving his eyes, or felt anything without moving his hands. All that McLuhan has pointed out is that no sensation ever reaches any sort of status in the nervous system until some sort of active negotiation between the agent and the environment has taken place.

Some very interesting experiments were done at Reading University about ten years ago, in which a contact lens was fixed onto the eye and a small mirror was attached to the contact lens so that a beam of light that was reflected from the surface of the eye onto a little screen was bound to move with every movement of the eye and the eye could not escape it: the same spot of light always fell on the same place in the retina. The investigators discovered that when this fixed retinal image was produced it would after a while fade until it was no longer seen, making it apparent that it is absolutely necessary to keep the eye on the move in order to see things. But this doesn’t make seeing into a tactile experience. The television screen is exactly like any other visual image that is on the move.

There are, of course, differences between the television image and the image on a movie screen, but they are not fundamental: they are simply quantitative differences of accuracy, of focus and grain. It’s true that the image on the television screen is on the whole much foggier than the image that you get either from a still photograph or from a negative projected onto a screen. This is partly due to the fact that they are compiled on different principles: the film image is a photographic emulsion, which is an extremely fine-grained affair, and the television image is made up of these 500 lines, which makes it very hard to portray with any accuracy objects that are small.

This is one of the reasons why television has to concentrate so much on big heads and why a television director finds himself constantly pushed away from the use of the wide shot, for example. On a wide shot, an object seen, say, at a distance of a hundred or two hundred feet is going to take up such an area on the screen that it will only be portrayed with four or five, or perhaps ten lines. Bring the same object a hundred feet nearer and quite suddenly it is given a much larger ration of lines in which to expose its various details. So if you are using television properly, you are constrained to bring your objects nearer and nearer to the camera.

On the movie screen it doesn’t matter how small the object is, it doesn’t matter how distant it is. The appearance of a horseman on the skyline of a Western is very dramatic in a film, but try to get that to read on a television screen and the result is pretty poor. Another factor is that the ability to transmit high degrees of contrast is very limited on a television screen. For example, the transmission engineers scream very loudly if you ever show too much sky in your shots on television. The electronics are such that the area of sky becomes very white indeed, it burns out and gives a flare, and on that flaring horizon a small black object has an even smaller chance of reading properly. The television image is a very underprivileged relative of the image that you get on a movie screen.

During the time when I was doing Monitor for the BBC I found that if I wanted to show the detail of a painting it suffered pretty badly. You can get away with it provided the lighting is not too heavily contrasted and the details are not too minute. But by and large the electrical mechanics of television are still at such a primitive stage that almost any fine visual detail suffers and is rubbed away. If it weren’t for the fact that it is the only medium available for transmitting things into a large number of homes simultaneously, no one would ever dream of using television as a didactic instrument for showing visual detail.

It is fair to say that if you’re showing diagrams on flat surfaces it is not too hard to read the detail. It is terrible, though, for showing any sort of depth—for example, if you’re trying to demonstrate not an art object, but a relatively complicated thing like a skull. This problem comes up in the use of closed circuit television for teaching. If one wants, say, to rotate a skull in front of the camera and show the details of the various contours and the various holes out of which nerves and vessels come, one is amazed how poor the image really is.

It’s not too bad for texture, I sometimes think, but when I say this I’m really saying that it’s not too bad for texture considering—and this is what one often feels about television: one is amazed how good it is in view of what a lousy medium it still is. It’s similar to the way in which we suffered for a long time the relatively poor sound recording on 78 records. The reason one suffered it was that one was overwhelmed by the convenience of having a phonograph in one’s own home and of being able to put the records on oneself. This is something that McLuhan a great deal underestimates: not the structure of the medium itself so much as the enormous convenience of the medium simply because it occupies a small, relatively unobtrusive box in one’s own living room and one hasn’t got to go out in the rain.

The introduction of color was, I think, one of the great disasters in the development of television technology. It was so expensive simply to transmit tints at all—just to get red and green into the home—that enormous expense went into this tour de force and very little energy, ingenuity, or money was left over to produce a refined and high quality black and white image. In a sense, this is partly a personal prejudice against color. I can’t think of a really good film which has ever been made in color, or at least in which the color has been anything more than just an adventitious aspect of the product. Any serious work of documentary or fictional art in the visual form has almost always been in black and white; and I would personally have liked to see at least half the effort that went into color put into improving the quality of the black and white image and into making the screen larger and the grain of the image much finer.

Unfortunately we’ve dug our own graves now by having established color and by having made it the tyrant that it is in the production of programs. It is now very hard to make a black and white program. The result is that a huge sector of aesthetic invention is virtually ruled out of court. I myself, in making films for television, have always chosen quite deliberately to make them in black and white. When offered the opportunity, for example, of doing Alice in Wonderland in color, I was tempted but chose against it.

Film makers like Antonioni have forced themselves into a sort of pseudo-aesthetic over the issue of color. They’ve made a virtue out of the necessity forced upon them by the production companies. The fact that Antonioni sprayed his streets red and sprayed color over things in Red Desert is impressive technically but not aesthetically. I’ve never found the use of color in a film very convincing, and I think this has something to do with the mere appearance of color on a screen.

For example, there is something very peculiar about the experience of oil painting which can never be reproduced on a screen. Look at a reproduction of Constable’s Hay Wain: even though the photographic process reproduces the impression of the texture and you get from subtle lighting the feeling of the brush strokes, there seems to be a layer almost of contraceptive rubber between your eye and the texture itself, and the final result is actually repulsive rather than attractive. In exactly the same way, when the photographic image tries to reproduce the tactile sense of color, of color embedded in a concrete object, all that it reproduces is a rather repulsive skin of something else. I’ve never been able to see in a film that saturated density of color characteristic of a colored art object, like an oil painting.

You can step up to an oil painting and suddenly see the image almost dissolve in the concrete material of which it’s made. You can walk up to a painting of Constable’s and suddenly the surface of the river and the clouds seems to fly apart and you just see great lumps of oil painting. You can’t do this with either a photographic or a television image. You are in the fixed position of viewer. The difference is that the television image or the film image is not an object: it is an imitation of an object. The whole point about painting is that it is an object in its own right which can be taken to be an image of reality as well as an object in its own right, whereas the television image has only one plane of existence—as something on a screen. In an art gallery when you, the agent, move your own muscles and come up to the surface of the object, it continues to be Constable, even though the river ceases to be a river and becomes bold streaks of brushwork. But as you advance up to the edge of a television screen, it ceases to be an image but it doesn’t become anything else. It simply becomes an electronic cloud with no interest of its own.

An oil painting is the residue of a very complicated negotiation between an actual person and a series of actual materials during which the artist walked up to his canvas, blobbed bits of stuff onto it, stepped back to see how it looked, went up to it again. He had a relationship to the canvas—of man as smearer—and then he stepped back from his canvas and had a relationship to it as a replica of reality. And what he leaves behind is a history of this dual relationship. The television image is nothing whatever. It is simply a disturbance on the surface of a piece of luminous glass which has no existence apart from the reality that it represents.

I think that more intelligent research could have gone into the way in which the image is reproduced on the home screen, but of course how this is done is ultimately dependent upon the transmission system of the number of lines that are available. I would like to see, for example, what the picture would look like if, say, 2,000 lines were available, so that one never was aware of this electric corduroy upon which the image is inscribed. You are never unaware of the fact that the television image is actually made up of electric streaks. Which sounds as if I’m going back on my point about Constable, as if these were the counterparts of brush strokes. But of course they’re not, because these electric streaks are homogeneous—the same from one program to the next: they’re not the sign of some divine engineer’s unique use of electrons.

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