Television as a medium of drama

Television has brought a whole new scale and intensity to the experience of drama that is without precedent in the history of human culture. As Raymond Williams has pointed out, there has never before been a time when a majority of any population had such regular and constant access to drama. Today more drama is watched in a week or weekend then would have been watched in a year or even in a lifetime in any previous historical period. This quantitative change in the level of drama as an intrinsic part of everyday life would seem to constitute a fundamental qualitative change, the implications of which we have scarcely begun to consider.1 Once we do begin to consider, it becomes obvious that the implications of the shift from the occasional experience of drama to the habitual saturation of daily life with drama amounts to far more than an extension of access and viewing time. It begins to become clear that Williams was right in perceiving it as meaning that drama is now built into the rhythms of our everyday life in quite new ways. 2
There is no way the relation of television to drama can be adequately conveyed in a cumulative account of television plays, series and serials as discrete units. To analyse particular programmes in isolation is to miss much about the experience of viewing such programmes. It is essential to analyse the experience of viewing such programmes within the experience of the total flow of television and to analyse this within the total flow of social experience. It is vital to grasp the rhythms of television drama within the rhythms of our everyday lives. It is also necessary to probe television as a medium and to understand how the forms and conventions of the medium, and not just the manifest content of programmes, have given a characteristic shape to the dramaturgy of our times.

It is significant that this voluminous and intensive exposure to images of a wider world and to vicarious involvement in representations of other people’s lives comes at a time of increasing alienation from a wider world and deprivation of real involvement in other people’s lives. Ironically, it is at a time when people have never been so interdependent that they have come to feel so isolated. The wider world has become ever more obtrusive and ominous at the same time as it has come to seem ever more obscure and out of reach. In this sort of world, in which we have become ever more physically crammed together, while intellectually and emotionally ever more far apart, television comes into the breach and speaks to us across the abyss. It does so without putting us on the spot to speak back. It keeps us from having to face into the abyss. It is a world in which the rhythms of everyday life have become increasingly cut adrift from either the rhythms of the natural world or the rhythms of social interaction.

Time is experienced as abrupt, crowded, fast moving sequences, dominated by a speeding and miscellaneous flow of images, with no apparent principle of organisation. The velocity, density, diversity and discontinuity of this vast flood of stimuli generates a vertigo that can be profoundly disorientating for those without a unifying centre to provide a more profound mode of orientation. For many, time is organised by nothing so much as by the television schedule, which both embodies the disorientating fragmentation and provides its own sort of comforting orientation and superficial level or organisation.

Already in its relatively short history, volumes have been spoken and written on the nature of television and its impact on our lives.3 Contradictory claims abound. Opinions range from “television is wonderful entertainment” to “television is destroying the world”. Assessments of its influence run the gamut from “it is the most powerful instrument ever to be invented” to “it doesn’t matter”. It is asserted that television is an incitement to violence, but then again it is also asserted that television is a means of sublimating violent tendencies. It is said that television opens us to a wider world, but it is also said that it cuts us off from it. For virtually every statement, there is a corresponding counter-statement.

What then can we say about television?

Is it a stimulant or a soporific?
Is it powerful or ephemeral?
Is it communication or commerce?
Is it window on the world or construction of reality ?
Is it “telling it like it is” or permeated by ideology ?
Is it an art form or a idiot box ?
Does it uplift or debase?
Does it clarify or confuse?
Does it enrich or erode ?
Does it enlarge or diminish ?
Does it unify or fragment ?
Does it bring diversity or homogenisation ?
Does it enhance enlightenment or encourage escapism ?
Does it convey information or breed ignorance ?
Does it facilitate sanity or drive the masses into madness ?

The paradoxical power of television is such that it is and does virtually all that is said of it. Its complexity is such that both claims and counter-claims capture something of the multi-faceted truth of it. The best and worst opinions of it generally have their justification.

There can be no doubt that television has brought forth far reaching and fundamental changes, not only in how we spend our time, but in how we perceive our world, how we codify our experiences, how we relate to others and how we respond to other media. It not only occupies more of the waking hours of more of the world’s population than any other medium in history, but it has probably reconstructed irrevocably our whole world sensory apparatus. It surely has altered the nature of our sensory balance in that it represents a return, although on a new level, to a culture that is more oral and visual than literary. It represents a mode of consciousness that is more oriented to sounds and images than to words and ideas.

It has brought the rise of modes of perceptions and expressions that are more dynamic, more prosaic, more concrete, more vivid, but also more ephemeral, more diffuse, more fragmentary. It has brought the decline of modes of perception and expression that are more contemplative, more analytical, more synthetic, more deeply rooted, more enduring. It seems there is a downward spiral in the standard of literacy and that people, especially the young, are becoming less clear, less disciplined, less logical, less integrated.

Not everyone is affected in the same way by television. Generally the experience of television is most positive where the experience of life is richest and is actively called into play, as a base for the creative assimilation and assessment of television. It is most negative where experience is most impoverished, where viewing is most addictive, most passive and least critical. For those without work, without meaningful personal relationships, without the habit of reading, without exposure to other forms of culture, without direct experience of situations which are and are not depicted on television, television can take over from all other interactions with the external world and even from certain internal processes.

This has both positive and negative effects. Television viewing can be healthy and even therapeutic. It can add new dimensions, even to the fullest of lives. For those deprived of such fullness, it can compensate to some degree for life’s privations. It can give much pleasure, especially in times of illness, stress or depression, when life might otherwise be unrelieved pain. It can ease loneliness, especially for those who are trapped in chronic isolation. It can widen the horizons of knowledge and experience, even for the educated and sophisticated and even more for the uneducated and sheltered. It can enrich perception and stimulate imagination, though this is truest for those who are most adept at filtering the flow of what comes their way.

Television viewing can also be unhealthy and even neurotic. It can waste time and energy that could be more creatively and constructively channelled. It can dissipate mind and will. It can paralyse efforts to understand and to cope with life’s privations. It can provide a pseudo-satisfaction of real needs in a way that re-inforces, rather than resists, the patterns of acquiescence in an alienated society. It can lead to addiction and withdrawal that exacerbates loneliness and overrides deeper experiences of both pleasure and pain. It can break habits of visiting, attending meetings, classes and social functions. It can kill conversation in homes, pubs and common rooms. It can create an illusory sense of intimacy and identification with fictional characters that can lead to the loss of real intimacy, as well as to a weakening of personal identity and sense of reality. It can cut a person off from other knowledge and experiences. It can condition masses of people to insensitivity. It can promote ignorance of anything that is not experienced second-hand through television, becoming like those in Plato’s cave, who had never been outside and knew the outside world only through the flickering shadows on the cave wall.

It can distort perception and retard both reason and imagination, numbing the mind with mass-produced, plastic pictures of life, pre-packaged with formulaic plots, cliched explanations and superficial solutions. It can condition the mind to constant cutting, discontinuity and disruption, pushing the span of attention and power of concentration to near the vanishing point and making the flow of consciousness and sense of personal identity as jagged and as fractured as the flow of television. It can flood the mind and overload its circuits, with its sheer voluminous plentitude, swamping it with stimuli and overwhelming its ability to sort out and to synthesise. It can debilitate emotional sensitivity and debase cultural taste, crowding it out in the constant presence of kitsch, eroding the capacity to shift to other levels and gradually wearing down any sense of higher standards or deeper values. It can contribute to the infantilisation of the adult psyche, through its seductive silliness and its simplistic stereotypes. It can confuse the psychological development of children, through exposure to a multitude of adult problems, outreaching their capacity to comprehend. It can breed cynicism and disillusion, with the weight of the unending stream of palpable falsity, in commercial advertisements, in presidential addresses, in party political broadcasts and in life-in-the-fast-lane drama series.

On a sociological level, there is a need to consider the cumulative effect of the viewing experiences of the mass of individuals that make up a society and the character of the collective psyche as it is shaped by television. Television can do much to raise the cultural level of a society, by exposing people to the culture of times and places beyond their own direct experience. However, the domination of the airwaves by least-common-denominator American drama series is a formidable obstacle to what could be achieved in this regard.

Television does create a common discourse, perhaps the most universal point of cultural reference the world has ever known, but the homogenising and levelling effect of the standardised fare overrides both healthy diversity and a higher unity. It can erode both folk culture and high culture. It can be an instrument in establishing the ideological hegemony of those in power, so forcefully as to constitute the virtual colonisation of the collective consciousness. It can be highly efficient in the dissipation of potential dissent.

However, television is not a seamless web. It can at times be an instrument to challenge the dominant ideology, to highlight social injustice and even to suggest alternatives. The degree to which it can effectively do so is an exceedingly complicated matter to assess, as such interventions are subject to complex mechanisms of co-optation and to the overarching effect of the overall flow.

Much the same, of course, has been said of other media, past and present. What then is distinctive about television as a medium?

It has, after all, incorporated so much from other media that its distinctiveness might at first seem to be the way it functions simultaneously as newspaper, magazine, comic book, pulp fiction, classical literature, radio, theatre, cinema, music hall, rock concert, opera, ballet, light chatter, agony aunt, baby-sitter, night light, companion, election platform, sports stadium, game board, classroom, travelogue, porn palace and advertising billboard, all rolled into one. Television has at all stages in its development drawn heavily from other media, both in direct appropriation of material and methods and in indirect adaptation of genres, themes and techniques. It has, however, evolved considerably in its way of doing so over the years.

In its earliest days, perhaps the predominant influence was radio. This was natural enough in view of the fact that television was pioneered by broadcasting organisations already in the business of radio transmission. Not surprisingly, television was at first conceived as basically radio with pictures. Many existing radio programmes were transferred to television. Hear it Now became See it Now. Comedy sketches like Hancock’s Half Hour and Amos ‘n Andy added a visual dimension to their verbal routines. In the case of Amos ‘n Andy, however, the white actors playing the black men on radio had to be replaced by black ones, now that the audience could see who spoke the dialogue. These were the forerunners of television situation comedy, soon to go speeding off on its own way. Adventure series like The Long Ranger and Dragnet and domestic serials like The Aldrich Family, The Goldbergs and The Guiding Light also made the transition to television. The serial and series forms, particularly that of the soap opera, which were to become so central to television drama production, had their roots in the radio era. Of course, radio too had drawn on previous media: from music hall, from newspapers, from magazine serials, from comic strips.

Television in its turn, not only took from these forms as adapted by radio, but often took material directly from vaudeville, from literature, from comic books. In fact, just to take the American comics of the era, it is hard to think of any – Superman, Batman, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Little Lulu, Dennis the Menace. – that did not make their way on to American television.

For its drama, television has always drawn extensively on written fiction, from the pulp novel to classical literature. The US has led the way in adaptation of paperback bestsellers, like The Winds of War, The Thorn Birds, Celebrity, Lace, Mistral’s Daughter, Hollywood Wives. Britain has pioneered and perfected the adaptation of literary classics, like War and Peace, Roads to Freedom, I Claudius, The Forsythe Saga, How Green Was My Valley, The Citadel, Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown. America has from time to time engaged in adaptation of literary classics like The Scarlet Letter and East of Eden, as Britain has done productions of popular paperbacks like Just William and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Most other countries have drawn on literary adaptations for television drama, with historical epics like Ireland’s Strumpet City, Germany’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Italy’s Fontamara and Australia’s 1915, being particularly striking sources of mini-series.

In the field of drama, theatre has naturally been an important source and influence for television, although this was far more the case in its earlier years than in later ones. In its beginnings, television drama drew heavily on theatrical productions, theatrical traditions, theatrical methods and theatrical talents. The US networks looked to Broadway. The BBC looked to the West End. RTE looked to the Abbey and Gate. It was not only for plays to adapt, but for the expertise of writers, directors, actors, designers, etc. In time, the same writers and eventually new writers began to write material specifically for television, as they, along with directors, actors, designers and crew began to realise the new and specific possibilities of television as a medium for drama. However, the links with theatre have never been broken, whether in terms of movement of personnel back and forth or in terms of mutual influence. Interestingly, cross fertilisation has become apparent in the opposite direction as well, with theatre showing the influence as well as vice versa. The same could be said of other media as well, as even literature has not only come to make increasing reference to television and its imagery, but as literary style has increasingly taken on qualities derived from televisual and cinematic styles in its narrative structure.

To come to the relationship between television and cinema is a story in itself. First of all, there is the fact that television has from the beginning been used heavily as an exhibition box for films made originally for cinema. Then, with drama made for television, there has been the direct appropriation of genres, themes, characters and storylines from cinema onto television. Early television series like I Remember Mama, Hopalong Cassidy, Genre Autry, Roy Rogers and Flash Gordon had a previous existence in the world of cinema. So too had later ones like The Odd Couple, MASH, The Four Seasons, Alice, Hotel and The Paper Chase. Some of these had yet another previous existence as well, eg, The Odd Couple as a stage play and Hotel and The Paper Chase as novels.

Occasionally, the traffic has gone in the opposite direction as well. Marty and Twelve Angry Men were television plays turned into cinema films. Serials like Emmerdale Farm and East Enders have generated a series of paperback books. Then there has been the indirect appropriation. Within genres such as the western and crime thriller, which were rooted in Hollywood film traditions (and in previous pulp fiction), the newer television cowboys like Maverick and Matt Dillon still bore a remarkable resemblance to the older movie ones, just as later television cops like Kojak and Columbo still drew on the ambiance of 1940s film noir gumshoe detectives.

Finally, in terms of form, even the most original made-for-television drama has veered toward a more and more sophisticated adaptation of film grammar in developing televisual styles. The use of film in shooting television drama and the technological development of videotape to an electronic approximation of the sensitivity and flexibility of celluloid have accentuated the tendency of the grammar of television drama to evolve in a direction away from the theatrical and toward the cinematic.

Early television drama tended to be studio-based and transmitted live. Production methods were very close to those of theatre, with the studio space calling for confined settings very like those of the stage and with live performance necessitating playing right through from first scene to the last and limiting the number of changes of scene, set, wardrobe and make-up. Performances began to tone down voice and gesture and to play to camera and sitting room, rather as if on stage. There were numerous slots in the schedule for single self-contained plays, which tended to be tightly structured, highly verbal encounters, in long stretches of real time. These plays were usually compact, rather than panoramic, both in time and space. Confrontations were more likely to be psychological than physical. Even with the introduction of videotape and the move away from live performance, making possible production in advance of transmission and repeat transmissions, drama still tended to be played right through as in theatre. It was still considered to be more a writer’s medium like theatre than a director’s medium like film. Production methods still involved long scenes, single takes and little editing, even when mishaps occurred or lines were fluffed.

However, as editing facilities improved, production methods began to shift towards those of film: shooting out of sequence, in shorter scenes and in multiple takes. Shifting perspectives with multiple camera techniques, new vision mixing effects, colour, chromakey and use of film inserts greatly increased the possibilities of studio drama. The development of outside broadcast facilities further enhanced the possibilities of television drama in freeing videotape from the restrictions of studio production and bringing it into the realm of location shooting. The continual development of higher quality and lighter weight video cameras and of more sophisticated editing facilities has brought videotape more and more into what was previously the domain of film.

This has meant being able to mount productions on a much larger scale than on stage, using huge panoramic landscapes and plotting developments on wagon trains, ocean liners and airplanes, in military battles and natural disasters. At the same time, it has meant being able to move in and show nuances of facial expression and gesture in close-up shots and to establish mobility of perspective with fluid camera movements, unlike in theatre, where all must be expressed in dialogue or overt action and where all is seen from a fixed point of view, more or less the equivalent of a medium shot. It has also meant an extraordinary ability to manipulate images and time frames in new and imaginative ways.

Whether using film or videotape, television drama has developed a new breadth, opening into a dramatic space, where the whole world is its oyster, as far as possible locations are concerned. It has also developed a new rhythm, transforming dramatic time, with all the mutations of pace and sequence made possible with the whole range of cuts, fades, mixes, flashbacks, flash-forwards, slow motion, fast motion, montage, actuality inserts, stills coming to life and vice versa, voice-over commentaries and other such effects, which compress, extend and juxtapose time frames. This new scope and tempo in television production has re-shaped contemporary dramaturgy, bringing to drama a new vividness in visual imagery, a new range in kind and number of settings, a new flexibility in time span and sequence, a new complexity of plot structure, a new reflexivity of reference.

On a deeper level, this new scope and tempo, this new sense of space and time, amounts to a new kind of consciousness, involving new ways of perceiving, new ways of organising perceptions, new ways of coming to terms with what we perceive. This expansion, however, has also involved a constriction, though it is not a necessary one. At least it is not logically necessary. Whether it is sociologically necessary is another matter. The overwhelming tendency in film and television production, and in film and video production as well, has been to become increasingly sophisticated in technical terms and increasingly unsophisticated in intellectual terms. The tendency has been to rely on atmospheric locations, fluid camera movements, fast cutting, haute couture, action adventure stunts, cheap thrills and star glamour, at the expense of dialogue, characterisation, plot structure, social context or any sense of deeper meaning or purpose. The most expensive productions are given the shoddiest of scripts. The most advanced technology is put in the service of storylines and images written, produced and performed by those who have never risen to a cultural level above that of the comic strip / beer commercial mentality.

It is not that emphasis on visual effects need be at the expense of verbal expression. It is not that visual imagery need be so superficial, purposeless, flaccid, pretentious or discordant as to crowd out depth, purpose, structure, sincerity or coherence. It is, however, endemic to a society whose technological capacity has developed out of proportion to its wisdom. Some claim that communication of any depth is impossible through the medium of television. But it is not the medium of television, but the character of the social order which has shaped its development, that has put such enormous obstacles in the way of alternative paths of development.

No analysis of television, any more than any other medium, can be complete or right without an analysis of the political economy of its production, distribution and reception. All media are shaped by the general character of the social order and by the particular character of each medium’s relationship to specific states and market forces. The European tradition of public service broadcasting has produced a very different sort of television from the American system of commercial domination based on the free play of market forces. The gap may be closing, against public service broadcasting, but something remains.

However, with so much overlap between television and other media, what is there to account for its distinctiveness as a medium ? Or, in more fashionable jargon, what is its specificity as a signifying practice ? What makes it different from other media ? What are the specific implications for contemporary story-telling and drama ?

Unlike literature, it involves enactment of the story. Unlike radio, this enactment involves visualisation as well as verbalisation. Unlike theatre, this visual and verbal enactment is not expressed in live performance, but is electronically transmitted as part of a more or less continuous flow, for a primarily domestic context of reception. Its contact with its audience it both more intimate and more distanced. Unlike cinema, the image is lower definition and on a smaller screen and not usually encompassed by surrounding darkness. It is generally viewed in a more privatised setting, subject to interruptions of ads, phones, doorbells, conversations, zapping and division of attention between multiple tasks.
Television does not demand as much of the imagination as literature and radio. It does not involve the same sense of occasion, the public setting, the darkness, the concentration of attention, the focus on a single story and the expectation of tight narrative structure and firm resolution, as do theatre and cinema. It does involve a pattern of viewing that is more casual, transient, distracted, scaled-down and open-ended. It is also more immediate, more familiar, more continuous, more accessible and more addictive.

Much of the distinctiveness of television once came from such features as live broadcasting and direct address, both now greatly reduced, especially in respect to drama. Much of the buzz also used to come from everyone seeing the same programmes at the same time discussing them the next day. Now with the multiplication of channels and proliferation of domestic video recorders, this too is greatly reduced. However, it must be remembered, there are villages in remote parts of the world where an entire community still gathers to watch their single television set on a single channel. It is also a world away from a split-level home in the US with two or three occupants and four or five television sets and choice of seventy or more channels.

Television has its distinctiveness, in being an electronic medium, incorporating both sound and vision, characterised by continuous flow and domestic context. The basic unit of television drama is less the play, which is sustained by plot, than the series or serial, which are sustained more by continuing characters and settings. Even television single plays and television movies are experienced and assimilated within the total flow, though their images rarely play on the individual imagination and become terms of social reference in the same way as do those of continuing series and serials.

In finding its way as a medium, television has evolved its own forms of narrative, which tend to be more extensive than intensive; more rambling and open-ended than self-contained; more recursive than hermetic; more collaborative and eclectic than sustained by a single, totalising vision; more reliant on stars, stunts, symbols and sites of exotic life styles than on having a meaningful story to tell.

All this is highly relative, however. Television, whether in its plays, series or serials, has had many a meaningful story to tell and has done so to marvellous effect in its own unique way. Everyone has their own favourites, as well as their pet hates. To sort out what we value, why we value what we do and how we justify what we value in the sphere of television drama brings us to questions of aesthetics, ideology and the next chapter.

Suffice it to say here that the matter is far more complicated than anticipated by the British newspaper editor who pronounced:

“Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin.
No good will come of it”.4

Far more accurate was an American FCC commissioner’s description of television as:

“the literature of the illiterate,
the culture of the low-brow,
the wealth of the poor,
the privilege of the underprivileged
and the executive club of the excluded masses”.5

It has been all this and much more. All the more important to subject it to critical scrutiny and to evolve proper criteria for doing so.

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