The Medium Is The Message #5: HDTV

It’s no coincidence that a better picture renders better stories.

It's a wonder we ever get off the sofa

The future according to HDTV?

Ever since I got my first HDTV – would you believe it’s been more than 10 years? – I’ve been wondering what effect the higher resolution picture would have on the medium itself.  Because, let’s face it, more than a thousand lines of resolution is really a completely different experience from the NTSC standard, the 525-line picture that defined the television picture for its first fifty years.

So if HDTV is effectively a new medium, and the medium is the message, then… what new message is this new medium be delivering?

I think David Carr answered the question in the New York Times over this past weekend:

The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment.

In case you don’t get the reference, “the vast wasteland” harkens back to a speech that then-FCC commissioner Newton Minnow delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters way back in 1961:

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. 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.

That speech pretty much set the tone for how television was regarded for several decades.  It was always “the vast wasteland,” “the boob tube,” or “the idiot box.”  Nobody of any intellectual standing ever admitted to actually watching TeeVee.

In the past several years though, as Carr articulates, the television universe has become much more vast – but much less of a wasteland.  Oh, sure, we’ve still got the Kardashians (who?)  Nancy Grace and Court TV, American Idol, Survivor and all of their “reality” brethren (because nothing says ‘reality’ more than having being followed around by a camera crew…).  The lowest common denominator will always have a place in American culture, just like trailer parks and tent revivals.

But we’ve also got Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, and more recently the just concluded first season of HBO’s anthology True Detective.

These shows and several others have expanded the narrative capacity of the medium – arguably (I would argue…) because the refined visual capacity of the higher resolution screen  has forced writers, producers, actors and directors them to raise their own game.

In other words, television shows are better today because the medium itself is better.

But it’s not just the screen (and the theatrical, surround-sound audio) that is changing the game. It’s the mode of delivery as well.

I’ve had a DVR (TiVo) for longer than I’ve had HDTV, and that device probably changed my viewing habits even more than HDTV did.  Before TiVo, I’d always time-shifted the series I wanted to watch with a VCR, but TiVo changed the whole experience, making it much easier to record, store, and play back entire seasons of multiple shows.  And fast-forward through the commercials…

Now, add to TiVo: Netflix, AppleTV, Hulu, HBO GO and an array of other services that are delivered mostly through the Internet; then add YouTube and Apple Airplay or Google Chromecast that give you the ability to flip just about any ‘content’ from any networked device onto you high-def flat panel display – and it’s a wonder we ever get off the sofa.

 



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Paul Schatzkin