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Television is one of the most significant communications inventions. Television has fundamentally changed the political process, our use of leisure, as well as social relations among family and friends.
Television was not developed by any single individual or even a group of people working together. Scientists and visionaries imagined a device that would capture images with sound and transmit them into homes since the 1880s. The word television was first used at the 1900 Exhibition in Paris. Scottish inventor John Logie Baird (1888-1946) was the first person to provide a television transmission in October 1925, and he subsequently demonstrated it to the British public on January 26, 1926. On December 25, 1926, Kenjiro Takayanagi (1899-1990) displayed the first image in Japan. The technology improved slowly with athletes participating in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin able to see some poor quality images of the games. In 1936 France and Germany began television programming. In Great Britain King George VI’s coronation from Hyde Park Corner on May 12, 1937, was the first broadcast of its kind, and the first U.S. election reported on television was on November 8, 1941, where news of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s victory was transmitted to an estimated 7,500 sets.
The development of television was halted during the Second World War in Europe and North America where manufacturers directed their attentions to munitions. Regular television service reached ninety-six countries by 1973.
Many of the things we associate with modern television technology were patented or devised in television’s infancy. In 1928 Vladimir Zworyking (1889-1982) owned the first U.S. patent for an all-electronic color television; however, the development did not come to fruition for another twenty-five years. During the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, television could not only receive audio and video images, but it was also designed to record those images, foreshadowing video recording devices (VCRs). And Baird later patented a 600-line electronic high definition color system in Britain in 1945.
Television’s Golden Age
The golden age of television is associated with the years 1949 to 1960 when American television viewing consisted of a variety of entertainment programming. The burgeoning prosperity and optimism of post-World War II influenced the spread of television. As more people were able to purchase televisions the demand for content grew. Early television programs offered revamped radio programs. There was some news and information programming, but those tended to be of short duration. A similar golden age is associated with British television. Early programs were reworked vaudeville acts and radio shows. Later situational comedies such as I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners would create new talent and genres.
The shared experience of watching key television programming provided an avenue for discussion and next-day water cooler conversation. As television matured so did the content, with programs such as All in the Family offering political and social commentary on issues ranging from race relations to the Vietnam War. Television’s depiction of the family changed through time as well. While initial programming presented unified traditional families with bread-winning fathers and stay-at-home mothers, later programs depicted the breakdown of the traditional family dealing in both fiction and nonfiction with divorce, remarriage, blended families, and later, with same-sex unions.
Not only did television provide scripted programming, but it also broadcasted major sporting events. The first televised hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens losing six-to-two to the New York Rangers in Madison Square Gardens was seen on February 25, 1940. Television is also closely associated with the increasing popularity of the Olympic games, soccer, American football, and baseball.
With technological improvements, viewing time increased as well as television’s influence on the public and politics. In 1947 there were only 60,000 American homes with television sets; by 1950 this figure grew to 12.5 million. Televisions are now found in nearly every home in the United States and Europe. In the developing world, the allure of television is so great that some want television before other communications devices such as telephones.
The hold of major networks on audiences soon dissipated with the advent of cable and specialty television programming. Rather than having a system where the networks catered to a common denominator of programming, the proliferation of specialty programs allowed people to view content that interested them specifically. Moving from analog to digital signals allowed for a so-called 500-channel universe where any specific interest could be satisfied, from golf to cooking; from sport to fashion; and from all news to pornography. As a result of these technological changes, the era of the mass audience was over. While there remain a few programs that can attain mass audiences, the market has been so fragmented that networks must compete for an ever-shrinking television audience.
Effects On Children
The rapid adoption of television fundamentally changed modern society. Television has been blamed for the decline in civil society, the breakdown of the family, suicide, mass murder, childhood obesity, and the trivializing of politics.
Children have been the target of broadcasters since the 1950s. Initially American broadcasters provided twenty-seven hours a week of children’s television programming. By the 1990s there was twenty-four hour a day programming available to children. Children in Canada spend fourteen hours per week (Statistics Canada) watching television, while American children spend twenty-one hours per week (Roberts et al. 2005, p. 34). Some surveys suggest that British children have the highest rate of television viewing in the world. There are several concerns associated with television and children’s viewing patterns. Many researchers have noted the link between the advent of television and increasing obesity and other weight-related illnesses. The time spent watching television is time not spent playing outdoors or in other physically challenging activities.
High television viewership of violence is linked to an increase in violent children. Prolonged exposure to violent television programming has shown that children can become more aggressive, become desensitized to violence, become accepting of violence as a means to solve problems, imitate violence viewed on television, and identify with either victims or victimizers.
Despite the negatives associated with television, it remains a powerful tool in shaping and educating children. While many point to the destructive nature of television, there are others who acknowledge television’s positive impact. Researchers and programmers have developed content that has positively influenced children. Early studies on the PBS program Sesame Street found that children who viewed the program were better readers in grade one than students who had not watched the program. Programs were developed not only to help with literacy, but with other subjects as well as socialization, problem solving, and civic culture.
Notwithstanding the positive effects of children and television viewing, high television viewing has been associated with a decline in civic culture. As people have retreated to their homes to watch television, they have been less inclined to participate in politics either by voting or by joining political parties. In addition television viewing means that people are not interacting as much with friends or neighbors. What is more, television viewing also has been associated with an overall decline in group participation as well as volunteerism.
Advertising And Ownership
The issue of ownership of content and transmission was debated from television’s onset. In 1927 the U.S. Radio Act declared public ownership of the airways. They argued that the airwaves should “serve the PICN—public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Because of this understanding of the public owning the airwaves, it set the stage for regulatory bodies around the world licensing stations according to content regulations. Taking the issue of public interest one step further, the British government founded the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1927. Other countries followed establishing their own public broadcasting systems. The United States lagged behind other nations by adopting a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1968. With the increasing adoption of television, many countries found the need to create new regulatory agencies. In the United States, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created as an act of Congress on June 19, 1934.
The most successful television enterprises are closely associated with advertising. From the outset the way in which television content was funded was through the pursuit of advertising dollars. As a result it has often been said that television does not bring content to audiences, but instead it brings audiences to advertisers. The propaganda model of the media, coined by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 publication Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, argues that the media uphold the dominant ideology in America. The five pillars of the model focus on ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak, and anticommunism. This model has been linked to other western media systems, but is most fitting in the United States where the power of the media rests with the owners.
Television’s hold on the public imagination stems in part because of its ease of transmission. No one needs any special skill to receive the messages. All that is required is a television that can pick up a signal. More important, television influences our view of the world precisely because images are transmitted into people’s homes. Since its inception, television transmissions have had the power to change our perceptions of world events. Starting with the Vietnam War and continuing to a myriad of events from the arms race to Tiananmen Square, and from the Civil Rights movement to the war in Iraq, television has become synonymous with the phrase “the whole world is watching.”
- Giltan, Todd. 1980. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Gunter, Barrie, and Jill L. McAleer. 1990. Children and Television: The One Eyed Monster? New York: Routledge.
- Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Liebert, Robert M., and Joyce Sprafkin. 1988. The Early Window: Effects of Television on Children and Youth. 3rd ed. New York: Pergamon Press.
- Postman, Neil. 1986. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books.
- Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Roberts, Donald F., Ulla G. Goehr, and Victoria Rideout. Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation Study, March 2005. http://www.kff.org/entmedia/7251.cfm.
- Signorielli, Nancy. 1991. A Sourcebook on Children and Television. New York: Greenwood Press.
- Statistics Canada. 2004. Average Hours per Week of TelevisionViewing by Children 2 to 11 Years. Table no. 5020002. http://www40.statcan.ca/l01/cst01/arts23.htm.
- Van Evra, Judith. 1990. Television and Child Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
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