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Video technology was developed as an adjunct to centralized television systems. Its widespread adoption since the 1970s has had the profound impact of integrating film and television culture into global everyday life. Initially many hoped that video technology would lead to greater diversity of programming and an expansion of television’s function beyond ephemeral entertainment and would empower the ordinary viewer. The empowerment that has occurred has increased cultural fragmentation and an isolation of viewers from each other. Thus video technology contributes to the general post-1970s trend of privatizing life spheres.
Video is not a precise term. It most commonly refers to those technologies that record or download electronic images, but the general reference to all electronic images remains. In analog systems the recording is achieved by breaking down reflected light into a series of electrical impulses typically recorded on a magnetic tape. In digital systems the electrical impulses are further refined by a computer into a series of numbers that are recorded and that can be retrieved by other computers and displayed as images.
The American corporation Ampex first demonstrated a working video recorder in 1956. In the early 1960s video technology was used for instant replays in sports and the breaking events of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. Video cameras and systems were developed for surveillance and other uses. The Japanese manufacturers took the lead in developing consumer video recorders. Sony introduced the V^-inch Portapack in 1965 and the 3/4-inch U-matic cassette system in 1969. These were adopted in the educational market and also in the adult film market. But it was in 1975 that the V2-inch cassette systems captured the global consumer market. At first there were two formats, Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS, but within five years VHS dominated. The digital versatile disc (DVD) became the dominant video format after its introduction in 1997.
The video revolution was sparked by a pent-up desire of people throughout the world to change their use of television. Television critics were scornful of television’s “vast wasteland” of poor choices in the United States and no choice in other countries. However, enhanced choice was a secondary reason for most VHS purchasers. The most important motivation was to watch shows at the time and place that was convenient for the viewers (time shifting). Thus video technology became part of the sociological phenomenon of a time crunch. This function of video was not imposed by corporations but was the result of a “consumption junction” (a term coined by Ruth Cowan in “The Consumption Junction” ) among users, manufacturers, and content providers.
There was some experimentation with original programming for video. But video’s overwhelming use was to extend the global market for Hollywood films and television shows and the mainstream values they convey, fitting a general pattern of “suppressing radical potential” (Winston 1998, p. 11). Raymond Williams’s concept of mobile privatization is an influential way to understand video use. He deduced that broadcasting was a culmination of a century-long pattern of privatizing popular culture. People use television to make their homes the center of their lives. Video dramatically accelerated this trend. The additions of downloading movie and television clips on the computer, the cell phone, and the I-pod have gone even further in the private viewing of filmed entertainment.
Diaspora communities use video technologies for ready access to their home cultures. However, this direct access has weakened specialized movie theaters and has lessened the opportunities for theater bookers to introduce the audience to unknown titles.
The art of filmmaking has changed. The mainstream American film industry dramatically merged into transnational media conglomerates attracted by the new video revenue (Wasser 2001). Video became the most important market, surpassing the theatrical box office. Story lines and characters are sold across a variety of media, from games to merchandise.
Video games have influenced narrative film aesthetics toward visceral effects that seduce the audience into experiencing the repetitive thrills and spills of movement and sound at the expense of character development and plot logic. To make people feel the experience of the movie, filmmakers have increasingly turned toward another aspect of video technology, computer generated images (CGI). Video shifted experimental filmmaking from the art house to the art gallery. Adult filmmaking is entirely in video.
Video technology has enabled the large trends of mass culture. On the industrial end, industries have consolidated. The promise of grassroots video making has rarely caught the mass public’s attention. One interesting example is the explosion of cheap fictional videos in Nigeria. On the consumer end, audiences have fragmented as viewers use video to facilitate a flexible work and leisure balance focused on consuming culture in isolated domestic spaces.
- Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. 1987. The Consumption Junction: A Proposal for Research Strategies in the Sociology of In The Social Construction of Technological Systems, eds. Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch, 261–280. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Levy, Mark R., ed. 1989. The VCR Age: Home Video and Mass Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
- Wasser, Frederick. 2001. Veni, Vidi, Video: The Hollywood Empire and the VCR. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Williams, Raymond. 1992. Television: Technology and Cultural Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. (Orig. pub. 1974).
- Winston, Brian. 1998. Media, Technology, and Society: A History. New York: Routledge.
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