IN 1981, I spent a month with a friendly family in a small town in Guatemala. As in most homes, life fell into a regular, comfortable pattern. A day at work followed by a dinner of frijoles (black beans) and rice and then an evening in front of the television set
The food was simple and a little repetitive: we would probably have had frijoles for lunch and indeed for breakfast. But the fare on the television set was, if anything, even more predictable and certainly more difficult to stomach, The early evening hours were filled with Mexican and Argentinian soap operas with much rolling of eyes and beating of breasts. The advertisements that came along with them would often be old American detergent pitches crudely dubbed into Spanish; then every ten minutes or so we would be assailed by singing rancheros, portly Mexican cowboys who would let fly with a raucous K-Tel type selection of all-time favourites.
But there were a few technical problems. A small country like Guatemala finds itself on the end of the list for all the programmes being recycled around the continent. And constant attaching and detaching of the ads to the programmes seemed to have produced a progressive shortening of the dramas such that they often lost their opening and closing titles. One serial would stray unannounced into another and offer an endless and anonymous stream of unfaithful husbands, strange illnesses, unwanted pregnancies and mistaken identity.
Guatemala was clearly being subjected to an overpowering dose of 'media imperialism' — caught in a pincer movement between the sequinned rancheros waddling down from Mexico City and the angst-ridden matrons of Buenos Aires marching up from the south.
And yet no-one seemed to care where the people, or even the programmes, came from. Señor Jimenez, the head of the household, would chew indifferently on his beans, with one eye on his plate and the other on the screen. His wife and daughter in the same kind of abstract way would discuss the attack of gripe that had laid low the youngest child. To me the remarkable thing was that the TV should hold their attention at all. When they walked outside on the street it would not be at all unusual to have bullets whistle past their noses. Guatemala was — and still is — in the middle of a civil war— an altogether more palpable drama than the ones flickering limply in front of them on the screen.
And yet you could see their point. An evening round the television in those circumstances has a lot to recommend it, whatever the programmes. Everywhere in the world, in fact, this is TV's strongest selling point: secure communication to individuals who are both sealed off from one another and yet magically plugged into the rest of the world.
Television will perform this trick, offer its friendly reassurance, regardless of the programme that it throws up on the screen. The whole history of television has been that of a medium rather than a message; systems for TV transmission were designed long before anyone had any real idea of what the content would be. This was quite unlike the birth of other media Newspapers grew out of eighteenth century political broadsheets which appeared because there were ideas people wanted to spread. And telegraph and radio systems had their origins in the need to transmit rapidly and accurately all kinds of military and commercial information.
But right from the start television was designed as a piece of furniture that would make every home complete. Gifted inventors had, of course, played their part: John Logie Baird gave the first demonstration of an electronically-transmitted moving picture back in 1926. But it was the prospective manufacturers of the equipment who forced the pace-driven by the vision of a set in every home. In the USA it was RCA which took the leading role. And in the United Kingdom, it was a system developed by EMI with which the British Broadcasting Corporation launched, in 1936, the world's first public high-definition TV service.
The TV set took its place alongside the car and the washing machine in the new industrial society. And though it is usually described a 'mass' medium in reality it goes not to the masses at all but to discrete individuals.
The development of programmes came some time later. In its early days television could do little but live parasitically from the media that had preceded it; the newspapers, the music halls and the concert halls. For although it had a function to serve it had little new to say.
And this sense of the medium ahead of the message is much the same way that TV has spread in the Third World. Most countries have bought their hardware in complete packages of studios and transmitters from Western electronics companies. The pressure from the salesmen has been fierce, particularly in lucrative markets like Nigeria In 1959 the Western Region Government bought a British system from Overseas Rediffusion. In 1961 the Northern State made a similar deal with two other British companies, EMI and Granada But then in 1962, when it came to the federal system, it was NBC from the United States which won the contract.
Having bought the system what do you put on the screen? Even a modest local programme can cost $1,000 an hour to make, so the smallest countries find themselves in a difficult position, There are just as many hours in an Algerian day as there are in an American one, but not as much money to spend on them. So faced with 2,000 or more empty hours a year it's not surprising that .Radiodiffusion Television Algerienne is tempted to snap up a job lot of L'homme de fer (Ironside) for around $200 an episode.
To leave the programme as a casual afterthought may seem irresponsible. But in fact this is the way that the viewers use the equipment as well. At the end of a nerve-racking day the TV provides the least demanding form of adult entertainment. And parents will need no reminding of the easiest way to keep their children quiet. Viewers of all ages can be lowered into an almost trance-like state and will hop absent-mindedly from one channel to another with a lack of continuity and discrimination that would be seen as close to madness if we reproduced it in face to face conversation,
It is primarily the medium that we want. But there are messages coming through as well: football matches, political speeches, game shows and news broadcasts — and in extraordinary quantities. By the time he or she is twenty, according to one estimate, the average American will have spent the equivalent of eight working years watching television, How much of this wealth of information, so avidly sought. will actually be retained?
Not much. A survey in the US by Russell Neumann, for example, showed that 50 per cent of his subjects could recall nothing of that night's news broadcast. And a report in Denmark concluded that 'even when viewers are tested directly after a news programme the most frequent result is that those tested get two and a half questions right out of 12. Survey after survey shows that we retain almost nothing of the factual information we get
It should be added that much the same thing happens with radio news as well. A study in Kenya in 1980 found that, even when a news broadcast was listened to in a controlled classroom setting, the listeners were questioned immediately afterwards could usually recall less than three of thirteen items.
There is something very peculiar going on. We seem to have a great compulsion to watch news broadcasts but take on board very little of what is said. Why should this be? At the simplest level you could say that the newsreader's essential function is to provide companionship, dispelling isolation at the flick of a switch. That might explain why we tune in but not why we keep watching; for a friend to keep you company you do not need to look at them the whole time.
To find the communication that is taking place you have to see things at a different level. Our TV terminal does not just connect us with the outside world. It also shows us our place in that world; it acts as a constant point of reference.
You can see this most easily with dramatic fiction. Why can a Guatemalan family watch an English costume drama like Poldark (dubbed into Spanish) or an Argentinian soap opera— with equal absorption. They do not want to know anything about nineteenth century England or twentieth century Argentina What they do want to see is people acting out for them in public the dramas and tensions in their own daily lives-the struggles between good and evil, right and wrong,
To understand any abstract idea it is easier for us if it takes on a concrete form outside our own minds-just as it is easier to work on an arithmetic problem with a pencil and paper in front of us. So the intricacies of Smilies People and the sentimentality of Fame place before us aspects of our own lives that we can work on and test our ideas against. That might sound a little too active for your normal posture, slumped in front of the set, but the process of reaction is involuntary. If the programmes didn't mean anything to us in this way- if they were of no use-they would stand little chance of keeping our attention.
But where does documentary television fit into this? How can objective news reports constantly provide us with a set of values against which we can judge our own? To make any sense of this you have to accept, however reluctantly, that the Nine o'clock News is just as synthetic as any episode of Fame. The stories may be different — conflicts between right and left, rich and poor, East and West — but the dramatic nature remains much the same.
This is not to say that the news bulletins, like those of Radio Moscow, are written as propaganda: this we would not accept as news. The dramatic statements in our news are built into the items themselves — in their selection and the way they are treated.
Unless you live in Colombia, for example, you will not want to know that six people have been killed in a multiple car crash outside Bogota. But if one American missionary is captured by guerrillas then you will be interested, because it will mean something to you and allow you to test your ideas about guerrillas or missionaries, or both. Having used the information you can then promptly forget it.
As for the treatment of any item, the editors of the TV news will make a thousand decisions for you every day. How, for example, do you film a riot between blacks and the police in Brixton, London? Do you take your shots from over the heads of the police or over the heads of the protestors? The world is messy and complicated. To make sense on television it has to be tidied up and organised for you in one way or another. They may all look like shots of real life but the synthesis you get is unavoidably one point of view.
When TV is looked at in this way you can understand how easy it is to jump from an opera to a quiz show to a news bulletin: we use all the programmes in much the same way. Some will be more expertly produced than others. A 'good' programme is one that both challenges us and invites us to make sense of it— Monty Python perhaps. Generally however the standard is lower and the makers will avoid the risk of confusing the audience. This is particularly true when that audience has to be delivered to an advertiser. It is interesting, for example, that if you watch M*A*S*H on American commercial TV the jokes are signalled by the addition of canned laughter. The highbrow viewers of the minority BBC2 channel in the UK manage the same programme without such assistance: it is assumed that they will not be perplexed by subtlety or even if they are it doesn't matter since the channel is noncommercial.
But whether we laugh or cry while watching TV, few of our judgements will be made consciously. This is quite different from the process of reading a book or a magazine where you actively build up a mental picture as you go along, Reading this article this far (applause) you will have to have thought once or twice — and agreed or disagreed as the argument unfolded. It would have been difficult to present the same case on television, where— as we have seen— abstract ideas have usually to be acted out by analogy.
Yet it is strange how often you see a TV programme on a serious issue treated as though it were merely an illustrated verbal press article — loaded with facts and figures which the guilty viewer realises, if he or she thinks at all, are going in one ear and out the other.
What then should the serious viewer do? Do we actively try to think while we watch? Well, we can try, and this magazine will perhaps be of some help. But the best way to approach TV is to be generally sceptical - not to take on trust the authoritative voices from your set. Specious authority is TV's stock in trade - with its preconceived ideas cunningly authenticated by carefully chosen shots of the real world.
An understanding of the day-today techniques, the basic grammar of television production, is a useful skill for any viewer. More positively, however, we should try to ensure that the tricks of the trade are put at the disposal of as many points of view as possible. If TV is, for better or worse, our constant point of reference then the people who choose those points are in a powerful position.
This special report appeared in the behind the screen - the tricky world of television issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.