Williams questions

I thought this book was interesting because it not only provided a historical account of television but also a cultural one that explored content and effects. We’re told how American broadcast corporations obfuscated what freedom of the airwaves really meant (32) and were able to stop TV from being nationalized (29). At the same time, Williams describes the “forms” present on television and makes some normative claims about which succeed and which are undesirable. Anyway, there were two areas in particular that I found most interesting and that necessitated questions:

1. It’s clear that Williams is not a determinist; he also devoted a section to disputing the work of McLuhan, calling some of his theories “arbitrarily assigned” (130) and “ludicrous” (131). McLuhan’s famous phrase was of course: “the medium is the message,” which suggests that people are affected by the technology irrespective of content. I felt that Williams himself testified to this very phenomenon when he was watching American TV in Miami. He claims it was a “difficult experience to interpret”… and that [he] can still not be sure of what [he] took from the whole flow (92). He was confused at the flow and pacing of films, commercials and other content blending together. He also says that a burgeoning phenomenon entails viewers stating that they’re just watching television, and not watching “‘the news, a ‘play,’ or ‘the football'” (94). He then attributes television’s power to the “primary processes of the technology itself” (76). Do you think that these and some other statements in the book suggest that maybe McLuhan was on to something, that content can indeed be superfluous?

2. Williams refers to the TV fulfilling a role as an “inferior kind of cinema” (22), due to its “immediate technical deficits” (23). People simply watch it because it is in the home, and the “social advantages” outweigh the poor quality (23). But what if the layman can’t determine the technical differences? How nuanced does the television have to be in order to reproduce films? The small screen apparently cannot do justice to battle and storm scenes (59), but what of that? Does that presuppose that what people try to get out of film is simply an exquisite look? What happened to a focus on a solid and engaging story that requires less cinematography? And finally, would Williams praise TVs in the 21st century, given their vast improvements over their 70’s ancestors?


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