Tag - television

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The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process.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.


@NYTimesDowd: Missing the Details -v- Missing The Point

Dowd_New-articleInlineSo at least Maureen Dowd agrees with me that things get dicey when Hollywood justifies rearranging established facts with the rationale that fact-twisting serves some auteur’s artistic purpose.

In her column in Sunday’s New York Times, Ms. Dowd takes screenwriter Tony Kushner and Director Stephen Spielberg to task for their version of the vote on the 13th Amendment in their movie Lincoln:

Hollywood always wants it both ways, of course, but this Oscar season is rife with contenders who bank on the authenticity of their films until it’s challenged, and then fall back on the “Hey, it’s just a movie” defense…

…And then there’s the kerfuffle over “Lincoln,” which had three historical advisers but still managed to make some historical bloopers. Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, recently wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that “Lincoln” falsely showed two of Connecticut’s House members voting “Nay” against the 13th Amendment for the abolition of slavery…

…I’m a princess-and-the-pea on this issue, but I think Spielberg should refilm the scene or dub in “Illinois” for “Connecticut” before he sends out his DVDs and leaves students everywhere thinking the Nutmeg State is nutty.

Maureen’s feathers were ruffled by the rearranging of some the historical details in Oscar contenders Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty, which the various filmmakers all rationalize as within the bounds of dramatic license. She quotes Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner:

He said that in historical movies, as opposed to history books where you go for “a blow-by-blow account,” it is completely acceptable to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn’t always organize itself according to the rules of drama.

OK, so Kushner and his colleagues think it’s OK to make stuff up on the fringes if it ultimately serves the heart of the story. I suppose that’s arguable.

But when Maureen quotes Kushner speaking of manipulating “a small detail,” I can’t help but wonder what she would think of Aaron Sorkin (whom she dated in some past life), who twisted historical facts in The Farnsworth Invention to the point of missing the point altogether.

The true story of the origins of television – and the unbridled genius who first delivered it unto this world out of his 14 year old brain – has long been obscured by a veil of corporate intrigue and denial.

So it was exciting to learn a couple of weeks ago that the veil would be lifted some, now that the Television in Academy in Hollywood has posthumously elected Philo T. Farnsworth to its Hall of Fame.

Now guess who the Academy has asked to present the induction to the Farnsworth family at a banquet in Hollywood next month. Why, none other than Aaron Sorkin!

Should be very interesting. I have received an invitation and my flight is booked. I can hardly wait.