WHAT ABOUT TELEVISION?
Television is NOT around the next corner . . . But here is a forecast of what it will bring—when—for whom—and at what cost
WHAT of television? This is one of the $64 questions agitating an impressive section of big business. Is it destined to repeat the Cinderella stories of the movies and radio? Will it prove to be one of the saviors of private enterprise in the postwar world? Will it take its place in an expanding economy by providing new jobs for millions, creating billions of dollars of new wealth?
Many able men have already answered these questions with a resounding “YES!” Niles Trammell, president of the National Broadcasting Company, recently predicted that television would become a $2 billion industry, with a coast-to-coast network by 1948 or 1950. Equally optimistic, Dr. Alfred N. Goldsmith, one of the United States’ foremost electronics engineers, has stated that the prices of postwar television receiving sets will range from $100 for a table outfit to $370 and up for a floor instrument with an 18 by 29 in. projector. One manufacturer is talking of selling home sets, which will project a 15 by 20 in. picture, for $150.
There you have three documented opinions. Other forecasts, which read as if P. T. Barnum, Jules Verne and Merlin had been brought together to collaborate, envision endless streams of fascinating scenes in motion pouring into 30, 40, 50 million homes; of television screens replacing advertising cards in trolley cars and buses, and the worlds of the theatre, movies and sports events being turned topsy-turvy.
But all these speculations do not answer the $64 question. Strangely enough, gentle reader, there is only one person who can answer that question and that person is yourself: you and your family and your neighbors. You don’t know the answer yet, of course. Nevertheless, from you and you alone will come the answer as to whether television is a potent medium of entertainment, with revolutionary social, cultural and industrial potentialities, or whether it is something else again.
With the U. S. Federal Communications Commission holding a watching brief on your behalf on one side of the border, and the Canadian Broadcasting Commission doing the same on the other, it will be for you to decide whether you like what television has to offer enough to want to have its programs in your home.
For some time at least Canadians may have little more than an academic interest in television. Dr. Augustin Frigon, General Manager of the CBC, said recently: “Television would probably not be avail-
able to the general public for another 15 or 20 years.” By this statement he is understood to have meant that there will be no general Canada-wide television service comparable to the present radio service available soon to Canadians everywhere in this country. Large centres of population may, however, be served earlier.
Dr. Frigon undoubtedly had in mind the fact that the range of a television broadcast at present is limited to about the distance that the eye can see over the curvature of the globe. Put the transmitter on a mountain top and you may have an effective range of 100 miles about it. Give it a tall tower on a city building and the range may be only 40 miles. This is because the ultrashort waves used for television are not reflected back to earth from the
Heaviside layer, from which present longer radio waves bounce. They penetrate it and are lost in space. Therefore, unless new discoveries are made in telecasting methods Canada will need many times as many television stations as it has radio stations to give an equivalent service.
In the meantime experiments in television broadcasting seem likely to be confined in the United States to areas where population is concentrated, such as the Boston-New York-Washington region. Chicago and Los Angeles.
On the other hand the American Telephone and Telegraph Company has already published its plans for a coaxial cable network to cover the Unit«! States, and the British Government Committee on Television announced, as early as last February, a scheme to make television available to 85% of the population of the British Isles. Furthermore, there are no technical obstacles in the way of local television stations operating independently of networks just as many radio stations do today. Television transmitters at Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit are possibilities and such stations would bring southwestern Ontario within range of the new medium. In any case television, once the remaining bugs have been removed, has bewildering possibilities, which may profoundly affect the lives of all of us.
By “bugs” I mean any of the technical problems, regulatory limitations or other difficulties that now stand in the way of the immediate all-out commercial exploitation of television. These bugs are many and are related to every aspect of the medium: engineering, economic and aesthetic.
Bug No. One is priority. With the war neither material nor manpower is available for large-scale commercial development. So far as its industrial growth is concerned, television is stalemated until the end of the war and for an indeterminate period thereafter. Some observers place the time lags at a few months, others at three or four years.
Bug No. Two is due to engineering problems in such matters as frequencies, channels, standards, transmission, cable or radio-repeater networks, and the perfecting of reasonably priced, efficient receiving sets.
These technical problems are formidable but there is no reason to doubt their eventual and perhaps speedy solution. In fact wartime research has already solved some of them.
For example, before the United States entered the war, network television seemed to be in the far distant future. Although a coaxial cable capable of transmitting television programs by land wire had been installed between New York and Philadelphia, it was a costly investment and troublesome to operate.
The cable is really a long metal tube, within which is suspended another carefully insulated conductor capable of carrying a very high range of frequencies in electric signals, far more than the ordinary telephone wire can. Even so, groups of coaxial cables would probably have to be used for transmission of a single program.
To provide facilities for the NBC operation, AT&T has announced its intention to build a
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nation-wide coaxial network, or its equivalent, as soon as the necessary equipment can be manufactured and “demand justifies its provision.” The Telephone Company’s plans call for the completion of the New YorkWashington leg in 1945 and in 1946 extensions between New York-Boston, | Washington-Charlotte, Chicago-Terre Haute-St Louis, and Los AngelesPheonix. A southern transcontinental route to connect the east and west installations is projected for 1947 and final completion of a United States grid by 1948 to 1950.
Network television, therefore, may be just around the corner. But even before it gets well under way the rival radio relay system may render wired transmission obsolete. For today the General Electric Company has in operation a radio relay tower system by means of which television programs are transmitted automatically from Schenectady to New York, or about 150 miles. NBC has announced its plans to establish a New York-Washington-Boston service as soon as war exigencies permit.
However, whether wire or radio relay, a television network is feasible from an engineering standpoint. All that is needed is the FCC go-ahead, money and materials.
The engineering knowledge also exists to build reasonably priced and reasonably good receiving sets, or “televisers,” as the trade seems disposed to call them. By reasonably priced sets I mean sets that will sell from $200 to $300; by reasonably good, ¡ sets able to receive existing television ! signals without pronounced distortion and to project an image large enough to j be viewed without pronounced concentration and consequent eyestrain.
Pre-war sets, of which some 10,000 were sold or distributed before Pearl Harbor, met neither of these conditions satisfactorily. Since manufacture was halted soon after the United States joined in the war, these are the only sets in the hands of the public. At best they can be described as passable. The image or picture is clear enough when clear but clarity is far from constant. Fading is frequent and the image has a tendency to become distorted at outer edges, and, for that matter, even in I the centre, where close-ups of the human face remind one a little of one’s first snapshot portrait of Nellie, the beautiful fire horse.
In addition interference will cause the image to ripple like reflections in a pool of water and in some neighborhoods viewers are troubled by ghosts— delayed images, caused by reflected waves, which float like pieces of stray ectoplasm across the screen. More distressing, however, is the size of the image. This is limited in pre-war sets by the size of the cathode-ray tube in ! which the image is formed at 7)-^ by 10 in. Viewing it is like watching an animated picture postcard.
But these technical bugs appear to j be no more than temporary. I have I watched televised movies on a receiving set which projected a 14 by ! 20 in. image, an experience much the ■ same as a séance of home movies. Similar sets are already possible for home use.
The Big Fight
More pressing from the commercial angle than technical quirks is the problem of finding enough channels to satisfy all those who want to become television broadcasters. Because of the multiplicity of signals it uses television requires a much larger chunk of the
broadcast spectrum than radio. Yet it is at present limited to 18 channels, each six megacycles wide, lying between 50 and 294 megacycles, or up among the ultrashort waves. By moving television still higher among the microwaves more and wider channels would be made available; better definition could be obtained by adding more lines per picture, and eventually color, which has been established experimentally, could be added.
However, there is a bug about moving to the microwaves. While the technical problems of black and white television have been pretty well solved, the shift to the high frequencies would require additional research and experiment before further commercial development is possible. The shift would also mean junking the existing sets and most of the existing transmitting equipment in which, together, about $20 million is said to have been invested.
The great question now agitating the embryonic television industry is whether the present standards will be frozen or whether they will be altered. Freezing would enable the industry to forge ahead as soon as materials become available: alteration would mean delay and scrapping the existing investment. Studying the whole question is a body of independent and industry engineers known as the Radio Technical Planning Board. Six months or a year or two years from now, this board will recommend to the FCC the allocation of the radio waves among such diverse claimants as standard and short-wave broadcasting, television, frequency modulation, press and police facsimile, aviation, electronic heating, police and railway communications, radio telegraph and so forth.
In the meantime the RCA-NBC interests, with a $12 million stake in television and control of the most important basic patents on equipment built to existing standards, are urging that these standards be frozen for a reasonable period to allow the embryonic industry to become less embryonic. Millions of potential buyers are pictured as waiting to tear sets from the dealers’ hands and RCA, along with an important section of the industry, asks the go-ahead to take advantage of this potential market. Opposing this majority point of view is the Columbia Broadcasting System, RCA and NBC’s old radio rival, which advocates a policy of waiting until promising technical improvements can be realized and commercially proven.
The principal bone of contention in this argument over standards has to do with linage. The television picture is somewhat like a newspaper engraving in that it is composed of individual dots arranged in a series of straight lines. These dots created by electrical impulses are so close together that individual dots are not apparent to the naked eye but together they create a picture. Examine any black and white half tone in this issue of Maclean’s and you will see what I mean.
The illusion of motion is created just as it is in the movies: by presenting a succession of slightly different still pictures many times a second. The movies use 24 pictures to the second: television 60. In television the separate dots which build up each picture are transmitted by individual tiny valves, each of which propagates its individual impulse to contribute to the composite whole. By increasing the number of dots or lines per picture it is possible to secure a much clearer picture, just as in printing.
When the change was made from
mechanical scanning to the electroniceye in 1936, NBC started its operations with a 343-line picture. This was stepped up to 441 lines in 1939 and to 525 lines in 1941. Each was an improvement on what had gone before and each required more complicated equipment. The position has now been reached where it is possible, or soon will be possible, to televise pictures using 750 lines, and 1,000 lines are within the realm of possibility.
Why all the argument then? The answer seems to lie in the fact that the 750-line picture, while proven experimentally, is not yet commercially practical. To make it so in terms of mass production may take from six months to even two or three years. Those who are arguing for 750 lines naturally place the research interval at a minimum: those who wish to proceed with 525 say the delay may set the industry back five years.
Furthermore, 525-line television uses 250,000 picture elements or separate electronic impulses but 750 lines would require 585,000. If color were used the number would jump to 900,000. If only 18 channels can be provided in the ultrashort-wave band for 525-line television made up of 250,000 impulses it is obvious that 750 lines would permit less than half the number of channels and color less than a third. To accommodate the increased linage a shift to the higher frequencies or microwaves would be virtually obligatory, but such a change in frequencies would render obsolescent the 7,000 home sets already bought by pioneers, and nine television broadcasters who have invested millions of dollars in the same number of transmitters would have to start from scratch again.
Only the FCC can say which it will be, 525 or 750, and the Commission’s final judgment will not be rendered until the Radio Technical Planning Board’s report is in, though the FCC Chairman, James E. Fry, has said that “the green light for commercial television will be steadily maintained.’’
More interesting even than the controversy itself or the technical questions it raises are the conflicting interests it reveals between patent holders, set manufacturers and television broadcasters. To these rivalries should be added those provided by the motion picture industry, theatre owners, newspaper and magazine publishers, advertisers and advertising agencies, and many of the organized union groups within these various industries.
Who Pays the Shot?
But even when the technical and industrial problems have been examined the real bugs in television haven’t yet been touched. The real bugs are the economic and aesthetic. Who is going to pay for television? Obviously the consumer. But how? And what is the consumer going to get?
One thing seems fairly certain. In its initial stages, in the U. S. at least, television will be controlled, like radio, by the more powerful broadcasters and advertisers. Although a most potent cultural weapon it will be developed essentially as a commercial instrument.
So far as I have been able to discover, no college, university, educational foundation, or any social or cultural group is spending any money on it or showing any evidence of interest in it. Manufacturers, broadcasters, advertising agencies, department stores, magazine and newspaper publishers, independent film producers and Hollywood are all in television, preparing to get into it, or holding watching briefs— everyone apparently except the educators.
The youthful industry, on this side
of the water at least, is following the pattern of development, of the movies and the radio. For every $10 that has gone into technical development and promotion, less than a thin 50-cent piece, in all probability, has been spent on creative effort or talent.
From the big money standpoint the retort is obvious: What was good
enough for the movies and radio will be good enough for television. It is admitted that television is very young and that most of its studio time has had to be devoted to mastering its unbelievably cumbersome mechanics of production. These are 10 times more complicated than radio; many times less flexible and adaptable than the movies. Until these mechanics are brought under control—the trundling around of unwieldy cameras, the changing of sets, the direction of the horde of cameramen, dolly pushers, screen scanners and engineers—what goes on the air must seem of less importance than how it gets there.
To pass over the program work of NBC or CBS in New York or, more lately, that of General Electric in Schenectady would be unfair. Each has spent much time and money in getting together television programs, but the tendency has been to use whatever came most cheaply to hand.
Whatever the reasons the present level of television programs is well below that which a travelling motion picture truck operator would consider remotely passable for a tour of the most remote areas in the Quebec backwoods; in short, a most dubious foundation for a $2 billion industry. Ancient travel films and antiquated movie shorts are interlarded with third-rate vaudeville acts, radio skits, cookery demonstrations and radio news commentaries.
Such tidbits of entertainment, together with belabored dramatized visual commercials, constitute television’s present-day fare. This will obviously have to be improved, but how? An enthusiast would immediately answer: by transmitting all sorts of interesting sports and news events instantaneously, so that you can enjoy the thrill of immediacy by watching these events while they are actually going on.
(Keep your eyes peeled, reader, for these words instantaneously and immediacy. Much may hang upon them—the ultimate control of television perhaps —and millions of dollars will be spent to convince you of their virtue and importance.)
Those who see television as the transmitter of the immediate undoubtedly have something on their side. Before the war BBC probably carried the art of the television events broadcasting farther than any other experimenters. The material was organized with a sense of artistic continuity and dramatic buildup.
But when you have listed sports and pageants, events that draw vast numbers of spectators, you have listed television’s one unique quality as a medium of entertainment. Today events are brought to us instantaneously over the radio and later by the newsreels. I n television sight and sound are brought instantaneously. The advantage is obvious; it is more exciting to watch a winner at the instant of winning than to learn about it afterward.
With this single exception, however, television, as a medium of entertainment, is likely to prove inferior to the stage, radio or screen.
Except for the quality of immediacy, television can bring you nothing more than a change in the locale in which
you seek your entertainment. Hence the importance of the word immediacy. The great radio broadcasting networks have been sustained very largely by convincing the listening public that ‘‘live’’ programs are greatly superior to "transcriptions.” Actually the transcriptions can be much better, but if the illusion can be carried over into television the broadcasters will be able to maintain their important position in the worlds of advertising and entertainment.
I f the networks fail to sell the public on the virtues of immediacy, television will probably be provided by independent stations, owned or controlled in some combination by newspaper publishing and motion picture interests, and will rely largely on films for its programs. These assumptions are based on the nature of television itself and are confirmed by the applications received by the FCC for television outlets. These include the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal. The magazines Time and Life have shown an interest in television by buying into the Scophony Corporation, and various motion picture companies, notably Paramount, 20th Century-Fox and RKO, are either forming television alliances or experimenting on their own. Another group which shows a more than academic interest in television is the department store, which sees in the new medium a chance to display their goods inside the home.
The dependence of television on the film seems to be inherent in the nature of the device itself. Except for contests, in which suspense is the dominant interest, there is nothing that can be done in a television studio which cannot be done better by the more deliberate methods of the motion picture studio.
In any case it would be foolish to expect television to be like radio with sight added. One reason is that most radio programs are deadly dull to watch; another is the costs. Except for high-priced talent, time and wire charges, radio is an extremely inexpensive medium: the cheapest in per capita terms. Only a director and engineer are needed to put on a show; the actors do not need to learn their lines; the listener imagines the costumes and the sets. In television 10 technicians are needed for every one in radio; sets and costumes must be provided; actors must learn their lines, not scene by scene as in the movies, but all of a piece, as in the theatre.
A first-class radio dramatic show can be put together for a few hundred dollars, including script, cast and music. A Hollywood Class B movie eats up from $100,000 to $400,000. Soap operas must remain aural or go, and with them the dramatized news programs, documentaries, historical dramatizations and so forth. Television will thus be faced with great sustaining and commercial voids, which it cannot conceivably fill because creative talent will be relatively very limited.
Which brings us back to the question; who is going to foot the bill and how? Even supposing that superior television programs become available, will they be able to compete with our gregarious natures, our desire to get outside the home and go places? And if they can keep us at home, will they be able to compete with the home itself? Radio now furnishes a sometimes pleasant background for home activities. Television will require concentrated attention, with the baby stilled and the lights turned out. And if it can do these things—if it can keep us at home but make us behave as though we were in
the neighborhood theatre—what will happen to the neighborhood theatre and the economic complex it represents?
These are questions for which no one has any certain answers. The television industry is proceeding on the assumption that it will be supported, as radio has been, by advertising. To foster this hope free or low cost time has been made available to advertisers and many of them are experimenting with visual commercials.
The possibilities are so horrible as to require no elaboration. It seems more than a little ironical that television, the newest of sales media, should find itself reviving the oldest of sales techniques: those of the pitch man and medicine hawker; or visual display plus spoken persuasion. Together with dramatized stories revealing the virtues of deodorants, cleansing agents, vitamins and laxatives, and perpetually conducted tours through a never-ending Canadian National Exhibition, these are the forms television commercials will inevitably take. Color will help enormously, of course, but even with that added it is not at all clear how the biggest radio advertisers—the soap, laxative, chewing gum, cigarette and cosmetic people—will gain much by being able to display their products as well as talk and sing about them.
Granted that all this analysis is wrong, and that advertisers will want to embrace television as they have radio, there is still the matter of costs. These are so formidable that advertising alone may not be able to support them on the lavish scale it now supports radio. The television set owner will probably have to pay in part for what he gets, in which case television will become half commercial and half social, as radio now is in Canada. The two extremes from this position would be for it to become completely socialized, as radio is in Britain, or completely commercialized, as magazines and newspapers are in Canada and the U. S. In the latter case the broadcasters would receive revenue both from circulation and advertising, as publishers do now.
What is to be the outcome of all this? That is anybody’s guess but the only person who can give a final, definite answer is yourself, gentle reader. The future of television is largely in the hands of the buying public.
However, what seems likely to
happen is this: The novelty of television, and the natural curiosity about it, whetted by very fancy and effective promotion, will probably sell enough sets to get the ball rolling. Whether that means 100,000 or 1,000,000 sets there is no way of telling, but it will be enough to create an impression of indefinite expansion. To service this pioneer audience heroic efforts will be made to provide live television programs. If this attempt should prove successful then television will assume the pattern of radio, but on a much less extensive scale; that is, there will be fewer stations, and less continuous broadcasting.
If the attempt to provide live programs fails, as this observer is convinced it must, the failure will be accompanied by the increasing use of film, and at some point along the line the film makers, rather than the broadcasters, will become the dominating influence, commercially and culturally.
Here the baffling problem of the pay-off again arises and the only apparent solution is by metered television or reception on a subscription basis. Both systems are possible. The Scophony Corporation of America, controlled largely by Paramount and 20th Century-Fox, recently patented a scrambling device which will make it possible for a broadcaster to send out programs only to special subscribers. According to its inventor, Dr. A. H. Rosenthal, the unscrambling mechanism is simple and could be changed by keys mailed to subscribers at intervals. With 5,000,000 subscribers paying 10 cents a week, revenues of $500,000 weekly would be available. Half a million dollars weekly will buy quite a bit of entertainment, even in Hollywood.
It seems probable that television will have to make its set owners pay for what they get. Since programs will come to them directly in their homes unpredictable psychological factors will arise to produce problems with which neither publishers, broadcasters nor movie moguls have had to deal. Paying for their programs set owners may not like the stuff the industry is prepared to give them and will institute direct social controls, at which point television will belatedly be seen for what* it is: a social rather than a commercial medium.
When that vision comes to television we shall have at our command the greatest instrument for education, enlightenment and entertainment that man has ever known.