In 1962 Canadian critic and social observer Marshall McLuhan declared that modern electronic communications were turning the planet into a “global village.” The evidence in Television, a 13-part British history of the medium, demonstrates that the box with the hypnotic face has done more than any other phenomenon to support McLuhan’s contention.
Television points out that an estimated 2V2 billion people now watch 650 million sets in 162 countries. And because of the dominance of the American television industry, many of those viewers watch the same programs, from Superbowl football to reruns of I Love Lucy. As Television makes clear, the “global village” has come to mean the dominance of U.S. pop culture. Unfortunately, such insights are rare in the series. Caught up in the medium’s tendency to superficiality, Television is less an in-depth study than a grab-bag of potent images from the past.
Those images reflect every facet of what comedian Spike Milligan once referred to as television’s “Jekyll and Hyde face.” The series examines everything from soap operas to the making of educational programs in rural India. But its comprehensiveness demands that Television flit from topic to topic like an electronic butterfly. The introductory program, Visions of Power, establishes that hectic pace with a whirlwind preview of what is to come. The second adopts a more comfortable gait with its intriguing look at John Logie Baird, the Scot who fashioned the first television out of a bicycle lamp and an old tea chest in the 1920s. But the rest of the series returns to the speedy tabloid format, sandwiching brief fragments of interviews between moving historical footage, including shots of the 1969 moon walk.
Television’s effectiveness as a historical scrapbook reaches its peak in the fourth program, which examines the history and practice of news broadcasting. The scenes of a nervous Senator Joe McCarthy, quailing as his fellow American senators question him in 1954, are utterly absorbing. The series shows that McCarthy’s downfall—and the end of his destructive witch-hunt for Communists—was aided by television reporter Edward R. Murrow’s exposure of the senator’s smear tactics. Television’s fifth instalment further examines the
political power of the medium when it contends that images from Southeast Asia helped turn Americans against the Vietnam War. The program claims that the sight of their fellow countrymen dying convinced viewers that they were fighting an unwinnable war. It is a point that invites discussion, but Television,
typically, does not follow it up.
Still, the series does look more seriously into some matters of importance, such as the effects of television violence on young people. But even those attempts tend to lack a clear focus: often it seems that the content has been written to fit the available footage. Those lapses render Television’s praise of the medium suspect. In the end, viewers must decide for themselves whether television is an opiate of the masses or an instrument of true illumination.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.