TV is a multifarious instrument which is best described as ‘history all at once and not at all’. It is by and large alienating
, yet we still see it as the locus of the global village. It is empowering if only because all the messages are accessible, and we
decide when to watch and what to watch.
Television acts as history's archive. It was the television lens that filtered the Vietnam War, the Immaculate Reception, the Exxon Valdez, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. How would those of us who missed that episode of Seinfeld (in my opinion, and obviously that of many others, Seinfeld - along with the Simpsons - is the best programme on television) ever catch on to the "Bubbleboy" joke?
Today, cable TV stations broadcast sitcoms and commercials from earlier decades that play as ironic relics from a crude and naïve culture.
The medium continually allows for a re-broadcasting, re-visiting, and re-contextualizing of our cultural moments.
Some critics argue that television birthed the Postmodern condition, creating a realm in which we are alienated from each other personally, but recognize each other in the fears and stereotypes writ large across the small screen. The massive reach of televison broadcasting gives rise to a monitoring of our collective consciousness that has been matched by no other art form. As we watch, we all share the same pair of eyes. We see Rodney King on a L.A. highway; aerial shots of SWAT teams escorting students from a mid-western school; fictional dramas played out between beloved characters; game shows won by people eerily similar to ourselves.
In short, television offers the vocabulary for a large part of our cultural dialogue. The cancellation of a popular series can send our culture into mourning. Who didn’t cry when Seinfeld said goodbye to the world after its ninth season to the sound of Green Day's "The Time Of Your Life"? In moments like this, television seems to slow time down, or at least, to extend it. In no other medium can we follow the development characters and relationships over such lengths of time.
Of course, television also speeds up the passage of time, as we measure time in increments of thirty minute sitcoms. Unlike feature films, television has explored a shortened collage style of representation. To capture the light speed attention spans of the late twentieth century, producers and artists have created new art forms such as music videos, flashy advertisements, documentaries that chronicle 200 years of history in an hour, and real life dramas that offer rapid jump cuts of police chases and daring rescues. More recently, we have been overwhelmed with a series of fly on the wall programs such as Temptation Island or Popstars. We see footage of actual events, but it is a record of life as witnessed by no one: film editors construct the sequence of events and our understandings of their consequences, and voiceovers are our storytellers. Indeed, television is a telling representative of the patchworked psyche of our modern state.
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