Watching us watching it

September 15, 1995

The chances are that most people derive their sense of what is going on elsewhere on the planet from television, says Michael Tracey in one of the essays in this wide-ranging history, and few will challenge that assertion. Those who wish to take a closer look at the way television has affected the lives of people in other countries as well as their own will find all the information they need here.

The publication is timely, because digital television will soon make many more channels available. A sensible starting point is to establish how the multitude of services already operating round the globe are faring. To this end, Anthony Smith - an excellent choice of editor, since before becoming president of Magdalen College, Oxford, he was a TV producer, joined the board of Channel Four and headed the British Film Institute for almost a decade - has brought together a group of international contributors who have studied broadcasting from different places and different angles. Their essays complement each other well.

What rapidly emerges is that there are few universal truths to be applied to television's role. Background circumstances dictate the nature and scope of individual national services, and these vary widely. Geography, size and diversity of language are among the factors which determine the deployment of transmitters and hence the map of population coverage. Practical economics have been a key determinant of the pace of broadcasting expansion. The high cost of receivers acted as a brake in the early years, and some especially exciting national event - like the coronation of Elizabeth II or the marriage of the young Prince Akihito in Japan - was necessary to overcome sales resistance and set the cash registers ringing.

Television has always been attractive to dictatorships. In Germany, it got off to a flying start, spurred on by Dr Goebbels, who instantly recognised its propaganda potential. In the mid-1930s the Nazi leadership set up, even before the BBC, the world's first regular television service. It was available in public places rather than on domestic receivers. (The BBC has the consolation of knowing that it was the first to transmit direct to the home.) Astonishingly, the Germans continued to operate the service in Berlin until the closing stages of the war in 1944; BBC TV went off the air as soon as war was declared in 1939.

Although Japan made a major technological contribution to the original development of television, it was late in starting up again after the war; with a shattered economy it had other preoccupations and priorities. The first programme service worthy of the name began transmission in and around Tokyo in 1953, at which time there were just 866 sets available to receive it. Japan decided to follow the prewar German idea of street-corner exhibition, which produced dramatic results. On October 1953, a Japanese newspaper reported an "unbelievable scene", when more than 20,000 people gathered in front of a street television to watch a live broadcast of a boxing match. After such convincing proof of television's appeal, the manufacturers pulled out all the stops and the royal wedding in 1959 saw sales shoot up to two million in a single year.

Americans, predictably, set a hectic pace from the early days, although this was moderated by the desire of the big broadcasting companies to continue creaming vast profits from commercial radio as long as possible. The long-standing rivalry between CBS and NBC ultimately led both to concentrate on television, since neither company wanted to be left behind. By 1947 sales of sets reached 200,000; the following year one million and by the mid-1950s 78 per cent of all households in the United States had television. This surging growth was accompanied by a determined thrust to repeat in TV programme sales the worldwide success which had been achieved with Hollywood movies. They succeeded.

In the Soviet Union, where radio prevailed for a long time, Khruschev realised in the 1960s that television would have to be a key item in the new consumer society. By the time he fell from power, 14 million receivers had been distributed, although the quality of manufacture and programme standards were poor. By the mid-1970s the figure had reached 60-70 million. Soviet television is now undergoing such radical changes that reliable statistics are hard to come by.

Africa, more concerned with averting starvation than providing screen entertainment, was among the latest starters of all. In his essay, Charles Okigbo records that in 1965, when the availability of television was taken for granted in most western households, Africa could boast only 1.9 sets per thousand inhabitants. By 1975 this had increased to 6.2 and by 1986 to 25 - an advance, but of only modest proportions.

It is no surprise that, as set ownership expanded dramatically in various parts of the world, concern came to be expressed over television's growing power. At one extreme the medium is seen as a potential menace, undermining traditional values and setting traps for the unwary. At the opposite end it is regarded as a bit of an imposter, a Wizard of Oz owing more to bluster than genuine omnipotence.

The book's editor, who has been constructively fretting over the problems of broadcasting for most of his adult years, has his own clear views. For Smith the power of television, though capable of exaggeration, is a reality which does not only manifest itself in factual programmes. He writes: "Our most influential images of authority derive ultimately from television, usually from television fiction; from this we register at various levels of our minds the status of police, cabinet ministers, international organisations, heads of state; we learn to judge the relative measures of respect we offer to soldiers, priests, business leaders."

Well . . . up to a point, Lord Copper. But are we really as susceptible as that - nothing more than pieces of human blotting paper? Is there not a touch here of the sort of hype that leads sociologists to report links between television viewing and disreputable human behaviour, without conclusive evidence in support? Are MPs not guilty of a similar kind of over-reaction when they discern calculated bias in programmes where they have made a poor job of putting their case?

Does televison really "set the political agenda", as its critics like to claim. Are the parliamentarians at its beck and call, awaiting the summons to the studio from Jeremy Paxman? Is electoral behaviour seriously disturbed by fictional representations of ministers on screen which do not confirm to stereotypes? (Will party loyalties have been strained, for example, as a result of Ian Richardson's elegant portrayal of a murderous chief whip in the BBC's amusing House of Cards serial?) It is as well to remember, when weighing up the performance of television in the political arena, that MPs are not above recalling for the benefit of television and radio professionals that broadcasting legislation originates in the House of Commons and can be tightened if necessary. Those keen to defend democracy may discover in the end that it is the broadcasters rather than the politicians who need protection.

Anthony Smith has not confined his study to the past; on the contrary, he clearly relishes dealing with contemporary issues. He and his collaborators have produced a work which will earn its keep in the reference libraries, but also merits a place on the bookshelves of individuals. Provided, of course, that they can spare the time from watching television.

Don Harker was until recently director of public affairs, Granada Television.

Television: An International History

Editor - Anthony Smith
ISBN - 0 19 811999 2
Publisher - None
Price - £25.00
Pages - 419

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