On World TV Day, Reflections on the Machine That Conquered the Globe

Harry Gruyaert
Harry Gruyaert—Magnum Photos
Television broadcast


We are, the critics keep telling us, living in something of a Golden Age for television. But it certainly wasn’t always this way.

Watching the tube in 1961, Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, saw little more than a procession of “formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, mayhem, violence and cartoons.” TV was, he famously said, “a vast wasteland.”

Minow wasn’t alone. Jerry Mander, the former advertising exec and current anti-TV crusader, was similarly dismayed. In his landmark 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, he wrote: “It was as if the whole nation had gathered at a gigantic three-ring circus. Those who watched the bicycle act believed their experience was different from that of those who watched the gorillas or the flame eater, but everyone was at the circus.”

Here, on World Television Day — a UN-sanctioned acknowledgment of the medium’s global reach — LightBox presents images of the tube, from the early years to the present day. The oldest, and perhaps eeriest (slide #9), is a photograph of the first true television ever made, invented in 1925 by John Logie Baird. Images of war, technology and political spectacle were plucked from the wires. Matthew Gamber didn’t use a camera at all—he simply held a piece of photo-sensitive paper against a television screen. Rene Burri shot an entire roll of film on Nixon’s televised resignation (the contact sheet mirroring the sequential nature of TV itself). Penelope Umbrico uses found imagery from the Internet. Stephan Tillmans reveals the striking abstract shapes that zap across old TV screens as they’re turned off. Catherine Opie explores the personal and political through a variety of genres—in this case, Polaroids of icons of power on the nightly news.

Contemporary concerns about TV’s power and influence — just like Minow’s and Mander’s — are, of course, nothing new. Aldous Huxley’s 1931 dystopian classic “Brave New World,” imagined a populace numbed by, and controlled with, popular entertainment, including technology remarkably similar to modern television.

In its Dark Ages, TV was controlled by a handful of networks, each vying to capture as large an audience as possible. Employing stock characters with obvious agendas and clear story lines that wrapped up neatly by the end of each episode, shows routinely appealed to the lowest common denominator.

The advent of cable television changed all that, in effect dicing up audiences according to their narrow interests and sensibilities. Executives realized they could abandon the one-size-fits all approach and make shows that would appeal to many smaller, but far more devoted, audiences. And since cable companies make money from subscriptions, not ads, they could take the kinds of creative risks that would normally scare off advertisers.

Meanwhile, Hollywood’s escalating obsession with blockbusters — and only blockbusters — meant that many talented writers, directors and, especially, actors began flocking to where the work was: television.

Finally, the advent of the DVR, the DVD and subscription services like Netflix allowed viewers to watch and rewatch shows when they wanted—and allowed TV creators to make the kind of nuanced and complex stories that rewarded repeat viewing.

The auteur age of ambitious, challenging TV began with shows like Twin Peaks and Oz, but really took off with daring fare like The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, Mad Men, Breaking Bad . . . the list goes on

Perhaps most importantly, viewers today have at least a modicum of control over what shows up on television. American Idol allows viewers to vote on its lineup of contestants. Other shows invite their audiences to comment and converse in real time via Twitter and other media. iTunes allows viewers to watch pretty much anything they want to see on the go.

There’s no doubt about it—TV, and our experience of TV, is better than it’s ever been.

But even that invites the question: Are we still, despite everything, at the circus?

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.

Related Topics: , , , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

What photographer Peter van Agtmael encountered in Gaza changed the way he worked.

Read More
WASTELAND PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated December 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited.     REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.        Mandatory usage requirements: (Please note: you may select 5 branded images for online use and 3 images for print/unbranded)1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image2. Show the December cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image3. Provide a prominent link to: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/12/superfund/voosen-textat the top of your piece, ahead of the photos 4. Mention that the images are from "the December issue of National Geographic magazine” GOWANUS CANALNew York, New YorkPollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead, copperYear listed: 2010Carved from a tidal estuary 160 years ago, the Gowanus Canal is Brooklyn’s industrial artery—and a deeply polluted waterway. Even so, it’s frequented by herons, seagulls, crabs, and canoeists. Defying local fears of economic stigma, the EPA listed the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. It hopes to start dredging contaminated mud in 2016.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 24, 2014

Mideast Israel Palestinians

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,271 other followers