Television, Print & Marshall McLuhan

03Nov12

This is an excerpt from Professor Malcolm Baird’s lecture  Print v Television: from Baird to McLuhan – the full text of which can be found at http://tinyurl.com/czakhfh .

Television, print and McLuhan

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Television has had a terrific impact over the past 50 years, but print is still the dominant communications medium in most of the important areas of life: serious books and non-tabloid newspapers, legal and political documents, business and commerce, operating instructions for vehicles and appliances, forms of advertising where detail is important — and above all, education and research.

In spite of television, children still learn to read and write (up to a point anyway), university students study printed textbooks and take written exams, and if they go on to do advanced research their results appear in printed journals.

In the 1950s there was a lot of brave talk about educational  television, and at first the BBC had hoped that television would harmonise with its original mission set out by Reith, “to educate, inform and entertain”. In the USA, the educational PBS network had some notable successes (e.g. the  National Geographicseries) but now it has to rely largely on private donations.

He pointed outthat print was a “

There are obviously fundamental differences between print and television. The first person to analyse these differences was the Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), who had studied at Cambridge with F.R.Leavis, and in his later life headed up his own institute at the University of Toronto.

He pointed out that print was a hot” medium. Television in its early days was a “cool” medium, but larger and sharper pictures convey more information and it can be “hot” — but much depends on the way the programmes are made. This table helps us to understand the terms “hot” and “cool” as applied to media.

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This concept can explain the often disappointing nature of television documentaries. Given a clear sharp picture, television can convey precise information (as in a hot medium) as long as the viewer is not distracted. However, most modern documentaries have a presenter who is encouraged to project his or her personality into the programme. The same comment applies to television news and even weather reports.

Today’s television programmers are under pressure to increase viewer numbers, so the presenter must involve the viewers rather than leaving them to take in the raw information on its own. In short, modern television tends to become a “cool” medium.

This also explains the difficulties with television as an educational medium. For example, an algebra class on educational television inevitably becomes a “cool” performance by the presenter; a good presenter can stimulate the viewer to take up algebra independently in a “hot” sort of way (e.g. via books and practice problems), but the programme itself is “cool”.

In The Global Village McLuhan suggested that the growth of broadcast television might lead to a unified tribal culture, with the world sitting around its electronic camp fire. I was strongly reminded of this by the televised closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, with the flaming cauldron dominating the arena to the primitive beat of the pop music. The words of the songs were unintelligible and perhaps they did not even matter for the international audience.

This tribal television society was predicted in George Orwell’s 1984. Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit  451envisaged a future in which all books were destroyed by government decree. McLuhan’s Global Village is a stark contrast to the print-based culture of the 19th and 20th centuries which has allowed for more individual publication of ideas.

What about the internet? McLuhan did not live to see it, but nevertheless he foresaw something like it:“The next medium, whatever it is — it may be the extension of consciousness — will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function, and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.” (1962)

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