A brush through history: TV from 1951 to 2014

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“A new era has begun, one started this time in the laboratories and factories of America. No doubt the period from 1945 to the destruction of our civilization in the next world war will be called the Television Age by future historians,” John Utzinger wrote in an April 1951 issue of The Occidental Weekly.

Some 63 years ago, Utzinger boldly prognosticated the significance of the new manifestation of entertainment — television. Utzinger wrote this piece as part of a series titled “Quad Queries” in which, presumably, Utzinger meandered the Academic Quad, interviewing students in order to understand current perceptions on various subjects. The topic of interest that week was the emerging entertainment technology, known by the acronym TV, which was abuzz on campus at the time.

I found this gem one day while studying in the quiet sections (aka Harry Potter Room) of the library. Across from me stood an array of tattered black books of varying sizes with the golden text “The Occidental” etched into the bindings. From “The Occidental” archives I retrieved the newspaper collection labeled “1950-1951.” I brushed though the broadsheet pages and was transported to a different time.

After reading the article, I made an attempt to recreate Utzinger’s experiment in order to evaluate how perceptions of television have changed over a 63-year time period. Using the same methodological approach, the same research question and the same research site, I took to the Quad to embark on a short, unofficial social experiment.

Utzinger and I took to the quad armed with the same simple question: “What do you think of television?” The month was April, his of 1951, mine of 2014.

I found that despite the enormity of differences between our world and the world of Occidental students in 1951, perceptions about television are quite similar. Our minds have been molded for analytical thinking, so everyday technologies such as TV are subject to informed criticism and hypotheses about their larger negative implications. But generalizing about the Occidental population is difficult, and many students, regardless of time period, also choose to focus on the more positive aspects of TV. No universal principals nor sociological theories came from this experiment, but if nothing else, some entertaining quotes.

Junior Guy Steiner ’52 gave a wise critique of the entertainment platform.

“There are three mediums of entertainment in this country: the stage, the movies and television. Movies reiterate what is said on the stage, television reiterates what the movies say. TV is the lowest form of entertainment,” Steiner said.

Urban and Environmental Policy major Halley Crane (sophomore) also exposed some of the lower aspects of TV.

“Television perpetuates the media’s power over our understanding of society. It constructs a reality based on stereotypes,” Crane said.

First-year Robert Hansen ’54 presented an alarming scenario — a warning call against the dangers of the mind trap that is television.

“Social life is reduced to [a] neighborhood chewing stale popcorn and swilling staler beer while engrossed in the images on a light bulb horrible!!” Hansen said.

But TV is not all bad. It has positive qualities which have enabled it to remain a dominant aspect of society for over 60 years, according to economics major Jessica May (sophomore).

“I personally love TV because it provides an escape from everyday life. There is so much happening in life and stress from academics that I appreciate the opportunity to escape into someone else’s world,” May said.

TV today enables the viewer to leave all worldly problems behind. But in 1951, this might not have been the case.

“Television is still very much in the embryonic stage. But when one is forced to watch wrestling almost every night of the week a need for improvement in programming is definitely indicated,” Hunt said.

The wise words of sociology major David Pino (senior) signal that this problematic aspect of television, for better or for worse, has been fixed.

“There are hella channels nowadays,” Pino said.

TV has undoubtedly changed. It has been evolving since the 1878 invention of the telephonoscope and it continues on its evolutionary journey today. Though television seemed a novelty to many students in the ’50s, a few recognized its potential staying power.

“I think it’s here to stay,” senior Jeff Meisser ’51 said.

In the 1950s, TV transitioned from black and white to color, from small audiences to larger ones, and from limited programming to a wider range of options. Today, this transition is from cable to the Internet. The Internet throws an interesting twist in the subject, complicating how we define television, where we watch it and what it contains.

Art History and Visual Arts major Cullen Parr (senior) provides an interesting insider’s perspective, drawing from his academic emphasis on media arts and his recent completion of film comps.

“I think TV is a really exciting medium, especially in this age. Many predict that TV as we know it will soon cease to exist as it gets replaced by on-demand and web streaming. And in terms of content, writers are starting to realize the great potential for plot and character development over a ten, twenty-hour season rather than just a two-hour movie. The production quality is also getting astronomically better as the technology improves and more people invest in it,” Parr said.

Mathematics major Joey Manville (senior) put it more succinctly.

“The TV is dead,” Manville said.

Today we have the obvious advantage of hindsight in analyzing the societal effects of television. Thankfully, this era is not historically known as the Television Age, we have not become mindless television zombies, and we have not endured a civilization-ending third world war. But the more subtle predictions from Utzinger’s article may have been spot on: the more artistically fulfilling medium of live theater has decreased in popularity and social life has become increasingly dominated by stagnant, individualized experiences.

Watching TV is an inherently personal experience. Therefore, an individual’s opinions about television as an entertainment medium are determined more so by the individual than time period they are in.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when television takes the place of other, more important things, such as intellectual conversation. This can be direct, such as when a group of friends get together to watch a show, or indirect, when an event on television dominates conversation. The act of watching television in moderation is of little concern, but when it comes to dominate interests, conversation and thoughts, it poses a serious threat to social progress.

Recently, the show Breaking Bad had such an effect. While the drug-fueled drama is a brilliant piece of art, the show became so popularized that campus conversations were dominated by talk of Heisenberg and Jesse Pinkman. During this time, I heard many of my friends engaged in impassioned conversations about the show, but it seemed to me that these were taking the place of more meaningful discussions such as those concerning academic inquiries, philosophical debates or world events.

Television is a wonderful art form, but it is also dangerous. It revolves around infatuation and isolation, which, similarly to video games, Facebook and other digital entertainment mediums, can disconnect individuals from reality.

Television and entertainment continue to evolve. The opinions of Occidental students on this evolution, despite the drastically different technologies of each period, signify the similarities between Occidental students across time.

How TV might evolve in the next 63 years, I cannot say. I can, however, predict that Occidental students will continue to be critical of new entertainment mediums and attempt to use them wisely.

Keegan McChesney is a sophomore politics and Urban and Environmental Policy double major. He can be reached at mcchesney@oxy.edu or on Twitter at @WklyKMcChesney.