Dr. Gregory Skutches
March 22, 2005
Philo Farnsworth was a bright young man. In 1923, at the age of sixteen, the Idaho high school student patented the electronic image dissector tube. At twenty-one he conducted the first transmission of an electronic screen image. It's ironic—or maybe just poetic—that his choice for the first televised image was a dollar sign.
Farnsworth went on to patent the television in 1930, but why don't we know about this person whose invention became perhaps the most influential technological development of the twentieth century? The answer is simple, sort of.
Farnsworth was subsequently challenged in a patents suit by the Radio Corporation of America (better known as RCA). Relying on his high-school notebooks as evidence, he successfully defended his inventions in court, but powerful RCA appealed and eventually, after a long battle, agreed to pay royalties for the use of his seventy-three patents. Farnsworth was thirty-three and nowhere to be seen when RCA presented the television in public for the first time at the 1939 World's Fair.
This is where some liberal college professor might say something about the evils of technological development in a free-market capitalist society. But there's more to this story. A lot more.
It was not simply free-market capitalism that put RCA in a position to filch and then capitalize on Farnsworth's invention. Back in 1919, the U.S. government, recognizing both the military and commercial importance of wireless technology, had authorized the establishment of RCA as a radio monopoly by allowing it to pool more than two thousand wireless patents from the U.S. Navy, AT &T, GE, Westinghouse, and American Marconi (a division of the company established by Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the technology that made radio possible), and several smaller companies. RCA had secured U.S. dominance of wireless technology, and young Farnsworth was up against the vast resources of a world monopoly.
Television has done little over the years to compensate for its guileful beginning.
In the 1950s, American audiences were obsessed with quiz shows, which were enormously profitable for both networks and sponsors. Most of these shows, however, were rigged. Network executives agreed to "fix" them for two main reasons: first, to heighten the drama and entertainment value (favored contestants were given answers and coached in strategies that enhanced dramatic tension), and second, so commercial sponsors could quickly eliminate unappealing contestants.
The weekly anthology dramas, such as Kraft Television Theater, were canceled in the late 1950s—despite enormous popularity and critical acclaim—because sponsors and network executives agreed that audiences stimulated by serious, artistic drama were unlikely to be receptive to the spurious advertising message that cheese from an aerosol can, or a certain brand of cosmetics, tooth paste, or laundry detergent, could magically transform a person's life.
This "dumbing down" of television was conspiratorial, deliberate. It was what FCC commissioner Newton Minow saw in 1961 when he referred to television as a "vast wasteland." In network programming, shows are important primarily for their ability to gather a certain demographic together for the commercials.
Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (published in 1953 but set pretty close to present-day America) is remembered as a story about censorship, but, in the novel, people become obsessed with television and renounce reading long before the government begins to burn books by law. Once television has taken over, readers are seen as dangerous subversives.
And if you think we're not obsessed, consider this: average Americans, before they die, spend about two years of their lives, cumulatively, watching television commercials. Just the commercials. And what about the grown man—living in a country at war, in a world racked by poverty, drought, famine, disease, and looming environmental ruin (not to mention the real personal struggles of day-to-day life)—who actually cried when the Eagles lost the Super Bowl?
We are trapped in a mediated world, a false reality created by media executives enslaved by the marketplace, whose sole allegiance is not to art or truth or even entertainment, but instead to the bottom line and the stockholders at whose pleasure they serve.
The result is a distracted and therefore ill-informed electorate. For example, few Americans seem to know that we already have the technology that could free us from our addiction to fossil fuel. But as Congress once again considers President Bush's proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, we won't be paying attention. We'll be too busy watching creepy Donald Trump's ritualistic dismissal of his even creepier contestants.
A closing irony: If Farnsworth had been exposed as a child to his own creation, he probably would have been unable to invent it in the first place.
Dr. Gregory Skutches is an assistant professor of English at DeSales University in Center Valley.
Press Release: Television by Dr. Gregory Skutches | Posted on: 3/22/2005
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