Television Was Theater, Television is Cinema

I’ve been reading a book called TV Script Writer’s Handbook by Alfred Brenner. More often than not, those discussing the history of television tend to focus on changes in social content or technology. Interesting though those topics may be, my thoughts linger on Brenner’s description of the change in style and presentation. From the broadcast of the first television drama, which occurred in 1928 and was viewed on portable  electric television sets manufactured by General Electric (According to pg 140 of Tim Wu’s 2010 book The Master Switch), fictional television programs were essentially broadcasts of stage plays. By the late 1940s and early 1950s when television became more popular in the United States, several programs employed the format of buying short teleplays (or just hiring staff writers) and performing/broadcasting them live each week. As with stage plays, the actors would rehearse these teleplays thoroughly and perform them in exactly the order written. Any noises made by the crew or equipment, and any mistakes made by the performers, were seen by the entire viewership. Although some programs were prerecorded and edited before broadcast by the mid-1950s, this format didn’t really take over until the 1960s. At least, according to Brenner. Eventually, all (or nearly all) televised entertainment was prerecorded (often out of sequence, as in cinema production), edited, and then broadcast. The television of the 1960s and beyond bore a much closer resemblance to cinema than live theater.

In the present day, live television dramas are extremely rare –  if not unheard of. Even Saturday Night Live isn’t really live anymore. It’s worth mentioning that there was a recent example of a fictional television episode that was broadcast live. On October 14, 2010, former Saturday Night Live writer/performer Tina Fey and the cast of her show 30 Rock did an episode entitled “Live Show” which was exactly that. It was broadcast and performed twice, once for the East Coast and once for the West. This was probably more of an homage to SNL than the beginnings of television, but it did show just how innovatively and effectively a truly live fictional television program could be accomplished –  if only for one night.

Given the difficulties involved with streaming live broadcasts over the Internet with limited bandwidth, live Internet broadcasts or simulcasts will probably take at least a few more years to gain vast popularity. In time, technology may advance to the point where one could reasonably stream live broadcasts on small computers or cellular telephones while walking around. A version of this is available now, but it’s extremely primitive and clunky.

In retrospect, it’s quite surprising that tiny, hand-held television sets didn’t become more popular. I used to have a little television about the size of my hand that used a necklace-style antenna. Unfortunately, it only showed a black and white picture and didn’t receive very many channels no matter where was. Actually, I had a television tuner attached to my computer for several years, until that whole digital thing came along. Now I primarily rely on Netflix and Internet video websites like Hulu and YouTube. It was interesting to see live events like the presidential debates and Obama’s presidential inauguration available for live streaming on these websites. Honestly, they played surprisingly well. It would appear that live broadcasts of news, sports, and public events has found a place on the Internet. Whether the remnants of live fictional programming will find a new audience on the Internet or disappear from video entertainment entirely still remains to be seen. As for myself, and think the cinematic style of television has allowed for the creation of some phenomenal pieces of entertainment. However, for the same reasons one might enjoy watching a play at a theater, I also rather enjoy watching broadcasts of live performances –  although I don’t get to see them very often.

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