Small Screen, Big Words: Who Tells Your TV What to Say?

Our critic is scolded by the black rectangle of the screen: Why aren't you turning me on?

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Trying to get the picture: Anchors, commentators and reporters talking nonstop, repeating or contradicting themselves.Credit: Screenshot from Channel 2
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

The last month or so went by for all of us with the hope that the state of war (okay, operation, if you insist) would be over soon, and our relationship with the TV screen could revert back to normal. Admittedly, this would stretch the limits of what can be termed normal, i.e. turning the set on to watch some form of visual entertainment that has no direct relationship with the reality – immediate or mediated – we live in.

After a short respite at the end of last week, we are back to seeing the black rectangle of the TV screen in the room and sensing it scolding us: Why aren’t you turning me on to find out what is going on with you? I hasten to add that this is an Israelcentric – as in “from someone seeing things from the center of Israel” – viewpoint. In Gaza, and to a much lesser extent in the south of Israel, they have a vastly different sense of priorities.

So, until our world changes, hopefully for the better and not the worse, I’d like to ponder a bit on this very word, television. The accepted authority for the meaning of words, the venerable OED, defines television as: “A system for reproducing an actual or recorded scene at a distance on a screen by radio transmission, usu. with appropriate sounds; the vision of distant objects obtained thus.”

The earliest source recorded in print of the word itself seems to be a report in The Daily News on June 3, 1904, 110 years ago: “Dr. Low talks very modestly of the ‘televista’ (the name he has given to his ‘seeing by wire’ invention).” In 1942, T.S. Eliot wrote: “There are words which are ugly because of foreignness or ill breeding (e.g. television): but I do not believe that any word well-established in its own language is either beautiful or ugly.”

The etymology of this portmanteau word is from the Greek “tele” – from afar – and the Latin “vista” which had morphed in English to “vision,” which is taken to mean “seeing” in this context, but actually means first and foremost (OED again) “Something which is apparently seen otherwise than by ordinary sight; esp. an appearance of a prophetic or mystical character, or having the nature of a revelation, supernaturally presented to the mind either in sleep or in an abnormal state.” Which does make one wonder: Is our main source of information on what is going on based on something “seen otherwise than by ordinary sight... revelation supernaturally presented to the mind... in an abnormal state?”

I’ll let you come to terms with this somehow weird notion, and say a few words about the seeming preference of television for the visual over the verbal. There is nothing new under the sun here. It was first expressed in Ecclesiastes (6:9): “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire.” The famous equation “1 picture = 1,000 words” was the brainchild of publicist Fred R. Barnard, and it appeared for the first time in print in the December 8, 1921 issue of Printers’ Ink, a trade advertisers’ magazine. Barnard, who was promoting advertising on cars and buses, put a two-page ad in the magazine, without pictures, under the headline “One look is worth a thousand words.” He presented it as a quote from “a famous Japanese philosopher” to add some gravitas to his message.

There is, in fact, a Chinese saw, formulated by one General Zhau Chongguo, who extolled the value of visual intelligence over verbal reports, and said to Emperor Xuandi (49-74 B.C.E.): “Hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once sometime.” It sounds 
better in Chinese: “bai wen bu ru yi jian.” And even better in Yiddish: “gib a kik” (“take,” or literally, “give a look”). On March 10, 1927, Barnard proposed an ad for a fictitious baking-powder company, this time with a picture of a smiling kid (apparently having the cake and eating it, too) – and included a Chinese proverb with some Chinese letters, upping the ante with the accompanying text: “One picture is worth 10,000 words.”

That last face value of the word seems to be apt for television, which is not just a picture but a moving picture, both in the sense of “a sequence of successive frames of an unfolding event,” and in the sense of “eliciting emotional response in the viewers.” But the equation, whatever the number of words per picture, seems to be implying that a picture we can see is somehow truer than words, which are constructs to be interpreted by each of us.

It conveniently glosses over the fact that whatever we see on TV is what we are being shown by the people behind the screen. It also makes another assumption – that pictures or words “speak for themselves.” This is a truism, a tautology and utter nonsense as well. Words, of all things, do not speak for themselves. Neither do pictures. They always have a spokesman, as does any official.

Specifically, in our newscasts, we do not “get the picture.” Look at your own TV screen: You have a talking head of the anchor, some talking torsos of commentators, and the screen is split to present another rectangular frame that presents clips, but much more often another talking head of a reporter. They all talk nonstop, repeating or contradicting themselves. And underneath, there is a running ticker of “breaking news” spewing out yet more words.

That is what all our TV newscasts are: One huge, continuous talk show, with a bit of show and a lot of tell, a tale – no offence meant – “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”