This is the year in which the epic battle between theater and TV was settled. Television has won. Not everything, should, or will turn into TV, but we have decisively turned a corner.
Good. It’s about time. We have been living in a world that has valued theater over TV as more real, more profound, and more human. When it’s Hamilton versus Young Sheldon, few would argue. But TV isn’t just the shows on the networks or streamers. TV is a sophisticated set of rhetorical forms made possible by video. It’s often packaged into commercial entertainment, but we’re now living through the triumph of those rhetorical forms outside of entertainment. With sports and politics in the lead, we’ve been show how much better TV can be than theater.
Sports is the easiest example. It has always been theater: a mass of people come together to watch an event from a single point of view and in real time. Televised sports started out much like that, with cameras positioned like very still audience members. But this year’s Super Bowl was once again pure TV: multiple perspectives impossible for a human being, magic video overlays and underlays on the field, and the by now ancient disruptions of time in the form of instant replays.
Politics is a more consequential example of the triumph of TV over theater. For instance, we all know what presidential conventions were like, unless you lacked the patience to watch them drone on and on, night after night, as people gave talking-head speeches typically devoid of drama and intentional laughs.
That’s theater. Very bad theater. It’s so bad that the networks switch away from it because watching talking heads behind a desk is more interesting than watching one behind a podium. And political conventions are even worse in person because reality doesn’t let you switch the channel, and time doesn’t let you fast forward or rewind.
Conventions are theater intended for TV. They fail at both.
Compare that to the Democratic presidential convention this year. It was all TV, with no possibility or pretensions of being theater. A TV-style host was our guide each night. The speeches were ruthlessly honed for the shorter-form rhetoric we expect from TV. And most spectacularly, it turned the actual nomination process from a drone-fest in which each state declares what it’s good at — “The Empire State, home of the …” — into a tour of the states and territories where we were shown a snippet of what each thinks makes it special. From the expected spokesfolks to apparent oddball fugitives from the old Letterman show, the casting of ballots was widely and justly declared a triumph.
What traditionally was the most boring event to occupy four straight nights of TV became inspiring, informing, and, yes, entertaining. It became TV.
As I write this, the Senate is about to begin its second impeachment hearing. We are told, and I fully expect, that the most effective evidence will be in the form of a compilation of television clips, shown on television screens in the Capitol and around the world. Some will undoubtedly claim that this cheapens the argument. I expect it will make it far more effective. But, heck, I’d hoped that Robert Mueller would ask Michael Lewis to write up the Mueller Report [pdf].
Unfortunately, in education most teachers are now stuck with a technology designed as a telephone replacement and that can’t make much use of TV’s rhetorical forms. All hail our underpaid, under-valued teachers who are struggling to transcend the limitations of COVID and Zoom. But at the same time, there are genuinely educational television programs for just about every type of learner. Our five year old grandson knows something about dinosaurs and logic from watching Dino Dana, about undersea creatures and their adaptation to multiple environments thanks to The Octonauts, and about Einstein’s view of gravity as a bend in space thanks to StoryBots, although to be honest, I’m not sure the gravity lesson has really sunk in, so to speak. There are kids’ shows that help beginning learners to read, to add, and to grasp the basics of geometry. And of course there are tons of brain-burning junk.
Obviously not all education should be screen-based. Curling up with a book or learning a scale on a keyboard are also essential. And most of all, children need to dwell with other children, which watching TV or even interacting with others mediated by screens likely does not do very well. Not everything should be TV.
So, I don’t want to over-defend TV or suggest that it’s always the best way to convey information. Of course not. But we have been rapidly learning what we already know: it’s a powerful form of communication for significant ideas, and not just for silly sitcoms and artificial reality shows — but only if we consider communication as being more than just making content available, but as also making that content interesting, and even occasionally delightful.