What are we talking about when we talk about video? When we say we watched it on video, is that correct usage, and how long have we been doing that?
These are the kinds of questions addressed by Michael Z. Newman in his book, Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium (buy at Columbia UP and Amazon). Video already has a history? Intrigued, I wrote to Mr. Newman and asked for an interview. He graciously agreed. This is the result.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Michael. Interestingly, in your history of the medium of video you start off your book with some musings about genre. You say, for instance, that you think of your book as a long essay. History as essay. What are some of your models in that mode?
I admire Theodore Roszak’s From Satori to Silicon Valley, which is a short book adapted from a lecture and makes connections between the 1960s counterculture and the emergence of entrepreneurial technology culture in California. I read it last year on a train ride from Milwaukee to Chicago, which is a little more than an hour, and found that very satisfying.
When I was writing Video Revolutions, I also had in mind very long magazine articles, the kind The New Yorker used to run over two or three issues, and Kindle Singles. I read a few Singles in different genres, like a Lee Child crime story and a journalistic piece about John McAfee on the run from the law. These different kinds of writing gave me ideas not so much about genre as about length, the possibilities of composing in a middle-range format: bigger than an article, smaller than the usual academic book. Actually, the Singles often disappointed me, seeming unnecessarily slight, but I saw potential there.
You refer in your book to three major phases in the history of video. Would you mind telling us what those were (without, of course, giving too much away about the arguments you make in your book)?
In the first phase, video and television meant the same thing. People talked about video stations, video personalities, etc. They meant TV stations, TV stars. In the second, video came to mean something distinct from television as it had been understood. It was a recording of television, or a way of using television for a purpose other than watching a live broadcast. For instance, making video art, taping shows off the air to watch later, renting movies, or shooting your own footage. In the third, the current digital phase, video came to stand for something much bigger: the moving image itself.
Could you please tell us a bit about what you mean when you say each phase was defined by its dominant technology?
Well defined by this, but not only by it. The phases are defined by broadcast television, videotape, and digital media, but also by the relations among media and ideas about them. For instance, video could be understood as a way of watching a movie you rented at a store, at home on your TV set and at your own convenience. This use of video is defined by videotape and the VCR, but also by the relations between television and film and a culture’s ideas of what each one of those things is supposed to be.
You write, “Video Revolutions is concerned with outlining the phases, but it also offers the example of video history as a way into reconsidering the idea of a medium as such.” Would you please elaborate?
Part of what I’m trying to do is to say something about the concept of the medium itself, which is hard to talk about partly because language inhibits us. When I say “the medium,” it sounds like I might be talking about a medium, the one I’m talking about, rather than the medium as a concept. And when I say “media,” it sounds like I might be talking about the whole array of technologies and formats and experiences rather than a number of distinct media considered together. (I’m already worried this sounds tedious and I’m only just getting started.)
But what I’m saying about the medium, and about video as one medium in particular, is that it’s a relational and historically contingent category. A medium is defined in relation to other media, and in ways that change over time. I’m also proposing a way of thinking about the medium, a perspective that looks at a particular medium like video in terms of its cultural status. This consists of the ways the medium is valued or devalued, seen as legitimate or illegitimate, authentic or inauthentic, artistic or inartistic, and so on. It’s a matter of the medium’s place in popular imagination.
This is a provocative statement, “Since television’s ascent to mass medium status, all media have been in some ways defined in relation to it.” But aren’t many of the metaphors that define us related to the book? Do you think people under 30, for instance, still think of TV as the most important medium in their lives?
I don’t know. People watch so many hours of television a week, even young people today. Often the smartphone or tablet is being used as a “second screen” – TV is the first. Netflix is calling itself an internet TV network. YouTube and Amazon probably have similar ambitions. More than 110 million watch the Super Bowl in an age supposedly defined by the fragmentation of audiences into myriad niches. I don’t see TV diminishing in relation to digital media at all. It’s part of the network. Whether or not young people think of TV as the most important medium – maybe they identify the Internet as more central in their lives, though I’m not sure – it’s still a central, very powerful force in media today.
You make the fascinating observation that some television shows made a point of telling viewers that the show had been recorded before a live studio audience. What was the reason for telling viewers that?
I know that intro so well from watching reruns of 1970s sitcoms after school. It never was clear to me then what the point was, kind of like the warnings during sports broadcasts against unauthorized retransmission. Now I know. The reason was to assure the audience at home that the audible audience sounds coming from the TV were authentic rather than canned laughter or “sweetening.” It was to assure the audience that the producers or the network weren’t fraudulent. The point I’m trying to make about it, however, is that the audience was aware of media production techniques, and had various ways of encountering videotape before video recorders became a successful consumer product.
Would you please tell us about the role of the instant replay in the history of video? What is the situation now in major sports in that respect?
At this point it’s such a basic convention that the audience might be annoyed when an interesting play is not replayed. But it’s part of how we learn to watch TV, expecting replays. Little kids get confused by replay images, not understanding that we’re watching them a second time. In the 1960s replay was a novelty, and everyone was in the position of today’s children, learning to distinguish the live image from the replay. Commentary of the 1960s presented videotape replay, along with multiple cameras and isolation on one athlete, as huge technological improvements over the experience of the spectator present at the event. In a way this idea of the superiority of mediation for sports never goes away, and we still hear it now. It’s remarkable that the games are still so well attended considering how much value is added when watching on television, not only by the use of video replay but also amazing camera angles, digital enhancements like the first down line, and even merely occasionally informative commentary. I marvel at the shots captured by a camera buried by home plate during baseball games, or strung on a cable over the field for football games. Perhaps the health of a market for live events is a testament to our abiding pleasure in gathering with others and being present in person at things we consider important. Maybe it functions as ritual.
I found it fascinating that, as you point out, video games were championed as enabling users to become active. They seem as about as passive a medium as I can think of. Did they really strike people as transformatively interactive?
Yes, the longer book project I’m working on at the moment will be all about this topic. Television has often been condemned as a passive, one-way medium that subjects its viewer to whatever the networks want you to see, which often means lowest-common-denominator fare that pleases commercial sponsors. Video games, when first available for the home in the early and mid-1970s, often would be described as transforming television from a passive to an active medium. They were part of the transformation in electronic media that also included video recorders and cable television, opening up television to more diverse content and allowing for participation by the audience. We are very much used to the experience of pressing keys or buttons or moving a controller device and seeing changes on a screen in real time. Most people in the 1970s were excited just to try this, and playing a game where you manipulate the image on your TV screen, even if it’s just a Pong paddle, would have been exciting (at least at first) to many people. I have encountered no references to video games being passive in my research on early games. It was quite the opposite.
Could you please discuss the views of Pauline Kael about video versus cinema?
Well, she was talking in particular about watching movies broadcast on TV. For baby boomers (actually Kael was older than them, but she was a great inspiration to the baby boomer generation of movie lovers), watching movies on TV was a formative education in film history, shaping their taste. She wrote a famous column in The New Yorker in which she expresses some gratitude for having so many movies available to her on television, but also condemns film on television as a weak reproduction, never very good at translating the experience of the cinema. Too many things were different: the size and shape of the image, the interruptions and cuts, even the very availability of so many old movies from different periods of film history, the good and the bad. It made it hard to tell quality from quantity, and led to a different mode of appreciation. She talks about the way some movies are better than others on a small screen, that kind of thing. Most of all, Kael champions cinema as films in the theater against the threat of television, insisting on a hard distinction between media, and trashing the small screen. We have to realize how low television’s reputation was in elite culture in the 1960s and 70s. (The “Movies on Television” essay was written in 1967.) TV was regarded as at best a waste of time. Intellectuals feared its harmful effects on society. Her essay is of a piece with the wider discourses of the time about electronic media, though it has the Kael touches that her acolytes admire like the pronouncements of judgment, a very strong sense of personal taste expressed in lively prose, along with some armchair sociology. You can read it online if you have a subscription to the magazine.
Could you please tell us about the role that video played in Abscam and in the Rodney King affair?
These were both in their own ways major media events that foregrounded video recording, that wouldn’t have played out as they did without videotape. Abscam was the sting operation that was the inspiration for American Hustle, and a hidden video camera was used during a meeting in a hotel room where elected officials were caught accepting bribes. When this footage was shown on the TV networks’ evening news programs, it was received as a new form of media surveillance that might lead toward what we would now call reality TV. It demonstrated the potential of video to record everyday life authentically and to furnish entertainment for the mass audience.
The Rodney King affair also showed video recording to be an authentic, evidentiary medium, but now also a democratizing one, allowing individuals access to the same resources as institutions like TV networks and government agencies. The camcorder footage of the LAPD officers striking Rodney King was not only evidence in a legal case, it was also evidence of what the whole world could look at on TV, and it represented a new opportunity for ordinary people to have their own images and stories represented in the mass media. People believed video cameras in the hands of ordinary people would be a democratizing force, for the betterment of society. Both of these cases are moments when video technology was seen as a new and promising (or perhaps alarming) signal of things to come.
You point out that on many devices these days moving images are simply called “videos” regardless of whether they originated as movies or TV shows. Could you elaborate on this statement, “…the interface is the same no matter the content…?”
Video is now a bigger category than movies or TV or web video, and includes all of these things. On an iOS device like an iPad, when you want to watch a movie or TV show, you click on an app called Videos. The content is categorized as TV Shows and Movies, but otherwise the two types are presented in exactly the same way. You select your file, press play or pause, adjust volume, position the device in a comfortable way. None of these things are specific to the type of content. So it is with videos viewed using Netflix or Amazon Prime, maybe using a Roku or video game console. The way the viewer experiences a movie or a television show is not distinctly different. The two media are converging.
Is it really the case that movies and episodes of TV series are “experientially continuous and equivalent…?” Doesn’t Downton Abbey have a feel quite different from a viewing of Lawrence of Arabia on the same device?
They do, but is it really because one is a movie and one is a television show? Downton Abbey also has a feel quite different from a football game, a local news show, a reality TV drama, and a crime procedural. Lawrence of Arabia is quite unlike sex, lies and videotape, and neither one is very much like Frozen. But using the media interfaces of the contemporary moment, like HDTV sets connected to a cable or satellite box, a DVR, an Apple TV or Roku or video game console, a Blu-ray player, and so on, the ways we access and experience movies and TV is very similar. Even Downton Abbey and Lawrence of Arabia: they can both come to us through the same black box and the same subscription service. You select and pay for them the same way, and they appear on the same screen. Compare this with the ways movies and TV were most often accessed and experienced fifty years ago. The changes are pretty bold. And let’s not forget that one reason people made movies like Lawrence of Arabia, epic widescreen films with middlebrow artistic pretensions, was to distinguish film from TV and win back the audience that the movies had lost after their peak of attendance in the 1940s. Nothing inherent in the technology of cinema produced movies like Lawrence of Arabia. A culture of moviemaking in a media environment increasingly dominated by TV made it more likely for spectacular entertainments like Lawrence of Arabia to be made. If it seems un-TV-like it’s partly because movies were trying hard for that effect, which has little to do with any “essence” of cinema or TV, but much to do with the ways that media are constituted in relation to one another.
Please tell us what you mean by “mediumism.”
I mean a bias for or against a particular medium, a kind of prejudice based in ideological distinctions masquerading as formal or technical ones. I also mean a blindness to continuities among media and an insistence on seeing boundaries where they might not exist, or where they are weak or blurry. Mediumism is an overinvestment in the concept of the medium, an expectation that it will do more work than it should. I see the medium as a more flexible, adaptable, and historically contingent thing than some people. I’m particularly sensitive to the mediumist logic that reinforces a sense of cinema’s superiority to TV, but as I have articulated it, the idea of mediumism can explain all kinds of investments and distinctions.
How do you view most videos?
Like most people, I think, I watch in lots of different ways. I watch TV most often through a DirecTV DVR. I watch old shows on DVD and use Amazon Prime Instant Video. Sometimes I catch up on seasons of TV shows via iTunes, and my favorite screen is probably the 4th generation iPad’s retina display. Its resolution is really impressive and I like the intimacy of viewing on your own device facing right at your eyes. I also watch lots of YouTube videos. Sometimes I get a song stuck in my head and play the YouTube video of it over and over all day. If there’s a TV set on in a restaurant or bar, I can’t take my eyes off it. I watch people’s Facebook videos of their kids. My own children like to make videos on my phone and we sit around watching them, laughing at ourselves. Finally, let’s not pretend that movies seen in a theater are something other than video. Unless there is film in a projector up in the booth, which is increasingly rare, you’re watching a video when you go to the movies.
When was the last time you saw a film in a theater?
I saw The Lego Movie a couple of weeks ago in a theater filled with little kids. It was digitally made and projected though, so not technically a film. I’m honestly not sure when the last time was when I saw one of those.