Prisoners Of The Box

TV must’ve seen us coming. There were people who thought – as TV first sparked into being – that TV could never replace radio. That was shortsighted to be kind. And it was said by people who’d been alive while movies were invented and then spread across the planet as the most successful way to tell a story to the widest possible audience ever invented by mankind. That, at its bottom-most line, is what TVs are – a storytelling delivery system. We turn it on hoping that stories we like and care about will filter from the other side of the screen and entertain us. Or inform us. Stories will spew from the TV regardless. It’s the ones we like that make us the prisoners of the box spewing them.

Over the millennia, humans have found a way to focus the entertainment experience like nothing else. Yes, yes – a storyteller or a fool dressed in motley dancing around a campfire counts as intimate entertainment. But a campfire can only be so big. Ditto the entertainment. The Greeks were the first to create actual entertainment spaces. Amphitheaters were the concrete version of theatre-goers sitting on a hill watching the performers in the dell below. It’s a lot of people taking in a “wide shot”. No close ups will be provided.

The Greek Amphitheater at Ephesus

Bringing the theatre more “indoors” helped focus it a little –

Pop-up Globe Amphitheater, Auckland: “Twelfth Night”

Then came the proscenium arch –

The Proscenium Arch was a game changer. It stuck. It provided a literal frame and framing device for all the stories presented within it. The proscenium arch separates the actors from the audience and un-reality from reality. We want what happens on the un-reality side of the arch to resemble reality on our side as much as possible though because otherwise we’ll reject the story, It’s taking place somewhere unrecognizable to us.

Feature films are really just a variation on the proscenium arch – the story takes place entirely within that same rectangle. Scenes move through the arch’s literal frame like a series of pictures. Television crammed the movie-theater-going experience into a box small enough to fit into someone’s living room. And then our smart phones took every bit of that and crammed it into something that literally fit within the palm of our hands.

That’s a whole lot of storytelling power focused into a very small thing. But we crave stories and information even more than we do sugar. As anyone with a kid (of any age) knows: smart phones own our young people way more than young people own smart phones. If you’ve got a friend who can go more than a handful of minutes without glancing at their phone, you should marry that person. They’re truly special.

Modern Life is now virtually impossible without a smart phone – and it’s going to get virtually more impossible. Truly, we are now its prisoners. Back in the day, literate people referred to televisions as “idiot boxes” because of all the idiots watching them. The people calling TV “idiot boxes” are long gone. TV – the idiot box – is still here. And it’s now the biggest business on the whole planet.

Journalism is our running narrative. It’s our collective story about ourselves told in real time. For a long time, TV journalism was seen as sensational but not essential. Images could change hearts and minds, but words were the cement that kept those hearts and minds changed. A key plot point in James Brooks’ brilliant “Broadcast News” hinges on Bill Hurt’s character recreating an honest emotional reaction to a news interview. If Bill Hurt’s Tom simulating reality in the news caused Holly Hunter’s character Jane to lose her shit then, she’d never get her shit back today. Recreating the news cinematically – using actors on sets to dramatize important moments for which there is no video otherwise – is now state of the art.

Audio-visual storytelling – via cable news or someone’s Facebook newsfeed – have replaced newspaper reading almost entirely. Newspapers themselves have embraced audio visual storytelling on their web sites. This makes stories more immersive and the stories more impactful and appealing.

Our problem is that too few of the people working in the news media fully understand the medium in which they’re working. Film and video share the audio-visual language – and that really is a language with rules and syntax. Want to juice up a scene’s emotion? Go from a wide shot to a close up: bam! There’s some emotion. Want to create a feeling of distance and remoteness? Cut in the opposite direction. Go from a tight shot of a person to a panoramic shot of them standing alone in whatever space they’re in.

Another example: a split screen. In the audio-visual language, a scene playing on one side of the split screen is happening at the exact same time as the scene playing on the other side. As we watch, we need to care about them equally. When a cable TV news show puts a question down on the table, if the two people now discussing it do that in a split-screen, 50-50 shot? The audio-visual language is saying “these two things are equal in merit”. Which one’s right? Which one’s wrong? It’s 50-50.

But, what if that’s not actually the case? What if one of the two arguments doesn’t actually warrant getting 50% of the the screen time because it’s certifiable bullshit? How many climate debate conversations did CNN and MSNBC and all the other news outlets put on their air where a climate expert and a climate science denier were given equal time to make their cases? Each and every time these news outlets presented a climate science denier’s denial as having equal haft to the climate science he was denying, they were literally misleading their news audience. That’s inexcusable.

A more honest representation of those debates would have put the climate scientist center screen with buttons leading to their receipts sprinkled very liberally. The climate science denier would have filled up a couple of pixels in a corner somewhere. Easily missed, even more easily forgotten.

Our news media are prisoners of the medium they work in. They don’t have to be though. Plenty of journalists have figured out 1) that both sides don’t do it and 2) the audio-visual language needs to be as much a part of the storytelling as the words anyone says. Body language is part of any story. A person stating a lie can be hard for our ears to discern but our eyes will see them unable to make eye contact with anyone else. That’s a pretty damned good clue!

Final irony – just as there were people who were certain TV would never replace radio, there was near certainty radio would never EVER replace TV. To them, I have one word: “podcast”. Everything old is new again and again and again.


Prisoner In A Box Photo credit: 107362364 © Rodjulian |

Greek Theatre Photo Credit: 149881494 / Greek Amphitheater © Seckin Ozturk |

Pop-Up Globe Amphitheater Photo: 71098277 © Patrimonio Designs Limited |

Proscenium Arch Photo: 70032004 © Rossmcneillie |

Smart Phone Photo: 147508165 © enchanted _fairy |

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