Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium
(Columbia University Press)
US: Apr 2014
“What is video?” isn’t a question that—like “What is justice?” or “What is love?”—wears its complexity on its sleeve. Concepts can be tricky to define, we tell ourselves, but things are another matter. Things are easy. Nobody spends long hours pondering the nuances of “What is a tree?” and nobody writes learned disquisitions on “What is a fork?”
Video is a thing, and a human-made thing, at that. It should be easy to conceptualize, categorize, and otherwise fit into the mental frameworks that we use to make sense of our increasingly complex world. In fact, the opposite is true. We think about video in ways that are complex, contested, and fluid. Video Revolutions is a brief, brilliant inquiry into the nature of that complexity, and what it tells us about the history and cultural significance of mass media.
Video Revolutions is organized chronologically, its brief introduction and conclusion bracketing three substantive chapters that trace the evolution of video from the late ‘50s to the ‘10s. It’s not, however, a history in the conventional sense. Author Michael Z. Newman touches on the technology used to create and consume video, and on the things that have (artistically and commercially) been done with it, but he uses them as pegs on which to hang his central story: an analytical history of what creators, consumers, regulators, and other interested parties thought video was, and what they thought it could be used for. Video Revolutions is, above all, a history of ideas.
The first and shortest piece of Newman’s three-chapter history begins just after World War II, when television—which had been technologically viable for a decade—emerged as a commercial enterprise. “Video”, in those days, was synonymous with television: the New York Times column on broadcasting was titled “Radio-Video”, and Captain Video (the science-fictional hero of one of television’s first hit series) monitored his enemies and allies in real time using television-like technology.
It also referred, however, to the stream of visual images that, along with a parallel stream of sounds (“audio”) made up a television broadcast. These dual linguistic contrasts—video-radio and video-audio—reflected early television’s dual nature: Born from radio, but distinct from and in competition with it. These dual meanings, Newman’s brisk analysis makes clear, were intertwined with ideas about the nature and social value of television. It was considered axiomatic in the ‘50s—by broadcasters and commentators alike—that television was an inherently live medium whose educational and artistic value (thought to far surpass that of the movies) lay in its immediacy. Anthology drama series like Playhouse 90, enshrined as cornerstones of the television’s Golden Age even before the ‘50s were over, were perceived as “golden” because they were performed live.
The first practical videotape recorder, introduced in 1959, killed live television as quickly and efficiently as audio recording had killed live radio a generation before. Critics wrung their hands, lamenting the loss of immediacy and veracity, but the benefits of the new technology were too great to ignore. Videotape was superior to kinescopes (records of live programs made by filming the screen of a control-room monitor with a movie camera) for archival purposes, and ended the days when a program performed live in New York at 8PM was forced to air at 5PM on the West Coast.
Shooting on tape brought remote-location reporting to television news, the instant replay to televised sports, and gave the producers of dramatic programs the luxury of retakes to cover flubbed lines, mistimed entrances, and equipment failures. It also allowed for special effects that, though rudimentary by Hollywood standards, had been impossible in the days of live broadcasts. The videotape recorder’s journey from professional tool to expensive toy to household appliance took another quarter-century, but its impact on television was immediate and transformative.
Newman’s second historical chapter is a survey of the world that videotape made, first in the hands of industry professionals, and later in the hands of consumers. It covers the familiar milestones in the latter half of the story—consumers’ use of home video recorders to “time shift” broadcast programs, the 1984 Supreme Court decision that established its legality, and the rise of pre-recorded videotapes as a new distribution channel for films—but, wisely, does not dwell on them. Other authors and other books have covered those events in depth (as Newman notes in the book’s conclusion), and so Video Revolutions simply recaps them for the sake of completeness.
The chapter’s focus—and its value to readers—is on the less-familiar aspects of the story: the laments of early ‘60s television critics that the shift from live to taped programming was a grave error, the care that broadcasters took to educate audiences about the new technology, and movie lovers’ anxieties about the rapidly blurring boundaries between movies and television. It also offers a wealth of with long-forgotten images (an early ad for the Sony Betamax; a magazine-cover rendering of patrons lined up at a VCR-shaped movie theater) and striking anecdotes. It’s startling to read about play-by-play announcers carefully explaining that instant-replay footage of a touchdown did not mean the team had scored again, but that sense of disorientation underscores Newman’s key point. New technologies create new conceptual universes, and all technologies (even those that have long since faded into the background) were once new.
“Video”, in the ‘50s, meant television: a medium akin to both radio (in its immediacy) and movies (in its use of moving images) but distinct from both. The advent of videotape made it a thing in its own right, distinct from both movies and television. A movie projected on a wall-sized screen in a darkened theater and was one thing; the same movie, shown (via videotape) on a television screen in the viewer’s living room, was something else.
A television program taped off the air and then screened (perhaps multiple times) at the viewer’s convenience and under the viewer’s control was not the same as the original, network-controlled broadcast. The digital storage and transmission of moving images, first on DVDs and later in computer files over the internet, wrought a second—perhaps even greater—transformation. “Video” ceased to refer a specific thing, and became, instead, a type of information: any stream of moving images, regardless of how those images are transmitted, stored, or viewed.
The third of Newman’s triptych of historical chapters explores this transformation, which began in the early ‘90s and is still unfolding today. The ratio of familiar to unfamiliar material is, inevitably, higher than in the earlier chapters—the rapid spread of digital projection, and Quentin Tarantino’s dismissal of it as “television in public” will not be revelations to the book’s core readership—but, as in earlier chapters, Newman finds the unexpected details and unfamiliar perspectives. Consider, for example, his analysis of a 1983 Byte magazine cover showing the “telephone of the future”.
The image looks preposterous—a chunky, monopoly-era AT&T desktop phone fitted with a video screen, rabbit-ear antennae, and a detachable keyboard—but rather than use it simply as a visual gag (“aren’t past visions of the future absurd?”), Newman takes it seriously. His analysis of the image, linking it to themes technological (smart phones), artistic (media convergence), and sociological (“platform agnostic” video consumers), is convincing, suggestive, and—as a bonus—a delight to read.
Video Revolutions is likely to be overlooked—unfortunately and unfairly—by vast numbers of potential readers who would be both enlightened and entertained by it. Those inside academia, wary of its brevity and playful cover design, might mistake it for a mere survey-course primer. Those outside academia, noting its scholarly pedigree, might suspect it of being a theory-choked, soporific exercise in saying too much about too little. Both groups would, in passing it by, be making a spectacular mistake.
Many academics talk about writing smart, sophisticated books for general audiences. Newman has actually done it. Video Revolutions is essential, engrossing reading for anyone—from high-school YouTube producers to senior media-studies scholars—interested in our ever-evolving fascination with the moving image.