Guest Commentary: The Television Mystique

Aug 18, 2003  •  Post A Comment

People in television tend to lose sight of how TV looks to the rest of the world, the ordinary Americans, rich and poor, who have accepted it as part of their lives but still, after more than half a century, look on it as something special, magical, alluring.
Watch a street scene in any downtown as some station’s remote truck drives up. A crowd gathers. When the cameraman sets up, people start waving at the camera. It’s a nuisance.
News directors hate it. But people don’t wave at microphones. They don’t wave at newspaper reporters.
They wave at TV cameras-even though it’s a safe bet that at least one in five of them owns one of his own. But now they can call home and say, “Mom, watch the news tonight. I think I’m on television.”
On television! Mom will tell the neighborhood and call her sister in St. Louis. Just being on television has a special place in people’s minds.
They didn’t say anything; they weren’t involved in what was happening. But they were on television.
Why do you suppose all those people, most of them poor and not what you would call distinguished, are willing to show up on “Judge Judy” or “Jerry Springer”? It isn’t only the free trip to Los Angeles or Chicago, or the hotel room, or the limo back and forth to the TV studio, or the room service.
They bare their most private problems, expose themselves to the ridicule and disdain of millions watching, and they are fully aware that’s what they are doing. But, hey, they’re going to be on television!
The same is true for those unfortunates who volunteer to be on “reality” shows, eating bugs, suffering insults, enduring ingenious humiliations-but on television!
Some weeks ago, when my longtime colleague David Brinkley died, several of the news media called me for a few words because I had known him so long and worked with him so closely. The Washington Post called, and Newsday, and the Associated Press, which meant I was quoted in hundreds of newspapers.
I also appeared, for barely more than the twinkling of an eye, on an evening show of one of the all-news cable channels.
An elderly lady who lives down the hall from us saw me next morning as we were picking up our papers.
“I saw you on television last night,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied, “I was saying a few words about an old friend who died.”
“Yes, I saw you,” she said, “on television. Congratulations.”
Congratulations? The subject was not me, but someone who died. He had contributed a great deal, and that was what I was there to say. But I was to be congratulated because I had been on television!
She meant only to be nice, but I felt foolish.
It started me thinking. What is there about TV? It is no longer a novelty. It hasn’t been for decades.
When very few people owned TV sets, friends would gather at the houses of those who did and were fed potato chips and pretzels and watched Milton Berle on Tuesdays and Sid Caesar on Saturdays and wrestling most of the rest of the time. But few people alive remember that far back.
Perpetual attraction
Now almost every American house has a TV; many have two or even three. There are portables for the beach and even smaller ones to follow the action during really major sports events such as the World Series. They are on in dentists’ waiting rooms and next to airport departure gates. TV sets are ubiquitous, inescapable, but people still wave at cameras.
Rockefeller Center had a big store on West 49th Street. Before the “Today” show moved into it in February 1952, RCA used it to show off all the models of television sets it sold.
In those days, sets were elaborate pieces of furniture in all the decorator styles, blond Swedish modern and dark conservative mahogany, like a piano.
There was a fixed TV camera over the entrance to the store, and, at human level, a television set. Passers-by could look into the camera and see themselves on the TV set-and they did, by the hundreds, gesticulating, making funny faces, waving their arms and dancing a jig.
It was a perpetual attraction-just below my office window-and it was rarely vacant. People were mesmerized to see themselves on television.
I am not sure what this means. It seems to call for something deep.
Maybe that television is more than Nielsen ratings and bottom lines. At least to people who are not themselves in it.
Reuven Frank was president of NBC News in 1968-73 and 1982-84.