The Camera Age

Of all the various arts, that of television is hardest to pin down. In fact, what is usually meant by “the art of television” is not its aesthetic nature but rather the complex of technical processes which enables strange and wonderful sights to appear in small boxes in the corners of millions of living rooms. Most people take these processes for granted, so much so that they become annoyed and complain if wavy lines appear in their pictures or if the sound that is supposed to accompany these pictures disappears. Of the technical side of television “art” most viewers are blissfully unaware.

Viewers are even more blissfully unaware of any sort of standards or analysis that can be applied to television as an art form. Indeed, there are many who would claim that television is not an art form at all and therefore has no aesthetic principles, but if it is not an art form, what then is it? Some say it is an entertainment medium—and it certainly is. Others would say it is an educational medium—and it certainly is. Still others would see it as an information medium—and it is that, too. Indeed, it is all of these things and probably more, but viewers are still bedeviled by such questions as: “Was Archie Bunker good or bad last night?” “Which network did the better job on covering the election?” “Wasn’t Marco Polo the best program you have ever seen?” In short, viewers stubbornly keep asking for qualitative judgments and keep making them on some sort of basis.

In the other arts, such as music, literature, or film, one can turn to the critics for some sense of standards for judgment, but most of what passes for television criticism and analysis is little more than capsule summary, subjective reaction, or network fluff. It is rare for a critic of intelligence to look objectively at television and to try to help viewers to pick their way carefully through the wasteland. Fortunately there is one such critic, Michael Arlen, and for this, all viewers should be grateful.

The Camera Eye is Arlen’s third collection of such essays, originally written for The New Yorker, following The Living Room War (1969) and The View from Highway 1 (1976). This collection includes thirty essays written between 1976 and 1980; they range from five to twenty-two pages in length and are not reprinted in their original order of composition. As might be expected in a collection of this sort, some of the essays are rather slight in content while others are of more weight and substance. These are witty and intelligent essays, presented in a modest and gentlemanly style and notable for their common sense and lack of pretension.

In the variety of material offered by television there is certainly God’s plenty. It is therefore a bit surprising to note just what Arlen does not concern himself with. He has nothing to say of sports (an essay entitled “The Opening of the Baseball Season” turns out to be about Three Mile Island). Except for a few remarks on early-morning television and a piece on one game show, he deals not at all with daytime television, nor does he write of regular prime-time programming, except for essays on Dallas and Baretta. Instead, Arlen has chosen to concentrate on news and public affairs programs such as election coverage and 60 Minutes, on special presentations such as the Olympics and the Oscars, and on “docudramas” such as Roots and Shogun. Except for news, then, Arlen does not concern himself with the everyday, meat-and-potatoes fare of television.

While written at different times and on different subjects, the essays do reveal a repeated theme: What is the nature of televised reality? As Arlen notes in his Introduction, viewers have come to accept television as their main source for their perceptions of the world; they see what the camera sees. The effects of this custom concern Arlen greatly and certainly account for his concern with what viewers are given as news and with the exact relations between fact and fiction in the currently popular docudramas. At times it seems that if something does not get on television, it is not important—or does not even exist. Television, of course, thrives on the visual, and if a subject does not lend itself to the visual it may well be slighted, whatever its importance—thus, for example, television’s inability to handle economics in any meaningful way. Economics concerns itself with figures, reports, and theories, but figures, reports, and theories do not televise well. Television will show people out of work or the effects of poverty; these may be very moving but probably do little toward helping an audience make sense out of Keynesian or supply-side economics. The overall result, then, is likely to be that for the audience economics does not exist, except perhaps as a set of slogans manufactured for political purposes.

Another example is surely war. The war in Vietnam existed for most Americans because of its nightly intrusion into viewers’ homes through the television screen, and because of that coverage of...

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