The Moving Image:
The History of Film and Television in WA 1895-1985

Edited by Tom O'Regan and Brian Shoesmith

Quoting not science but sideboards: television in a new way of life

John Hartley & Tom O'Regan

This article has been published as one chapter in John Hartley's book Tele-ology: Studies in Television, Routledge, 1992.

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[This is only the second half of John Hartley & Tom O'Regan, Quoting not science but sideboards: television in a new way of life -- the first half would have to be scanned again.]

Without speculating for too long on what TV clothes may have looked like, it is worth noting that television sets themselves were often dressed, usually with lamps, plants and photographs, in a further attempt to domesticate and customise the bulky, recalcitrant shape, suggesting that TV sets were indeed regarded as like sideboards.

Television entered and altered the rhythms of household activity. The need to look as well as to hear put pressure on meal preparation and consumption: pressure upon cooking, washing up and other household activities to contract in time; and pressure upon eating to take place simultaneously with watching. Thus the familiar lounge coffee-table became the meal-table proper, and fast, convenience foods requiring little preparation and few utensils became the vogue.

Meanwhile, television commercials and programs alike were promoting and displaying the modern lifestyle of domestic consumption. This may have played its part in longer-term changes that were taking place in house design. WAIT architect Peter Little suggests that the major change to Western Australian housing stock over the last thirty years has been the migration of the toilet and the laundry. Initially these were found in the backyard, often as far from the dwelling as possible. But they were moved progressively closer; first to the verandah area, then inside, and finally, in the case of the toilet, into en-suites by the 'master' bedroom. Such a migration to some extent mimicks peoples' own migrations from outside to inside the home, where increased time (including time spent watching TV) meant increased incentive to improve, embellish and modernise.

Television itself was used to promote cleansing practices and products which went along with changing attitudes to health and the toilet; and it also encouraged spending on decorating and equipping the newly interiorised areas. Similarly, people were encouraged to spend more on a range of products that consumerised activities they'd engaged in all along - activities like washing their houses, clothes and dishes, or themselves and their hair. And once those yukky wet areas were moved out of the yard, it too was available for home-entertainment, with pool, B-B-Q, pergola, patio and outside phone-bell. Eventually, the outside area can even become the site for television-watching (though not often for the TV itselfl. In the hot summer months, some Perth families have solved the problem simply by pointing the TV out of a window and watching it from the yard - a process helped by the characteristic one-storey Perth house style, where the yard is on the same level as the house, and often partly enclosed by it in an L-shape.

Sounds of Trouble and Strife

When television first arrived, it was welcomed into the house as a guest - it was put in the formal lounge. Here it could be shown to other guests, and treated by the family with the respect it deserved. But this situation didn't last. As TV watching became more taken for granted, and as it extended into daytime and morning viewing, people got used to doing more than one thing at a time. The productivity of the home environment increased as people dropped into the lounge to iron, sew, study, play, read, argue, make love and fall asleep in front of the television. Similarly, children could be sent in there for the TV to baby-sit them.

Since in many homes the lounge room is the space that is most protected from mess, these activities became a source of tension. So there was strife if the children spilt food and drink in there whilst watching, but tension also arose because of the privileged separation of space that was the hallmark of the lounge. On the one hand, whoever was preparing the meals was excluded both from the experience of watching TV and from sharing family activities that had abandoned the kitchen for the lounge. On the other hand, any attempt to entertain guests in the lounge was in direct competition with the family members - especially children - who were ensconced there to watch TV. Double resentments, at being banished and at missing favourite TV shows, put pressure on the organisation of household space. This pressure was intensified by the fact that dividing housespace into public (social entertainment) spaces like the lounge and private (family activity) spaces like the kitchen went against the grain of the long-term trend in which such distinctions were being broken down. In short, TV sets in the lounge eventually inhibited the very sensorial possibilities and consumerist home culture they were designed to promote.

During the 1960s new houses were built with a new room - the family room - in addition to the lounge. In the existing housing stock, a family room was often the first thing added in the same period's mania for extensions. Appropriately, at the same time, TV cabinet design changed introducing moulded plastic forms and less bulky sets that heralded a less formal role for the TV itself. It was time for televisions to migrate into the family room. In the family room, which was usually adjacent to the kitchen, might be found the sewing machine, ironing board, boxes of children's toys, piles of magazines and books, and games. The TV could be so positioned as to allow an eye to be kept on it whilst working in the kitchen, especially as walls separating the two areas tended increasingly to come down.

While these new arrangements solved the earlier prbblems of banishment and missing shows, they brought problems of their own. One was noise. Television sound came into direct conflict with kitchen sound. Kitchens are noisy places. Not only is there the clatter of crockery and cutlery, but mixers, blenders, dishwashers, exhaust fans and other gadgets all make their presence felt. And some people like to listen to the radio whilst working in the kitchen, too. Meanwhile, over in the family room, the favourite show keeps modulating in and out of audibility as the kitchen noises compete with the TV noises. So someone turns up the sound, and squabbling ensues.

Another problem with the family room, for children at least, was surveillance. The architect Peter Little has suggested that parents were content to put up with the noise problem because having the TV in the family room allowed them to walk in (or through) and pass comments on whatever was being watched. In this way parents can retain some measure of control over both their children and their children's viewing habits. If the TV were given its own room, or put in the children's bedroom, such casual policing would be impossible. Perhaps this explains why the television set has tended to stay in the family room - it has been integrated into the process whereby parents instil their values into their children.

That parents have been prepared to put up with squabbling and noise in order to keep an eye on their children's TV habits is perhaps an indicator of the disquiet that various authoritarian bodies - teachers especially - have expressed about TV's so-called effects over the years. The permeation of this disquiet into popular consciousness can perhaps be seen in the way that TV became known as the Idiot Box. It might also be seen in the famous 'Life: Be In It' advertisements where the big step taken by Norm is to get out of his TV chair and walk around. 'TV addiction' became something you had actively to guard against, and an obsession with it was reckoned an embarrassment.

But the term 'idiot box' was never taken at face value. TV may have been much maligned, but maligning never took the place of viewing; rather it showed peoples' knowledge of the pitfalls and control over the process. It indicated a certain distance from TV, and from one's own viewing habits, and it signalled a different social role for television, where TV needed to be integrated into various activities and routines, both work and leisure based. However, it was clear that there was little popular support for the more stringent measures taken by some middle-class and educationally minded parents, who sought to enforce the duties and obligations of work over and above the pleasures of leisure and entertainment. In such households, television would be strictly rationed and restricted to approved shows or even an approved channel (the ABC). In extreme cases, or where children used their intellectual skills not to do homework but to develop stratagems to outwit their parents' dictates, the punishment took the form of sensory deprivation - removal of the TV set from the house entirely.

However, for most viewers the disquiet about television may have had more to do with its difference as a bodily activity from more traditional popular entertainment, partly by simply representing it on screen, partly because people had at least to dress up and move their bodies to and from the theatre. But television, especially after a while, reduces its viewers not to passivity but to immobility, which can be fine - in America there's a TV fan society called the Couch Potatoes, who revel in it - but it can also be aggravating - the mental equivalent of bed-sores.

The Butterfly Dreams

Recent developments in audio-visual technology, and in its incorporation into peoples' homes and activities, have stressed the contemporary virtues of mobility and interactiveness, or, as the 'Memphis' writer Barbara Radice puts it:

Contemporaneity means computers, electronics, video-games, science-fiction comics, Blade Runner, Space Shuttle, biogenetics, laser bombs, a new awareness of the body, exotic diets and banquets, mass exercise and tourism. Mobility is perhaps the most macroscopic novelty of this culture. Not only physical mobility but also and above all mobility of hierarchies and values; and mobility of interpretations ... What matters to us is not their substance but their appearance ... It is the world of TV screens ... where, as in Zen stories, it is never clear whether you dream you are the butterfly or the butterfly dreams it is you.

And there was colour television. This often entailed having two television sets; so there were TVs in the bedroom, kitchen, study or even back in the lounge - one colour, one monochrome. Mobility invested the television set itself with the introduction of portables. These could be placed in eccentric or semi-concealed positions, finding room even on the shelves of corner stores near the cash . register, and in other workplaces where periods of enforced ilnmobility and isolation gave a whole new meaning to the idea of 'nightwatchman'. Portables could be toted around and beyond the home; but they could also be used ideologically, as it were. The small screen and appearance of not being permanently installed was just the right look for those who wished to register their superiority over TV - for them, the portable TV itself said that their owner didn't really watch that much, and watched it selectively. But, like everyone else, such people still placed themselves within reach of contemporary communications, despite their misgivings.

The migration and fragmentation of TV sets implied a new regime of watching which henceforth characterises television. No longer was it the fixed, solitary object of peoples' gaze or attention - people had already learnt to do many things at the same time. Now television, like radio before it, had to compete for small segments of people's time. Sometimes the screen would be mere visual display, holding little more interest than other home decorations; at other times it would draw, or be given, peoples' full intensity of looking and listening. People dipped in and out of TV, in an alternating current of concentration and distraction.

TV screens were poised not simply to migrate around and outside the home, but actively to colonise and domesticate further the spaces that had once been strictly demarcated as public. At the same time, entertainments which once had been seen as essentially public were ready to be captured for home consumption. The marker and perhaps agent of this new phase was the video cassette recorder (VCR). VCRs were launched and have remained as a way of bringing feature films into the home. Never mind the difference in screen size, which means that the image is not just smaller but frequently attenuated because of the difference between TV and cinema screen ratios. People had already learnt to put up with such differences through broadcast movies. VCRs meant that you could choose which film to watch and when to watch it. They also recaptured several low-intensity user groups, bringing them back into touch with TV screens. Among these were teenagers, who'd go to the video hire shop in groups as they might to the usurped drive-in, and take a film or films back to watch collectively in each other's houses. Other groups were those speaking languages not catered for by broadcast TV - any language but English. Specialist video shops proliferated, offering European, Asian and Indian films imported and circulated entirely for the video market. Thus, for instance, the Italian, Yugoslav and Greek communities have achieved one of the highest per capita levels of VCR ownership in Australia, which as a whole has one of the highest levels in the world, second only, perhaps, to Saudi Arabia.

Thus the suburban shopping malls carried the mark of television in the form of specialist video shops and video stalls in newsagents, delis, petrol stations and department stores. At the same time, TV screens themselves began to colonise the malls, being used by banks, building societies and travel agents to promote their services with specially made tapes. The foyer of Cinema City represents physically the breakdown of the dividing line between video and cinema by offering a bank of six videos for waiting customers to enjoy. Fashion stores like Irene Whyte have introduced video monitors as an integral part of window display and shop fitting, a logical extension of their established use of pop music for an ambience of contemporaneity and fashion. The shops that sell TVs and monitors, from Vox Adeon to Parry's, display their wares in banked rows. Usually all the sets are switched on, often showing the same picture, but rarely with the sound turned up. In fact, the difference between domestic and commercial uses of TV screens is no longer a distinction between public and private spaces, but one of excess - commercial space is identified by the sheer exuberance and conspicuous redundancy of having twenty screens showing the same video clip. Meanwhile, the discerning consumer has no need to rely on chance encounters with TV screens whilst out and about. The recent release of pocket TV in Western Australia is promoted for use 'indoors or out, in bright light or at night' - you need never miss the news or your favourite show, and of course you can use it at sporting fixtures to umpire the umpire's decisions.

Back at home, it's now not just a matter of where to put the screen or how many to have, but what kind to have and what to put on them. There's a struggle for access to the monitor, between broadcast TV and video films, between video clips and time-shifted TV recordings, and between commercially and home produced tapes. The struggle is set to intensify with the development of computers that effectively exploit the screen.

Other technical changes have reduced the isolation of the TV set as an appliance. With hi-fi and stereo-television, it is now possible to design integrated systems, where the TV becomes a component function within a total hi-fi system that will also include phono, cassette player, FM/AM radio and maybe compact disc. As a result, televisions are now being designed with their own internal functions separated: the first thing to go being the sideboard-like stand, so the set can be placed into the system it's part of. Then there's a move to separate sound from picture. In some versions the separation is physical, mimicking the hi-fi plus two speakers format already in wide use; in others the separation takes the form of disconnecting the set's internal speakers and patching it into an existing system. The migration of sound out of the TV set means that the screen is now properly a monitor, its subservience to a larger system symbolised by the latest remote control devices which govern not only the choice between broadcast and VCR input, but the audio-levels of the hi-fi component as well. In fact the remote control is the visible sign of peoples' control over not just their own equipment but over the act of looking too. It is no longer necessary to get what you're given: the practice known as 'slaloming' is worrying advertisers who have found that people use the remote control to slalom from channel to channel in an effort to avoid ads before returning to the next segment of a chosen show; and they are equally worried about 'zapping', where people record a program for time- shifting to a more convenient viewing period, and then use the shuttle-search function to zap through commercial breaks. Furthermore, the remote control can be used to select away from unwanted segments of the programs themselves, and this is a function that will gain in importance as Perth moves into the era of Channel 0-28 and a third commercial channel, predicted for launch by the end of 1986.

Using the remote control also adds a new dimension to the facilities on offer in VCRs. Without squatting by the set or getting up from the chair, it is now possible to use the pause and search facilities to stop a narrative in its tracks, not only to eliminate ads, but to go back over a shot to see how it was done or to relish it in slowmotion; or even to use the pause to hold and to fetishise an actor's body or a scene. The appropriation by viewers of a kind of authorship of the material they view can indeed be realised literally, by re-recording clips from different tapes to make a 'scrap-book' video; or by selecting images almost randomly and dubbing on music to make the latest art-form, scratch-videos. You may have seen them at Praxis Gallery in Fremantle. The upshot, of course, is that broadcast television's carefully constructed realism can be seen for the construction it is; and its carefully organised scheduling habits can simply be countermanded.

For the audio-visual adepts who have a mind to do more than consume ready-made material, the way is now open to consume self-made images and sound. With the help of Super Beta, compact VHS or 8mm video, and with the increasingly sophisticated domestic video cameras, enthusiasts can now integrate self-shot sequences to match pre-recorded ones, whether taken from videotape, broadcast TV, radio, record or even compact disc. In the offing are previously unthinkable domestic editing set-ups that may eventually be linked to computers and computer-generated graphics.

Not everyone can afford to avail themselves of all this potential, and those who do may be the minority who get a thrill from sheer technical wizardry (and expense) rather than those who have an interest in audio-visual representation as such. But the fascination of these developments is just as much in their potential as in the realisations of it by any one type of user. What these developments mean is that moving images and sounds have been emancipated from their producers' intentions, and that peoples' relationships with television screens is not fundamentally more sophisticated and interactive than it was in 1959.

It also means that there are yet more enticements to centre leisure and entertainment in the home, and that such leisure is increasingly under the control of consumers themselves. Among those who are adept in audio-visual culture are of course the numbers of young people who count among their repertoire of skills the ability to play videogames: an ability that includes erasing the traditional distinctions between playing and looking, between consuming a product and making their own, between being subject to others' intentions (both authorial and authoritarian) and using their bodies to process environmental data into independent experience and culture. In short, those who have been brought up on and by the new audio-visual institutions of pleasure and consumption are now poised to invert the image; to dream the butterfly.

The Brechtian vision of people exploiting the resources of modern technologies seems to be developing, however, with few of the social consequences hoped for by Utopian writers like Brecht. Since the period in which he lived, the redefinition of public and private space has also played a part in re'defining the spaces on which political action is conducted. No longer is it possible to make easy connections between mass communication and mass action. Now that people have begun to learn how to control the means of audio-visual production, it is clear that there will be no 'big bang' social revolution in consequence. Instead, fundamental change - a social revolution perhaps - is centred on the spaces, resources and activities that occur within the broadly defined arena of domestic consumer culture. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx despaired for the political future of the French peasantry. Noting that their conditions of existence were similar thoroughout the country, he also found that these similarities did not entail any unity or class consciousness - the French peasantry, he said, formed a class to the extent that potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. What seems to have changed since those epic days is not that the potatoes have, as it were, been mashed together by the political ideology or that, but they have escaped from the sack. Now we're all Couch Potatoes.

References

  1. Radice. Barbara (1985) Memphis: Research, Experiences, Results, Failures and Successes of New Design, London: Thames and Hudson (available through Larnella Books, 333 South Dowling Street, Darlinghurst 2010, Sydney, NSW l(02) 331 45011]).

  2. Branchi. E.M. (1961) 'History of TV in Western Australia'. Graylands Teachers College. Manuscript is available in the Battye Library.

We wish to thank Peter Little, Eric Fisher and Geoffrey London for invaluable help in defining the terrain of this article.