Third Order Thinking:
The Television Audience
May 2019

The evolution of the television audience as we know it today, from the one that was imagined by its original marketers, would make a very interesting history book. It would necessarily involve the evolution not only of television shows but of televised advertising (which would include broadcasters’ self-representations and all other signifiers of distinctiveness). The later chapters of the book would show how the atomization of the audience by the Internet was prefigured first by (additional) UHF and then by (proliferating) cable channels, but the story would never be able to ignore the major television (or entertainment) producers capable of satisfying the mass audience that television eventually inherited from the movies. Although fewer people than ever still watch “broadcast” entertainment (whether or not it is actually “broadcast”), millions of viewers still do watch it. And although there are often two or three versions of the same sort of TV show “on the air” at the same time — morning shows, evening news — these shows compete for the attention of the same mass audience, spinning variations not so much on content as on the personalities of their hosts.

The most important chapter of this hypothetical history of television would detail the collapse of élite resistance to the medium. Putting things as briefly as possible, the television columns that now appear in The New Yorker would have been unthinkable sixty years ago. Thirty years ago, they would have been haughtily denounced. The nature of this shift in snob appeal needs to be considered in the round. Sixty years ago, the magazine regularly covered horse-racing, golf, New York’s specialty shops (clothes) for women, and local jazz performances. Those were the more or less idle pastimes of the élite. The New Yorker has not grown a new readership, but its readership has changed its fancies.

The television shows covered in The New Yorker are not the shows with the biggest ratings — far from it. But unlike horse-racing and millinery-hunting, which were rich in qualities that set them apart from auto-racing and bargain-hunting, the magazine’s media critics were and are focused on entertainment. Feature films are still reviewed separately.

How did this happen? What eroded élite resistance to entertainment, notwithstanding the millions of dollars in tuition fees paid for painstaking lessons in the essentially non-entertaining humanities? Clueless is a very clever adaptation of the story of Emma, but it is no substitute whatsoever for reading (and spending the time to read) the novel by Jane Austen. How did it become acceptable for college grads to admit, “No, (but) I’ve seen the movie.” What’s more, how did the élite fail to realize that, instead of being informed, it was being entertained?

Television was always going to feature entertainment, but its pioneers expected more from it than that. The second most important chapter of the history of television would correlate the price of television sets with the decline of the pioneers’ ambitions for education on television. There was a great deal of this at the start — I was a keen follower of Jon Gnagy on CBS, from which I learned a great deal about the structure of perspectival illustration, if not how to draw well myself. As I recall, Gnagy’s show was slow and quiet, entirely focused on his seemingly miraculous control of the black crayon. The dispatch with which Gnagy transformed a couple of lines into a persuasive illusion — a flattened circle, say, became a Halloween pumpkin — was at least as entertaining as any feat of prestidigitation, but the man was always teaching. What seems most astonishing about the show now, looking back, is that Gnagy held the camera by himself. He had no one to talk to except the audience. Today, I expect, this would be found more than a little disconcerting.

If you look up Roddy McDowell on IMDb, you will discover that he was very busy in television throughout the Fifties — starring in plays. Although filmed in television studios, these productions usually simulated stage productions, and captured for all time the “experimental” aesthetic of the time. Quite accidentally, the taste for black-and-white minimalism clicked with current technology, but the results are hard to watch now. Somewhere in my collection, I have a CD of the Playhouse 90 adaptation of Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” from 1958. Oscar Homolka, Cathleen Nesbitt, Eartha Kitt and Boris Karloff (as Kurtz!) are featured in the cast. But the effect is pretty much that of David Lynch’s Eraserhead — everybody looks terrible, the story is barely comprehensible, and the very dark backgrounds make it difficult to see what is going on. The production is hopelessly sophisticated — it’s as if Cambridge Analytica had been commissioned to design a pitch for “The Wonderful World of Color.” It was perhaps simply unlucky that the artists who were most influential during television’s early years were big believers in “difficulty,” which, it was hoped, would shake up bourgeois complacency.

As I’ve suggested, television sets became more affordable. And of course the viability of television’s future all but ceased to be speculative. In Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, a novel set in the Fifties, Mrs Kehoe, the heroine’s landlady, wonders if it will turn out to have been a fad.

She worried, she said,that it might not catch on and she’d be left with it. Both Tony and Father Fl;ood advised her to buy a set, and this seemed only to cause further remarks about how there was no guarantee that they would go on making programmes and she did not think she would take the risk.

“When everybody gets one, I’ll get one,” she said.(194)

Well, everybody got one, and the manufacturers seemed to understand that improvements should be made slowly if at all. For decades, television sets died of fatigue, not supercession. Instead of buying the latest model, people bought second sets, and pretty soon Americans could watch television anywhere in the house where they might spend time. While a handful of trusted brands saturated the territory with appliances, producers worked on developing programs that would attract the swelling audience, which was, of course, made up primarily of rumps. Meanwhile, on a third front, fortunes were made selling consumer goods to television’s “mass” audience by means of commercials. And let us not forget the rentiers who had the luck to hold the licenses to broadcast frequencies. What might have been a medium of edification was corrupted by avalanches of money.

In short, the production values that flourished on television were in large part the result of three very successful marketing campaigns. There was nothing intrinsically necessary about the evolution of the medium.

Until I began thinking about Third Order Thinking, I agreed with Neil Postman, whose 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business argues that entertainment has swallowed television, so that everything shown on television, regardless of its purpose or its high-minded goals, is transmuted into entertainment — extremely unreliable information. I still agree with Postman, but only if it is understood that entertainment, which is after all just one of countless human inventions, and not in itself an agent, was capable of this feat only after the rump of the Third Order achieved complete domination of the television audience.

Postman’s arguments have never been far from my mind whenever I considered the disappointments of American public life — which is to say, constantly. What I could never forget was his pungent analysis of a 1963 “discussion,” featuring such luminaries as Carl Sagan and Henry Kissinger, of nuclear war. Few subjects have more power to concentrate the mind, but as Postman showed, none of the panelists could be seen to do the slightest bit of thinking; every remark was prepared and rehearsed.

When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, “Let me think about that” or “I don’t know” or “What do you mean when you say …?” or “From what sources does your information come?” This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago.” (90)

The foundation of Postman’s argument is that television supplanted the world of words that had inspired the West since Gutenberg with a world of pictures — a world of pictures supplemented by disjointed, telegraphic messages unknown to the conventions of print. (“And now this.”) Again, however, television is not an agent. The supplanting was effected by producers in response to ratings, and the ratings were determined by popular — rump — inclinations. We ought to remember here that the movies had never been intended to amount to much, and certainly not to scale the heights of artistic expression attained by a handful of great films. Throughout the so-called golden age of the studio system, films were thought to be disposable and forgettable. Television began on the opposite footing, but was co-opted by movie values — the values of the bulk of films, out of mind as soon as they were out of sight — when the rumps, like Mrs Kehoe, acquired television sets, not en masse but in conformity. It was this shift that transformed television from a source of what Postman would call typographic information into a source of pictorial diversion — entertainment.

And it was precisely this transformation that suckered the élite into deciding that there was no harm in enjoying pleasures that had hitherto been regarded as beneath them. For television, constantly reacting to the critique implicit in the ratings, had gotten extremely good at entertainment. Nowhere is television’s skill at rendering visual phenomena instantly comprehensible (and therefore entertaining) than it is in sports. I hope that I will also be forgiven for my ignorance of the precise details of sportscasting. It is my impression that a basketball game, say, is photographed for video by three or four cameramen whose equipment, while mobile, is confined to particular zones of the court’s periphery. If the cameramen know more about how the game is played than anyone else on earth, that is certainly in part because they are not professionally invested in winners and losers. Their only objective is to follow the ball, and in the course of learning to do this they acquire something like the ability to predict where the ball is going to go. For the cameramen to be taken by surprise is a moment of the greatest excitement, because it hardly ever happens. Curiously, the point is proved by attending a game in person. Here you will find most eyes raised to the Jumbotron hanging over the court, or fixed to the many screens in the skyboxes. Why go to the trouble of trying to keep track of the scramble taking place right in front of you when the cameramen will do it for you? That’s entertainment.

It is also… not discourse. This is the crucial point. From 1789 until the day before yesterday, old and new social groups have watched the Third Order rumps for signs of political intention. Although Those Who Rule and Those Who Trade (the most powerful exponents of the new order) heard themselves to be asking, What do they want? the actual question was something else: What do they propose? And the Third Order rumps, as I have pointed out, never proposed anything. They merely continued to demand what they had always demanded: more food/better pay. And as the Twentieth Century saw a diffusion of moderate comfort and security throughout the working classes of the West, a new demand did emerge, but it was not a political demand, or rather not the kind of demand that the other groups, most latterly the testable élites, would or could recognize as political, at least before it was too late. What the rumps now asked for they finally got with the election of Donald Trump: nonstop entertainment.