Does Better Technology Mean Better Programs?
April 23, 2003
Almost two decades ago, many of us TV old-timers -- membership open only to those who date back to the black-and-white, pre-zoom lens era of broadcasting -- had a running theory that there's a direct correlation between the aesthetic quality of a television program and the technology used to make that program.
Since no one has yet claimed authorship of this theorem, I will. Introducing Beacham's Law: As TV technology improves, there is a corresponding decline in the artistic excellence of television programming.
Under this theory, the best programs in the history of television -- both on film and tape -- were handcrafted using the most restrictive and awkward technology of the medium. As the technology grew more reliable and easier to use over the years, program quality declined correspondingly.
Now, before you send me a nasty e-mail, understand that I don't mean this as an absolute-only a general observation. Great television programs, of course, have and are still being made with every generation of technology-just fewer of them.
In my mind, most of the classics of the medium came from the RCA era -- a time of big, heavy industrial strength electronics that dominated television and radio broadcasting until the mid-1970s. However, Big Brother RCA (the company not only made the gear but loaned you the money to buy it) totally missed the fact that the sun was rising during the 1960s on a new generation of TV technology from Japan.
The coming trend would move the tools of television production beyond the medium's legendary artist/performers to a new generation of producer/entrepreneurs. An era of artistic experimentation would soon give way to a mad race for better ratings and higher profits.
I saw my first Sony Portapak while lugging around a heavy Auricon 16mm film camera in the tear-gas-filled streets of Chicago in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention. Though the tough old TV engineers of the time dismissed it as a toy, the Portapak -- as unreliable as it clearly was -- inaugurated the modern era of video.
It was the 3/4-inch U-Matic format that finally broke into broadcasting. The Sony VO-3800 VCR -- usually mated with an RCA TK-76 or an Ikegami HL-77 (the HL was for Handy Looky) camera -- was the first practical ENG package. I say practical because some earlier cameras with huge strapped-on backpacks made the camera operator look like an astronaut about descend to the surface of the moon.
Acceptance of U-Matic was no piece of cake. I clearly remember the chief engineer of a major network affiliate in Miami looking at my RCA/Sony ENG gear and telling me that over his dead body would anything recorded by it be broadcast over his transmitter. A year later, very much alive, he proudly announced that his station would be the first in the market to adopt electronic newsgathering technology. I contained my smirk.
But even from day one, entertainment producers dabbled with the new video technology. I used 3/4-inch U-Matic format gear to record early field segments for George Schlatter's "Real People," one of the first "reality" shows that began airing on NBC in 1979. That was followed in 1980 by Alan Landsburg's "That's Incredible!" These were among the first primetime network entertainment programs to use low-cost ENG technology to shoot feature stories and stunts in the field.
Most of us would agree that the introduction by Sony of the Betacam one-piece camcorder in 1982 was a landmark event in the history of TV technology. But can you guess the name of the first nationally syndicated television program to be shot on Betacam? I can -- I'm embarrassed to say -- because I was there at the beginning in 1984. It was "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," shot on Betacam and edited directly to Type C one-inch. It changed television production forever.
So much for the history lesson. We all know video gear got smaller, cheaper and much, much better. But over the past few years it has brought us "Survivor," "American Idol," "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette." Yes, these shows made heaps of cash for their producers, but I'd bet that-at least privately-not one of them would argue that these productions measure up as good television.
There's nothing wrong with mind-candy entertainment, but the latest batch of reality shows has to make those who have mastered the skills of visual storytelling wonder if the craft of television production is being lost.
Today, almost anyone can afford to buy a broadcast-quality video camera and editing system. And, from the look of some of these productions, it appears that just about everyone has.
Talented filmmakers have always broken the rules to great creative effect. But at least they understood the rules they were breaking. I strongly suspect that much of the shoddy production we see today comes not from creativity, but from a lack of the most basic knowledge of television production techniques.
As the United States enters a war, the latest cost-cutting trend in television is the one-man-band "journalist," who -- under battlefield conditions -- is supposed to simultaneously report the story, shoot video, record sound, and then edit it altogether into a coherent video report. Oh, I forgot, then he's supposed to compress it and transmit it home via a satellite telephone.
It used to be that news reporting, writing, photography, sound recording, video editing and field engineering were each separate skills that took years for a novice to master. Now, only one person is expected to be an expert at all of these functions and perform under the more difficult life-threatening conditions.
Those of us who have been in TV's trenches will be watching closely for the pending shipwreck.