Academic journal article Framework

Product Demonstrations and Female Telephilia

Academic journal article Framework

Product Demonstrations and Female Telephilia

Article excerpt

It is good television to build a skit around the effect of crankcase gum and how to use the oil that will prevent it.... A mere verbal recital of fact is good radio, but it is decidedly poor television unless it is accompanied by visual material that makes full use of the effectiveness of the picture transmissions.1

-Captain Bill Eddy, Chicago television pioneer, 1945

In the above pronouncement, early television producer Bill Eddy provides a model for thinking about telephilia-which we might provisionally define as viewerly love, or attraction, or even lust, for the television image. Eddy identifies direct demonstration as the distinctive feature of televisual media. The pedagogical mode of visual address, he suggests, is a monstrative and immediate form of communication that produces viewerly engagement and affect by showing, rather than telling. Waxing poetic on the visual spectacle of an automobile engine, Eddy heralds the demonstration not only as good advertising but as good television, a marker of the aesthetic achievements of the medium itself. An early television sponsor summarized this situation succinctly, noting, "People do like to see things work."2 Comparable invocations of a feeling of fascination implanted by showing, a fascination historian Neil Harris has characterized as the operational aesthetic, pervade writings on television across decades and disciplines. Early writing on video art, most notably David Antin's essay "Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium," made similar claims. Discussing Terry Fox's Children's Tapes, which shows simple physical processes occurring in real time using everyday items as props, Antin hailed artists' video as "a powerful didactic art."3

Telephilia may mean many things to as many people, but in this short essay I want to make the case that the product demonstration, a contradictory form indicative of commercial television's capacity for both total transparency and compelling persuasion, lies at the center of institutional discourses of telephilia. As John Caldwell has pointed out, television theory of the 1970s and early 1980s tends to describe the medium's visual solicitation of the viewer as a kind of glancing indifference predicated upon an idea of partial attention. But industry rhetorics of spectatorship, he notes, adopt a very different stance, seeing the viewer's relationship to the image in terms of an exhibitionist and performative visual excess.4 Institutional characterizations of the demonstration illustrate Caldwell's point concisely. Throughout the history of commercial television, producers and industry commentators have taken up, in different ways, Captain Eddy's concern with developing an interesting and compelling visual style for the new medium, particularly advertising, based on the demonstration. One thing remains quite constant across many accounts, however, and that is the way these rhetorics of viewer pedagogy, interest, and commercial "science" manifest a clearly gendered ideology of consumer affect and desire, one that positions female and male spectator-consumers in very particular ways.

This gendered logic is apparent when one stops to consider the implied spectator of Bill Eddy's hypothetical example of a fascinating demonstration-a visual lecture on the application of crankcase gum. If Eddy was unable to imagine that such a display would have a rather limited appeal, others in the industry were less idealistic. Judy Dupuy, a staff member at WRGB in Schenectady, suggested in her manual of television production that a seductive mode of presentation was a necessary component of the demonstration form. Women were not necessarily predisposed to educate themselves as laboring consumers, she claimed; a strong sense of the gendered psychology of vision was thus essential for a successful demonstration:

The housewife can be intrigued into watching a studio cook whip up cake batter or turn ice-box leftovers into a tempting dish, or intrigued into watching a washing machine demonstration, thereby learning something about its operation, but it will take little coaxing to give the man who is interested in sports a television lesson in flycasting or pocket billiards right in the comfort of his living room. …

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