Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Mysterious Medium

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Mysterious Medium

Article excerpt

THE cultural hegemony of television, this reign of the image that extends over the entire planet, is disturbing because it is largely incomprehensible. Television's empire obeys laws that have not yet been fully grasped, and brings into play emotional mechanisms that nobody entirely masters. Rarely has any creation become so independent of its creator. Television is an explosive, hazardous instrument, an ambivalent and proliferating spirit peddling a symbolism whose meaning is uncertain. It is both all-powerful and much less mature than people imagine. The empire of television extends around the planet; but it is an empire ruled by a child.

There is something mysterious about what appears on the television screen and the "message" it sends across the world. No-one can predict precisely what signal will be transmitted to the viewer--neither the journalist, the technician, the politician sitting under the studio lights, nor the producer. The reason for this unpredictability is that the message vehicled by television does not consist exclusively of words, or reflection, or pictures, or a duplication of the real world, but of a complex mixture of all of these things--so complex, in fact, that no-one can totally control it.

A tiny gesture caught by the camera can rob an argument of its content. The unexpected impact of a single image can erase the meaning from a thousand words of commentary. The accidental drama of a live report lasting a few seconds can ignite flames of emotion in millions of homes. A moment of silence can say more than a speech. What the pitiless eye of the camera looks for is authenticity, a mysterious capacity to move or to convince, the elusive heart of the matter. This random, unpredictable quality of television is grounds for humility. Perhaps this is why it receives so little attention.

People usually tend to criticize the manipulative power of the image. The subversive genius of television, which now crosses frontiers with the aid of dish antennae, eluding all kinds of censorship, played no small part in the collapse of communism. The telefrenzy that accompanied the Gulf War further demonstrated that even in democracies public opinion could be paralyzed by a (calculated) surfeit of images.

This manipulative power explains why television is politically so important in every nation of the world. A survey has shown that in 102 countries television is directly controlled by the state. …

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