In preparation for our move to the USA I’ve been cleaning out my books.
I’ve come across one I picked up years ago in a second-hand bookstore for the bargain price of $2.50, called ‘Writing for Television’ by Arthur Swinson. The book was published in London in 1955 – yep, when TV was but a babe.
The first paragraph of the book’s Foreward features the sentence, “…so far, in this country, no book has been written to my knowledge, seriously attempting to analyse [television’s] nature or to assess its impact. No full-length investigation has been carried out on the question of whether it is merely a new method of disseminating information or, in some aspects, a new artistic medium.”
Parallels? I thought. And yes, there were lots.
Certainly, there’s a parallel between this take on television and traditional media’s embracing of online around the year 2000 – repurposing content from print formats for the web, in the same way radio and theatre scriptwriters wrote for television consumption in the 1950s.
An even more familiar resonance, however, is explored in Chapter 1: ‘The Nature of Television: Is it a True Medium for the Writer?’ Here Swinson considers whether television is a “cold, mechanical medium” (p.2) because it lacked a live audience. Swinson reveals his television writing colleagues believed television wasn’t as good a medium because there was no feedback, no response. There was “no thrill” compared with live theatre.
What a surprise. Writers who were used to writing for theatre and were now trying to write for television found the new medium unsatisfactory. They say “it offers no scope for the serious writer.” (p.4)
In his book, Swinson disagrees with them and believes television has promise of being an incredibly impactful medium becasuse of the sheer size of audience it can reach. However he still considers television only as being a new medium to deliver the same content already being produced (in radio or theatre), simply to a wider audience.
A format shift.
Of course we now know that television is a medium unlike any other. In it’s relatively short existence compared to other formats it’s had an unprecedented role in society. And what we see on our ‘boxes’ looks very different to what first appeared in the 1950s. Television grew up.
And that’s the same mistake many traditional media outlets are making with the ‘growing up’ of online. At first, re-purposing content for online was satisfying enough. But that was the infancy of online media. And it’s not what it looks like today.
Online media has opened the doors to all sorts of writers. Swinson quotes Hemingway in saying “there is all the difference in the world between a serious writer and a solemn writer – and a good many of the solemn category work under the delusion they belong to the serious.”
Could traditional media journalists, in their dismissive, “we’ve had a masthead for xx years and know what we’re doing” pouting attitude to non-masthead bloggers perhaps be reflective of the solemn rather than the serious?
I’ll invite you to consider Swinson’s words on page 6 (see, we didn’t have to read much of his book, did we?) to conclude:
Let us say that such a man is one who writes not only to entertain or tell a story, but because there is something definite he wants to say; who employs whatever medium he choses (sic) on the highest level his powers will allow him.
Swinson, a man before his time, could just have easily been writing about blogs.