A McLuhan look at modern TV/Film viewing

Over the past few decades there has been an incredible amount of technological advances as compared to the past few centuries. As people living in what is known to be the informational age, a term that has come about in the last decade, it is becoming normal to be completely immersed in a society completely filled with media, yet not notice it. During the 1960’s a Canadian Professor by the name Marshall McLuhan was becoming well known for his books discussing his media theories. His popularity was not for the deep understanding and amazement of his theories, but more because the general population did not understand them. It is only in today’s world that we can start to understand what he was talking about, and how amazing his work was. He was ahead of his time, his theories apply to technology that at the time did not exist.

In 1962 Marshall McLuhan published his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. McLuhan states, “…[I]f a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.” (“Marshall”) His book was filled with such writing and imagery to describe symbolism, that he easily confused his audience. A few years later he published another book, Understanding Media: The extensions of Man. This book was written to make his work more accessible to a larger readership. In this book, probably his most famous, he describes the important theory of The Medium is the Massage, the relationship between the medium and the message. It must be clearly stated that, McLuhan cleverly choose to use “massage” instead of “message” in the title and name of his theory. As the theory is actually referring to the message, one can often hear “The Medium is the Message” and “The Medium is the Massage” they refer to the same theory and therefore can be interchanged.

Using McLuhan’s theory of the medium is the message, society today can be examined and it can be seen that television viewers are changing from watching television strictly on their TV set and moving to a the computer and a wide range of mobile devices.

It is often misunderstood, like a lot of McLuhan’s work, that the Medium of the message, refers that the channel in which the content is delivered, is more important than the content itself. This however is not what McLuhan meant. “The medium is an extension of the human body in a way a wheel is an extension to the leg.” (Federman, 1) The medium is the technological advances made in society. These advances are in turn like a domino effect where one change leads to another. The message is not the content which is delivered, but rather the changes that this medium brings to the society that uses it. Often these changes are not immediately seen and become clear as time progresses. These changes in society are not predicated when a new medium is created because people look at the most obvious changes the medium will produce. Instead, one has to look at the non-obvious changes that could be produced by this medium. (Federman 2)

Viewers have been able to tune their television sets and watch content that is provided to them. This has been relatively untouched for decades with the only exception of the video cassette recorder (VCR). Until that time, the only two ways of watching visual content was at a movie theater or at home on a TV set. The immediate effects, as the industry thought, would be reduction in movie theater ticket sales, and a threat to the advertising model of the TV industry. If one looks back at this time period it can be seen that this did not happen.

Until recent years, the TV industry has been essentially left alone and there has not been any major technological advances other than shrinkage of electronic components. This stagnate industry changed in grand style at the 1999 Consumer Electronics show held in Las Vegas when two technology companies, ReplayTV and Tivo, introduced the Digital Video Recorder (DVR). (DVR Wikipedia) The DVR is a unique little device offering features such as: pausing and rewinding live TV, recording multiple shows at the same time; the ability to watch a prerecorded show and record another; and automatic series recordings. Most of these features are made possible because of the video is recorded on a hard drive which is random access – meaning unlike tape you can access any part of the drive at any time. The automatic series recording is a feature that allows a viewer to choose a program that they like and continue to record the show every time it comes on, even if the schedule changes. The DVR is essentially the smart tape less VCR. It has taken time for adaptation but six years on it seems viewers prefer their DVR to record their TV shows. According to data collected in a survey with 74 participants, out of the 57% of people who record TV shows, 50% of them record it on their DVR in contrast to using a VCR is 42.7%. (Appendix Q2 Q3) Although these are close numbers it shows that more people are using their DVR than their VCR.

Another piece of key technology in use today is the Internet. Originally developed under the ARPAnet Project by the United States government in a hope to create a de-centralized computer network that would withstand a nuclear attack, the internet become incredibly popular during the mid to late 1990’s. The ability to go on to the internet, has made our society today known as the “Information Age”. Information of all types is now accessible for anyone as long as they had a connection to the internet.

In January 1999, Sean Fanning dropped out of college to write a piece of software that would change the world. His released to the world during the summer of 1999 and was known as Napster. (Darren) This software was only seen as a way to download as much copyrighted music you could possibly find on the internet. This started a craze in music download, but of course this was all illegal due to infringement of copyright laws, so Napster was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Napster was closed down later in the year. (Napster shut down)

Using McLuhan’s approach of the medium is the message, one can look back to this time period and analyze the medium and the message. The medium is the technological advances, and in this case the combination of the internet and Napster. In some ways we can see the internet as an extension to our feet as it allows us to walk through the vast amounts of information, similar to walking through a library. Going along with this analogy, the library itself is Napster and Napster’s music are the books. At the time, the most obvious and immediate effect were technical and primarily the bottleneck of computer networks as music content was being downloaded. (Anderson) McLuhan’s message is the not so obvious at the time, but this activity of internet music downloading was setting up the society to expect to download any media content on the internet. Society were becoming content hungry online and were inadvertently making the internet the next distribution channel.

Although Napster was shut down, similar programs and networks surfaced. These new pieces of technology however had a different architecture and unlike Napster was not owned by anyone and therefore could not be shut down. These are now the Peer to Peer (P2P) networks. With the introduction of these new programs, another major change was the content being downloaded was no longer restricted to music. Now anything can be downloaded including movies/videos, and pictures. Thus, these new P2P programs continued to drive society’s hunger of illegal downloading of media content.

In January 2001 at MacWorld San Francisco Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Computer, introduced the worlds first computer based DVD burner, coined by Apple as the SuperDrive. This gave computer users the ability to take their home movies and make their very own DVD’s. It returned the power of creation to the computer user instead of the film and TV industry dictating what can or can not be seen on DVD. This computer was originally aimed at the professional user but soon migrated to the consumer lines of computers. This was the first step in DVD and the change to society. Nowadays, the DVD burner is the drive of choice in most desktop computers.

After a relatively exclusive 4 month deal ended with Pioneer to supply Apple with Superdrives, companies all around the world started to produce electronic units that too were able to record onto burnable DVDs. Over time this created a market for those who wanted to make DVDs however did not want to interface them with a computer. Standalone DVD burners were soon born and it was not restricting just home videos being burnt to DVD.

Also announced at MacWorld San Francisco in January 2001 was Apple’s mp3 software jukebox called iTunes. In November of that year, Apple introduced the Apple iPod, a portable music device that integrated perfectly with the new iTunes 2.0. An amazing device that had a small physical size but a large – for the time – 5GB capacity. The iPod was originally for Mac users, but later became available for Windows users too. In Apple’s first two months, they shipped 125,000 iPods. (Apple ups Q2). When compared to this year, Apple’s third quarter saw 6.16 million iPods sold and a growth of 616% of iPods sold compared to the same quarter a year ago. (“Apple reports Q3”) Apple’s last quarter, Q4, they sold 6.5 million iPods with a growth of 220% for the same time last year. (“Apple reports Q4”)

What helped Apple to drive the iPods sales other than its stylish looks and features, was the release of the iTunes Music Store. April 28th, 2003 Apple held a press event and unveiled the new online music store accessed with ease through iTunes. For the first time, computer users had a complete solution for online music, they could buy and download music based on per track costs of only 99 cents instead of having to pay a monthly subscription. Once downloaded they can play it, burn a CD, or transfer the song to their iPod. (“Apple iTMS”) Within the first week Apple broke record sales to by selling one million tracks after the launch, making Apple’s iTunes Music Store the largest online music store in the world. (“Apple One Million”) With this success of the iTunes Music Store, October 16th of 2003 Apple released the windows version of iTunes which brought both Macintosh and Windows users to the new iTunes Music Store. (“Apple iTunes Windows”) A little time after that, the iTunes Music store started to open their online doors to other countries. There are a total of 21 stores, and this number is continuously growing.

Thus far, all these technological advances were major achievements for the electronic and computer industry. Analysts saw the immediate advantages of all these technologies and how they were going to affect businesses and revenues. These technologies are McLuhan’s “medium”, however what is McLuhan’s “message”? How is this affecting society? (McLuhan 8)

By looking at society with respect to music, it can be seen that over the years as the technology has progressed, it was a novelty to be able to download music. To have nearly instant access to music libraries that were once difficult to come by. From personal experience, many users or even parents of users would sit by their computer for hours just downloading music and attempt to grab as much music as possible. The whole music downloading phenomenon was blasted all over news sources on TV, radio and print. For a while it was “cool” to be able to download music online, and those who were not doing this were old fashioned. It has been many years since music downloading started and has become main stream, these behaviors that were once so talked about, have blended into society that no one really hears about them. It is just a natural behavior, which is now moving to a different content stream: Television.

During the time of music downloads, the DVR brands, Tivo and ReplayTV, battled it out, and Tivo became the most popular company. Within in mainstream America, Tivo became a buzz word with people often saying they have a Tivo, even though they have a ReplayTV or generic DVR box. Combining different technologies into DVR boxes, it is possible to network DVR’s together to view content from the another DVR or even transfer it to a computer. This would be useful if one has a DVR in the living room, one in the bedroom and a computer in the study. Only one DVR needs to record the show, then with networking, a viewer can view it from any three of the devices. Giving users choices of where and when to watch.

Two other small devices have been popular during the 1990’s, the mobile phone and the PDA organizer. Two devices made for two specific things yet now both are able to play music and video.

Although the technologies have attempted to remain separate for some time, there is now a digital convergence taking place where devices are able to have multiple functionality. For example dealing with media: computers can play and create DVD’s; cell phones and PDA’s can play songs and videos; and cell phones can actually make videos. These devices at one time were coined by Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs to be digital devices in a digital lifestyle where the computer was the digital hub. (McConnell) It is very difficult to just take a look at only one device to examine it. All these devices at some point go hand in hand, or at least becoming that way.

P2P software was available to download music content, but the type of content wasn’t restricted. It was possible to download films and TV shows that people had digitalized or ripped from DVDs. P2P users started to download and illegally exchange copyrighted video content online. The problem, at least for studios, is that there is no way to shut down this network. The only way to attempt to counteract the copyrighted video downloading is to offer this content online.

Offering content online can come in two forms: downloading or streaming. Downloading transfers the entire file onto your computer before viewing it. Streaming works by the content (in our case video) being sent to you over the internet, you watch it and then the data is not kept but disappears, this way, you never get to keep the content. There are many web sites that are dedicated to do this, such as, ifilm.com or Current.tv. These sites deliver content that has been made generally by individuals, independent film makers by using the Internet as a distribution method. Streaming TV content over the Internet has been done several times by major networks. For example, Sci-Fi channel which is owned by NBC made the first episode, “33” of the new series of Battlestar Galactica available for viewing from their web site. The stream was using Real Player, so the quality was okay but not as good as TV.

The problem with streaming content at this present moment within the United States is that its not high quality. According to the survey conducted, 41.9% of people will still watch content on their computer even though it has a lower quality than TV. Although this is approaching the 50% mark, its still not good enough to get people to watch streamed video on their computer. (Appendix Q16)

Downloading copyrighted TV shows, is a major problem within the United Kingdom as it responsible for 18.5% of the worlds piracy, and an astonishing 38.4% of Europe. (Keegan) From the survey, although only 13 people participated from the UK, 66% of them had downloaded content. (Appendix X1) To deal with the problem, the BBC started a beta program on October 5th, 2005 that called IMP. (Scuttlemonkey) This new trial service allows viewers in the UK to download any of the 500 TV shows that have aired during a week by the BBC. Each episode is available for download the day after the TV airing and is viewable for 7 days. The show is distributed using a special P2P software program that includes a Digital Rights Management software so that the TV show can not be viewed elsewhere by other people. However, the TV show itself is of true TV quality. The service also allows you to transfer the video to a mobile device. Currently this trial has 5000 users, but it will be available for any UK citizen when released to the public. Eventually the BBC hope to go global. (“BBC IMP”) Data from the survey, shows that 81.1% of people would download and watch TV on their computer if they wanted to either re-watch or watch it for the first time because they missed the show. It seems if the desired content is available for download, and the only way to view it is on the computer, then people will do so.

In the United States, only a week after the BBC IMP release, on October 12th, Apple announced the latest iPod, the new Video iPod. Along with iTunes 6.0, the iTunes Music Store now had the ability to sell for $1.99 a few ABC TV shows including: Desperate Housewives; Lost; Night Stalker, The Suite Life; and That’s So Raven. Along with these TV shows, music videos, and numerous shorts from Pixar – Steve Jobs’ other company – were available for download. (“Apple Video iTMS”) The videos can be either viewed on your computer, or on the new Video iPod, allowing you to view content on the go, which is when most people would view this content. From the survey: 46.4% of people would watch content while they commute; 33.95% while walking, and the remain would watch it while at work. (Appendix Q22) This last result is particularly interesting as employees should actually be productive with work related material rather than watching TV content, yet they would still watch it there.

The introduction to the Video iPod and the iTunes Music Store that now sells TV shows started a revolution in TV viewing. Although everything is still so new, other networks such as NBC and CBS announced on November 8th, they will offer a few of their shows for on-demand viewing. However, instead of selling their shows online, they will offer them for 99 cents via Comcast’s on demand service. (“CBS, NBC”)

Both Apple and the Comcast’s on-demand service sell their video content for $1.99 and 99 cents, respectively. Their price points are definitely in the correct range for content as anything higher most people will not purchase them. Again, from the survey, 25.7% of people will pay 99 cents, 12.2% will pay a $1.99 but the majority of 40.5% will not pay anything at all. (Appendix Q11)

Apple though proved that Video-On-Demand through the iTunes music store is going to be very successful. Only 20 days after the launch, Apple announced that 1 million videos had be bought by iTunes Music Store shoppers. (“Apple 20 days”)

McLuhan’s message can really only be seen after the technology has settled. It has been 6 years since music downloading first started in the society. Now it has become translucent, but video downloading, at least now with the start of legal downloading. It will be several years before it becomes completely blended in.

The changes within the society can be seen though, even now. Music downloading has lead society to expect content to be available online. We see that by the IMP trails by the BBC that they are legitimizing this aspect of social thinking. Currently, by data from the survey, 70.3% just expect video content to be available online. Out of those, 66% of people also download content. (Appendix X2)

In the United States migrating content to mobile devices has thus far been a little slow when compared to other places in the world such as Japan and Europe. On November 19th, 2001, Japanese company NTT DoCoMo launched their i-motion mail, a video messaging system using mobile phones. (“i-motion mail”) Four years later, Japanese mobile subscribers can stream and watch TV shows while on the go. There is no need to download to a computer and transfer the content to the phone, it comes directly from the satellites to the phones. For example, special edition- made for mobile- episodes of Fox’s hit series 24 were available from October 3rd of this year.

According to data from the survey, 65% of the participants have never used their video content viewing capabilities on their phone. In a few years this number will change because McLuhan’s message would have propagated through the society and with all the video now being delivered, people will want to download and use their mobile phones for viewing video content.
The world, especially through the use of the internet has become a global marketplace, or directly from the words of Marshall McLuhan himself, a “global village”. (Global Village) McLuhan a man definitely thinking a head of technology was describing how all electronic mass media make the entire world small. No longer are countries separated by mountains and oceans, physical borders, or languages, now through the media of images, and sounds, we are a mass of one village, a global village. Although many do not realize this term was coined by Marshall McLuhan, it is heard time after time again with regard to the internet, for the internet truly is a global village. The internet has made a tremendous change to today’s society in the way it reacts to everything, especially with mass media. It allows viewers, users, the ability to pick and choose what they wish to see and here. It has also changed the society into an informational society, always wanting more. At one time, information was found only in libraries and stores, but now with people go online to research, to read, to listen to music and radio, to watch online specific content, or to watch TV shows.

Technology is constantly changing and again is Marshall’s “Medium’. These changes are seen and made for the obvious things: Napster to allow people to download music; Superdrives to allow users to make their own DVDs; Mobile phones to make phone calls on the go; DVR’s to make recording TV easier. These were the main obvious reasons, but looking back and seeing how the society has changed, we see that these uses were once talked about but now have blended in within today’s society. The Napster craze has driven people to expect to have immediate media satisfaction, and to expect content with regard to music or video instantly available when they want it. DVR’s have also helped with that by changing the way people view TV. Only watching shows when they want to.

Importantly though, it is the drive of the society to demand all these options be made available. The days have gone when one had to shift through channels of content in hope of a good show. Now a simple jump online, and new content is available for immediate viewing.
Therefore, people are starting to move away from the TV, but mainly as secondary media viewing source. From responses from the survey, most people enjoy sitting down in front of the big screen and watching TV there. There will be a convergence with all the technological devices, and someday will dissolve the line between computer and TV.

Society will continue to change and TV networks, along with other distribution channels will have to adjust to the wants and demands of the people. Hopefully, IMP from the BBC will go global and the village will seem even smaller than McLuhan had once envisioned it.
Of course, there is always negative responses to all this technological change. Constant bombardment of advertising can bring all these advances down. However, that said, technology will always be developed to counteract any of this.

The medium is the Message, is more of theory that you have to let it ride out to then look back and see, how did society change? If it is anything like what happened during the past decade, life is going to be bombarded with mass media on every small device that one can carry.


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One Reply to “A McLuhan look at modern TV/Film viewing”

  1. Thank you so much for this article. It is very easy to follow and understand. You helped me a lot to understand McLuhan’s logic.

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