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McLuhan and Williams: Different Visions of Televisions

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There are two key texts that will be examined in the light of the McLuhan-Williams theoretical framework that there can be different interpretations of how the TV medium was used in many parts of the world. McLuhan was ecstatic when he talked about the potential of television and when he compared radio to TV and he wrote:

Radio is a hot medium. When given additional intensity, it performs better. It doesn’t invite the same degree of participation in its users. Radio will serve as background-sound or as noise-level control, as when the ingenious teenager employs it as a means of privacy. TV will not work as background. It engages you (McLuhan, 2001, p.336).

Williams on the other hand offered a different view, and his primary premise is that the process is a flow of images and yet he clarified that, “the replacement of a program series of timed sequential units by a flow series of differently related units in which the timing, though real, is undeclared, and in which the real internal organization is something other than the declared organization” (Williams, 1974, p.93).

It is important to determine why McLuhan raved about TV and why Williams found it untrustworthy. In order to appreciate these theoretical frameworks about television it helps to use their interpretation of TV to determine if the “Remedial Chaos Theory”, an episode of the hit sitcom Community, is untrustworthy or participatory.

The first thing that has to be pointed out is that both McLuhan and Williams had a limited grasp of the scope and impact of TV because when they wrote these articles they were not able to see the evolution of TV not just as a means to show TV shows, movies, and broadcasting medium for news but also as a tool to show various forms of entertainment and as a means to disseminate different forms of information.

Due to their imperfect grasp of the medium, it can be argued that McLuhan made an over-eager estimation of the need for viewers to interact with the images and messages that are broadcasted through TV. In an era after MTV or music television, countless teenagers used the TV set as a type of radio and in McLuhan’s words: background noise. Everyone has seen a student studying in front of a TV set. It is something that McLuhan should have seen to revise his conclusion with regards to what was then a new mass media tool.

Although McLuhan arguably made an error when he contented that no one could use a TV set as a background noise, he made an interesting analysis of what TV can do and he was correct when he said that the TV set engages the viewers in a way that radio could never achieve.

In the case of Williams, his observations seem to be an exaggerated if viewed from the perspective of the 21st century TV viewers. No one from the younger generation could possibly appreciate what he said especially when it comes to the contention that the interruptions and combination of TV shows, movies, trailers, and TV commercials, in one timeslot is something that unnerves the average person. It is not true in the present time because the viewers fully understand the flow of images.

It must be pointed out that Williams came from a cultural background that did not use TV commercials in an aggressive way. He said that during his time, intermissions or interruptions comes in a predictable manner. Although he confesses that even before TV production began, the producers already created a show that considered the insertion of TV commercials, Williams still feels that it is unacceptable to format a show in this manner, wherein the viewers’ senses are made to work into overdrive.

Although it can be argued that Williams view is somewhat exaggerated, it must be made clear that he raised an important point. 21st century audiences and TV viewers may not completely agree with the assertion that TV programming is untrustworthy and creates a flow of images that tends to confuse viewers, there are those who may want to go back to the time when TV commercials were far in between and less aggressive in terms of its content. Williams was correct when he said that messages were created to excite the audience for the simple fact that they needed to be glued to the screen because if not, then, no one would be able to put up with the confusing flow of images.

If one will use the “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode as a way to test the two differing theoretical frameworks, it could be argued that McLuhan will be proven correct. The show forces the audience to engage because if not, they will not be able to understand the flow of the message. On the other hand, Williams’ contention that this type of show is untrustworthy cannot be proven because there are many viewers who enjoyed the show, thus, they understood what they were watching.

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Nevertheless, Williams was partially correct, because there are also other viewers who may find the show without purpose and direction. Thus, it can be said that television can only be appreciated depending on how far the viewer wants to engage and participate. If they are not willing to engage, then, there are many parts of the message that they would never be able to understand. Williams’ contention is only true for those who are used to a particular medium and are not ready to adapt.

Conclusion

McLuhan and Williams offered different ways to interpret value of television for the viewer. McLuhan was correct when he said that the viewers must engage. Williams’ was partially correct because he based his interpretation on how people were used to the old way of doing things. Williams’ interpretation is true to some extent, especially if the viewers will not adapt to learn how to appreciate the new medium. But for those who are ready to adapt and learn, they will not only understand the flow of the message, they will also realize that most of the time, the TV set requires the viewers to engage.

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