Video is Dead, Long Live Video!

story  Michael Betancourt, September 28, 1999 all rights reserved.


Let's begin with a statement so absurd, so against the grain of common knowledge that it will require some discussion to explain what is meant by it: "Video is a dead medium." Ridiculous. Impossible! Video is everywhere.... The technology we call video has been replaced by a newer technology with a higher degree of control over the image, a slightly different characteristic curve, and sharper images. Incidentally -- and not accidentally -- we call this new technology "video." There is a high degree of overlap between the two.

This statement goes against many years of common knowledge -- since the advent of video in the form of television, many have been prophesying the demise of film, and for some the decline in box office sales has been enough support for this assertion to go unquestioned. However, this is not the case; in fact, video has been in continuous decline almost since its inception.

In the beginning, video was broadcast live, thereby limiting its ability to stage events, and forcing the actors of the early television programs to get their acts right on the first take, because with live broadcast, there can be only one take, by definition. In this regard, early television was much more like theater than film. This was a key difference between the two media.

While it is true that film was sometimes used in preparation of television programs, in the very earliest days this was not the case, and the intrusion of film into the video medium was gradual, in part due to the realization by the Hollywood studio system that television was a new source of revenue, rather than an opponent to be competed against. Thus, in the mid-to-late 1950s, and early 1960s, film began to be the means for the production of television programs.

Videotape, invented in 1955, adopted the production methods and editing techniques of film, making the difference between the two on formal structural grounds much less clear. With the advent of film and tape, the ability to abandon the theatrical format was embraced by many new programs which more closely resembled motion pictures, and less so the early television programs with their live audiences and single take necessity.

In addition, with the rise of computer-based broadcast video editing, the necessity to shuttle back and forth copying pieces of tape directly from one vtr to another, (a fundamentally linear method of editing since it prevents the ease of changing sequences that is a key element of film). Computer-based non-linear editing has made the reshuffling of video sequences much more like that of film, but with the potential for exact repetition of footage, something not inexpensively possible in film. In this regard, video has actually surpassed film.

Yet, this change in editing would not arrive until the 1980s. But the way to the later changes was made through the change in production techniques that enabled the creation of a seasons programming entirely in advance, thus bringing to an end the monopoly of the television studios as the only means of television production, and creating the potential, still not completely realized, of independent television.

It becomes possible to have independent television when programming does not have to be performed live. Live programs must be broadcast as they are performed. This situation requires all the facilities that go with broadcasting in addition to all the production facilities. When these became separate, production began to become less expensive, thereby creating the possibility for smaller production companies to be created. These units could form the basis of independent television, since they can be set up relatively cheaply, and do not necessarily have to be part of a large corporation .

This was the first shift away from the original format of television, and it opened up the possibilities for an eventual melding of the two media.

Of the other changes to the original nature of television, the most important is the advent of color. Unlike film where color film production coexisted with black and white, the adjustment to color television was embraced by the entire field within a few years. Such a rapid shift to color parallels the general shift by film to color in the 1950s due to lowered film stock costs and perceived competition by video.

With the addition of color the only significant shifts in video between the 1970s and the 1990s was in the form of the advent in the United States of cable television and the broadcasting of programming in stereo, an element of film production that has been in place since the late 1950s.

A shift in technology also accompanied this change in broadcasting. Home video tape recorders were introduced in the 1970s, but their popularity was limited by conflicting formats, and limited material available to record. However in the early 1980s with lower prices and more material available (the rise of video rental stores) resulted in widespread use of "VCRs," and consequently an interest in improved picture quality, which arrived with the enhanced resolution of televisions using computers to increase the resolution of the screen. The graininess of early television was eliminated, along with the reception problems that cable virtually made a thing of the past.

These changes rendered video and film of the 1980s much more alike than the 1950s, and the similarities are a result of video assimilating the techniques and effects of the film medium, in order to become more marketable, hence more like film.

Significantly, the next change has gone on without comment by anyone involved with either medium. The "intrusion" of specifically film directors and film actors, that is, casts made up from the body of film actors rather than television actors, into television programming. Whether the programs were successful commercially or not, their existence marks a fundamental change in the nature of video. I refer to programs like Twin Peaks and Wild Palms.

It is true that there has been a continuous interchange between film and video -- Jack Lemon continuing his role from the Odd Couple film on television, or programs like M*A*S*H, their existence has almost always been not only a by product of a films success, but they are recast in part or whole when they translate into television.

But to be fair, an acknowledgement of the opposite trend, also recent, to take old television programs and make them into movies, Star Trek and The Beverly Hillbillies are good examples, since they began as television rather than as a cartoon as is the case with Superman or The Addams Family. That the interchange between these programs which do not necessarily have an active audience (Star Trek was in continuous reruns) at the time the film is made shows that the two media are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

The advent of High Definition Television (HDTV) is a sign that video is growing to be more like film. Consider the claims that HDTV has resolution comparable to that of film -- film is the measure against which video is compared, rather than the opposite which would be expected if video was in the process of replacing film. Do not forget that the aspect ratio of HDTV is 2:1, one which many theaters project their films in whether they were shot in that ratio or not.

Which brings up the question: which medium is losing more from this situation?

Many have argues that the group nature of viewing film in a theater is an integral part of the experience of film. But it is necessary to consider that many films are more familiar as television than as theatrical films. It's a Wonderful Life leaps to mind as a prime example. The result of the widespread use of video as a means of watching movies (via rentals on tape) is an element of film production -- most films are officially available on tape within six months of their release, and nearly all are pirated onto tape within a matter of days of their release, if not earlier.

What are we to conclude about video as a result of the many changes that have rendered the modern television so very different from that of its beginnings? That video is actually becoming more like film, and has been shedding its form in exchange for a film-derived one is justified, and that it is increasingly regarded as interchangeable with film -- the films of Atom Egoyan, Wim Wenders use of video in combination, Prospero's Books -- all are very different from the work of 20 years earlier by Goddard. These more recent works involving video treat it as a valid medium, one which is capable of enhancing film.

Film is the medium that is gaining by its association with video, rather than video that is gaining. When we consider how much video has changed, when compared to film, what we are left with is a medium that is not only transient, but also in the process of decline -- the very elements that have defined video as a medium from the beginning both technically and aesthetically are rapidly disappearing to be replaced by film. Video is dying, not film.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  September 28, 1999  all rights reserved.

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