Cable news in the age of McLuhan

McLuhan (right) in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall"

Could Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann have thrived in the days of fuzzy, black-and-white television sets? It’s a question I found myself asking after having introduced myself to the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan earlier this year.

The result — my review of Douglas Coupland’s quirky “Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!” — appears in the new issue of Nieman Reports.

The O-and-O question comes about from McLuhan’s definitions of “hot” and “cool” media. To McLuhan, writing in the 1950s and ’60s, radio and movies were “hot” media because they were all-encompassing, leaving little to the imagination. Television was “cool” because the flickering images were so inadequate — that is, television was a participatory medium, forcing the viewer to fill in the missing information and thus requiring his active participation.

Thus, according to McLuhan, hot personalities who did well on radio were failures on television, which favored bland, soothing folks upon whom the viewers could project their own thoughts and desires.

In one of his two major works, 1964’s “Understanding Media,” McLuhan seemingly anticipated today’s flat-panel HDTVs, writing that “‘improved’ TV” would no longer be television as he understood it. My guess is that if McLuhan were alive, he would tell us that the talk-radio style of television that works on cable would have been a failure before technological advancements made it easier for the viewer to just sit back and vegetate.

Not to get carried away — after all, “The Beverly Hillbillies” was popular when McLuhan was writing — but one interpretation might be that the harder you have to work, the less willing you are to be told what to think.

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