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E.T., film home?

“Bystanders filmed the incident on their mobile phones and we will bring you the footage after the break.”

Could be almost any newsreader on any day on any channel anywhere in the world.

You have probably noticed that there is no practical way to shove a reel of movie film into your mobile phone.

You may also have noticed that your mobile phone records video on a solid state memory chip which is usually measured in bytes rather than feet.

These facts seem to have escaped Telstra, one of Australia’s biggest telcos. Their current commercial shows a family at a beach as mum captures the scene on her mobile phone which a CGI pelican proceeds to gulp. “You are filming at the beach and a bird steals your phone.” proclaims the voice-over. “Never mind, your footage is safely stored (along with your other important documents for you to retrieve whenever you want.”)

That’s some pelican that can steal a phone,  unload a reel of movie film from somewhere inside it and fly that footage to have it processed in a lab and stored ready for you to edit on your Steinbeck and project on a bed-sheet to persecute your hapless relatives.

Of course mobile phones have never used film and, these days most cameras, amateur and professional, record not even on tape, but on tiny memory chips similar to the one in your phone.

TK-76 ENG camera

An ad for the RCA TK-76 ENG camera

The shift from film to videotape and eventually solid-state recording emerged through news coverage with the first “electronic news gathering”  (ENG) camera, RCA’s breakthrough TK-76.

I previewed (OK, played with) a pre-release PAL model at RCA’s research and development laboritory at Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  It was officially  introduced at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) convention and show in Chicago in 1976 (hence the number in the name) where I got to play with it mounted on another breakthrough presented at that convention,  Garret Brown’s brilliant  SteadiCam.


Garret Brown's revolutionary Steadicam

Wearing that rig for the first time was an amazing experience. It felt as if the camera was controlling me and its operating principle and mechanism totally baffling.

The TK-76 was still tethered to an external  video recorder, usually a Sony U-Matic or  Betamax Professional. Later developments of course combined the videotape recorder with the camera body;  the three vacuum tubes used to record the red, green and blue components of the image were replaced with solid-state chips and the digital image data recorded on digital tape — now on memory chips.

It has been more than two decades, a whole generation, since TV news crews recorded events on film or TV networks handled a foot of the stuff.

It is probably about time that news writers and announcers woke up to the fact.

The Vast Wasteland

I long had the idea that the phrase “vast wasteland” was a quote from Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, or at least William S. Burroughs.

I could hardly have been more wrong – and I should have known better.

It is not from the anti-establishment, boundary-pushing writings of the beat generation. It is from a senior member of the establishment, one Newton N. Minow, then Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He was addressing the most powerful people in broadcasting in America: the 1961 convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Minow’s speech* challenged people to watch, without interruption or distraction, a full day of television, from the breakfast programme to sign off (they did sign off in 1961). What they would see, he assured them, would be a vast wasteland.

“You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”

So what has changed in almost 40 years?

Fewer westerns and private eyes but more gangsters, more cops, more explicit violence, more so-called reality broadcasting, more amateur talent shows, more and worse commercials, dumber presenters and more mind-numbing mediocrity.

The wasteland got vaster.

* Full text of the speech

Does this ring a bell?

The sound of a phone ringing is being subtly woven into the audio of TV (and probably radio) commercials.

You are watching TV.
A commercial break.
Your mind’s shutters come down.

Ring! Ring!


Your shutters fly up.
You are NOW watching a commercial.

This is the snarliest, sneakiest, most insidious trick to trap you to pay attention to the advertising since the gratuitous giggle of little girls was tagged to the end of everything.

The sound of a phone ringing is being subtly woven into the audio of TV (and possibly radio) commercials. The actual ring tone is even tailored to the target of the commercial. Selling funeral plans to oldies will use traditional bell sounds. Equally dubious products claiming to suck up pimples will underlay the ring tone most popular with teens.

What can we do about it? Not much. There are no laws against this.