© 2000, Eric McLuhan
During the « Fordham year » Harley Parker and
I undertook to teach a course on The Effects of Television.
After just two or three weeks with the students, we realized
that we were meeting some serious resistance to our approach.
These students had in previous semesters taken all the conventional
courses in media; they knew the right (sociological) approach
to radio, television, film, etc., and we clearly did not.
Whereas they were expecting something that would fit into
the scheme that they had spent years perfecting, we were providing
a quite alien approach from the standpoint of the senses and
of perceptual response. Harley and I decided to surprise the
group by making them the subjects in an experiment designed
to test just one of many differences between the two media,
film and TV. (At the time, nothing like today’s rigorous
guidelines about experimentation on human subjects had been
developed, so we had considerable freedom as regards approach
and no permissions to get or paper to sign). We ran the experiment
the next week, and the following week we announced the results
to the class. Thereafter, we encountered considerably less
resistance, and the course ended amicably.
A brief time after the running experiment, I wrote it up for
a Canadian publication, Monday Morning. What follows is a
slightly edited version of that article.
A few weeks ago a small experiment was carried out involving
some sixty or so university students in a seminar devoted
to investigating the effects of television. The purpose of
the experiment was twofold.
- To demonstrate to the students that there was a difference
between the effects of movies and those of TV on an audience.
- To try to ascertain what some of those differences might
Professionals in the entertainment industry
routinely scoff at the idea that TV could be « more
involving » medium than movies, pointing out that TV
has lower pictorial definition (even with colour), a smaller
screen, and commercial interruptions. Furthermore, the TV
viewer appears remarkably passive. All of these things were
know to the class, which also noticed another distinction:
whereas movies reflect light off a screen, TV « passes
light through » the screen – but this they thought
to be a relatively minor consideration.
Accordingly, « light-on » versus « light-through
» was selected to form the basis of the proposed experiment,
which was set up as follows. We chose two short films, one
highly organized and with a strong story line, the other with
no narrative line. The students had previously been separated
into two groups of roughly equivalent size. We decided to
show both films to the first group in the regular «
movies » manner and to the second group in a manner
that simulated the TV condition of « light-through »
the screen. After showing each film, we asked the students
to write a half page to a page of comment on their reactions
to it. (The use of a questionnaire was decided against since,
although it would make results much easier to tabulate and
thus make life easier for those administering the experiment,
it was felt that the short essay-of-reactions afforded the
respondent the greatest latitude and room for spontaneity
and the least chance of the experimenters biasing the results).
As regards actual procedure and hardware, the screen used
in all cases was a sheet of rayon, 3’x 6’ (this
tended to lend to all views of the movies a slightly blue-violet
tint). (We used this material, not because of some technique
or property of rayon, but because it was all we could lay
our hands on in time for the class). We set up the screen
in the middle of the classroom and arranged the chairs on
each side face the screen. The projector thus was at one side
of the room. The speaker we set beneath the screen so that
the sound would emanate from the same source for all observers.
One group of students sat on one side of the screen; the other,
on the other side. The first group, then, saw the films projected
onto the screen, with light bouncing off it, in the usual
manner for film. The second group saw the same film on the
same screen, only with the light passing through the screen,
TVB-style. Image size in all cases was the same and approximately
4-6 times that of an average TV screen.
Of the two films, only the second (non-story-line) one will
be commented upon here. The first film, a British «
let’s-go-back-into-time » type documentary dripping
with erudite quotes and good taste (Journey into History),
was partly rejected (disliked) by the first group of students
and almost totally rejected by the second. The second film,
Dream of the Wild Horses, on the other hand, provided more,
and more concrete, comments and some surprising results.
Results were tabulated by counting the number of references
(to items of their own choice) made by the students in their
essay commentaries. Thus, if 15 out of 30 in one group referred
to a specific item, this was tabulated as « specific
item - 50% » and would be compared to the percentage
of those in the other group who made a similar reference.
Because of the relatively low number of students participating,
and in order to reduce chance or random factors, differences
of less than 20% between the two groups were not considered
There is not room here adequately to discuss all of the variations
in response between the two groups; even if there were, it
is doubtful that it would be completely worthwhile. The experiment
was evolved and set up simply to indicate to the students
that a difference in their response to the two media existed,
however large or small. It was not intended to be definitive.
Consequently, the remainder of this discussion will be limited
to the most striking differences. The many similarities in
the comments of the two groups will be passed over here.
There were only two or three significant decreases in responses
to Dream of the Wild Horses: comments on cinematic techniques
(such as cutting, panning, editing, etc.) went from 36% in
the first (reflected light) group to less than 20% in the
second; references to specific scenes dropped from 51% to
28%; objective references to a « sense of power »
in the animals from 60% to 20 %.
On the other hand, the increases reflect some striking shifts
- The number who commented upon a conscious feeling of sensory
evocation or involvement rose from 6% to 36%.
- The same is true of those (6% to 36%) who spoke of a feeling
- Comments on feeling a loss of a sense of time rose even
higher: from 6% to 40%. The most impressive rises, however,
were concerned with « involvement ». Since the
students mentioned both « involvement » as well
as « emotional involvement », these were tabulated
- Mention of « total involvement »: 15% for
the first group; 64% for the second group.
- Mention of « total emotional involvement »
: 12% fort the first group; 48% for the second.
(The other film – Journey into History
– received a similar, though less pronounced, response.
For example, comments on pictorial realism or a sense of perspective
dropped from 33% (reflected) to 0% (light-through)).
Let us now examine these figures to see what sensory shifts
they imply. We know that the visual sense is the only allows
detachment and objectivity, and that tactility is the most
involving of the senses. All of the significant decreases
reflect a drop in objectivity or detachment. This drop, then,
suggests a lessening of emphasis on the visual component when
light is passed through a screen rather than reflected from
What sensory shifts do the increase imply ? In order, they
are as follows.
- Rise in tactility
- Rise in proprioception and tactility
- Drop in visual (we organize our sense of – linear
– time in a purely visual manner)
- Rise in tactility
- Rise in tactility (and possibly also of proprioceptive
The conclusion to be draw from examining
the result of varying just one aspect of the differences between
film and TV are clear.
The beauty of this experiment rests in its simplicity: it
can be reproduced by anyone who has five things available:
a short movie (or two or three), a film projector, a class
of students, a few dollars for a screen, and a basic working
knowledge of the sensory modalities.
As mentioned above, we didn’t intend the experiment
to be conclusive or rigorous – only indicative. In this
it succeeded. If anything, it ought to have failed simply
because little was done to emphasize the many other differences
between the movie and TV viewing experiences. The movie experience,
it might be argued, was mitigated by at least two factors:
the much smaller-than-usual image size, and the relatively
poor reflective qualities of the rayon screen. On the other
hand, the « TV experience » was not closely duplicated
since the image was larger than usual, since the images were
film images (not composed as a mosaic of dots of light but
delivered as 24 static frames per second), and since the theatre
situation was retained.
In spite of all this, sufficient differences in response were
noted to permit conclusions regarding the heightened tactility
and lessened visuality of the TV experience over that of film.
Several students from the first (reflected light) group elected
to participate in the second (light-through) showing. Their
comments are illuminating since they were only ones to see
the films both ways and therefore had a basis for comparison.
Here is a brief sample.
First film: Journey into History
« I now (i.e., from the light-through side) feel almost
drawn into the screen. I feel part of the picture. I’m
experiencing what is shown in that I feel there, with the
Second film: Dream of the Wild Horses
“I had just seen this film at the front projection.
I had been almost hypnotized by it. Now I feel that more.
I felt like one of them before and more so now.”
And another: “Dream was much more noticeably effective
shown through the screen. I was frozen into an almost hypnotic
trance. It had an ethereal quality that was necessarily more
intensely involving than the first showing. This intensity
was heightened in all facets of this type of presentation.
The horses conveyed a dynamic sensuousness that was almost
erotic. It was an undeniably beautiful, horrible film. Obviously,
it is very well suited to TV”.
So went the article written at the time …
Afterthoughts (in this year, 2000)
Many objections have been raised about
hidden differences that might influence the results. For example,
clearly, the light-through side will have all printed information
(shop signs, billboards, film credits, etc.) in reverse. Also,
there is a significant (and subtle) factor called left/right
bias in Western imagery. For example, most sinister actions
and threats emanate from one side of the screen; their positive
counterparts use the other side. These things too would be
reversed. To explore these factors influence on results, image-reversing
lenses have been used so that the reflected-light side would
get the reversed image, films have been started late and stopped
early to circumvent seeing credits and titles, and films have
been selected that do not show alphabetic information inside
the film. One subsequent “run” even used a closed-circuit
TV camera that sent the image from the (normal) film screen
directly to a TV monitor. The audience was split in half,
as usual, but one group watched the film on an actual film
screen; the other watched the same film on the closed-circuit
TV screen. Care was taken to keep the film image the same
size as that on the TV screen. In other words, all possible
mechanical variables have been tested for, without any indication
that the presence or absence of one or another produced a
noticeable skew in the results.
Since the first “run” (reported above), some 30
years ago, the experiment has been re-run by me, and by others
at others schools, about a dozen times, and with various audiences
of varying ages and sophistication. Always the results evince
the same pattern, although of late they are all skewed in
the “TV-side” direction – a factor that
I attribute to the increasing presence among us of TV and
now of computer screens. Back then, in the late sixties, even
colour TV was sufficiently new (and costly) that only a few
people had them. Now it is the rare person that has, let alone
uses, a monochrome TV (or computer screen).
In one recent “run” (which had as subjects faculty
and staff of the graduate school at a major Canadian university),
the test film used was Buster Keaton’s The Railroader.
Just a few minutes into the film, a dramatic difference in
response was clearly evident: only one side of the screen
was laughing. The other side was in fact noticeably puzzled
by laughter emanating from the one side – so much so
that at least one of them (a neurosurgeon) got up and went
around the screen to make certain that those on the other
side were in fact watching the same images.
|Sensory evocation involvement
|Sense of loss of time