Gary Carter's Speech, Part 3

This is the last part of the keynote address on the future of television delivered by Gary Carter of FreemantleMedia at the National Association of Television Program Executives in Las Vegas in January 2007. (See part 1 and background, and part 2.) All emphasis mine.

"If you'll excuse some simplification, it seems to me that we can divide the history of television, as medium and as form, into three generations: mine, my mother's, and my son's.

For my mother, when television arrived in the fifties, it was a technology without history. It appeared as revolutionary, although in fact, like most technology it was evolutionary. Its technology was mysterious, new, perhaps related to film, and the form of programmes derived from other technologies and traditions -- the movies, the theatre, the radio. Television was a window on the world, a Modernist project which explained the world to its audience -- the world as it 'really was'. This was the era of television as social instrument, the era of the rise of the public broadcaster. The voice of television was the voice of the social establishment. Famous people as represented on television were famous because of their achievements, because of what they had done. Television came at you, it was a 'push' technology, in current terms, and in fact, it moved down -- it came from a position of power and moved down to the people. It is in this period that the means of reception -- the screen, the set -- begins to be domesticated, it drifts from the shop window into the living room.

But my generation -- the generation which came of age in the early eighties -- we grew up with television. Entirely domesticated, it had moved into our space, and appeared in bedrooms, in kitchens, even in toilets. It had a history of its own, it had a culture of its own to which we could refer, it had already codified its own conventions. And in this generation, fame began to share airtime with celebrity -- those people who were famous because of the amount of media exposure they gained.

And since television programmes started to provide exposure, in an unholy alliance with the dark arts of marketing, it was possible to become famous for being on television, or in the media. We were the first generation who had grown up as the subject of audio-visual media -- the Super 8 movies, the early videotape, which our parents used to film those important events in our lives. We grew up then, with an understanding of the conventions of television, and with the domestic version of the technology filming us at home, and as the subject of the camera's gaze. This we could characterise as the beginnings of the post-Modern phase, the development of a medium which was a mirror, not a window, one with its own dubious heroes -- porn stars, politicians, their mistresses, their rent boys, retired gameshow hosts, and 'ordinary' people. As Andy Warhol said, In the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes. This was the era of television as reflective and creative of different worlds -- and it was the period of the rise of the commercial broadcaster. Television came at you from different directions, not just 'down' -- but it also started to come from you -- in programmes like Fox's COPS and AMERICA'S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS, where, for the first time, the material was generated by the subjects of the camera's gaze.

But for the generation represented by my son, the world is very different. Television -- or rather, the moving image with sound -- has become totally personalised, and in all aspects: subject, production and distribution.

The digital project means that media represent no reality, where the image multiplies indefinitely, perfectly, and represents only itself, and no reality at all. Or rather, a reality in which the image is the only reality.

A reality in which 98% of photographs in the average glossy magazine are digitally altered, in which 98% of Hollywood movies -- even those without special effects -- are digitally altered; in which newsreaders and gameshow contestants appear in environments that don’t exist. A separate pseudoworld. Now it is possible to define celebrity as utterly divorced from achievement at all -- as someone who 'is recognised my more people than they themselves can recognise'.

This generation has a different understanding of media and technology -- for a start, it has grown up with games in which the individual audience member can affect the outcome directly. It has grown up with an in-depth understanding of genre derived from television history, with an in-depth understanding of technology -- a technology which is now of broadcast quality, with domestic editing sets which rival those used in what we like to call an industry, and now --crucially -- the audience has distribution. This is the world of digital television, digital networks, digital everything. Power, in this environment, is certainly not a push, but it's probably not, in fact, a pull: it is distributed equally, in all parts of the system, acting in all directions simultaneously. In fact, power is a peer-to-peer distributed network. The audience, having been first the recipient of the camera's gaze, and then its subject, took control first of the means of production, and now, finally, of the means of distribution.

Media has become totally personalised, in all its aspects. It has moved into 'my space'. The artist formerly known as the audience has become -- to use MacLuhan's prediction from the early '70s -- the prosumer. To quote Andy Warhol just before his death: "My prediction from the Sixties finally came true. In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, in fifteen minutes everybody will be famous."

I believe that we are living through a profound moment in the evolution of technology, and therefore of our species. We should be careful that when we mourn the so-called death of television we are only mourning our own loss of power as a media elite. I know that sounds rather dramatic at the end of a long day in a seminar, but I believe it nonetheless. We are not living through the death of television, for the simple reason that this is not about television. Technological development is a story, which runs through human history, and which shapes it and is shaped by it, and part of that story is the rise and rise of that which we call the media. This is about us, in a very deep and profound way, and it's about the way in which we as a species are driven by creativity. Obviously, I realise that I sound alternatively naive and pretentious when I say this, but these concerns of ours -- is television dying, what's the next big thing, will people want to watch television on a mobile phone, who will want to pay for it -- these are not the questions which are important, culturally or historically. The important ones are: now that we have it, what will we do with it? As it grows, who will control it? And finally, what will we become?

This is a moment in time in which we can all help to answer these questions, and that's why it's an exciting and important moment. It's exciting and important because it will require us to do the thing which ultimately defines us as people: it requires us to dream, and to create the products of our dreams, and to fill the flickering screens around us with those dreams. "

(c) Gary Carter 2006.

- A note of gratitude to Mr. Carter for sharing the full text of the speech with Adverlab.
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