This article was originally published on The Conversation.
But as audiences move online to watch television content, through catch-up services such as ABC iview, Ten Play and SBS On Demand, is this still television? Is television defined by the device that the audience uses to view the content or by the content itself regardless of the platform?
The recent announcement by the Australian government to push community TV online also raises questions about how television is defined on political, institutional and social levels. Are live online streaming services, such as Ustream, television?
What makes television, television?
In its simplest form, “television” means to see at a distance. But this definition is broad and problematic, as it could be used to define a number of media and technologies.
The other issue in defining television is its singular use to describe other components including, set, program and the institution. This creates further difficulty to an issue which may appear to be contemporary, but in fact is historical.
During its earlier development, television was not the first term used to describe the technology. Other terms used included, telephonoscope and telephane.
The term television, in the context of the technology, was first discussed during 1900 at the International Electricity Congress. Thirty years after this, as test broadcasts commenced in Britain and the United States, there was still debate and discussion.
In Television: to-day & to-morrow (1930), Moseley and Barton defined television in two ways. Firstly as an aid for the public to:
witness what is happening at some distant place, just as if we were eye-witnesses.
The second definition was:
the ability to see, with the aid of electrical methods of transmission, a reproduction on a screen of the image of moving or stationary objects situated at any distance from the observer.
While these definitions are still broad, they are more closely aligned with the television technology that had been introduced to Britain at the time.
In the United States during the 1930s, the early social view of television was discussed in a New York Times article titled “Search Continues for the Right Word”. Readers were asked what to call the associated apparatus, owner and viewer of television.
One reader stated that:
we see with our eyes, we hear with ours ears. Why not combine the two and make the word “eyear” or “earyer” which is more euphonic?.
Other suggestions by the readers included “tellser” and “sightener”, for the viewer of television. One reader argued that the operator be called the “audivise”, the receiver “audiviser”.
Other names suggested included, “for the owner of a set – teleciever, for viewers – radiospects (taken from the word spectacles)”.
Not all opinions were positive toward early television, nor its future. One reader stated: “I suggest noisivision because the vision will be noisy”. This is but one example of the variation in the early perception and uncertainty of what television was or would become.
The contemporary definition of television uses a multi-purpose approach. This is evident in the Oxford Dictionary, which describes television in three ways:
- a system for reproducing on a screen visual images transmitted (usu. with sound) by radio signals
- a device with a screen for receiving these signals
- television signals in general.
This multi-purpose approach is also evident in the Dictionary of Media Studies (2006), which lists four definitions for television.
Firstly “an electronic device for receiving and reproducing the images and sound of a combined audio and video signal”. Its second definition is “a system of capturing images and sounds, broadcasting them via a combined electronic audio and video signal, and reproducing them to be viewed and listened to”.
Third, as “the image, sound or content of combined audio and video broadcast” and fourth as “the industry concerned with making and broadcasting programs combining images and sound”.
This multi-purpose approach gives evidence to the singular term approach discussed earlier. It is clear that a singular definition is difficult to establish.
Since its introduction, television has changed enormously. Technologically, the television set has evolved from a mechanical system, demonstrated by Scottish engineer John Logie Baird, to large high definition screens.
Culturally we have begun to move away from viewing television socially as a group, to singular viewing on mobile devices. These changes have forced television institutions to examine their role in broader society.
While some may argue television is dying, television both as a term and an institution will remain.
How it will be defined or what it will resemble is not clear, but history tells us that old media never dies.
Marc C-Scott does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Television eyeglasses in 1963. james vaughn