“Television Delivers People”: This 1973 video art piece showed how the consumer had become consumed

By on December 12, 2015

Marshall McLuhan famously called TV the “cool fire” but by the early 70s, families had already begun to drift away from the family’s tribal campfire — the living room television set — and those who continued to sit around it and warm themselves with the “entertainment” the TV was providing was programming showing that Television had already become, in just a few short decades, “an insidious sponsor for the corporate engines of the world.”

That last part comes from a description, found at the Video Data Bank, for a video installation entitled Television Delivers People, video artist Richard Serra’s and Carlota Fay Schoolman’s important work in 1973 which criticized mass media and powerful media conglomerates who were already using TV as both a control tactic and social construct to “maintain and profit from the status quo.”

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The short video, which clocks in just short of seven minutes long, used minimal video technology to give the viewer a feeling of a “spare low-budget appearance, as if it were an information bulletin, or a pre-programmed transmission on a community TV channel or cable network.”

Serra’s and Schoolman’s video begins and ends with basically the same message. Here’s the beginning, for instance: “The Product of Television. Commercial Television. Is the Audience. Television delivers people to an advertiser” reads the electronically-generated text as it scrolls by in a yellow font on a blue background, while canned music plays in the background (the kind of music once called “elevator music,” and usually provided by the Muzak company).

“There is no such thing as mass media in the United States except for television. Mass media means that a medium can deliver masses of people Commercial television delivers 20 million people a minute. In commercial broadcasting the viewer pays for the privilege of having himself sold. It is the consumer who is consumed. You are the product of t.v. You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer. He consumes you.”

And here’s the ending: Every dollar spent by the television industry in physical equipment needed to send a message to you is matched by forty dollars spent by you to receive it. You pay the money to allow someone else to make the choice. You are consumed. You are the product of television. Television delivers people.

The Video Data Bank description concludes this way: “By appropriating the medium he is criticizing—using television, in effect, against itself—Serra employs a characteristic strategy of early, counter-corporate video collectives—a strategy that remains integral to video artists committed to a critical dismantling of the media’s political and ideological stranglehold.”

Read the full transcript of the text in Television Delivers People here.

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Writer Tom Sutpen wrote the following about Television Delivers People, in 2006:

“There’s nothing in Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman’s ‘Television Delivers People’ that we don’t already know, but in 1973 it was a bit more novel. Which is deliberately subjecting the matter to understatement. Prior to this deceptively simple (by any standard) video work, the closest anyone had come to offering a highly charged critique of the televisual medium was in 1961, when then-FCC Chairman Newton Minnow derided commercial Television as ‘a vast wasteland’, largely because people did not watch programs that he thought were good for them. What was always beneath Minnow’s pronouncement was the implication that he…not the networks and certainly not the viewers…had a better instinct for elevating the tone of popular culture than those who were in a position to actually do it. Never mind that the kind of programming he thought warranted broadcast was (and is) middlebrow pap of a similarly dismal (albeit more liberal) cast than the worst of that which he condemned. The important thing is that he never seemed to question his judgement about what really constituted his vast wasteland. It wasn’t that the system was fundamentally pernicious, as he saw it; it was just headed in the wrong direction.

Television Delivers People’ strikes at the matter more directly, by questioning the wisdom of having a medium this powerful rest entirely in the control of vast corporations; those whose only responsibility is to deliver greater and greater revenues to stock-holders. This is, of course, a line of attack no FCC Chairman could ever (or would ever) adopt. And, a full two decades before Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s ‘Manufacturing Consent’ or such ancillary works as Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s amazing history of corporate propaganda, ‘Selling Free Enterprise’, Serra and Schoolman brought forth the seed of what would later blossom into a veritable cult of media criticism and set it to the soothing sound of Muzak.

The video installation is now part of the collection at MOMA, New York City, which lists this description for artist Richard Serra, who works in many mediums, not just video:

Richard Serra (born November 2, 1939) is an American minimalist sculptor and video artist known for working with large-scale assemblies of sheet metal. Serra was involved in the Process Art Movement. He lives and works in Tribeca, New York, and on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

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Richard Serra (photo Paul Middendorf)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    Yes, this was a classic.

    The titler/character generator used was one of the earliest, if not the first models that came out at the time known as a “Vidifont” I believe. Outside the major networks, this kind of technology was still outside the range of most TV stations accustomed to putting together captions and titles the old fashioned way by simply pointing a camera source to a card or a slide and simply fiddle around with a video mixer to do the rest. Electronically inserting text on the screen still had a way to go to become a main fixture of broadcasting.

    http://jcbd.com/vidifont/