This week, we (and Google by way of a doodle) take note of the 90th anniversary of the first demonstration of television. Granted, it was a primitive mechanical television, but it was the precursor to the electronic tube TVs that dominated the childhoods of baby boomers everywhere.
That first image, demonstrated by Scottish engineer, John Logie Baird, was roughly 3 inches by 2 inches—a far larger screen than that of the Apple Watch, but not nearly as large as your neighbor’s 75-inch flat screen, where you’re hoping to be invited for Super Bowl 50.
The science and engineering of television have evolved in ways Mr. Baird could never have imagined. And so have its uses.
In the span of one decade (the 1960s), television was both the great uniter and divider. The nation came together in its grief over the assassination of President Kennedy and television news (in the United States) came of age.
As the 60s churned, television was the meeting place of the generational divide. The same medium that brought us tuxedo-clad crooners on The Dean Martin Show, also delivered the political punch of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. Both shows had scantily clad dancing girls, but on one show they sold sex, on the other they sold satire.
The Viet Nam War was as regular a feature in everyone’s living room as The Lawrence Welk Show. Television learned to inform as much as entertain, and a new generation took that information and created a counter- culture and its own identity.
As television evolved from miracle technology to miracle money-maker, all networks or affiliates had to do was turn on the transmitter and watch the money roll in. Television is where advertisers went—and still go—for the most efficient corporate image building. Coca-Cola could tame Mean Joe Green. Chrysler—and Detroit—could come back from the dead. Television is still a major part of any advertising or public relations campaign or crisis management.
Cable, satellite, and Internet distribution may have “disrupted” broadcasting, but all platforms have cashed in on the irresistible, ongoing attraction people have to a glowing screen. (Hunter S. Thompson famously referred to the TV business as a “cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs,” not in the context of compromising journalistic integrity, but because once he had installed a satellite dish at his remote mountain home, he was outraged to learn he’d have to pay to decode the individual signals of channels he wanted to watch.)
As public relations specialists, we know that your television screen is no longer the only one you watch and that audiences are now fragmented among hundreds of channels and platforms. We know that different demographic cohorts go to different places for their content. An analysis of Neilsen trends from 2011 through most of 2015, shows that while younger viewers are dropping away, “traditional TV remains the primary mechanism for adults across age groups.”
TV, especially the major networks and their affiliates, is still a very big PR bang for the buck.