You'll sail with television through vanishing horizons into exciting new worlds. You'll sit at speakers' tables at historic functions, down front at every sporting event, at all top-flight entertainment. News flashes will bring you eye-coverage of parades, fires, and floods, of everything odd, unusual, and wonderful, just as though you were on the spot. All this — the world actually served to you on a silver screen — will be most enjoyably yours. You'll be an armchair Columbus on 10,001 voyages of discovery!



In 1944, the same year this frothy advertising copy from the DuMont Broadcasting Corporation surfaced in popular American magazines, Canada's 33-year-old, prairie-born, Cambridge-educated Marshall McLuhan took up his position as the head of the department of English at the University of Windsor's Assumption College.

The world was indeed odd, unusual, and wonderful. It was also depression-ravaged, war-savaged, and on the verge of a revolution in communications theory led largely by this obscure armchair Columbus, a committed Catholic convert and stalwart family man who looked into the future and declared that wonders would never cease.

"The extension of man's consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium," McLuhan told Playboy over 30 years ago. "Television is the most significant of the electric media because it permeates nearly every home in the country, extending the central nervous system of every viewer as it works over and molds the entire sensorium [the five human senses] with the ultimate message. It is television that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterised all mechanical technology."

"No doubt about that," says The Toronto Star's literary columnist, Philip Marchand, author of the definitive McLuhan biography, The Medium and the Messenger. "McLuhan was absolutely right about the increasing relevance of TV's role in terms of its ubiquitous impact and unique properties.

"The very fact TV effectively ended the tyranny of print technology speaks for itself; but, it's usually the one fact that escapes notice when the medium's taken to task — yet again — for all it fails to do."

More than two decades after his death in 1980, the prescience shown by McLuhan in predicting the global effects of television — good and bad — cannot be overestimated.

Communication media invariably effect cultural and sociological changes which generally go unnoticed until newer media expose those effects. According to McLuhan, "we shape our tools and they in turn shape us." Television influences attitudes and approaches to life (and reality) in ways rarely discerned. The way we absorb information affects us far more profoundly than the information itself.

"If pressed," says Marchand, "McLuhan would agree TV's such a potent medium, in terms of its sedative effect, it should be used intelligently; but, in his sense, it's positive because its existence reveals print's total effects. He never suggested books would become obsolete; rather, he consistently maintained they were a unique form of communication that would persist."

"Look," says Gemini Award-winning producer Julian Sher, "the story comes out of a box in somebody's living room. There's nothing inherent in TV that makes it bad or stupid. There's something that renders it less effective when it comes to communicating encyclopaedic amounts of facts; but, as McLuhan said, it's an intensely visual storytelling medium.

"It can bind a country together in a moment of crisis. It can also grab peoples' emotions and the world's attention to expose injustices with a sense of urgency and immediacy that only TV does well. McLuhan understood TV wasn't a substitute for print, it was a complement to it that could achieve a comparable intellectual standard. The message gets through. It just gets through in a different way."

Marchand adds: "I do know McLuhan somehow divined the public would eventually recognise and appreciate television's 'glorious properties' once it became an old technology, a fact reflecting favourably upon his assumption that we look at the present through the rear-view mirror.

"With the growing popularity of the Internet, for example, signs of that phenomenon have become more apparent, especially if you examine the robust state of early syndicated series now considered art. Even though television's still generally viewed with contempt, there's a growing respect for shows like I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and The Fugitive (or even some of the older films and concerts on long-running programmes such as Austin City Limits or Saturday Night at the Movies). As McLuhan maintained, we march backwards into the future."



If you're among those marching backwards into the future thinking TV's a cultural wasteland, you're not thinking globally, at least as far as award-winning documentarian David Sobelman is concerned. Currently writing and co-producing The McLuhan Project, Sobelman says his subject recognised that media are always bigger than the event.

"In highlighting what he termed all-inclusive nowness — the global embrace of simultaneity or all-at-onceness — McLuhan intuitively understood the effects of television before we even began to study the causes of those effects," the respected McLuhanite observes.

In the mid-sixties, McLuhan presaged that TV would prompt politicians to become entertainers as style and image dwarfed substance while "the news" turned into an entertainment package. McLuhan noted that "a four-year stint in the White House is no longer easily distinguishable from something arranged by a booking agency." Furthermore, said he, given the direction of show-biz politics, an actor could very well become president inside of two decades. Ronald Reagan moved into the Oval Office in 1980.

One of McLuhan's canniest predictions concerned the coming of 15- and 30-second ads that would actively simulate and demonstrate the accelerated quality of bombardment from all sides. Now, of course, the good doctor's text-image mosaic style dominates both televisual and virtual reality (not to mention magazines such as Shift and Wired).

Sports and on-the-spot live events also offer a wealth of McLuhanesque examples of pushing the medium to the max. Instant replays, close-ups, multicamera angles, "colour" commentaries, and play-by-plays graphically illustrate the all-encompassing nowness of integrated network consciousness the armchair explorer identified.

In one of his finest works, Counterblast (1969), McLuhan tore a strip off the major television networks for pandering to the masses and producing "mindless rot-fodder." Following the volume's publication, he accepted the challenge to create "a new kind of television" and, together with Sherwood Schwartz (Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch), came up with the pilot for The New People.

When its jumbo jet "runs out of sky," a group of corporate suits and hippies finds itself stranded on a desert island struggling against the elements and among themselves to survive. Of the show's raison d'être, Schwartz said: "I knew that by assembling seven different people and forcing them to live together, the show would have great philosophical implications." The series was yanked after four episodes because it offended everybody — critics, advertisers, and viewers included.

Over four decades later, viewers and advertisers can't get enough of Survivor (while Big Brother is catching).

Go figure.


"The Gospel According to McLuhan" was originally featured in The Globe and Mail's 26 May 2001 edition. © 2001-2011 Judith Fitzgerald and The Globe and Mail. All Rights Reserved. Duplication, reproduction, storage, or transmission of any of these works in whole or in part in any medium without the express written permission of the copyright holder/s is strictly forbidden. Judith Fitzgerald owns, protects, and enforces copyrights on her own intellectual property; reciprocally, she respects others' copyrighted creations as well.
(Special thanks to Eric McLuhan, David Sobelman, and Philip Marchand.)

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