It is made readily clear from his books, The Medium Is the Massage and Understanding Media, that Marshall McLuhan is prone to big, sweeping statements about television and its effects on the public. From causing the degradation of children’s posture everywhere (340, Understanding Media) to consumer trend of small-car buying, McLuhan blames television for a great number of things. Throughout the chapter “Television: The Timid Giant,” McLuhan makes the case that television differs from the mediums of information-giving that came before it, including books/newspaper, radio, and films, claiming that while these other mediums are ultimately hot in that they require the audience member to actively participate with them, the television is a cool medium, one that captures the attention of audience members, but does not require them to interact. Instead, audiences of television become the screen. While many of his reasons behind this assessment have to do with the technology of television (versus of filmmaking) of the time, McLuhan’s defining lines between television and film have to do with more than just as-of-now out of date technology. The medium of television, he claims, is the message, not the content that that medium conveys.
While I find McLuhan’s assessment problematic right off the bat (an idiomatic baseball pun!), as many things are that use such broad generalizations, I am interested in exploring his idea of the coolness of the medium a bit more in depth, especially in relation to his example of baseball. McLuhan claims that the decline in the viewership of baseball demonstrates the medium’s inherent “coolness,” with action-packed sports of football, basketball, and hockey being better suited for a televisual audience given their constant movements. Immediately, this fact seems peculiar to me. If television is a new medium in which it is inherently antithetical to the spectatorship and viewership of baseball, where does McLuhan attain these facts of the decline in viewership of baseball to which he points? Even if we choose to accept that there was a decline in the viewership of baseball, and that the Dodgers were moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles for the sole reason of preserving the live audiences that were in decline because of the invention of television, then I am not sure that we can with such ease let go of McLuhan’s assessment that “with the advent of TV, such isolation of the individual performance as occurs in baseball became unacceptable.” First, it seems that with the help of retrospect, that McLuhan’s argument here is out of date. Baseball has retained a healthy television following, and the industry has only grown, with New York City boasting not one, but two, teams currently. And secondly, and I think more importantly, this idea that television is not suitable for the “individual performance” to which McLuhan keeps referring seems like such an egregious and false statement. The presidential debates, which were watched avidly and helped decide the fate of the Kennedy vs. Nixon election, that McLuhan uses as examples later in his piece seem to point to the success of the individual performance - with only three characters / people on screen. Moreover, most narratives on television tend to focus on one character at a time, again making use of this individual performance. Finally, it is with television and the ability of close-ups and other filming techniques that a small baseball or even a golf ball that is hit far away, can be seen up close and tracked by audience members, making the sport more engaging for viewers both at the stadium (with the use of screens at the live event) and at home.
While this is just one example that McLuhan uses, if given more time, I think it would be possible to poke holes in much of the examples McLuhan uses to define television as a “cool” medium, and the apparent holes in his short discussion on the dwindling baseball audience due to the invention of television are evidence of this.