Visual Characteristics of Television Essay

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Television – which literally means ‘seeing from a distance’ – has seldom been researched as a visual medium, in part because television from the start was deemed ‘the small screen,’ clearly inferior to cinema’s widescreen quality. Yet, television does not have one look, but involves many different imaging practices. Reality TV, for example, looks very different than Home Box Office’s filmed dramas. ‘The’ audience, far from monolithic, is now splintered and diverse, consuming everything from high-resolution HD ‘home theatre’ to grainy videos on smart phones. Additionally, many humanities and social science researchers presupposed that TV’s ‘media specificity’ reduced it to nonvisual traits: effects,  propaganda, agenda setting effects, content analysis, or psychological gratifications. Television’s visual characteristics, therefore, depend upon which historical genres, end uses, and modes of production one analyses.

 TV’s early prototypes produced ghostly, amorphous, black-and-white imagery. Subsequent critics praised live drama and method acting as defining 1950s television’s ‘golden age,’ arguing that artifice and visual quality obstructed naturalistic, psychological authenticity. In live anthology dramas, jostled stage flats, sweating actors, and lighting hot spots didn’t lessen television art. They challenged sensitive, nonvisual writers, directors, and actors to ‘operate without a net’ and without elaborate artifice for the camera’s existential gaze. This ‘three-camera,’ live, studio production mode – offering few visual complexities – spread internationally, partly because real-time ‘editing’ (switching), fewer lighting set-ups, and a singular production spaces were more economic.

 A related production mode, electronic news gathering (ENG), used smaller crews and portable equipment to gather late-breaking reality images for the three-camera studio. ENG, while rapidly cut and catastrophe-focused, works visually, not because of its high resolution, illusionism, or formal beauty, but because of its fragmentary sensationalism. Today, 24/7 cable news has embellished the three-camera mode with digital graphics, text crawls, and multi-screens.

A competing production mode – single-camera, film-style, location production popularized in Hollywood telefilms – displaced live drama in the mid-1950s, and has served as a workhorse mode since then. Golden-age critics resisted Hollywood’s inroads by denigrating telefilms as mindless, lowest-common-denominator factory products from studio assembly lines. These critics made the writer – not the image-maker – the key creative force during this period. Yet, despite this critical anti-film posture, all of the studios (including Paramount, RKO, Disney, and Selznick) systematically made television central to their business plans. As a result, Hollywood’s one-camera stylishness infiltrated television. In Europe and the US, many series opted for film style, given prime-time drama’s higher budgets and stylistic expectations. For years, shows shot on film negative offered higher resolution, richer contrast and tonality, and more subtle colors than shows shot on video. The emergence of HDT V and ‘4 K’ (or ‘ultra-HD’) now means that the actual capture device (film or chip) is less important than the cinematic look achieved. Today, contemporary series like Madmen or Game of Thrones are as stylistically sophisticated as high-budget studio films.

Dramatic television has offered high-level cinematic experiences throughout its history. A-list film directors that pushed network television boundaries in the US include John Cassavettes, John Frankenheimer, Paddy Cheyevsky, Michael Mann, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, and Robert Altman. Cassavettes’ 1960s cinйma vuritй-based improvisational TV dramas, for example, prefigure contemporary ‘improvisational’ genres, from reality TV to the faux-documentary quality of frantic ‘real-time’ dramas. By contrast, stylistically excessive commercial production and music videos taught television how to standardize cinematic and videographic looks across channels. After 1990, new digital production and viewing technologies spurred a diverse range of television forms and genres, each with distinctive aesthetic implications.

For McLuhan (1964), television’s ‘cool,’ lowresolution appearance evoked a common all-atonce viewing experience, shared globally. This networked simultaneity eclipsed both television content and style. Researching live broadcasts of ‘liminal’ media events, in turn, underscored not TV’s formal dimensions, but rather vast shared rituals of watching in real time through a national TV window. Later theorists (Negroponte 1995) celebrated the ‘revolution of new media networking’ precipitated by the wired global Internet rather than TV’s local visual screen. Raymond Williams (1974) proposed examining not just communication technology’s history, but the history of the technology’s social uses as well.

Subsequently, critical scholars began engaging television aesthetics (Newcomb 2006), yet still favored narrative and ideological analysis over visual research. Growing interest in postmodernism – characterized by intertextuality, visual simulation, and pastiche – drove this aesthetic turn. While some ideological theorists defined cultural studies in direct opposition to aesthetics (Fiske 1987), others researched industry’s multichannel programming changes, new technology instabilities, and the economic volatility spurring sophisticated new televisual advancements (Caldwell 1995).


  1. Caldwell, J. (1995). Televisuality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  2. Caldwell, J. (2004). Convergence television. In L. Spigel & J. Olsson (eds.), Television after TV: Essays on a medium in transition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 41–74.
  3. Fiske, J. (1987). Television culture. London: Methuen. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Negroponte, N. (1995). Being digital. New York: Knopf.
  5. Newcomb, H. (ed.) (2006). Television: The critical view, 7th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. Williams, R. (1974). Television: Technology and cultural form. New York: Schocken.

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