I was honored to give the Keynote Address at the Bleier Center’s 2019 Commencement Celebration hosted by Bob Thompson. I discussed the irony in having to deliver it remotely.
Congratulations Graduates! Next month, you will not only graduate from Syracuse University and Newhouse, you will also graduate from the Bleier Center, a special corner of Newhouse (both literally and figuratively) that focuses on critical engagement with popular culture. More specifically, we are celebrating an end to this year’s screenings. I am sorry that I cannot be with you today (or any Tuesday this semester due to class) but I’d like to talk about the irony of the fact that I’m not sitting there with you.
Technologically, the television is a device that receives and converts audiovisual information, but the term “television” is conversationally used to describe the content and conventions of televised broadcasts, including shows, formatting, business, advertising, and everything else that comes through the television set or the process by which it is produced.
In my upcoming book, Consumer Verité: The American Psychosocial Relationship with 20th Century Media [HUMBLE BRAG, SHAMELESS PLUG, PAUSE FOR LAUGHTER], I define television by its unique communications capacity: that is to say, its ability to create synchronous experiences among users regardless of location. In 1950, 9% of American households had a television; that number jumped to 90% by 1960, but for that brief window of time, when less than 1 in 10 American households had a television, it was a communal synchronous experience. Families would gather in front of the television, neighbors would come over to watch, and the television became a social lubricant that fostered community through co-viewing.
Today the communication capacity of television has evolved. Television is ubiquitous in private and public spaces. We watch television on the box at home, the box in the office, the box on the bus, and the box in our pocket, among all the other electronic screens in our lives. Our favorite content is available literally on-demand, both temporally and physically, and we engage with this content whenever it fits into our schedule. We are still connected to each other through this asynchronous engagement, but the historical positioning of television, watching at the same time in the same intimate space is no longer necessary and by extension no longer valued.
This is what makes the Bleier Center such an important venue. Every week, we gather to eat, drink, be merry, and watch TV, replicating the original mid 20th century experience of television. We are a family that comes together to laugh, cry, and share both the experience of the content, and the experience of viewing. I hope that this time together has given you a newfound appreciation for the psychological value of the invention of television and the social value of co-viewing. Funny. The term co-viewing only emerges when it is no longer the norm.
So today, we not only celebrate your graduation, we also celebrate the opportunity to break bread around shared stories in shared space and shared time. An opportunity that may seem like a waste of time when we can bend the broadcast world to our own schedules, but one that provides unique feelings of belongingness and community that are more than virtual. Congratulations to all of our graduates and I look forward to watching television again with you.