The Washington Post

April 25, 1993, Sunday


LENGTH: 2802 words

HEADLINE: The New TV: Stop Making Sense It's Fast, Hip and Illogical. Welcome to the Future.

SERIES: Occasional

BYLINE: Mitchell Stephens, Special to The Washington Post

The commercial begins with a man in an apron fondling an artichoke and discoursing on its nature. Five seconds pass. The camera stays with him. Your remote-control finger begins to itch. "This is a fresh one, of course," the chef notes. Seven seconds, eight seconds. "They also come frozen ..."

Then, just when you're about to zap the guy, the following words begin to roll across the screen: "One day this may be interesting to you. But until that day comes ..." At that moment the screen explodes with frantic, often fuzzy images of tumbling, dancing, screaming young people -- 13 different shots, none of which last more than a second. Flitting between them are the words: "Be Young. Have Fun. Drink Pepsi."

This commercial, like the others in a recent series prepared by the BBDO Worldwide agency for PepsiCo, is ostensibly about the virtues of youth vs. age: Pepsi is fawning over the members of yet another new generation in a shameless attempt to get its corn syrup into their digestive systems. But the commercial has another meaning: It is also an attack by the new television on the old.

The old television, static and talky -- that's what that simulation of a cooking show represents. It is the television most serious critics of the medium say they want to see more of: Ted Koppel, Robert MacNeil, or Alistair Cooke, talking to us, sticking to the subject, instructing us about Clinton's economic plan, Victorian England or artichokes. It is television for people whose minds were formed primarily by another medium: print.

The new television -- television for people who grew up on television, television for people with itchy remote-control fingers -- is hyper, disjointed and nonverbal. It cannot be found on PBS or the Sunday morning news shows. It got its start in music videos. ("Ninety percent of this has to do with MTV," BBDO creative director Don Schneider acknowledges.) You can catch glimpses of the new television in some action or sports shows -- particularly in introductions and promos. But this style of television is now most visible in commercials, like that one for Pepsi -- once the artichoke chef has been given the hook.

"I don't think there was ever a conscious attempt to say this commercial compares the old TV to the new," Schneider explains. "But in effect that's what it does." Pepsi's goal was, in Schneider's words, "to reclaim youth" -- and the new TV is the television of the young. It is also likely to be the television of the future.

Every new medium seems to have begun by imitating older, more familiar media. This was true of print: The earliest printed books, with their illuminations and fancy letterings, were designed to look like handwritten manuscripts. And it has been true of television: The TV formats that are most familiar to us began as imitations of radio or theater or film. It takes time for a medium to develop new forms of its own. The first novels and the first printed newspapers did not appear for a century and a half after the invention of the printing press. In that Pepsi commercial, and in its cousins, we are seeing some of the first formats original to television.

Consider, for another example, a commercial for the Sega video game system. This ad is only 30 seconds long, yet it manages to hurl at the viewer 48 different images, including: a roller coaster, a rocket, a fireball, a touchdown, a rock concert, a collapsing building, an exploding house, a woman in a bikini (for that part of the audience that prefers such sights to house explosions), and a couple of dozen scenes from Sega video games themselves. That's an average of 1 1/2 images per second, making this perhaps the fastest half minute in television and -- what? -- five, 10 times as fast as anything we are likely to see elsewhere in our lives.

The makers of this Sega commercial, like almost all advertisers and most music-video producers, don't have much of interest to say. Their message can be boiled down to the usual: "Hot! Sexy! Unconventional but fashionable!" (a persistent contradiction). "Buy! Buy! Buy!" Nor do they deploy their plethora of images with any great intelligence or dexterity. Nevertheless, the feeling and the pacing of such commercials, and of the music videos that inspired them, is truly original. (The famous shower murder in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is cut just about this fast, but its many shots were all contained within one scene; in these commercials, almost every shot creates its own scene.)

While a few experimental films have played with techniques this radical, they have been seen only by small audiences. In contrast, "these commercials are widely distributed and understood," notes Jeffrey Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby, Berlin and Silverstein, the agency that produced the Sega ad. "They are not just happening in film schools."

Another new Pepsi commercial uses as its foil a middle-aged professorial type sitting in a room piled high with dusty, colorless ... books! (You can almost see the "focus groups" these commercials were tested on sneering.) Books represent the old order. This is television that finally -- almost triumphantly -- seems to be escaping their influence.

Sure, some commercials still make use of that venerable literary device, the narrative -- albeit in radically condensed form: A man who has lost his legs in combat returns to play basketball; an attempt to "deprogram" a Coca-Cola drinker fails; a son is reconnected to his mother through the good graces of a telephone company. We know by now how narratives work: A scene is set, a conflict created; there is a crisis, a resolution. However, many, perhaps most, of the more adventurous new commercials employ none of the above. They are instead jumbles, like that Sega commercial, or hyperkinetic dances, like some of the other new Coke commercials. They have begun almost purposefully to shed the vestigial remnants of literary devices.

There is a telling moment in still another new Pepsi ad. A hip and decidedly young man sits in an easy chair on a beach wearing sunglasses. He brings his hands to his glasses. We never see him remove them. However, when this young man is next seen -- less than a second later -- the sunglasses are off. This is a violation of what filmmakers call "continuity." Sunglasses can't simply hop off a face; traditionally, there had to be some sort of "transition shot."

"We used to be real nervous about getting a transition shot," Schneider recalls. No more. Nowadays, many advertisers no longer worry about such things. The idea that events must happen in a logical sequence apparently belongs to the old television. (It probably harks back to the printed page, where words had no choice but to proceed in a straight line, one after another.) An obsession with framing shots symmetrically also seems dated, as does the compulsion to make sure that everything is in focus or that a picture has been held on screen long enough for viewers to figure out what is in it. Some images in this series of Pepsi commercials are instantaneous blurs.

The new TV also has found a new -- diminished -- role for words. This is a development of some consequence. Words have been our primary means of communicating information for most of our history as a species. Images -- a drawing in a cave, a photograph in a newspaper, an illustration in a textbook -- have usually played a secondary role. But in the new television the role of words and images is being reversed.

Now, rapidly changing, moving images -- exploding houses and undulating, underclad, underage people -- carry most of the information. Words are reduced to simply underlining the image -- "Be young" -- a purpose better accomplished, in many cases, by a scream than by a disquisition. A recent Reebok commercial interrupts its parade of intrepid athleticism only for terse, written expressions of the rules on "Planet Reebok": "No Limits," "No Cupcakes," "No Wimps," etc. So much for prose.

The Sega commercial, typically, uses few spoken words and then only, Goodby explains, to change the rhythm, to momentarily "stop" the headlong rush of images. Among them is this deathless statement, lip-synched by football star Joe Montana: "I forgot what I was going to say." The old television encouraged people to chatter away. In the new television there is plenty to show but no longer much to say.

Is there not something frightening about all this? Is human communication to be reduced to a series of images of fiery explosions and attractive, gyrating people? To injunctions against "wimps"? Can we really find intellectual sustenance in such out-of-focus, off-center, three-quarter-of-a-second, non-narrative blurs?

Well, no. Certainly not now, not yet. Pepsi commercials -- no matter how fast and clever -- hardly approach the profundity of books (or even "MacNeil/Lehrer" segments, for that matter). But the new television is still very young. People with higher motives than selling sweetened beverages are eventually going to get their hands on these forms. Artists will arrive who can squeeze larger meanings out of the relationships between their cascading images, who can use them to conjure up new ideas.

The value of the most daring commercials -- no matter how empty-headed they seem -- is in the clues they provide to what we can expect from the new TV when it matures. Here is a reading of some of those clues:

The new television will be very fast.

In the rush of images that ends Pepsi's artichoke commercial, the de rigueur woman-in-a-bathing-suit shot (in this case she is rotating a Hula-Hoop) seems to stay on the screen an awfully long time -- "an eternity," Schneider calls it. Actually, it lasts slightly less than a second. The new commercials have altered our sense of time: In the land of half-second images, a second now seems almost languid.

Of course, television in general has altered our sense of time. We have been trained, in a process that began for the latest Pepsi generation with "Sesame Street," to expect the perspective or the scene to change every 10 seconds or every five seconds or faster. Older documentaries, dramas and commercials, with their 15- or 20-second cuts, now look slow and boring. And one lesson of these recent commercials is that we can expect the pace to grow faster still -- throughout television. Those who now bemoan the shallowness of the five- or 10-second sound bite in TV newscasts will have even shorter sound bites to bemoan soon.

How fast can TV become? "The shortest unit you can get on videotape is one-thirtieth of a second," Goodby answers, "and the eye can see that."

The new television will have rhythm.

All this speed has created new kinds of organizational problems. For example, an ad produced by BBDO for General Electric's airplane engines shows 77 different images in 60 seconds. They include shots of a hockey goalie, a mother kissing a child, a computer screen, fast-motion traffic, a group of kids holding up a Sumo wrestler and, oh yes, airplanes. Some of the images are sepia in tone, some feature bright primary colors; in some the camera zooms or shifts focus, in some it remains still; some are close-ups, some long shots.

No existing grammar is of any value in organizing these disparate images: Viewers don't seem to care if images dangle or disagree. Nor are cinematic guidelines of much use: The fastest of these commercials waste no time on such things as "reaction shots." There are no "cutaways" to someone watching an airplane land. And it takes only a few seconds in that GE commercial to break a couple of other old cinematic rules, as a camera hurriedly pans from right to left across the front of an airplane and then, at a similarly dizzying pace, from left to right across its wing.

The "creatives" at these advertising agencies have only one sure guide as they arrange these images: rhythm. The shots in that GE commercial come and go to the beat of a peppy, if saccharine, ditty listing the many places airplanes with GE engines fly: "St. Petersburg and Uruguay and Malibu and Paraguay ..."

Rhythm is crucial to these commercials. Even if advertisers get over their infatuation with youth and MTV, they will, consequently, still lean heavily on music. That ad for airplane engines, it should be noted, is certainly not intended for teenagers. The music is there, and will continue to be there as the new TV develops, because it is needed to help hold everything together. "It just works," Schneider comments. "The eye loves film cut to fast, heavy rock-and-roll."

The new television will be casually surrealistic.

Some strange things have been happening lately in TV commercials: A man suffering in the heat opens a beer bottle, and it begins to snow. Footballs sail in and out of TV sets. Trucks are transformed into race cars. Faces become cubelike in shape or merge into one another. The new television easily overcomes such trivialities as physical laws: You don't have to convince people, as you would in most books (or even in most movies) that there is a world where snow might suddenly fall on a hot day; you simply show it suddenly falling.

Such excursions beyond reality should have significant artistic uses. Words re-imagine the world primarily through metaphor: One thing -- a dawn, say -- is spoken of as if it were another -- "rosy-fingered." In the new television, one thing can be shown to be another. Through this easily available surrealism, the world will be subject to new, perhaps even more stimulating, re-imaginings.

These methods might even have something to contribute to journalism. The administration's health care proposals might be illustrated by suspending reality for a couple of minutes and showing Hillary Rodham Clinton flying through hospitals, adding and subtracting patients, changing treatments, tackling paperwork and reaching into doctors' wallets. The new TV may not be willing to tarry for more than a few seconds over politicians' statements, but it might develop ways of explaining that are more powerful than simple statements.

The new television will not limit itself to following a single train of thought.

As our eyes have marched along the long, thin lines that are stacked on a printed page, they've gotten used to things happening one at a time: "They dismounted. Rodolphe tethered the horses. [Emma] walked ahead of him on the moss between the cart tracks." That's how things proceed most of the time on "Nightline" or "Masterpiece Theatre" too. And it leads to a certain kind of logic: one-thing-at-a-time logic, if/then, cause/effect logic -- the logic on which most of us were brought up.

In these new television commercials, however, numerous things happen at once: Swarms of pictures fly by, there are patches of narration, music pounds away, slogans jump out at us. Because so much is going on, there is room in these commercials for odd juxtapositions, for wild digressions, for effects that seem to have no cause at all : A shot of Sadaam Hussein pops up in the middle of that Sega commercial.

"I've watched adults watch a Sega commercial," says Goodby. "They ask all these logical questions, and they get confused. They want it to make more sense than it's really going to make."

These commercials rarely make a simple one-thing-at-a-time sense. There is too much room in them for paradox: The last slogan flashed on the screen in that "Planet Reebok" ad is "No Slogans." There is too much room for irony and for unexpected bursts of self-consciousness: One recent Nike commercial, starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, pauses for an instant to place a sign reading "Product Shot" next to a picture of the sneakers it is hawking -- then it's on to the next incongruous moment.

"This quick cutting really works to our benefit," notes Schneider. "We're trying to get a lot of information out there, and this way you can get more in." Because it allows "more in," this fast, jumpy TV eventually should also work to the benefit of serious artists who want to get more profound information "out there." Its capaciousness may allow them to cobble together ideas that would have been too oddly shaped, too multilayered, too freighted with contradictions to fit between the covers of a book. It may allow them to invent new ways of making sense.

Certainly nothing quite that challenging has shown up on television yet. We may not see it anytime soon; perhaps a language of imagery will first have to be invented and mastered. But the signs that television has the potential to help us say something new are already here -- not so much in the programs themselves but in these 30- and 60-second spaces between them.


Mitchell Stephens is chairman of the Department of Journalism at New York University and author of "A History of News."