Friday, August 7, 2009


In some ways, we live in an age of repetition.

VCRs/DVDs/TiVo: they have allowed us to watch TV shows and movies at our leisure, on our own schedule—and watch them as often as we want.

YouTube, of course, is popular for its relatively brief videos—videos which many people, certainly, watch again and again.

I don’t know how many times I have seen the video of Susan Boyle’s first performance on “Britain’s Got Talent”—probably twenty or thirty times. The performance has repeatedly brought me to tears. I watched it again a few days ago, and was, once again, very moved. I didn’t well up this time, though. Perhaps I have seen it too many times.

(I think of an instance of repetition, from childhood--1964, 8 yrs. old: listening to the 45 of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,”and “I Saw Her Standing There,” its flip side, over and over, on the record player. I listened to the songs for hours. The pleasure was not just in the listening, but in the repetition: being able to hear the songs again and again.)

CNN has of course changed the ways the news is watched; one can now see the news at most any time, via certain cable stations. Yet it is not simply availability which is different: I think there has also, to an extent, been an effect on how the news is perceived.

A dramatic news story will appear on a cable channel. Hour after hour, the story is retold: you hear many of the same details, repeatedly see certain pieces of video.

And I have noticed—it is a sad thing to feel this—that there have been some news stories, serious stories, sometimes very sad or tragic ones, which, after just a few hours of repetition, start to overwhelm; they become (at least a little bit) tiring. Stories of consequence, stories of tragedy, or mortality, should not be tiring—yet relentless repetition, hour after hour, can affect the ability to feel, deeply. It is one of the peculiar and unfortunate dividends of our era.

(There is also the unusual nature of “Seinfeld,” in which repetition does not seem to matter very much. Like millions of others, I have no doubt watched each episode scores of times, know the punch-lines and the dialogue of most of the episodes—and yet, look forward to seeing the show every day. I suppose “Seinfeld” is not unlike a song you enjoy. You know all the lyrics, know every musical phrase and nuance, and just like to listen repeatedly. )

Which brings me, briefly, to early television, when most programs were shown live (there were some filmed programs in early TV, but they were the exception).

In early TV, live shows were not repeated. Repeats, as an entity, did not exist.

From 1949 to 1950, for example, when my mother sang on Kay Kyser’s show on NBC, the program's live telecast reached about halfway across the country; the coaxial cable linking the entire country had not yet been put into place. The rest of the country saw the show a week or so later, via kinescope—a primitive film of a program, made by positioning a 16mm camera in front of a TV monitor, while the show was telecast live.

After the live telecast, and then the airing of the telecast’s kinescope in the regions of the country which had not been able to see the program live, the show was not seen again.

I am sure this absence of repetition added to the attraction of early TV—a show appeared, and it was gone. You knew you had only one chance to see it.