TV History: Surveillance Television

Surveillance TelevisionIn the late 19th century, when television was first imagined and written about, no one talked about television as broadcasting at all, because the concept of one voice or image speaking to many others in remote locations didn’t exist. It wasn’t even widely understood that there would have to be a camera sending you the picture; many early sketches imagine it as an electrified super-telescope, able to randomly focus in on distant events. Even as late as 1933, Paramount Pictures produced “International House”, a zany, racy comedy about a Chinese hotel full of scheming global businessmen competing to buy “Radiovision”, a television invention that can form an image of entertaining events anywhere in the world.

Historically speaking, the mid-Thirties is pretty late in the game to be presenting TV as a fantasy, because after what was then about fifty years of speculation and anticipation the world was about to see the real thing—TV as we know it: One camera, millions of viewers. Programs, sponsors, station identification. Show business. Mass media.

What about TV as we don’t know it or thankfully never knew it? Police surveillance, espionage, even plain old voyeurism; every one of those uses was speculated about well before television existed. They’re on the outer periphery of what we call TV today, or they were until today. Not even science fiction and fantasy writers imagined that when the dreaded all-seeing cameras were finally put into homes, it would be by tens of millions of eager homeowners, and at their own expense.

The classic nightmare of television’s all-seeing eye is George Orwell’s “1984”. When it was published in 1948, TV had barely gotten started. Few people in the world had seen it yet, so the idea that the screen could look back at you didn’t seem farfetched. Orwell’s dystopian novel drew heavily on Nazi and Soviet dictatorships for its mood and images.

In fact, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were keenly interested in surveillance television, and both countries had led the way in video research. It was going to be a useful method of public indoctrination and it had military potential, such as guiding drone aircraft. But alas for the spymasters and the dictators, for most of the twentieth century video spying just wasn’t very good. It required a lot of light, making it hard to do surreptitiously. The images were generally crude and blurred. The equipment wasn’t small and it had to be “wired”; vacuum tubes wore batteries out quickly. Television wouldn’t play the major part in spying that had been anticipated. Getting a microphone into a room proved to have a much greater rate of return on investment.

By the final years of the USSR, tiny video cameras were finally useful for some surveillance operations, but ironically by then the nation that had invented the picture tube (Boris Rosing,1907) was no longer capable of making the equipment themselves. The KGB bought their spy cameras openly, at Frankfurt Airport: Sony, the best. In a second irony, we’d given up making the stuff too, so our spies bought Japanese as well.

American law enforcement tried surveillance cameras but they were ineffective in most situations where they couldn’t control (that is, boost) the lighting. Until video recorders became affordable to police agencies, they were unable to record what they saw. After that, news TV viewers of the late Seventies and Eighties were treated to the earliest forms of reality TV: hidden camera scenes of auto executive John De Lorean making a cocaine deal to raise money for his car company; “Abscam” (Arab scam), where corrupt Congressmen were caught on tape accepting bribes from fake “Arabs”; and who can forget Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, whining on tape, “Bitch set me up!” Note, though, that in each one of these cases television snooping didn’t detect the crime, but was merely used to provide damning first person courtroom-ready proof of what investigators already knew. Tricking them into it was closer to “Mission: Impossible” than to “1984”.

Not that TV was always going to be on the side of the cops. As far back as Fritz Lang’s popular and influential “Doctor Mabuse”, (1922, 1933, 1960) the lair of master criminals had the gleaming technology, all-seeing screens, and the cool impersonality of control rooms that would influence films for decades, including “Dr. No” and “Dr. Strangelove”. Even when I was a kid, I found an ancient, prehistoric comic book (from 1947!) about a colorful, Boss Hogg-type Dixie crime lord named Monty Julep, whose private network of closed circuit TV cameras kept even Batman at bay—for a while, anyway.

When we talk about TV under control of the bad guys, we should keep in mind that for many artists and intellectuals, the ultimate bad guy was the capitalist. In films like “Metropolis” (1926) and “Modern Times” (1936), television’s main future use was letting big screen bosses surveil every pitiless inch of their factories in action. To a slight degree, that prediction came true. No, unlike “Modern Times”, companies never installed cameras in men’s rooms to catch malingerers taking a smoking break. The only types of employees routinely subjected to close-up, continuous video observation have been in certain security, banking, and casino jobs. Those cameras are no secret; their deterrent depends on everyone knowing they’re being watched.

Security cameras were a slightly different matter but were broadly accepted. By the late Fifties, the first ones were watching over parking lots, train platforms and other public areas, as well as deterring shoplifting. In the US, many of these cameras were made by dominant brands like RCA and General Electric, but a sizable share of the miniature TV camera market was held by relatively small independent manufacturers in the Midwest, companies like Dage, one of America’s many mid-sized electronic success stories that started just after WWII with a garage and a soldering iron.

Closed circuit TV became a normal and expected part of industrial processes that were too difficult or dangerous for people to observe directly. Though the equipment was still costly, some powerful customers rushed to buy, because these newer, shoebox-sized cameras were essential to remote visual control of things like boilers, nuclear reactors, H-bomb tests, rocket launches, wind tunnels, refineries and blast furnaces.

As the cameras got better and less expensive, tens of thousands of less dramatic business uses emerged for observation TV. Managers of the postwar era’s giant supermarkets, airline terminals, toll booths or tunnel entrances were able to spot problems more quickly. It was easier to check inventory in large scale warehousing. Bank tellers at drive-up windows checked signature cards via screens at their desks. By the Seventies, high end apartment houses had cameras in the vestibule.

These routine business applications were widely accepted as benign and helpful, with nothing much 1984-ish about them. The cameras were not hooked up to anything wider than the perimeter of the plant where they were installed. They couldn’t be, except at great expense. The arrival of home internet, especially in its 21st century broadband form, coincided with the availability of really cheap, solid state video cameras, which we dubbed webcams. The security cameras that had proliferated for forty years now had the internet to act as their private television network.

Outside the home, 9/11 and an age of anxiety led to using networked public video cameras to perform tasks that cameras alone could never have done, like facial recognition on a massive scale.

As usual, popular entertainment gave us warnings. Here’s one that seems particularly relevant now. To set the stage, “The Outer Limits” is remembered, if at all, as a brief-lived Twilight Zone knockoff with more scary monsters. That’s not an unfair summary, but in truth, even ol’ Rod was not averse to tossing in a few rubber-faced aliens now and then. One strong reason why Rod Serling left the success he’d earned while writing earnest dramas for live TV in the mid-Fifties was the outspoken freedom that the allegories and metaphors of science fiction allowed him. ABC’s unfashionable also-ran to CBS’s justly revered show did have a few forgotten Serling-level gems here and there. When it was done honestly, the analogies and parables had a lasting meaning whose truth outlived the politics of the day.

One such “Outer Limits” show was “O.B.I.T.”, broadcast on November 4, 1963, only two and a half weeks before American history would abruptly and grimly jump its tracks. The director, Gerd Oswald, and the cinematographer, Conrad Hall, came from the world of feature films and by 1963 TV standards were top Hollywood talent. (It’s well worth seeing but some spoilers are ahead, if you’d like to see it first before reading them.) Even when the polarities of social power are reversed, the truth in a show should survive for another generation. What happens when it doesn’t, or can’t?

Like better episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, the writer of O.B.I.T., Meyer Dolinsky, had a lot to say about the darker impulses of human nature without hitting you over the head with its message. A strange outbreak of murders and suicides among top scientists at Cypress Hills, a secret Federal defense laboratory, has triggered an official investigation. (Okay, this is a fifty-six-year-old fantasy. The Senator is the good guy. Got it?) We discover that O.B.I.T. is the name of a viewing machine: it reverts to the earliest dreams of television, as being able to form sender-less, camera-less remote images of anyone in the world. This strange technology was secretly given to us by outer space aliens who cynically knew that it was deeply destructive. The temptation to use the device to spy on co-workers, rivals and spouses proves irresistible. By the end of the story, O.B.I.T. machines are said to be impounded by responsible agencies of the Federal government. Here’s a detail I found realistic: By then, its secret snooping abilities had spread not only to the handful of security agencies who wanted the technique investigated, but to the corporations that built O.B.I.T. consoles under contract to the government and even to the leadership of universities that refined and perfected them. Everyone but the public was in on it.

Here’s the conclusion:

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