REVISITING MARSHALL MCLUHANS HOT AND COOL MEDIA AFTER
THIRTY YEARS OF TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENT
Mitzi G. Swentzell
B.A., Colorado State University, 1981
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Communication and Theatre
1996 by Mitzi G. Swentzell
All rights reserved.
This thesis for Master of Arts
Mitzi G. Swentzell
has been approved
Swentzell, Mitzi G. (M.A., Communication and Theatre)
Revisiting Marshall McLuhans Hot and Cool Media After Thirty Years of
Thesis directed by Professor Benita Dilley
Much has changed since Marshall McLuhan wrote his book, Understanding
Media: Extensions of Man in 1964. Fast forwarding thirty years, the
communications world is a much different place. This paper will evaluate
McLuhans hot and cool media theory in todays world. With the advances in
technology and changes in media, McLuhans theories are arguably under the
toughest scrutiny thus far. Television is no longer the cool medium described by
McLuhan. The advances in technology and programming have changed the
foundation of television and it is now a hot medium.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
I dedicate this thesis to the memory of my parents Bonnie and Bob Swentzell and
to Marla Petrini for her support and encouragement while I was writing this.
2. FROM COOL TO HOT..................................4
Hot and Cool Defined...........................10
The Redefinition of Television.................17
A. TOP-RATED PRIME-TIME PROGRAMS....................38
In the late 1800s the inventors and developers of television could not have
imagined the effects their efforts would have on a society. In May of 1939,
after prolonged field tests, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and
Radio Corporation of America (RCA) experimented with a broadcast to the
masses of people gathered for opening of the Worlds Fair in New York City. The
transmitter on the Empire State Building could only broadcast fifty miles, but was
able to reach the grounds of the Worlds Fair. The RCA pavilion located at the
Worlds Fair had twelve television sets on display. The crowds were able to
experience the sights and sounds of the new product, television, first hand.
The black and white televisions brought puppet shows, cooking
demonstrations, baseball, football, boxing, hockey, basketball and the circus to the
crowds that gathered at the Worlds Fair (Calabro 5). The amazed crowd of
onlookers or the participants could not have imagined that in just over fifty years
there would be over 750 million television sets, one for every six people. Ninety
nine percent of American households have television sets, compared to ninety eight
percent which have running water. In America, where most households have at
least two sets, the only activity that takes up more time is sleeping (6).
Television sets are on an average of six to seven hours every day in American
households (Kellner 70).
Television has changed the routines of daily life. It affects how people
speak, dress, learn, vote and relax. Most people cannot imagine living without it;
it is an integral part of every day life. People began to question the ways in which
mass media affected their lives and from the beginning, television was in the center
of the debate. Most people agreed that television was more than just another
means of entertainment, but there was much uncertainty about the effects
of television on individuals and society as a whole.
As television became a fact of life in most homes, it became a hot topic for
research and study in the academic world. It may have been a hot topic, but it was
defined by one academian as a cool medium.
During the 1960s Marshall McLuhan was in the forefront in
understanding media. One of McLuhans most talked about philosophies was his
classification of different media as hot or cool. McLuhan, for example,
placed radio, movies and photography into the hot media category. He
characterized them as high definition. The cool media according to McLuhan were
speech, comics and television the coolest of all. His theory described high
definition as being full of data, intense, well defined, whereas low definition
required the user to fill in the data. Because of the low quality of visual
information, television made the cool list. McLuhans writings laid the basis for a
conversation that has been on-going for thirty years. McLuhans hot and cool
media will be defined further and discussed at length in chapter two of this paper.
Donald Theall commented on McLuhan when he wrote, McLuhan involves
people who find him a source of agreement and reassurance, he also involves those
who hold him in considerable skepticism. He will be quoted (even if negatively) by
most individuals wishing to show an inner awareness of the complexity of the
media scene (16). Many of his theories have been and still are hotly debated.
Theall recognized McLuhans infamy when he said, Reference to what McLuhan
has to say turns up in major anthropologists and sociologists in futurists, in
government officials, and among executives, all of which merely intensifies the
myth of McLuhanism (16).
Today with the advances in technology and changes in media, McLuhans
theories are arguably under the toughest scrutiny thus far. Television is no longer
the cool medium described by McLuhan. The advances in technology and
programming have changed the definition of television and it is now a hot
FROM COOL TO HOT
The review of literature will establish the background on Marshall
McLuhans education and career. Some of the individuals and theories that were
significant to McLuhans writings will be highlighted. In the second part of this
chapter McLuhans major ideas will be defined. And finally, television will be
redefined based on the discussion of McLuhan and his definitions of media in the
1950s and 1960s compared with the status of media today, specifically television.
When McLuhan first began his writings in the 1950s, prior to technological
advances of media, many of his theories were questioned: Not only McLuhans
ideas were discussed, but McLuhan himself was a big part of the discussions. In
1976, Barbara Rowes of People magazine wrote:
At 9:30 a.m. McLuhan bounds up the spiral stairway to his office..His
secretary runs down the messages. Woody Allen wants him to act in a
film...Governor Jerry Brown wants McLuhan to speak at a political
conference in California. The vice-president of Televisa De Mexico asks
McLuhan to a conference in his country. Will he give an hour interview
to Radio Quebec and the BBC? (82-91).
While trying to conduct her interview of McLuhan, Rowes experienced first hand
the popularity of McLuhan during this time.
The following McLuhan biography will describe this guru, perhaps self
appointed, of the great new medium, television. To begin to understand McLuhan
it is important to look at his personal history.
McLuhan was bom in Edmonton, Canada on July 21, 1911 and moved to
Winnipeg following World War I. McLuhan credited his parents with having a
profound effect on his life, especially his mother, Elsie. Elsie was a pupil of the
Alice Leone Mitchell School of Expression, an elocutionary school. She taught
and did recitals at church halls while McLuhan was growing up. McLuhan
attributes his own emotional turmoil, independent spirit, stubbornness and lack of
concern for what other thought of him to his mother. Elsie was strict and often
used the razor strap on McLuhan.
McLuhans father on the other hand was a loving, simple individual. His
interests were good conversation and philosophy. He often had the children look-
up obscure works in the dictionary. McLuhan grew up with a love for words and
became a voracious reader. Initially, McLuhan was not a good student and almost
failed the sixth grade. His seventh grade teacher stimulated his interest in literature
and McLuhans grades turned around. McLuhan felt his upbringing on the prairie
gave him the advantage that any outsider brings with him from the boondocks
when he comes to the big city: a freshness of outlook that often enables him to see
overall patterns missed by inhabitants who have been molded by those patterns
McLuhan attended the University of Manitoba, 1928-1934, studying English
and philosophy, with his emphasis on the belle letters. To help him absorb what
he read, McLuhan developed an system of indexing he used throughout his life.
He made lists of authors and outlined their works. He kept lists of novels with the
important characters noted. McLuhan also selected articles of interest and
summarized them (19).
After completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Manitoba,
McLuhan was off to Cambridge, England. At Cambridge, McLuhan was
influenced by I. A. Richards studies on linguistics. McLuhan began to apply
Richards concept of the New Criticism to electronic media. McLuhan was
interested in Richards view of words. Richards believed that words have
multiple meanings, dependent largely on the context in which they are used.
McLuhan theorized that, If words were ambiguous and best studied not in terms
of their content, but in terms of their effects in a given context, and if those effects
were often subliminal, the same might well be true of other human artifacts- the
wheel, the printing press, and so on (34). McLuhan continued to develop this
concept and eventually applied it to the media.
In 1936-37, McLuhan was a teaching assistant in the English Department at
the University of Wisconsin and later in 1937 was hired as an English instructor
at St. Louis University. During the late 1930s McLuhan went through several
lifestyle changes. He converted from Baptist to Catholicism, he married Corinne
Lewis and in 1939, he returned to Cambridge as a research assistant and earned
In his college years, McLuhan developed the reputation as being very
studious and a thinker. This was because he often related his thoughts and ideas
to his classmates. One idea that came to McLuhan during his college years
The realization that all life, mental, spiritual and physical, was governed by
laws that are still largely unknown to human beings. If a person unwittingly
violates these laws, he is thwarted in his doings. If he obeys them he
prospers. Death, sickness and sin might well disappear, in fact, in a world
where these laws, laws based on a psychological and metaphysical
understanding of Christs precepts, were finally elucidated. (19)
These types of revelations often caused him to be labeled by some of his fellow
classmates as cerebral. McLuhan did participate in sports like rugby and
hockey, but he seemed to enjoy formal and informal debate the most.
The McLuhans returned to St. Louis University in 1940. His first son was
bom in 1942 and five children followed, four girls and another boy. McLuhan
went to great efforts to limit the influence of media on his own children. McLuhan
limited the childrens television viewing time to one hour per week. He used
dinner time to initiate family discussions. Philip Marchand wrote about
McLuhans interaction with his children, He would try to involve them in his
work through the curious method of waking them up at three or four in the
morning to write down a breakthrough he had just experienced in his thinking
(61). According to Marchand, McLuhan did not interact well with his children
until they were older and the relationship could be one of adults.
In 1944, McLuhan accepted the position as head of the English department
at Assumption College in Canada, avoiding the draft for World War H In 1946
McLuhan moved on to St. Michaels College at the University of Toronto where he
would finish his career, with the exception of a brief stint in New York City.
McLuhan published his first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of
Industrial Man in 1951. This book was an examination of advertising and claimed
that technological society corrupted family life and the free human expression of
thoughts and feelings. McLuhans reputation as an expert in the media world was
on the rise. In 1959-60 he was appointed a directorship in the United States Office
of Education and the National Association of Educational Broadcasting. He was
to oversee a special communication project.
In 1962 his next book, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic
Man was published. The Gutenberg Galaxy dealt with the cultural changes
involved in the introduction of the printing press. McLuhan described the
transformation of the Western world to a visual society. The text was full of long
quotations from nearly two hundred authors. According to Marchand, McLuhan
told a friend who asked about the progress of The Gutenberg Galaxy that he, was
in the process of not writing, but of packaging it (154).
The Gutenberg Galaxy was followed by his most widely read book, with
over 100,000 copies sold, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964.
McLuhan said this book was intended to explain that media are not neutral, they
do something to people. In this publication the aphorisms that have become to be
known as McLuhanese came to life, these included phrases like the medium is the
message and terms like hot versus cool medium. These phrases will be
discussed in more depth in the following section of this paper.
In 1967-68 McLuhan spent a year in New York at Fordham University.
McLuhan was appointed the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the humanities
department. McLuhan received a grant for $100,000 for personnel and research
needs. He was able to hire several of his colleagues as well as his son Eric to work
on his research with him. During his year in New York, McLuhan met several
powers in the advertising and media world. He was often sought out for speaking
engagements and consultations with regard to the effective use of media in
advertising as well as news programming. During his time in New York
McLuhan was diagnosed with an operable brain tumor. McLuhan at first refused
surgery but succumbed after learning blindness and insanity would be an effect of
the tumor within four months. McLuhan made it through surgery and recovered
so quickly his doctors were amazed. Despite his quick recovery, McLuhan and
those close to him felt he was never quite the same. He took sedatives and
depressants for temporary relief from his acute sensitivity. His memory was not as
good as before surgery and noise caused him great pain.
At the end of his year at Fordham, McLuhan was anxious to return to his
post in Toronto. McLuhan remained in Toronto until his death in 1980.
Hot and Cool Defined
Marshall McLuhans works cover a broad spectrum of ideas. Donald Theall
expressed his concerns about McLuhan when he wrote, A book on Marshall
McLuhan encounters a large number of perils, not least of which is the range of
material that McLuhan chooses to cover (13). For the purpose of this paper,
McLuhans views on television as a cool medium will be explored.
McLuhan set out in his research and writings to warn the masses that unless
it understood the nature of media, society was in danger of losing all the
traditional values of literacy and Western civilization. McLuhan addressed the
various media, from print to telegraph and radio, movies and television. In
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan defined hot and cold
medium as the following:
There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio
from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie
from a cool one like television. A hot medium is one that extends one
singular sense in high definition. High definition is a state of being
well filled with data. A photograph is visually, high definition. A
cartoon is low definition, simply because little visual information is
provided. Telephone is a cool medium or one of lo\y definition, because
the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool
medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to
be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave
so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are,
therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation
or completion by the audience. Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like
radio has very different effects on the user from cool medium like the
McLuhan never did present a clear and concise definition of hot and cool, medium
by medium. The definition listed above will be expanded upon and discussed
throughout this section.
The following is a listing of where Marshall McLuhan placed the various
media and technologies on the hot and cool chart.
Hot Media Cool Media
McLuhan believed that media and technologies are extensions of the physical body
and that they have a hot and cool effect on the audiences. According to McLuhan
media has the ability to both extend and amputate the human senses which directly
affect behavior. This means that humans have one hundred percent capacity of
sensation and media determine which senses are extended and the ratio between
the use of each sensation. For example, if sound is intensified, touch, taste and
sight sensations are affected. As defined above, the extension of only one sense in
high definition is classified by McLuhan as hot and a person is apt to be
stimulated to action. When using a cool media, where the audience must
participate with several senses to use the media, McLuhan believes a person is
more apt to be overloaded resulting in numbness and passive behavior. In an
interview with Louis Forsdale, McLuhan describes the electronic media as a
The electric media are a physical extension of our own organic nervous
system, which is literally constituted by electric impulses. When you put an
electric system, or field, around you, you enlarge your own nervous system.
Just as a wheel extends your foot, the wired planet now extends our
McLuhan continued to describe how the eyes are extended by print, photographs
and technologies like the microscope and telescope. The ear and voice are
extended by radio and telephone. Television, the coolest medium of all, is an
extension of the sense of touch, which McLuhan says involves the maximal
interplay of all of the senses and therefore takes on a tactile quality. McLuhan
describes television as involving the viewer in moving depth, but claims it does
not excite, agitate or arouse viewers.
To grasp his theory on hot and cool media it is important to look at the
foundations for his ideas. McLuhan described himself as a generalist, not a
specialist. In an interview in Playboy magazine in 1969, McLuhan explained:
My work is designed for the pragmatic purpose of trying to understand
our technological environment and its psychic and social consequences.
But my books constitute the process rather than the completed product
of discovery; my purpose is to employ facts as tentative probes, as means
of insight, of pattern recognition.... I want to map new terrain rather than
chart old landmarks. (54)
In McLuhans new terrain he was probing into the social consequences and
inherent meanings set forth by the very characteristics of media. He maintained
that shifts in societys predominant technology of communication were the force
that determined social changes. These forces initiated great transformations not
only in social organizations but in human sensibilities (Kostelanetz 145).
McLuhan began to take media and parallel them with history. He was
focused on the effects of dominant media on the society during different time
periods. McLuhan looked at four significant periods in the history of
communication: the tribal age, the manuscript period, the Gutenberg age and the
electronic age. This is where McLuhan began his probe into the effects of
communication on society. The progression of these periods and their effects on
society laid the foundation for Marshall McLuhans writings.
In The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan laid out his probe through history.
The first period was the tribal age. This period is preliterate; communication
was face to face, oral. Humans relied on all of their senses in equal proportions.
There were town meetings, culture was passed through storytelling and people
were interdependent. Speech, according to McLuhan is an extension of the ear.
McLuhan believed that people of the tribal age were more active and spontaneous
than their later day counterparts.
As humans developed the alphabet and began to communicate by reading
and writing, society began to change. The tribal citizen started to become
detached. Society began to get more information through the use of one sense, the
eye. The use of reading and writing caused a shift in the extension of the ear in the
oral society to the extension of the eye in written society.
The third significant time period McLuhan discussed was the Gutenberg Era.
During the 1500s the Gutenberg printing press was introduced to society. Books
were produced in mass quantities and knowledge became more assessable.
McLuhan felt the printing press had a dramatic effect on man. Print emphasized
the sense of sight even more than manuscript. In is book, The Gutenberg Galaxy.
McLuhan wrote, If the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell on tribal man, the
printing press hit him like a 100-megaton H-bomb (7). McLuhan gave the
printing press credit for creating a new society:
Printing from movable types created a quite unexpected new environment,
it created the Public. Manuscript technology did not have the intensity or
power of extension necessary to create publics on a national scale. What
we have called nations in recent centuries did not, and could not, precede
the advent of Gutenberg technology... The unique character of the public
created by the printed word was an intense and visually oriented self-
consciousness, both of the individual and the group. (7)
The printing press maximized the use of the eye by extending it. People were
independent and self-reliant. McLuhan contended man lost much of his intuition
and emotional involvement after the printing press was invented and placed into
The advent of the telegraph and telephone launched the beginning of a new
period. Society moved to the electronic age which culminated with the
development of radio, film, television and computers. McLuhan believed the
electronic media affected the entire human nervous system. Television added sight
to sound and involved the viewer in creating the image before him. He classified
the electronic age as one of anxiety, unconsciousness and apathy.
In McLuhans probe through history, he arrived at one of his most significant
conclusions, the medium is the message. He believed that the meaning derived
from communication was dependent upon the medium more than upon the
content. McLuhan believed that media usage determines how a person thinks.
This idea seems to parallel the Sapir-Whorf Hypotheses which states that the
language that you use determines how you think (Lowery 329). Edward Sapir and
Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that reality is presented to individuals through
language. When a people acquire language they acquire a way of talking, seeing
and organizing the real world. According to this theory, individuals gain their
sense of time, their patterns of classifications and their general perception and
thought process through the structure of language (Carey 282).
McLuhans probe of the history and the effects of media on society, resulted
in a belief that there was a shift in the human thought process from linear to
mosaic. Linear thought is represented by sequence, one thing after another, like
reading. Print fosters a linear and sequential reality. Mosaic thought is when the
participants take in all the data at one time, they look at the whole, put it together
and derive global meaning. Electronic communication is instantaneous and several
ideas can be received simultaneously. People brought up on television, think
mosaicly; they put the images together.
McLuhans probing of the history of the technology of communication and
its effects on human thought were very important. Unfortunately, the results of his
probing, especially his disregard for the role of content, are counter to his writings
in The Mechanical Bride. In The Mechanical Bride. McLuhan insisted that text
must be read closely in the analysis of ads, comics and films. Donald Theall in
The Medium Is The Rear View Mirror criticized McLuhans emphasis on
technology without content when he wrote:
In developing these themes, he empties his account of any other aspects
of reality thus creating the distortion of a history of techniques without any
content with which the techniques may interplay to produce a way of
handling concrete artifacts. By abandoning any means of relating to
meaning in the more traditional sense, he similarly empties the remaining
reality of any semantic significance susceptible of semiological analysis. (80)
The importance of content will be discussed later in this paper.
Understanding McLuhans probing of the history of media, its effects on
the human thought process and his theory, the medium is the message are all
critical to forming an argument for or against his concept of hot and cool media,
and specifically, his classification of television as a cool medium.
The Redefinition of Television
The majority of McLuhans writings were about television. As mentioned
previously, this paper will deal with McLuhans classification of television as a
cool medium. The premise of this writing is television is no longer the cool
medium defined by McLuhan.
Almost everyone who has done any research and writing in the area of
television has done a chapter or two on McLuhan and his theories. In Marshall
McLuhans 1975 biography, The Writings of Marshall McLuhan and What Has
Been Written About Him there are over 1,000 books, articles and theses listed
which have been written about McLuhan. McLuhan was material for magazines
such as Life and cartoon material for The New Yorker during the sixties.
Opinions about McLuhan and his writings are as numerous as the authors
that analyzed, supported or criticized him. Most will agree however that McLuhan
evoked thought and discussion on the effects of media. Walter Ong wrote,
Above all and in all and through all, Marshall McLuhan was a teacher (25). Ong
credits McLuhan for stirring people to think. He classified McLuhan as a superb
teacher, One who makes thinking an over powering activity, delightful even
when it is disturbing and exhausting (25).
There are several authors who have tried to explain what they think
McLuhans teachings meant, several more who have not been kind in their
criticism of his ideas and a few who supported his philosophies. These authors will
be referred to throughout this paper while discussing McLuhans theories.
Anne Rawley Sadlich, author of Electronic Democracy: Televisions Impact
on the American Political Process, attempts to simplify McLuhans
characterization of television as a cool medium. Considering McLuhans
definition, she says television has three characteristics. The first is low definition,
the second is that television requires participation and third, the participation is
vicarious which causes television to be cool.
The following provides a brief recap of McLuhans hot and cool media traits.
The significant point to keep in mind is that McLuhan does not take message
content into consideration when defining hot and cool media. McLuhan only deals
with the technological characteristics of the media when he places them into
User is not over stimulated
High level of participation
High level of involvement
User is numb and apathetic
This breakdown will be used throughout this paper. Initially to establish
McLuhans meanings with relationship to his time and then to review each of these
areas and their status thirty years post-McLUhan. One underlying factor that will
be considered when discussing each of the above characteristics, is that of content.
McLuhan said in Understanding Media. The content of a medium is like the juicy
bit of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind (67).
Although McLuhan does not deem content as relevant when discussing hot and
cool media, many critics find it impossible to ignore.
The first characteristic listed above is definition. By low definition,
McLuhan means that there is not a lot of detail given to viewers. He uses the
example of caricatures or comic book frames where detail is minimal to describe
low definition. He contrasts a comic to a photograph which is full of data and has
high definition. Television, like the comic according to McLuhan, only provides an
outline that the viewer must fill-in. Television and comics are unlike film, which
can handle complexity better because movie screens have more space on which the
action takes place. By contrast the TV screen is small and tight (Sadlich 3). In
discussing low definition, an interesting area of evaluation is McLuhans reasoning
behind classifying film as hot and television as cool. At an initial glance one
would most likely think of television and film as being very similar. McLuhan has
them on the opposite ends of the hot and cool spectrum. Today, finding enough
distinct differences between television and movies to support a theory that has
them nowhere near each other on the continuum would be a difficult task. The
physical signal differences between television and movies seem to be less
distinguishable because of the advances in technology. The advent of satellites,
VCRs, cable, and sophisticated home audio systems means that more movies are
now viewed at home on the television than in movie theaters.
McLuhan said the television image, has the quality of sculpture and icon,
rather than of picture (313). He talks about televisions three million
dots per second and the ability of the viewer to only accept a few dozen from
which to shape an image. In Understanding Media. McLuhan said, The film
image offers many more millions of dots per second, and the viewer does not have
to make the same drastic reduction of items to form his impression (313).
McLuhan does not seem to be bothered by the fact that film is a series of individual
frames that the viewer must connect in order to form an image. McLuhan also
discussed in Understanding Media that the TV screen shows fight through rather
than light on like film. Film is projected on to the screen as opposed to
television where the light comes out of the box to and through the viewer. This
concept may have been true of television in the 1950s and 60s, however, with
advances in technology, light through and fight on must be reconsidered. An
example of a new technology is the Sharp Vision S VT20ZU which plugs into any
television, VCR or laser disc player and projects the images onto a screen, fight on
(Calabro 179). The new rear projection big screen televisions are also another
example of the changes. Projection television is fight on. These examples lead
directly into the effects of technology on definition.
When exploring McLuhans theory, his reference to low definition in
particular, the history of television and the state of technology during the time
period McLuhan was developing his ideas are essential factors to analyze. The
word television means seeing at a distance. Television began as an electronic
tube which transformed a picture scene into an electronic signal. The electronic
tube, the iconoscope, was the breakthrough that made television possible as early
as the 1939 Worlds Fair.
The television broadcast sequence starts with the television cameras that pick
up the images and transforms the picture into an electrical signal. The signals are
transmitted into the air. When they are picked up by home television sets, the
television set transforms the signal that it receives back into the sound and picture
from the origination point.
In the early days of television there were often problems. McLuhan at that
time might have been correct when he described television as low definition.
Irving Weiss echoed McLuhans view when he described television in its early day
as a refractory, wobbly, granular image, always threatening to dissolve or
disintegrate, black and white TV is like quick silver (Weiss 53). Television
pictures were often plagued with snow, white dots on the screen, which were
caused by a weak signal from the television station, or static. Viewers also
experienced a rolling picture and slanted lines. The pulses being transmitted failed
to synchronize with the receivers. Television technology from cameras to
transmission has vastly improved since the 1950s and 1960s. The majority of
households receive television signals via cable as opposed to over the air. Cable
eliminates the static and interference delivering a cleaner and more defined picture.
Early television limited the location of origination of broadcasts. Because
of bulky equipment, shows were forced to be produced within the confines of
television studios. Most of the early shows were variety shows, comedy shows
and westerns. Today technology allows television programming to originate from
the battle fields of Desert Storm to live shots from the eye of a hurricane.
In summarizing, because technology in the 1950s and 1960s was in its early
developmental stages, perhaps television did fit McLuhans cool media definition.
When considering the physical signal alone, picture quality had a lot of room for
improvement and over the last thirty to forty years has improved significantly.
McLuhan anticipated that television technology would advance, but insisted
that the definition of television would remain the same or it was no longer
television. In Understanding Media he said:
If anybody were to ask whether all this would change if technology stepped
up the character of the TV image to movie data level, one could only counter
by inquiring, Could we alter a cartoon by adding details of perspective and
light and shade? The answer is yes, only it would then no longer be a
cartoon. Nor wouldimprovedTV be television. (313)
Television technology has changed, technology has improved, and society has
elected to still call it television. We no longer hear the crackle and static on
McLuhans hot radio and it is still radio.
The second ingredient in McLuhans definition of television as a cool
medium is that television requires participation. According to Jib Fowles,
Increases in audience participation were the earmark of what McLuhan termed
cool medium: A cool medium leaves much more for the listener or user to do than
a hot medium. If the medium is of low intensity, the participation is high (24).
Because of the low definition the viewer is forced to participate. James Carey
explained McLuhans views on participation when he wrote, The receiver
must complete the image, must add values to what is presented to him and is thus
more involving or participatory (290). McLuhan used his infamous fashion
analysis to describe this participation, the open mesh nylon silk stocking is far
more sensuous than the smooth nylons, just because the eye must act as a hand in
filling in and completing the image, exactly as in the mosaic of the TV image (42).
According to McLuhan, the viewer of the television, as well as the open mesh
nylon, must participate and provide closure to create the image. The most difficult
part of discussing participation and involvement is not to consider content. There
must be some interest in the content, whether the form in the mesh stocking or the
programming on the television set to invite the viewers to participate and to also
determine at what level they participate.
In agreeing with McLuhan classification of television as cool, Anthony
Quinton compared television to hot print:
TV involves the collaboration of its watcher in what it presents, the viewer
has to fill out its low definition picture with imaginative efforts of his own,
while in print everything is clear and determinate, print imposes
receptiveness on the reader. (195)
Although the newspaper is linear in its format, headlines and photographs jump off
the page and it is apparent that the reader often looks at the entire page and
processes the message in a mosaic fashion. Most people will admit that they do
not read line by line, but rather participate by connecting words and photographs
to create the message. This sounds similar to the participation that happens with
television. Despite McLuhans classification of print as a hot medium and
television as a cool medium, he fails to acknowledge that mosaic thought can be
present in both media.
McLuhan uses examples of other forms of media to describe differences in
participation. According to McLuhan, lecture is hot and a seminar is cool. There
is less opportunity for participation in a lecture than in a seminar. A lecture is
structured and provides detailed information. The telephone is cool because the
ear is given a small amount of information. When using the phone visual and
tactile must be filled in. Once again McLuhan leaves himself open to criticism.
Paul West questioned McLuhans hot and cool when he wrote:
Radio is hot; phone is cool. Yet, if we grant a ready talker the ear will get
well filled with data from either. I cannot for the life of me see why
listening to Betrand Russell on the radio is hotter than having him call me
up for 15 minutes. (47)
The basic criticism here is McLuhans disregard of content. If someone calls and
tells the person on the other end of line that there house is on fire, surely there will
be a hot response.
Dennis Dufly was one critic that had a hard time accepting television as cool
and McLuhans exclusion of content:
It is when the notion of TV as a cool and therefore involving medium is
examined that the difficulty arises. In a purely visual sense, the viewer has
to fill in the picture with sharply defined background images in a way he
generally does not in a film.. Does this constitute involvement? If
involvement is really that cool a process, a mere filling-in of blurry areas,
then surely the technical message of the medium is puny when compared to
the content one. Does anyone really walk out of a cinema after the War
Game feeling less involved than if he had stayed home and watched The
Beverly Hillbillies? (41)
Arguments have been set forth to reevaluate McLuhans description of television
with regard to definition and participation; The final element to evaluate is the
effect of vicarious participation on the viewer. McLuhan felt the result of such
involvement and participation when watching television had a cooling effect on
viewers. He believed that what a medium overtly says does not matter, what does
matter is what it does to a persons sensorium. McLuhan said that media were
extensions of man and television is above all, an extension of the sense of touch,
which involves maximal interplay off all the senses (36). McLuhans view was
that in the operation of mass media the senses are used as if they were minds. The
sensory reaction actually cools or replaces the need for outward action to be taken
by the viewer. Raymond Rosenthal summarized McLuhans views on television
The way he describes the process, the people watching television seem inert
bundles of sensation, perhaps even of emotional receptivity, but with no
direct consciousness, for consciousness would spoil the picture of sheer
sensation by introducing extraneous elements, such as thought,
interpretation, rational response. (11)
Discussing the effects of viewing without considering content is difficult if
not impossible. Theodore Roszak echoed this opinion when he said, There
is no independent psychic effect that any mass medium has on an observer other
than through its content. Indeed, no one witnesses a mass medium except for its
content (263). Kenneth Burke said about McLuhans slogan the medium is
the message, Such oversimplification is likely to show up sooner or later as flat
contradiction (170). One such contradiction was McLuhans discussion of
photography and slides. He reverted to a discussion of the content of each and
credited content with significant influence on the viewer of each.
As illustrated above, when it was convenient and in support of his ideas,
McLuhan addressed content in a round about way. He talked about the use of
different media to present different topics. According to McLuhan, the medium
determines what kind of experience and information can best be presented and thus
what kinds of impact the medium can have. With television, McLuhan believed
people involve every sense and television is simultaneously involving all aspects of
other people, resulting in a society that knows less and less about what they want
to do (Walter 50). McLuhan talks briefly about content and media personalities
with respect to which media will prove most effective. McLuhan states that the
same messages come over differently via different media. This point can be agreed
upon, but the affect of the message on the television viewer cannot be attributed
solely to the technical, mosaic nature of the television image.
McLuhan presented television as unsuitable for presenting hot or
controversial topics. McLuhan believed that television did not incite people to act
but rather diffused the need. Television, by McLuhans definition, is suitable for
magazine shows and cool personalities like Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Ed
Sullivan as opposed to drama. More than likely, the cool personalities and cool
shows are a result of the programming presented. McLuhan did give credit to
television for dooming the war in Vietnam. However, his explanation was that
Vietnam was a hot war presented over a cool television and that the young
opposed the war not out of pacifism but out of their pain of involvement resultant
from using television. Another example McLuhan used was the assassination of
President Kennedy. He believed most people were struck by the television
coverage of the assassination and viewers felt a great depth of involvement, but
there was no excitement or sensationalism. According to McLuhan, when
involvement is maximal, viewers become numb. During the days following the
assassination people throughout the United States were numb, but it is more
plausible that this was because of a deep feeling of grief as opposed to the
involvement of watching television. The effects of media can be manipulated by
the user and the message. President Roosevelt is a good example. He used hot
radio for his cool fireside chats. The viewers involvement and resulting action or
reaction must be attributed to content. Achieving the desired results in
communicating a message is a combination of content and medium.
Thelma McCormack tried to point out different types of involvement
associated with McLuhans hot and cool media in an article she wrote in McLuhan
Pro & Con. She said hot and cold media both involve viewers, but in different
ways. She called hot media involvement identification and cold media
involvement, projection. Identification is defined as a mechanism of social
learning; it is growth, strengthening and broadening the ego (203). Projection,
McCormack said is regression, the absence of controls and capacity for problem
solving (203). McCormack explained that when McLuhan talked about
involvement he meant projection. McLuhan described this difference when he
said that with movies the viewer is the camera and with television the viewer is the
screen. Geoffrey Wagner pointed out that this is interesting, until you realize that
it was written at a moment when about eighty percent of most television consisted
of film, and the remainder of the technically analogous material (162).
If one accepts that television has the technological ability to be high
definition and that the viewers are involved, therefore conscious, when they are
watching, then the resultant debate centers on the effects of the television on the
public. There are factions that advocate that the media have minimal impact on the
public while others claim media influence is significant. Early research confirmed
the view that media influenced attitudes: what we like, dislike, accept or reject.
Contemporary analysis is more complex. Contemporary analysis emphasizes
cognition rather than effect. The media provide not only information, but also
conceptual frameworks that shape the problems the public considers most
important (Lichtenberg 9). The media provide agenda setting functions.
Agenda setting was the single most research hypothesis in mass communication
during the 1970s (Singletary 84). Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw coined
the term when they wrote, The Agenda-Setting Function of the Mass Media.
They wrote about the strong relationship between media content and peoples
perceptions of the issues of the day. They concluded that the media seemed to set
the agenda for public discussion.
The masses can be influenced through the selection of information that is
disseminated by the media. If media can effect what people think about, the
information they process, the media can affect their attitudes and reactions. This
theory is contrary to McLuhans disregard of the content. The lack of credence
given to content is a dangerous road to travel. Public opinion grows out of an
interaction between the messages of the media and how the audience processes the
information (Entman 77). The information-processing view predicts that people
may often respond more positively to media messages than was originally thought.
In the information-processing paradigm, a person first assesses a media message
for validity. If the message is prominent message or believable, the person
processes the new information according to routines established in his or her
schema system. Processing may lead the person to either store the information or
reject it. If a person stores the information, it may stimulate new beliefs or old
beliefs (78). People may reject or tune-out information that is contrary to their
current views. Other times they think about messages that seem prominent or
relevant even though they may be disturbing to them at first.
The mass media can heighten the awareness of what is happening in society
and can influence and motivate people to convert that knowledge and
experience into action. Television can have a hot effect on the public.
Much has changed since Marshall McLuhan understood media. Fast
forwarding thirty years, the communications world is a much different place. In
summarizing the look at McLuhanss hot and cool media theory in todays world,
the same criteria as previously defined in this paper will be used. They include low
definition, participation and the cooling effect on viewers. The difference between
McLuhans look at media and this authors can be synthesized to one concept:
technological advances. The inability of McLuhan to acknowledge changes and
advances raise doubt about McLuhans unalterable classification of television as
the coolest of cool media.
Technology has not only changed the physical television signal, but has
created new opportunities for increased and more diversified programming. The
black and white television set has been superseded by color, cable, VCRs, home
videos and more.
Over the air signals that were plagued by static and interference have been
improved upon with more advanced receiver systems and are often being replaced
by cable. Each element in the broadcasting/cablecasting sequence, cameras,
studio, transmission and receivers (television sets) has undergone major
Television equipment is much different today than during McLuhans day.
Outwardly, the equipment is smaller, lighter and capable of being easily moved
from location to location. Cameras and receivers have gone from the bulky tube
technology to small, mobile equipment. Charged couple devices (CCD) provide a
small, chip technology that replaced tubes. Another highly touted technology is
High Definition Television (HDTV). The name alone challenges McLuhans low
definition characterization of television. The picture quality with these types of
technologies is twice as good as with previous equipment. Image quality is
brighter, sharper and more movie-like. The process of digitalization has had a
tremendous impact on television. This function amplifies the signal, removes noise
and restores the sync signals, then converts the signal into a digital replica. The
signal is manipulated and reconverted to an analog signal the receiver can accept
These technologies make flat television screens possible. Also, any size
screen can be developed. In anticipation of mass distribution of HDTV many of
todays television shows are being filmed in high definition so they can be adapted
to new HDTV systems of the future. Television screen sizes are getting bigger,
the picture quality is improving and the methods of recording are becoming more
like film. The line between McLuhans hot movies and cool television are
becoming harder and harder to distinguish.
The advances in technology have had a direct effect on programming
content. The exclusivity of the television studio has disappeared. Broadcasts can
now be brought to the viewers live from around the world. This was witnessed
when television took every citizen into the battlefield in Iraq during Operation
Desert Storm. Technology also allows people inside operating rooms and even
inside the human body, in courtrooms, on the moon, under the ocean and
anywhere their imaginations can take them.
In addition to ignoring the possibility of televisions technological
advancement, McLuhan seemed to ignore the criticism and questions from
colleagues and interviewers regarding his lack of consideration for what appears
on the screen, the programming content. McLuhan said that the medium,
television, was the message. McLuhan believed the content of a medium is
always another medium, so the only real content is the technology peculiar to each
medium and its effects. The void created by McLuhans omission of media
content agitated people in the field. Richard Kostelanetz wrote:
McLuhan completely discounts the question of what happens on the screen
and speaker. As anyone who has ever watched movies know, some of them
are more interesting, more engaging and stimulating than others. Much of
the difference depends upon the quality of what we traditionally call the
programs content. (215)
Content relates directly to McLuhans claim that television has a cooling
effect. Many people believe that television is very hot. The street politics of the
1960s document televisions ability to incite viewers to action. The Civil Rights
campaign, Vietnam and perhaps most recently the bombing in Oklahoma City
illustrate that television is not always cool. Jack Behar and Ben Lieberman said
McLuhan, ignores the power of ideas, of values, of emotions, of cumulative
wisdom to say nothing of the hard facts of geography, economics, politics and the
human glory and tragedy of life and death (92). Content plays an important role
when the message is powerful and has a direct affect on the viewers lives.
Raymond Rosenthal expressed the opposite side of McLuhans view of content
when he said, The only creatures who can have sensations without an attendant
charge of emotion and consciousness, are the lobotomized or robots: and perhaps
that is what we will become under the massive pressure of the television
environment. But it hasnt happened yet (12).
Several groups like the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting and
Action for Childrens Television, agree with Rosenthal and disagree with
McLuhans definition of television as cool. Their sole purpose is to monitor
and enhance television programming. This is based on a belief that the messages
television delivers are in the program content and have a major impact on viewers.
Today, information is seldom spread through street comer meetings or
public assemblies, the historic center of debate. Rather, it is broadcast wholesale
by the press. The reach of television is immense. Over 40 million Americans
watch the weekday evening newscasts on the three networks alone (Walzer 265).
Television provides not only information, but also conceptual frameworks that
shape the problems the public considers most important. The media provide an
agenda setting function. Bernard Cohen stated the press may not be successful
much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in
telling the public what to think about (Lichtenberg 10).
Despite the fact that in the last thirty years the top-rated prime-time
programs, based on ratings from the A.C. Nielson Company, look very similar (see
Appendix A), the argument can still be made that program content has changed
dramatically and must be considered. Television is no longer a few channels
feeding the masses. There are now hundreds of cable channels and thousands of
video rentals presenting all different types of programs.
The thirty years of response to McLuhans Understanding Media: The
Extensions of Man is a compilation of different views. There are those that
completely dismiss McLuhan, those that believe he is god-like and those that try to
build on his ideas. McLuhan himself said he was basically an intellectual probe.
He was setting forth ideas and probing for new knowledge and understanding.
McLuhan, although confident in his own work, stated in an interview, as an
investigator, I have no forced point of view, no commitment to any theory my
own or anyone elses. As a matter of fact Im completely ready to junk any
statements I have ever made about my subjects (Norden 61). The intention of
this paper is not to junk all of McLuhans probes, but to reevaluate McLuhans
theories based upon both the medium and the message of television as it exists in
todays society. If television is redefined and recognized as the hot medium, which
it surely has become, its content can be evaluated and used to stimulate society.
Television can be both hot and cool. If McLuhan were alive today perhaps
he might concede this point. However, even though it is recognized by many that
television is both hot and cool, it is still classified as a cool medium that is
sometimes hot. The arguments in this paper also suggest that television is both
hot and cool. The emphasis, though, is that television is a hot medium that is
sometimes cool. With new technology, the physical signal is high definition.
Television has the proven ability to involve viewers and incite them to respond and
react. Finally, the area that received no real analysis by McLuhan, has emerged as
televisions most important ingredient, program content.
Television as a hot medium has the ability to affect millions of viewers.
If television is accepted as a hot medium then further research can concentrate on
how programming content and access to technology can enhance society.
TOP-RATED PRIME TIME PROGRAMS
Texaco Star Theater, Fireside Theater, Philco TV Playhouse
Arthur Godfreys Talent Scouts, Texaco Star Theater, I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy, Arthur Godfreys Talent Scouts, Arthur Godfrey and
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I Love Lucy, The Jackie Gleason Show, Dragnet
The $64,000 Question, I Love Lucy, The Ed Sullivan Show
I Love Lucy, The Ed Sullivan Show, General Electric Theater
Gunsmoke, The Danny Thomas Show, Tales of Wells Fargo
Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel
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Wagon Train, Bonanza, Gunsmoke
The Beverly Hillbillies, Candid Camera, the Red Skelton Show
The Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza, The Dick Van Dyke Show
Bonanza, Bewitched, GomerPyle, U.S.M.C.
Bonanza, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., The Lucy Show
Bonanza, The Red Skelton Hour, The Andy Griffith Show
The Andy Griffith Show, The Lucy Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C
Rowan & Martins Laugh-In, Gomer Pyle, U.SM.C., Bonanza
Rowan & Martins Laugh-In, Gunsmoke, Bonanza
Marcus Welby, M.D., The Flip Wilson Show, Heres Lucy
All in the Family, The Flip Wilson Show, Marcus Welby, M.D.
All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Hawaii Five-O
All in the Family, The Waltons, Sanford and Son
All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man
All in the Family, Rich Man, Poor Man, Laveme & Shirley
Happy Days, Laveme & Shirley, ABC Monday Night Movie
Laveme & Shirley, Happy Days, Threes Company
Laveme & Shirley, Threes Company, Mork & Mindy and Happy
60 Minutes, Threes Company, Thats Incredible
Dallas, The Dukes of Hazzard, 60 Minutes
Dallas, 60 Minutes, The Jeffersons
60 Minutes, Dallas, MASH and Magnum, P.I.,
Dallas, 60 Minutes, Dynasty
Dynasty, Dallas, The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Murder She Wrote
The Cosby show, Family Ties, Cheers
The Cosby Show, A Different World, Cheers
The Cosby show, Roseanne, A Different World
Roseanne, The Cosby Show, Cheers
Cheers, 60 Minutes, Roseanne
60 Minutes, Roseanne, Murphy Brown (Calabro 185)
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