March 29, 2017

How technology changed television (and it's not necessarily how you think)

Watch an episode, any episode, of an old TV series, any series, from the '50s through the early '90s. And as you watch it, ask yourself this question: how would the plot change, how would the story be different, if the characters had cell phones and computers? Would we ever again hear lines like this?

  • “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you everywhere.”
  • “I’m sorry, but you just missed him. Can I take a message?” 
  • “I had to step out and make a call, and when I got back she was gone.”

For those who grow up knowing nothing other than iPhones and iPads, it might be increasingly difficult to relate to an time in which most meetings took place face-to-face rather than over the phone or via email, where major plot twists occur because someone missed a phone call or didn’t know where to reach someone, where someone had to wait hours, if not days, for a piece of information that could be located or verified with a few strokes on a keyboard. In an era of mobile communication, when people are less tied down to homes, to businesses, to landlines, it’s almost impossible to be out of touch. And that makes for a major change.

In a classic Nero Wolfe story – The Mother Hunt, I think it was – Wolfe's right-hand man Archie Goodwin is out on a stakeout when he has to call Wolfe for instructions or reinforcements or something of the sort, so he drives into town to use a pay phone. Naturally, when he gets back he finds the subject’s car, which had been in the garage, is long gone. He’s lost the suspect, and by the time she’s found, she’s also dead. And if you know anything about Nero Wolfe's temperament, you know this is not good news for Archie.

Something like this is an elemental part of so many mysteries, and yet it would be impossible to pull off today. Archie would simply pull out his iPhone and call Wolfe from the car, all the while keeping his eyes focused on the front door of the house. He could even take pictures and email it to Saul or Fred or Orrie, to let them know who or what they should be looking for. Oh, if you needed to create tension you could have the phone drop coverage or have the battery die, but you can’t go there too often without making a joke of it.

And then there's the Route 66 episode where the boys are staying near the coastline, and Buz finds himself struggling frantically to free a woman whose foot has become caught in a reef, before the rising tide drowns her. There’s no phone in their cabin, and Tod’s taken the car to town to buy supplies. Now, you can say that the situation is contrived and maybe it is, but it's still plausible.

So Buz can’t drive to town to get help – he needs to find a phone and call Tod. He runs to various places where he thinks he might find one – leaving the trapped woman in the meantime – only to find that there is no phone, or that the phone is disconnected. But even if he could find that phone, Tod won’t be any help because Buz doesn’t know where Tod is, doesn’t know that on the way back from the store he’s stopped at a diner for lunch. Probably he could call the police, but in the isolated coastal hamlet they’re in, the police might take even longer to get there. In other words, Buz is screwed. It’s only because a boat just happens to sail by (and how’s that for contrived?) that he’s able to get help to free her just in the nick of time. But if he had a cell phone? No problem. Call the police, call Tod (on his cell), call the Coast Guard, take video for YouTube if he wants. In the meantime, stay with the damsel in distress and comfort her – who knows what might come of that?

Perry Mason is a great example of how technology can change things.  In a typical Mason episode, Perry’s always sending Paul Drake to San Francisco or New York or Mexico or wherever he needs to go, often on little more than a hunch, in search of the one piece of evidence that proves his client’s innocence. Will Paul find that evidence? And will he get it back to the courtroom in time for Perry to use it in his devastating cross-examination of the real killer?*

*Paul did get a car phone at some point in the series, as did other private detectives such as Richard Diamond and Joe Mannix, which helps to some extent - as long as you're in your car. And yet I can remember several Mason episodes in which Paul, like Archie Goodwin, is forced to rely on a pay phone while he's on a stakeout. 

More likely, Paul doesn’t have to rush back to the courtroom – he can just email Perry the document, so he read it right there where he sits. Come to think of it, Paul doesn’t have to leave the courthouse either; he can take the elevator down to the lobby (where he gets a good clear signal on the city's free wi-fi), get the information from one of his operatives, and then text Perry something like “ASK WITNESS WHAT WAS DOING SAT NITE.”

How many times have we seen a plot hinge on a phone call that was missed, with no voicemail to take the message? How many murders could have been prevented by reaching someone on their cell phone instead of driving to their house only to find out they were too late? How often does someone sit at home desperately waiting for news that today would be only a text away? How many misunderstandings could have been avoided if the driver had simply used GPS instead of fiddling with a map (or, if he's a man, refusing to ask anyone for directions)?

This development of technology has to have changed the art of scriptwriting.* So many misunderstandings, cliffhangers, mistakes, anxiety-ridden moments – all the elements of human relationships – become much harder to pull off now, when we’re all so connected, all of the time. And so the story has to change. Information that might have taken 15 minutes to unfold on Dragnet now gets done in the blink of an eye. The phone caller claiming to be John Doe in order to suggest that John Doe is still alive when in reality he was murdered an hour ago – well, that’s a little more difficult with Skype, isn’t it? The frantic drive through rush hour traffic to prevent an assassination can be taken care of easily, with the press of a few buttons.

*I’m sure there’s an article on it somewhere, but frankly I’m too lazy to Google it; besides, I might lose my train of thought.

I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why shows like CSI and NCIS are so prevalent now. The classic police show - Columbo for instance - seldom relies on technology (other than the communications devices found in any standard issue police car), and when it does, it’s usually to confirm a suspicion the detective has already sleuthed out, rather than pointing him in the right direction. I’m not saying this is always the case; a lot of shows from the era used advanced science to identify suspects. But the show featuring the lone wolf – the brilliant police lieutenant, the world-weary private detective – how many of these shows still exist? And of the ones that do, how many of them rely on some kind of a gimmick (think any American crime show, for example), rather than the depiction of good, hard investigative work? Some might say they’ve fallen victim to the ensemble casts that dominate most television nowadays, but I would suggest an additional factor, that these shows reflect the nature of technology today. Simply put, too many of the things upon which these shows were based have now been rendered pointless because technology has changed the way we operate.

I don’t say that it’s good or bad – just different. As for how different, just watch your favorite black-and-white show, pretend there’s a cell phone or a laptop around, and imagine what happens.


  1. Just a comment-I have yet to get an I-phone. I am probably one of 1 percent of Americans who do not have one. But I do enjoy the freedom that comes from not being always connected to the Net or constantly having everyone text me and feeling I have to check every five minutes. We used to have this device called answering machines - I still have one, which can conveniently take messages or allow you to know who is on the other line and give you a chance to decide if you want to talk with them or not. Sometimes being old-fashioned is good.

    George E.

    1. Ditto for me. I do have a TracFone, from which I can give/receive calls & texts, but I don't access the Net from it, as the per-minute cost is prohibitive, and I hate trying to type on a tiny keyboard. I didn't have my first cell phone until 4 years ago, so I was completely unplugged from the cellular world until then.

  2. I have a Verizon pre-paid flip phone. I don't use it very much, it is as little as $15/month. I use it so little that I have almost $500 saved in airtime.

  3. Just think of Jim Rockford on The Rockford Files without his answering machine and all the times he had to stop at a pay phone.

    1. It does ruin the charm of the series, doesn't it?


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!