Useful TV


Televisual Operations

Television’s history has predominantly been told from the perspective of its broadcasting institutions and domestic practices; the bulk of television scholarship traces the story of a mass medium. Doing so, it neglects a parallel regime of televisuality built upon a visual closed circuit, the miniaturization of machines, small-scale audiences, and alleged universal operability. Distributed under the name of Industrial Television and CCTV (for closed circuit television), this prevalent but overlooked form of televisuality was developed for military uses during World War II before it was adapted to industrial, commercial, educational, and bureaucratic spaces. Conceived as a useful media, it fueled, among other things, the robotization of warfare, the automation of the factory floor, as well as the rationalization of bureaucracies or teaching environments. investigates the visual, material, and epistemic dimensions of this televisual form defined in terms of audiovisual instrumentality and operability, and running in multiple spaces outside the home. It takes advantage of the blog format to publish short case studies based on archival sources, and to cartography so far uncharted territory of televisual operations. unfolds its analysis along four televisual operations: targeting; surveilling; managing; instructing. In many cases, these operations are linked. Surveilling, for instance, is intrinsically linked to managing and targeting, while instructing through television also embraces the management of a classroom through audiovisual means. The dissociation of these operations is a way to disentangle the entangled practices, technologies, and visual regimes of CCTV’s applications across military and civilian institutions. While the singular case studies are diverse and heterogeneous at first glance, they are connected through the role they attribute to their images and their infrastructures, understood as tools rather than representations.


A Short History of CCTV

In its most basic technological form, CCTV links a television camera, a monitor and a transmitter; as a social system it henceforth functions ubiquitously as a tool for surveillance and governance of public space. While CCTV has become a central part of the digital surveillance society, it has a history that goes back to the 1930s and 1940s, and military-related research in the field of television. 

At the outbreak of WWII, television broadcasting had been launched in the US and Europe, and the commercialization of television as a domestic media had been prepared in several countries. The years leading to the war thus saw the launching of the program-based, commercially or public funded broadcasting into domestic spaces, which would define most of television's identity up until today. However, during the 1920s and 1930s, several alternative televisual forms – for instance large-screen television, whose history would expand beyond the war – were imagined and developed.

Among the proposals for non-domestic television was also Vladimir Zworykin's note for a television-controlled bomb. Written in 1934, Zworkyin, chief television engineer at RCA, the "Flying Torpedo with an Electric Eye" would integrate television into the nose of the missile so that the operator [could] see the target through the 'eye' of the torpedo as it approaches its mark (Zworykin 1946, p. 294). Thanks to television, the pilot's eye and his target would become one.

While Zworykin’s ideas in the mid-1930 did not find immediate application, televisual research for the Army and the Navy became an important field of technological innovation, especially during WWII after the Pearl Harbor attack and the subsequent intensified war effort. At RCA, various research programs were put together, and research into televisual military equipment became an important activity for the corporation. Similarly, other laboratories in the USA, but also in Great-Britain and Nazi Germany were backed by military resources to advance research on television guided missiles, reconnaissance systems and other applications of tv for military uses.

Two characteristics were shared by all these military systems:

  • First, rather than offering broadcasting services from one transmitter to multiple receivers, all these applications were based on a conception of television as a closed-circuit system, transferring visual data from the camera to one single receiver.
  • Second, the military backed research had its own specific requirements, in particular the need for the reduction of size and weight of the different components, as well as a simplification of use and maintenance since army personnel were not trained engineers. As a result of wartime investments, television after the war was available not only in bulky studio formats, but also very handy so-called “suitcase”-types.

The extended applicability of television beyond a media of broadcasting as well as the televisual operation in the field of targeting, surveillance, and control would have a long-lasting impact beyond the war. In Spring 1946, the RCA Laboratories News, a company-internal magazine for employees, included an article on airborne television, revealing some of the secret wartime research. While the article honored RCA’s accomplishments during the war and listed the different “wartime uses of the television systems“, it also looked beyond military development and discussed “possible peacetime applications” of these television systems. The editor forecast that these military systems would easily integrate industrial spaces (RCA Laboratories News, February-April 1946).

This projected transfer from the military to the civilian context of new television technologies was subsequently realized during the 1950s, when a new field of televisual uses became the new commercial playground for non-broadcasting TV. Promoted under the label of industrial television or “closed-circuit television”, these televisual applications were based on reduced-size and limited-quality television equipment that was conceived of as an autonomous scheme, and most often described in very celebratory terms:

Les possibilités d’emploi de la télévision industrielle moderne sont pratiquement illimitées. [La télévision industrielle] devient de jour en jour plus importante, compte tenu du développement constant de l’automation pour tous les procédés de fabrication. (Journal d'Yverdon, 5 November 1955)

For a short but productive span of its history, CCTV seemingly offered multiple applications and opened an almost infinite number of uses: it was thought of as a truly universal media. Set up in factory floors and nuclear plants, in hospitals and schools, its flexibility and adaptability promised an extremely versatile – universally usable – device.

This historical importance of CCTV is emphasized by the case studies gathered on, which shed new light on the history of a not so familiar medium. Encompassing uses ranging from air traffic surveillance to video conferencing, they testify to the adaptability and flexibility of CCTV, who has since long become part of our daily lives.