There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news and no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose. The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth. The revolution will not be televised. – Gil-Scott Heron
“The Revolution will not be televised” has achieved a certain amount of status among leftists. It appeals to the anti-consumerist, pro-democratic values of the left, the ones which would prefer people go out and meet with each other than remain at home, secluded and isolated. And those are good values, I agree with them.
However, television is not the same today as it was in 60s and 70s. Then it was the exclusive domain of corperate power – the costs of entry into any form of televised production kept anarchists and socialists from producing televised media at the quality enabled by network money, and any media produced could only be broadcast on VHS tapes or perhaps with low intensity broadcasters (which are easily raided and shut down by the authorities). Today, however, television can be produced by anyone with a computer and a digital camera, and high-quality media coverage can be achieved by devoted but poorly funded activists. Also, because of the internet, specifically youtube, it is now easy to disperse video – easy to a point unimaginable even a little in the past. Anyone can simply start their own youtube channel, and through word of mouth and/or viral effects it can become unbelievably popular.
One might be tempted, therefore, to say “the revolution will be televised, but only on non-corporate media”. And this seems true enough – why would we expect CBS or Fox News to televise material which would put the capitalist order in danger? I think, however, the reality is more complex than this for the simple reason that the capitalists are not homogeneous, and are only marginally class conscious. Individual actors within the business class may be willing to sell out their class interests for personal interests in the way of putting the most controversial footage (which in some cases may be revolutionary footage) on air. This could result in something like a “race to the bottom”, a contest between mainstream networks to show the most radical material, if that boosts their ratings. Something like this was satirized in the 1976 film, “The Network”, where a corporate network actually funds revolutionary and terrorist groups to acquire footage for a hit TV show: the “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour”.
Fox News, as some of you are no doubt aware, has already been funding a revolution – although unfortunately it is a racist, nationalist, even proto-fascist revolution within the Republican party, which has a real chance of shifting the American political spectrum even farther to the right. Leftists will tend to dismiss this as irrelevant because it is happening on the right, and therefore they are simply obeying laws of business – but the reality is more complex. Business does not unilaterally support the Tea Party; the Wall Street Journal has pointed out that Tea Party supporters largely oppose free trade, oppose the federal reserve, and support a form of heterodox economics which is not consistent with current business interests. Therefore, media support for the Tea Party represents not business interest in general, but a narrower interest.
This willingness of business actors to act against their class interest when it is in their personal interest is the reason why the revolution, which will involve television, may actually be televised.