Envisioning the Audience: perceptions of early German television's

audiences, 1935-1944

William Uricchio

published in: Aura Filmvetenskaplig Tidskrift 2:4 (1996)


Shortly after Germany's WW2 capitulation, a delegation of visiting allied engineers and military interrogators gathered outside Berlin to watch a demonstration of the German 'Tonne' guided missile. The rocket was of particular interest thanks to its television-controlled guidance system. In a trenchant gesture, the German developers of the rocket targeted its guidance system at the photographic image of a young girl's face so that their interrogators could see, from the point of view of the rocket's television camera, how the missile could be steered. This odd demonstration, flatly described in allied intelligence reports, epitomizes the motives of the NS-Propaganda Ministry in initiating television daily service in Berlin some eleven years earlier (and hyperbolizes the 'bullet-theory' idea of mass media reception held by some within the Frankfurt School). Reich director of broadcasting Eugen Hadamovsky put the task succinctly in his address for the start of regular television service on 22 March 1935: "Now, in this hour, broadcasting is called upon to fulfill its greatest and most sacred mission: to plant the image of the Fuhrer indelibly in all German hearts." German television was conceived with a highly specific sense of reception in mind.

In the following pages I would like to use the case of early German television to raise some questions and perhaps some new approaches to the always difficult issue of historical reception study. As with so much other historical reception work, what I will not be able to do is provide much in the way of 'actual' systematic markers of public reception. Rather, I will have to fall back on incomplete primary and creatively derived secondary indicators, using these to argue for the relevance of particular constellations of reception. As I will discuss, film and television historians have for a number of reasons tended to rely upon such indirect reception indicators as 'conditions of reception' and 'intertextually extrapolated readings' for their looks into probable historical reception patterns. Particularly by contrast to the research strategies available to researchers working with living audiences, these approaches are of necessity speculative. But they nevertheless go a long way towards addressing the issue of how audiences were positioned, towards explaining why media campaigns took specific forms, and towards sketching in the dynamic space between production and reception, even if the latter remains ultimately inaccessible.

Particularly because early German television was so deeply enmeshed with particular notions of reception, coming to terms with some better sense of its audiences and their reactions to the medium and its programming is an essential task. Yet early German television epitomizes many of the problems which plague historical reception study. In this essay, after briefly situating German television's development between 1935 and 1944, I would like to address the possibilities offered by recent approaches to reception study, before moving on to a look at some of the period's perceptions of reception. In essence, I will argue not only that an implied sense of reception was an essential condition of television's production, but that various period perceptions of the reception process offer significant insights into the construction of the medium and clues to the 'actual' reception process, albeit tantalizingly incomplete ones. Again, I make no claim to documenting actual reception -- such a task is rendered nearly impossible for reasons I shall mention. Despite the barriers to a fuller reception study, any insights that we can gain will help us to deepen our understanding of German television's first decade as a cultural practice.


a medium and its contradictions


Early German television occupies a curious place in our cultural and technological history. With nearly a decade of well-publicized daily broadcasting to its credit, and with over 160,000 television viewers of the 1936 Olympic Games and approximately 300,000 per annum at the television-intensive broadcasting exhibitions, somehow the very existence of German television before 1950 seems to have eluded popular memory. Despite widespread and regular coverage in international newspapers and radio and electrical engineering journals, and despite shared licensing agreements for various television components, the broadcast histories of nations outside Germany routinely think of television's developmental legacy in terms that virtually exclude German developments. In the US, for example, England's broadcast start in 1936 is routinely heralded as a benchmark, even though Germany's service began one year earlier and continued well after Britain's cessation of broadcasts with the outbreak of war in 1939, indeed, nearly to the war's end. Moreover, few in the US or Britain seem to know of the licensing agreements between the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and Telefunken, or Britain's John Logie Baird's partnership in Fernseh AG, or of cross-licensed German tube technologies used by television in the US and UK. Television, of course, was a fully multi-national medium, rendering any strict national identity (like the issue of 'firstism') routinely suspect. But that the extensive developments surrounding German television could vanish from popular memory remains remarkable.

In technological terms, German political and governmental representatives, industrialists, engineers and with them a small portion of the public explored many different notions of television. Initial service in 1935 relied upon Paul Nipkow's 1884 invention (the Nipkow disk), and although countries such as Britain would quickly move ahead with fully electronic service, British technological observers at the annual broadcasting exhibitions in Berlin reported amazing results (729 lines!) from German super-vacuum environments for their otherwise 'primitive' disks. By late 1938, broadcasting converted to 441 line electronic (iconoscope) service and orders for relatively low-cost (650RM), mass-produced sets were issued to a consortium of electronics companies. At the same time, construction of two additional large transmitters which would provide broadcast coverage to a significant portion of Germany was nearing completion. The war disrupted the implementation of both developments, but technological innovation continued. Germany had television-telephone service; large screen projection television was available, with one television theater having 400 seats; successful experiments in high definition television yielded 1029 and 2000 line prototypes; and German television opened its affiliate Fernsehsender Paris, broadcasting throughout much of the occupation from the Eiffel Tower. The war encouraged other more predictable developments, as suggested in the opening anecdote: by the war's end, some 300 miniature cameras per month were being produced at one site alone for installation as guidance systems in missiles, torpedoes, and rockets.

Television programming was also reasonably well developed. In addition to broadcasting shortened feature films and documentaries, live drama, news and public affairs programs, exercise programs, sports and political rallies, children's shows, and variete constituted much of television's programming. The broadcast day began with 1.5 hours in 1935 and steadily increased. During the Olympics, for example, some 8 hours per day were broadcast rather than the 3 hours per day typical of 1936. By the early 1940s, the day could last up to 6.5 hours, of which 1.5 hours were broadcast live. Unfortunately, very little of this programming remains today. Some drama, sports, and news programs were broadcast live, ruling out their survival. Much more material was filmed, quickly processed, and usually within one minute of initial exposure, broadcast as a television signal, but little of this inter-film material survives. The result is that we are forced back to programme guides, scripts, photographs, and other relevant materials to construct some sense of what was broadcast.

But for all of its technological innovation and programming efforts, German television remained a system with a tiny audience centered largely in Berlin. Probably not more than 600 working receivers were ever available, with many being used for research purposes. Yet television broadcasting was public, and so too was its exhibition. Berlin had (depending on the period) up to 25 television halls, most seating 40 people (with several halls accomodating hundreds), which the public could attend free of charge. To give some sense of attendance figures, we might consider broadcast journal Die Sendung's claim that in the month of January 1940, with only 6 television halls in operation, 10,604 people attended. By April, with 12 halls in operation, 16,908 attended for the month. But despite the public, collective reality of much television reception, broadcasting magazines and press articles offered a more domesticated vision of television, showing couples or the family seated around the receiver. This 'ideal' notion of domestic television was in fact only experienced by a few television journalists and party functionaries. As we shall see, lurking behind the notion of collective, public reception and more atomized, domestic reception were a series of fundamental debates over the identity of the medium and its audience.

Despite the modest number of overall television viewers, the German government expended sizeable resources to assure both technological and programming progress. The motives? Propaganda was certainly an incentive, although not propaganda programming so much as the very existence of German television as propaganda. And from the start, as evidenced by the extensive overseas marketing of German television technology (including intensive efforts in Latin America and eastern Europe), the potential economic benefits to the national electronics industry stimulated technological and programming development. But a third and far more visionary motive may have played a crucial role in the Reich's investment in television, even during the extremely hard period of 'total war.' And it is here that the issue of reception, of the perception of reception, can provide insights.


reception studies and the problem of history


The century has been a curious one for the audience. In literary studies, the reading public was first long ignored or subject to the imperatives of the critic's good taste, then to the intentions of the author, finally emerging as a 'textually-implied' and even 'idealized' entity. In mass communications studies, audience reception as studied by Lazarsfeld, members of the Frankfurt School, uses and gratifications researchers, and most recently MASA theorists, appeared at the intersection of social science methods and both economic and political interests. The result was a series of largely empirical studies which demonstrated that the audience was indeed highly susceptible to media influence -- a desirable or lamentable condition depending on the ideological orientation of the researcher. But over the last decade or so, a more nuanced set of assumptions and a more fully interdisciplinary set of methods have invigorated the study of reception, both drawing from and contributing to these two dominant traditions. The methods appropriate to the study of an individual's interpretation of high culture texts (literary studies) increasingly overlapped with methods for the study of collective popular cultural reception (social history, mass communications), with consequences for all disciplines concerned.

Particularly the development of qualitative research methods aided by ethnographically-oriented approaches has offered many new insights into the reception process for both the humanities and social sciences. For example, Janice Radway's study of female romance readers and David Morley's study of British Nationwide audiences both drew upon paradigms familiar to students of cultural studies and ethnography, paradigms that assumed that reception, like the receiver, was a situated phenomenon. The 'situation' of the reader/viewer, like the text, implied that specific cultural, economic, and historical conditions played a significant role in constructing the horizon of expectations for the reception process. According to this view, readers/viewers and the texts before them encounter one another as already contextualized entities, bearing with them the marks of history and the cultural environment.

As the relatively short history of this latest wave of reception studies demonstrates, the elegant simplicity of traditional literary studies' idealized reader and traditional mass communication's single digit variables has been replaced by a complex and sometimes eclectic notion of reception. In place of easily generalizable research findings, this new generation of reception studies often offers quite specific insights with limited relevance to other sorts of reader/viewer-text encounters. But to their credit, these new studies have embraced the complexity of the reception process and with it, the complexity of the subject. They have attempted to account for the 'bundled' subjectivity of the individual viewer, that is, to account for the possibilities of gender, age, education, ethnicity, class, etc., to shape reception and construct meaning within any one reading/viewing subject. They have also been attentive to the complex motives and mechanisms behind textual production, circulation, and cultural position, in the process offering new insights into the construction of taste and cultural hierarchies.

These developments have been particularly evident in television studies, where recent trends in literary criticism have joined with trends from the social sciences, an intersection broadly mapped by cultural studies. David Morley's survey of these developments needs no repetition here. But there has been one persistent weakness in the otherwise impressive theorizing and deployment of recent reception studies: historical audiences. This problem has been well-sketched by Klaus Bruhn Jensen, and can in part be traced to the emphatically presentist agenda of television studies and mass communications. But more fundamentally it relates to the generally poor state of surviving evidence about historical audiences, particularly with regard to the nuanced agenda of new reception studies. Questions about gendered or classed social formations and their historical readings of particular texts can hardly be put to such scant data as newspaper criticism or gross viewing figures. The result has been a general avoidance of historical reception studies in favor of the evidence-intensive (and policy-relevant) present.

Despite this general tendency, there have nevertheless been some quite interesting advances in historical reception studies. In theater studies, for example, Bruce McConachie has taken a linguistic approach, mapping the use of the terms 'production' and 'producer' in late 19th century theatrical discourse as markers of a shift in the conception of the theatrical event. Within film studies, some scholars, among them Patrice Petro and Miriam Hansen, both of whose work is inflected by the Frankfurt School, have sought to reconfigure feminist film theory's interest in an idealized notion of spectatorship by enhancing the psychoanalytic paradigm with the consideration of historical evidence. In fact, film scholars of many theoretical persuasions have increasingly focused upon historical reception issues, exploring the inherent theoretical and methodological problems which have forced the majority of scholars working in this area to investigate conditions of reception rather than reception per se. Thus, film historians have investigated how such factors as theater architecture, publicity/promotional campaigns, regional attitudes and exhibition conditions have structured viewers' filmgoing experiences generally but have not considered how these factors may inflect the reception of specific texts. Other historians have employed intertextual evidence to investigate the mediation of historical viewers' receptions, showing how intertextual determinants reinforced particular meanings of film texts. As suggested above, historical reception studies in television have been far less pervasive, although again there are some interesting examples.


tensions in medial identity


Obviously the contours of surviving evidence set limits on the kinds of approaches that are possible for the study of reception. In the case of early German television, we have little direct evidence of audience composition, few surviving program texts, and a set of responses (press claims, governmental and industrial reports, etc.) that is unusually well-'coordinated' in its outlook. Yet the nature of the debates over television, particularly over the possibilities and practices of its reception, offers room for some insights.

One of the most fundamental issues to emerge with Germany's development of television, that is the precise nature of television's identity, in fact had a long pre-history that extended outside of Germany. As early as 1883, the French author Albert Robida described in Vingtieme Siecle a device that would help to characterize life in the next century -- the 'telectroscope.' By way of a flat glass screen, the 'telectroscope' could electrically extend vision, bringing it into the home. Robida details its use as a source of 'broadcast' entertainment, as a mode of point-to-point communication (a visual extension of the telephone), and as a means of surveillance. Like many pre-cinematic ideas about the moving image, Robida assumes two distinctive conditions of reception: an atomized, domestically-situated audience, and an audience linked together with simultaneously occurring events. The development of cinema with its collective audiences and 'canned' programming went against the grain of both of these visions of reception, having an effect as well upon subsequent notions of television, where especially the idea of the audience became somewhat more contentious.

The German situation provides an especially good example of the competing views of television available in the pre-war period. Debates over the aesthetic identity of the medium -- its claims for uniqueness and thus some sense of its ideal direction, pervaded the period. As we shall see, these ideas had direct consequences for the structure of television's audiences, for the medial expectations of those audiences, and perhaps for television's mixed success among those audiences. Indeed, from about 1930 until 1939, a series of debates, technological developments, and public experiments offered at least three distinct visions of television to German viewers, derived from the telephone, radio, and cinema.

Echoing an idea of television in place since nearly 1877, television was linked with the telephone in a service that linked Hamburg, Berlin, Nuernburg, Leipzig and Koeln. As in Robida's portrayal, television was seen as the visual extension of a point-to-point, individual communication network already in place with the telephone. Although in practice centralized through its locations in post offices, the system was in principle capable of finding application on a household level.

A second conception of television saw the medium essentially as the visual extension of the radio. The basic technological framework and engineering talent for television derived directly from radio; the electronics industries active in the production and sales of radios stood behind television's development and marketing; and the governmental ministries charged with regulating radio broadcasts and collecting licence fees extended their purview to include television. But behind these rather pragmatic arguments for television as the visual extension of radio stood more profound implications. Would television be primarily aural in its idea of program production, relying on the visual only as a supplement? Certainly in the days of 180-line television (up until 1938), this offered a useful justification for poor image quality; moreover, to those critics who feared that housewives would put off their chores because of television watching, the medium's emphatically aural dimension assured that it would pose as little distraction as radio. Radio also brought with it an atomized notion of audience in which individuals could listen in the privacy of their homes, and a grass-roots level of the medium in which amateurs could supposedly create their own technology and programming. A radio-inspired vision of television as a household commodity was especially interesting to German industry, which looked forward to sales on the scale of radio's, one of Europe's highest per capita purchase rates.

A third notion of television was decidedly more cinematic in character. Television's identity was located in its ability to carry image, and at a moment when filmed images could generally be transmitted more easily than live images, this view offered some solace to television workers who relied on the film medium. The development of television programming, especially in the area of dramatic production (which was often produced live), seems to have held firm to the conventions of cinematic depiction, and then like now, a large proportion of daily programming had been initially produced for the large screen. The cinematic notion extended to the idea of audiences in the sense that they were seen as large, public, collective groups rather than atomized individuals or families. Even for those for whom 'live' imagery was preferred over filmed, the cinema homology held that television was a new delivery system for cinema-style mass audiences. Berlin's experiments with various large screen display technologies and with theaters seating up to 400 people typify this notion of exhibition.

Behind these developments are disparate and intriguing complications. On the production side, while television's technology tended to be in the hands of former radio engineers, its programming was often in experienced film or theater hands. On the reception side, television was evaluated by a public seeking acoustical qualities equal to or better than the gramophone or radio, and visual qualities equal to or better than the motion picture, but both sets of expectations were inevitably disappointed. And in terms of the general cultural debate, television was struggled over by various governmental ministries and ministerial and political factions, each with a different vision of the medium and its audience.

This last point is perhaps most crucial for the argument at hand. Although for some participants in the debate over television's form the homology they selected may have shaped their views of the medium, for many others, specifically ideological and economic interest was at stake. For example, as suggested above, the electronics industry was eager to maximize its profits by replacing the word 'radio' with 'television' in the governmental campaign to place a 'radio in every German house'. And although together with the active support of the Post Ministry, German industry developed a relatively low cost television along the lines of the radio known as the Volksempfaenger, it faced the opposition of the Propaganda Ministry and the left wing of the NSDAP. The Propaganda Ministry, and especially Goebbels and the initial director of broadcasting, Hadamovsky, both held the view that propaganda was most efficient when it could exploit the pressure and peer control that could be generated in large collective audiences. This position of 'public' reception was developed in their theoretical writings and offers intriguing clues to period perceptions of reception. The NSDAP's left wing, although supporting the bottom line of collective television, did so from a very different position. They argued that the television medium should not be commercially available to the wealthy until it had reached a market price within the reach of a broad social spectrum.

The competing incentives of corporate profit, propaganda theory, and social egalitarianism thus played out over the differing conceptions of the audience as customer, object of persuasion, and comrade. And these conceptions in turn brought with them differing measures of reception: sales, ideological conformity, and identity within a classless society. From the perspective of perceptions of reception -- a guiding discourse for those most proximately involved in the debate over television -- these divergent criteria fed directly back into the production process, shaping the conditions of audience reception. Beyond the previously mentioned complication of media homologies (telephone, radio, film) and the related problem of audience expectations, the issue of what precisely constituted audience reception was further complicated by a fabric of both pragmatic and visionary arguments over television's construction of its audiences.


instrumental perceptions of reception


Images of Berlin's television halls frequently showed audiences, but rarely described audience responses to the 'wonder' of television in anything other than general terms. Some notable exceptions appear in the archival record such as complaints after 1941 that people were only attending in order to stay warm, but these tend to be anecdotal in character. One systematically developed exception, however, shows how the broadcasting authorities sought to use reception as a means of justifying continued production. Indeed, the exploitation of television's military hospital service seems to have been a crucial factor in the continued funding of television late into the war, even after the declaration of 'total war' put restrictions on non-essential expenditures of all kinds. Self-serving or not, the regular release of information about the hospital service offers a clear example of how perceptions of reception had direct implications for the survival of television production.

Heavily illustrated feature stories on Berlin's Lazarette service showed (slightly) wounded soldiers enjoying both television broadcasts and the live production processes which had themselves become spectacularized as public events. By mid-1942, Berlin had 40 hospital installations, and officials could point to the 'extraordinary' role the medium played in entertaining, informing, and creating a sense of community among a group of men who would otherwise have been deprived of visual entertainment. The program that gained the most attention in this regard was the television version of the highly successful radio 'Wunchkonzert.' This program and other spectacle-intensive entertainment specials were televised before live audiences numbering up to 2,000, with the hospitalized television audience apparently serving as a reference throughout the broadcast. But beyond the predictable sentiment and continued program justification such a strategy produced, it also produced a new generation of critical television viewers. Speaking of the regular Friday entertainment special for soldiers, one reviewer noted that "The soldiers made a critical audience, not only in the sense of being practiced and demanding television viewers, but in the sense of justifying additional efforts to maintain program variety at a time of severe restriction and technical difficulties, and assuring regular production of 'colorful entertainment." This same observation also took a more demanding tone, as evident in broadcasting intendant Dr. Herbert Engler's comments on the need to enhance programming variety. "We know that the men in grey would gladly be entertained with an evening television drama, and not see ten repetitions in a three week period - so frequently, as one soldier wrote, that he could play the lead role.

The recurrent theme of hospital television creating demanding and critical viewers is often linked not only with the positive development of the medium, but as well with producing a new generation of television producers. Live spectacle broadcasts combined with the increasingly experienced viewers were credited with "forcing the directors to be on their toes and giving them live editing experience." And viewers from the live television audience, with a different view of the production process, were themselves inspired to make program suggestions and even to enter the production process.

In the case of Berlin's hospitalized audiences, reception most strategically functioned as a justification for continued production expenditure. But the idea of linkage, of television serving to join divergent audience members into a new community, added a new dimension to an otherwise predictably sentimental argument. But perhaps most striking in the reports over hospital reception was the manner in which it functioned as a site of critical viewership and a means of improving technical program standards. This audience, perhaps the first group outside of television critics systematically to watch daily television, seems to have been a surprisingly active audience in its demands, and to exerted a distinct pressure on producers.


towards a new Volkskoerper


Far more visionary notions of television and its relationship to its audiences also appeared in the early 1940s. The opening anecdote of the television-guided 'tonne' missile, for example, offers a reading of a medium 'targeting' its audience with explosive impact -- a relationship rich in the sort of metaphors developed by Paul Virillio in War and Cinema. But an idea of television reception more familiar to contemporary (civilian) use of television may be found in discussions about television and simultaneity. In 1942, Intendant Dr. Herbert Engler wrote an article on the future of television programming. After discussing an audience-specific program schedule (mid-morning household tips and cooking programs for housewives; school programming in the afternoon; children's entertainment in the late afternoon; news, public affairs, and entertainment in the evening), he went on to detail a new development that would make television an essential element of daily life. Engler explained how the Anhalter train station would be equipped with permanent cameras -- one on the platform, one in the hall, one in front of the main entrance, etc. -- in order instantly to broadcast state visits and ceremonies. "No longer would anyone need to say, 'that was a must-see -- too bad I missed it.'"

Behind Herbert Engler's suggestion for permanent camera installation was a long discussed notion of visual simultaneity as television's main claim for medial identity. An interest in simultaneity had already seized the German electronics industry, as evident in its discussions over the role of loudspeaker and radio technology. Television's visual extension of simultaneity, like these other technologies, found itself inscribed within a particular ideological sentiment that gave it an advantage over a medium like film. An article in Die Sendung summarized the point:

Imagine that you see before you, for example, a close-up of the Fuhrer giving a speech that at the very same moment is taking place a thousand kilometers away! Isn't that fantastic? The filmed newsreel has to be edited and corrected before, many hours after the event, it can finally be shown. But television broadcasting brings an unmediated experience that is stronger than being there!

This vision speaks to one of the key implications of televisual reception, that is, the extension of both audience and event far beyond the physical limits of experience. Political rallies, sports events, and the utterances of leading political figures could be used not just for informational or entertainment value (something filmed versions could offer). Rather, they galvanized a new public through shared experience in the simultaneous unfolding of an event. Common experience, as much as and perhaps more importantly than the referent of that experience, became positioned as a key element in constructing a new public. In this vision, reception, not contemplation, adherence, or belief, became the site of citizenship and the means to a new construction of the Volkskoerper. One of the clearest instances of the political and medial implications of such a vision was mapped out in a secret Post Ministry plan for post-victory television. In this plan, the Post Ministry's goal was to do away with its rival, the Propaganda Ministry, which was responsible for most television programming. The Post, which retained control of television technology and live news programming, planned to establish a cable television news network throughout occupied Europe. By intensifying its live coverage, the Post felt, it would render obsolete the 'dated' film reports produced by the Propaganda Ministry. More importantly, it would do away with the need for propaganda per se since viewers would all share in vision of the world and be united in the same 'pulse' of experience. The planned cable television news network would essentially serve as the neural network for a new Volkskoerper.

From the perspective of this plan, television's ability to unite perception through the simultaneously shared experience of events offers a far more compelling vision of the medium than the 'bullet theory' of persuasive communication (and even its hyperbolization through television guidance systems for missiles). At its most extreme, simultaneity as a condition of reception promised to supercede the specific need for argument and evidence so vital to persuasion.

The character of television reception in the Third Reich remains fundamentally elusive. But it is clear that perceptions of reception played a vital role in the debate over the identity and survival of television as a medium. Competing conceptions of the audience as actively directional (the telephone homology) or as situated receivers (the radio and film examples) were further broken down into individuated and domestically sited receivers (radio) and collectivized, public receivers (film). As we have seen, these competing conceptions of the audience were variously supported for reasons such as economic self interest, effective propaganda, and a commitment to working class culture, rendering the idea of audience reception into very different terms (sales, belief, and class identity). But if the construction and thus measurement of reception differed widely, so to did the ends to which reception was put. We have seen two rather extreme cases, one looking at reception both as a defense of broadcasting and a means of its qualitative enhancement, and the other looking at a notion of reception as a means to construct a new type of political experience and with it a new public. Both cases offer insights into a culturally specific deployment of television audiences and their reception of the medium.

The study of television reception in the Third Reich has far to go. Although it faces barriers such as poor program availability, limited data on its small audiences, and a highly coordinated press campaign, research approaches remain that may help to shed light on this crucial element of television broadcasting.