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The Play's the Thing
November 9, 2007  | By David Bianculli
The new Broadway play by Aaron Sorkin, The Farnsworth Invention, opens next week. When it does open, I'll be reviewing it for NPR's Fresh Air, because it's got TV written all over it, and couldn't be more in my wheelhouse. The play's about Philo Farnsworth, generally credited as the inventor of television, and RCA President David R. Sarnoff, who fought Farnsworth for patent claims on the new invention - and who, eventually, established NBC, the TV network on which Sorkin eventually would present his most successful series, The West Wing.

I'll honor opening-night conventions and wait until then to render a verdict, on Fresh Air or here, except to say that Sorkin's gifts for dialogue and story structure come through loud and clear, and that Hank Azaria and Jimmi Simpson, as Sarnoff and Farnsworth, do delectable double duty as both characters and narrators.

What I want to talk about now, though, is the irony of seeing Sorkin's new Broadway play midway through the first week of the writers' strike. For one thing, most unionized TV and film writing is at a standstill. Broadway's a different union, a different game entirely, so Sorkin is free to ply his craft, and hone his dialogue, right up to opening night.

farnsworth.jpgBut the bigger coincidence is that The Farnsworth Invention is all about artistic vision, and corporate ownership, and what happens when one collides with the other. According to the play, both Farnsworth and Sarnoff saw the new medium's potential, at a time when most people couldn't envision it making a dent in the marketplace.

"Think of a person's home," one skeptic says in The Farnsworth Invention talking about the potential for television. "Where in the hell are they gonna put it?" The simple, culture-shifting answer: "Where they used to put their radio."

The world changed then, as TV supplanted radio as the dominant mass medium, and the world is changing again now. Fifteen years ago, in Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously (you can still buy it by clicking on the cover at right, hint, hint), I suggested TV was our last mass medium, and that whatever replaced it would rob us of some of our shared national experiences.

It's happening already. Take away the Super Bowl, the Oscars and American Idol, and you've stripped TV of most of the reasons people still gather around the tube in massive numbers. Hit TV with a six-month strike, and viewers will either accept the replacement glut of unscripted reality series, or reject broadcast and cable TV in significant numbers and get out of the TV habit entirely. Either scenario, or lovers of quality, scripted television shows, is very bad news.

If viewers do leave, what are they going to do instead? A lot of things, starting with the Internet - and they're going to do it at very critical times.

Times, to paraphrase a line from Sorkin's play, where they used to watch their television.

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