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Television, in Other Words

In 1948, the American journalist and language chronicler H.L. Mencken wrote an essay for The New Yorker, "Video Verbiage," in which he analyzed the lingo of the fledgling medium of television. Several of the words he gathered are now obsolete: vaudeo ("televised vaudeville"), televiewers (now just "viewers"), blizzard head (an actress so blonde that the lighting has to be toned down). Others are with us still, including telegenic and telecast. (Mencken worried about the appropriate past tense of the latter — -cast or -casted? — and the question has never quite been resolved.)

Nearly 70 years after Mencken published his essay, television itself is undergoing a massive redefinition, and so is our TV lexicon. Now that we can watch all kinds of programming — in small doses or in spates, on every size and type of screen, with or without commercial messages — how do we talk about the technology formerly known as television? Instead of "TV," will our preferred acronyms be OTT and SVOD? Will we be a culture of cord-cutters and cord-nevers, binge-watching new shows and being targeted by household-addressable ads?

In the very beginning, it wasn't clear that television — coined from Greek tele (far) and Latin-derived vision, and first used in 1907 to describe a purely hypothetical technology — would be the name of the new medium. The alternative telephote was proposed as far back as 1880, and televista in 1904. The American inventor Charles Francis Jenkins, who transmitted pictures of U.S. Secretary of Commerce (and later President) Herbert Hoover in 1923, called his system radiovision. Philo T. Farnsworth, who developed the first working electronic camera tube in 1927, called his invention an image dissector.

Purists like C.P. Scott, the British publisher and politician, sniffed at television's hybrid origins. "Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it," Scott said in 1936.

The abbreviation telly, now considered British, was in fact introduced and popularized by two U.S. industry publications, Variety (in 1930) and Billboard (1931). "Just as we now have the ‘Movies' and the ‘Talkies,' we shall have what I hope we will not call the ‘Lookies'"; wrote a reporter for the New York Amsterdam News in 1931. "Maybe they will call it the ‘Tellies,' as American short for television."

Maybe not. The shortened form TV began appearing in 1948, and soon became indispensable. Another nickname, the tube, was first applied to telephones, which in their original form were "speaking tubes"; as late as 1959 Esquire magazine was advising its readers to say "Buzz me on the tube" when they wanted a hip alternative to "Call me up." But by 1965, when telephone design had changed and the cathode-ray tube was a familiar component of televisions, on the tube meant "on television." (In the U.S., anyway. In London, "the Tube" was and is the subway system.)

The rhyming coinage boob tube — from "boob," American slang for a stupid person since the early 1900s — appeared almost simultaneously: Sneering at television, and TV viewers, had been common among self-styled intellectuals at least since the Federal Communication Commission's chairman, Newton Minow, called commercial TV programming "a vast wasteland" in a 1961 speech. Other pejorative slang terms for television, according to the 2001 Complete Idiot's Guide to a Smart Vocabulary by word scholar Paul McFedries, included idiot box, one-eyed monster, and chewing gum for the eyes.

Some of TV's early programming borrowed its terminology from radio: soap opera (so called because soap-brand ads subsidized the shows), situation comedy (shortened in the 1950s to sitcom), commercial (the noun form, meaning a broadcast advertisement, dates back to 1935). Dramedy, still used to describe a show that's a blend of drama and comedy, is even older: The OED's earliest citation is from 1905, when the Washington Post used it in a theater review.

As the medium matured, new vocabulary was borrowed or invented. The U.S. success of the 26-episode British import The Forsyte Saga, during the 1969-1970 season, gave rise to a new format and term: miniseries, which contrasted with the open-ended runs of conventional TV shows. There was a short-lived attempt, in the late 1970s and 1980s, to popularize warmedy — not a comedy about war but rather a "warmhearted comedy." The word appears in a 1995 book, Word Watch: The Stories Behind the Words of Our Lives, by Anne H. Soukhanov, and in McFedries's Complete Idiot's Guide, but appears to have sputtered out. (I couldn't even find it on the comprehensive website TV Tropes or in Wikipedia.)

Soukhanov, who'd served as executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, devoted a chapter of Word Watch to new media lingo. Just 20 years after the book's publication, most of the entries seem quaint.

Take dual-channel, which Soukhanov tells us is a noun for "one of the group of people, aged eighteen to thirty, who form their opinions and derive their television entertainment from only two networks, CNN and MTV." (The source for this is a New York Times Magazine article from October 1994. Oh, those crazy kids!) CNN also shows up in CNN effect, an indication of the network's outsize influence during and after the first Gulf War; the term describes a downturn in profits in travel-related sectors because of mass viewer interest in real-time war coverage. Advertising cinema (1989) seems equally antiquated: it refers to a genre of TV commercials that played like brief episodes of a long-running serial. The most famous example was a series of romantic spots for Taster's Choice coffee, which ran for much of the 1990s.

Even infomercial — a blend of information and commercial — is passé. This long-form semidocumentary advertising genre was born in the early 1980s, when the FCC repealed its 12-minutes-per-hour restriction on TV commercial airtime; according to a Google nGram , its use has declined sharply since a peak in the late 1990s. (A Los Angeles cable TV consultant, Michael E. Marcovsky, claimed credit, in a 1982 interview, for the word's coinage.)

What's replacing this formerly au courant lingo? Start with television itself: It's now subdivided into myriad categories, includinglinear TV (the kind you watch when the broadcaster intends you to; also known as time-and-channel TV and appointment TV), time-shifted TV (recorded on a device such as TiVo and watched at the viewer's convenience), and interactive TV (which adds data services such as shopping, banking, and Web searching to the set). These terms have been around for a while — linear TV since 2006 or earlier, the others since the 1990s — but their full acceptance was delayed until fast broadband services gave them meaningful context.

Likewise with binge-watch. When the Oxford Dictionaries included this verb on its 2013 word-of-the-year shortlist, the editors noted that it had been used by small circles of television fans as far back as the late 1990s, when the bingeing was done with full-season DVD sets. (The coinage follows the established usages binge-eat and binge-drink.) The word "has come into its own with the advent of on-demand viewing and online streaming," the announcement said — especially in 2013, when the streaming service Netflix began releasing full seasons of programming at once.

Other new TV terms can be classified as industry jargon. SVOD, which stands for "subscription video on demand," refers to unrestricted access to programming for a set fee; in the U.S., Netflix and Hulu are two of the most popular providers. Between 2010 and 2011, SVOD revenue in the U.S. multiplied 100-fold, from just over $4 million to more than $450 million.

Netflix and Hulu are also examples — along with Roku, Apple TV, and others — of OTT, or over-the-top, content providers: they transmit media over the Internet without the involvement of an MSO (multiple-system operator), also known as an MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor) — i.e., a cable or satellite company.

As TV becomes more complex, methods of deriving revenue from it have adapted as well. One solution is the household-addressable set-top box, currently installed in more than a third of American households, which allows "Internet-style targeting capabilities," according to a recent New York Times article :

For advertisers, this should mean more productive ads and the ability to scientifically test their effectiveness. ... So, for example, two households in New York, living in next-door apartments, could watch, say, "The Good Wife," and see different ads. In one apartment, a couple who contribute to environmental causes and have no children could be shown an ad for a compact car. In the other apartment, a couple with two children and a weekend home might be shown an ad for a sport utility vehicle.

If this strikes you as a faintly Orwellian scenario, you may join the ranks of cord-cutters, people who cancel cable or satellite services in favor of some form of OTT programming. Or maybe you're one of the cord-nevers: people who have never had cable or satellite TV at all.Cord-never was coined in 2011 by a Credit Suisse media analyst; the following year, The Atlantic's Rebecca Greenfield noted that the trend could have significant implications, because "the people who tend to not ever sign up for cable are young — and the youth is the future."

On the other hand, predictions about TV have a way of embarrassing the prognosticators. Recall C.P. Scott's "Nothing good will come of it," in 1936. Or consider what Sumner Redstone, president and CEO of the giant media company Viacom, said in 1994: "I am very skeptical of this talk of 500 channels [of television]. I just don't know what's going to play on them."


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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