COLUMBIA BROADCASTING SYSTEM (CBS), 1938
WAR OF THE WORLDS, ORSON WELLS
(AND THE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY)
Grover´s Mill, New Jersey, 1938. It is October, 30th, just after 8pm in United States East Coast. It was meant to be one more ordinary evening before Halloween, but it was not…
A huge cylinder object fell down from the sky inside a farm, scaring its inhabitants, after some explosions were detected in Mars by astronomical centers around the world. News was already being broadcasted on radio when creatures came out of the spaceship. Including the reporter and militia members, 40 people was killed without recognition. Government authorities announced the war, but it was too late. Aliens were entering New York City and people tried to run away, but fell “like flies”. On CBS “final broadcast”, Professor Richard Pierson talked for five minutes as the last man on Earth. The agony last almost one hour.
It was not an ordinary evening before Halloween because the day “Martians invaded Earth” redefined the History of Radio and Communications around the planet. According to CBS, six million people were listening to the program Mercury Theater on the Air and, at least, one million thought it was an actual broadcast. Half million reacted: part of them called the radio station, thousands clogged firefighters phone lines around USA, many left their own houses towards nowhere and crowds went out the streets or got the car to drive out NYC. They went into shock, praying and considering suicide as an option instead of being killed by Martians. Heart attacks were also reported.
How could a radio program cause such panic? Better start from the beginning…
It was 1938. Second World War smoke was spreading out on air around the globe. Adolf Hitler had increased power and governments were preparing to war. Radio was consolidated as one of the most important sources of information, especially after First World War successful experimental transmissions. “Historians of broadcasting have emphasized the key role of individual inventors and amateurs in promoting a ‘broadcasting’ model for radio before 1920”. American citizens were just recovering from the consequences of 1929 Great Depression. “Clearly, as Americans responded to the Mercury broadcast of the fictional disaster, they simultaneously expressed their reactions to far more real cultural disruptions. During the Great Depression, many Americans first found their lives tied into an unfamiliar, vast and abstract world. And during the Great Depression, many Americans began figuring out how they would inhabit that world”. Inside Mercury Theater, the dramatization mixed music, fake news reports as well as interviews, sound effects and silence to create the environment. Music was interrupted by an urgent report about gas eruptions in Mars. Ramon Raquello´s orchestra was playing again until the announcer started a supposed interview with an astronomer to explain the phenomenon, followed also by a bulletin from Canada. Tension increased with the reporter live broadcast from New Jersey. He not only interviewed the eyewitnesses, but also described the scenario: cars coming from everywhere, dozens of people observing the non-identified object and even the creatures “faces, large bodies, eyes”. Reporting also the technical problems with live broadcast, he was able to create an even more real situation… until he died in the massacre too. Live broadcast!
After the program started, audience was not informed it was a dramatization until 40 minutes had pasted. Some people did not pay attention, some just turned on the radio after the first announcement. Anyway, by that time, fear was spawned. And mass cultural communication gained a new dimension… “In the reaction to the radio play, journalist Dorothy Thompson saw Americans lose their ability to think on their own and falling prey to an insidious homogeneous thought. The broadcast, she wrote, ‘proved how easy it is to start a mass delusion’”. Americans were not the only ones to feel the powerful effects of media, then and now. Through the microphone, one single voice is capable of moving a country at once (Adolf Hitler was there to confirm). When we touch the turn on bottom, information is ready on radio, TV and internet. There is not necessarily a reason to think…
“War of the Worlds” was artistically innovative. Until then, news and radio-theater were clearly split. It took some time for Orson Wells to convince CBS board not to announce the program was based on H. G. Wells novel. By doing so, he bet on simulation as a way of keeping audience´s attention, a resource that has been used by radio itself and also television until nowadays, in fake game shows or even Big Brothers, “reality shows” where reality and simulation are hardly distinguished. Obscure 23 year old guy, Orson Wells was famous overnight. Sensationalism indeed sells, as some newspapers around the globe can also prove.
Mixing journalism and literature, “War of the Worlds” used and abused of radio resources. Besides actors convincing interpretations, effects included battle sounds, gun firings, screaming crowds and noisy from inside the spacecraft. Silence also played a fundamental role on increasing the hysteria, creating a feeling of mystery in many different moments. The silence sounds huge just after humans lost the supposed confront.
First official broadcast transmission was KDKA, Pittsburgh station, Westinghouse Company, on November, 20th, 1920, which means radio had less than 20 years. In 1938, “world situation was unsafe, but the realist effect of Orson Wells dramatization was achieved mainly because of audience´s familiarity and trust concerning radio news broadcast at that time”. Familiarity refers not only to the company (CBS), but also to the announcers; both were known and had already credibility. Despite the fact that the program was broadcasted every Sunday evening, and audience supposed to be aware of it, Americans have mistaken fiction for authentic news.
Usually, there is an enormous difference on people´s reaction to fiction and non-fiction. Film industry audiences are here to confirm that movies, for example, are able to raise good and bad feelings, and that is one of the reasons we keep going to the cinema, but everybody knows it is not for real (even when based in a true story). When it comes to journalism, feelings are stronger, especially if Martians are invading Earth… News is powerful in provoking reaction, because information is supposed to be true.
But what happens when the dichotomy between fiction and non-fiction is not clear? Very often, a version of reality gets inside our houses through radio and TV channels, in casting shows or documentaries. Documentaries are supposed to be produced based on true facts, but most of them are simulations of reality. As well as fiction was considered reality in 1938, news may use fictional resources to show real facts in 2011. Police reports and investigation programs are just some samples.
Media and simulations are siblings. In the “www Era”, it is becoming harder and harder to make the difference between fiction and reality. What is real in internet? In 2006, a 16 year old Brazilian guy broadcasted his suicide online and web users were giving him advice on how to do so. Some might have thought it was not for real, some probably considered the possibility that it was true. How can we make the difference? How could they possibly make the difference listening to the War of the Worlds?
‘Signs’ are out there, everywhere, to be interpreted, depending on many different personal and cultural codes, have said Umberto Eco (1976). “The interpreter of a text is at the same time obliged both to challenge the existing codes and to advance interpretative hypotheses that work as a more comprehensive, tentative and prospective form of codification. Faced with uncoded circumstances and complex contexts, the interpreter is obliged to recognize that the message doesn´t rely on previous codes and yet that it must be understandable”.
Even the simplest piece of artistic or journalistic work is capable of creating some kind of reaction from the receptor however straight feedback is not frequently presented. In 1938, listeners interacted with CBS by phone (actually, they interacted much more than the producers could have ever guessed); in World Wide Web, that interaction may be real time. Today, the amount of information coming from different sources opens up a range of opportunities for individuals to think, but creates also anxiety. We develop a kind of “selective mind” to deal with it, keeping in memory just what we consider most important. In order not to belong to mass communication standardized audience, better not to be satisfied with the simplified and self-contained version of reality showed by the media. Individual creators of media are being born together with easy access and wide spread new technologies.
Things have changed quite a lot, but irony persists. When Wells War of the Worlds came to the end, the announcer said: “CBS is still open for business. If the doorbell rings and nobody is there, that is no Martian, it is Halloween”. More than seven decades later, media is still capable of making fun of its audience.
- Slotten, H.R. 2009, Radio´s Hidden Voice, University of Illinois Press, pp. 20
- Lenthall, B. 2007, The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture, The University of Chicago Press, pp. 5
- Lenthall, B 2007, pp. 3
- Neves, T. C. C., A Dramatização no Telejornalismo (The Dramatization on Television News Report), Escola de Comunicação e Artes, São Paulo, viewed 8 April 2011, www.eca.usp.br/caligrama/n_3/TeresaNeves.pdf
- Eco, U. 1976, A Theory of Semiotics, Indiana University Press, London, pp. 129