From Nicolau Faria’s blog:

This short story explores the idea that our expectations are much higher than the real thing might be and that we believe that something is authentic when it meets these expectations – even if what was actually authentic has been tampered with and overly exaggerated.

 

The Greatest Television Show on Earth

The discovery in the year 2001 of an effective system of time travel had a number of important repercussions, nowhere greater than in the field of television. The last quarter of the twentieth century had seen the spectacular growth of television across every continent on the globe, and the programmes transmitted by the huge American, European and Afro-Asian networks each claimed audiences of a billion viewers. Yet despite their enormous financial resources the television companies were faced with a chronic shortage of news and entertainment. Vietnam, the first TV War, had given viewers all the excitement of live transmissions from the battlefield, but wars in general, not to mention newsworthy activity of any kind, had died out as the world’s population devoted itself almost exclusively to watching television.

At this point the discovery of time travel made its fortunate appearance.

As soon as the first spate of patent suits had been settled (one Japanese entrepreneur almost succeeded in copyrighting history; time was then declared ‘open’ territory) it became clear that the greatest obstacle to time travel was not the laws of the physical universe but the vast sums of money needed to build and power the installations. These safaris into the past cost approximately a million dollars a minute. After a few brief journeys to verify the Crucifixion, the signing of Magna Carta and Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, the government-financed Einstein Memorial Time Centre at Princeton was forced to suspend operations.

Plainly, only one other group could finance further explorations into the past – the world’s television corporations. Their eager assurances that there would be no undue sensationalism convinced government leaders that the educational benefits of these travelogues through time outweighed any possible lapses in taste.

The television companies, for their part, saw in the past an inexhaustible supply of first-class news and entertainment – all of it, moreover, free. Immediately they set to work, investing billions of dollars, rupees, roubles and yen in duplicating the great chronotron at the Princeton Time Centre. Task-forces of physicists and mathematicians were enrolled as assistant producers. Camera crews were sent to key sites – London, Washington and Peking – and shortly afterwards the first pilot programmes were transmitted to an eager world.

These blurry scenes, like faded newsreels, of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the funeral of Mao Tse-tung triumphantly demonstrated the feasibility of Time Vision. After this solemn unveiling – a gesture in the direction of the government watchdog committees – the television companies began seriously to plan their schedules. The winter programmes for the year 2002 offered viewers the assassination of President Kennedy (‘live’, as the North American company tactlessly put it), the D-Day landings and the Battle of Stalingrad. Asian viewers were given Pearl Harbor and the fall of Corregidor.

This emphasis on death and destruction set the pace for what followed. The success of the programmes was beyond the planners’ wildest dreams. These fleeting glimpses of smoke-crossed battlegrounds, with their burntout tanks and landing craft, had whetted an enormous appetite. More and more camera crews were readied, and an army of military historians deployed to establish the exact time at which Bastogne was relieved, the victory flags hoisted above Mount Suribachi and the Reichstag.

Within a year a dozen programmes each week brought to three billion viewers the highlights of World War II and the subsequent decades, all transmitted as they actually occurred. Night after night, somewhere around the world, John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dealey Plaza, atom bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the ruins of his Berlin bunker.

After this success the television companies moved back to the 1914-18 War, ready to reap an even richer harvest of audience ratings from the killing grounds of Passchendaele and Verdun. To their surprise, however, the glimpses of this mud- and shell-filled universe were a dismal failure compared with the great technological battles of World War II being transmitted live at the same time on rival channels from the carrier decks of the Philippine Sea and the thousand-bomber raids over Essen and Dusseldorf.

One sequence alone from World War I quickened the viewers’ jaded palates – a cavalry charge by Uhlans of the German Imperial Army. Riding over the barbed wire on their splendid mounts, white plumes flying above the mud, these lance-wielding horsemen brought to a billion war-weary TV screens the magic of pageantry and costume. At a moment when it might have faltered, Time Vision was saved by the epaulette and the cuirass.

Immediately, camera crews began to travel back into the nineteenth century. World Wars I and II faded from the screen. Within a few months viewers saw the coronation of Queen Victoria, the assassination of Lincoln and the siege of the Alamo.

As a climax to this season of instant history, the great Time Vision Corporations of Europe and North America collaborated on their most spectacular broadcast to date – a live coverage of the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo.

***

While making their preparations the two companies made a discovery that was to have far-reaching consequences for the whole history of Time Vision. During their visits to the battle (insulated from the shot and fury by the invisible walls of their time capsules) the producers found that there were fewer combatants actually present than described by the historians of the day. Whatever the immense political consequences of the defeat of Napoleonic France, the battle itself was a disappointing affair, a few thousand march-wearied troops engaged in sporadic rifle and artillery duels.

An emergency conference of programme chiefs discussed this failure of Waterloo to live up to its reputation. Senior producers revisited the battlefield, leaving their capsules to wander in disguise among the exhausted soldiery. The prospect of the lowest audience ratings in the history of Time Vision seemed hourly more imminent.

At this crisis-point some nameless assistant producer came up with a remarkable idea. Rather than sit back helplessly behind their cameras, the Time Vision companies should step in themselves, he suggested, lending their vast expertise and resources to heightening the drama of the battle. More extras – that is, mercenaries recruited from the nearby farming communities – could be thrown into the fray, supplies of powder and shot, distributed to the empty guns, and the entire choreography of the battle re-vamped by the military consultants in the editorial departments. ‘History,’ he concluded, ‘is just a first draft screenplay.’

This suggestion of re-making history to boost its audience appeal was seized upon. Equipped with a lavish supply of gold coinage, agents of the television companies moved across the Belgian and North German plains, hiring thousands of mercenaries (at the standard rate for TV extras of fifty dollars per day on location, regardless of rank, seventy-five dollars for a speaking part). The relief column of the Prussian General BlUcher, reputed by historians to be many thousand strong and to have decisively turned the battle against Napoleon, was in fact found to be a puny force of brigade strength. Within a few days thousands of eager recruits flocked to the colours, antibiotics secretly administered to polluted water supplies cured a squadron of cavalry hunters suffering from anthrax, and a complete artillery brigade threatened with typhus was put on its feet by a massive dose of chloromycetin.

The Battle of Waterloo, when finally transmitted to an audience of over one billion viewers, was a brilliant spectacle more than equal to its advance publicity of the past two hundred years. The thousands of mercenaries fought with savage fury, the air was split by non-stop artillery barrages, waves of cavalry charged and recharged. Napoleon himself was completely bewildered by the way events turned out, spending his last years in baffled exile.

After the success of Waterloo the Time Vision companies realized the advantages of preparing their ground. From then onwards almost all important historical events were rescripted by the editorial departments.

Hannibal’s army crossing the Alps was found to contain a mere half-dozen elephants – two hundred more were provided to trample down the dumbfounded Romans. Caesar’s assassins numbered only two – five additional conspirators were hired. Famous historical orations, such as the Gettysburg Address, were cut and edited to make them more stirring. Waterloo, meanwhile, was not forgotten. To recoup the original investment the battle was sublet to smaller TV contractors, some of whom boosted the battle to a scale resembling Armageddon. However, these spectacles in the De Mille manner, in which rival companies appeared on the same battlefield, pouring in extras, weapons and animals, were looked down on by more sophisticated viewers.

To the annoyance of the television companies, the most fascinating subject in the whole of history remained barred to them. At the stern insistence of the Christian churches the entire events surrounding the life of Christ were kept off the screen. Whatever the spiritual benefits of hearing the Sermon on the Mount transmitted live might be, these were tempered by the prospect of this sublime experience being faded out between beatitudes for the commercial breaks.

Baulked here, the programmers moved further back in time. To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Time Vision, preparations began for a stupendous joint venture – the flight of the Israelites from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. A hundred camera units and several thousand producers and technicians took up their positions in the Sinai Peninsula. Two months before the transmission it was obvious that there would now be more than two sides in this classic confrontation between the armies of Egypt and the children of the Lord. Not only did the camera crews outnumber the forces of either side, but the hiring of Egyptian extras, additional wave-making equipment and the prefabricated barrage built to support the cameras might well prevent the Israelites from getting across at all. Clearly, the powers of the Almighty would be severely tested in his first important confrontation with the ratings.

A few forebodings were expressed by the more old-fashioned clerics, printed under ironic headlines such as ‘War against Heaven?’, ‘Sinai Truce Offer rejected by TV Producers Guild’. At bookmakers throughout Europe and the United States the odds lengthened against the Israelites. On the day of transmission, January 1st, 2006, the audience ratings showed that 98% of the Western world’s adult viewers were by their sets.

The first pictures appeared on the screens. Under a fitful sky the fleeing Israelites plodded into view, advancing towards the invisible cameras mounted over the water. Originally three hundred in number, the Israelites now formed a vast throng that stretched with its baggage train for several miles across the desert. Confused by the great press of camp-followers, the Israelite leaders paused on the shore, uncertain how to cross this shifting mass of unstable water. Along the horizon the sabre-wheeled chariots of Pharaoh’s army raced towards them.

The viewers watched spellbound, many wondering whether the television companies had at last gone too far.

Then, without explanation, a thousand million screens went blank.

Pandemonium broke loose. Everywhere switchboards were jammed. Priority calls at inter-governmental level jammed the Comsat relays, the Time Vision studios in Europe and America were besieged.

Nothing came through. All contacts with the camera crews on location had been broken. Finally, two hours later, a brief picture appeared, of racing waters swilling over the shattered remains of television cameras and switchgear. On the near bank, the Egyptian forces turned for home. Across the waters, the small band of Israelites moved towards the safety of Sinai.

What most surprised the viewers was the eerie light that illuminated the picture, as if some archaic but extraordinary method of power were being used to transmit it.

No further attempts to regain contact succeeded. Almost all the world’s Time Vision equipment had been destroyed, its leading producers and technicians lost for ever, perhaps wandering the stony rocks of Sinai like a second lost tribe. Shortly after this db‰cle, these safaris into the past were eliminated from the world’s TV programmes. As one priest with a taste for ironic humour remarked to his chastened television congregation: ‘The big channel up in the sky has its ratings too.’

 

J G Ballard, 1972