Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control
by Fred W. Friendly
Random House, 325 pp., $6.95
On February 28, 1967 the President addressed the 90th Congress on matters of Health and Education, two subjects close to the Great Socialite’s heart. Sandwiched between a plea for the expansion of the Teachers’ Corps and a request for additional funds for biomedical research was the statement, “I am convinced that a vital and self-sufficient non-commercial television system will not only instruct, but inspire and uplift our people.” The fact that the President is an owner not only of KTBC, Austin’s one commercial television station, but of Capital Cable, a program-carrier, made all the more resonant his plea for non-commercial television.
He recommended that the Congress make law the Public Television Act of 1967, calling for (1) an increase in Federal funds for television and radio construction to $10.5 million in fiscal 1968. (2) “The creation of a corporation for public television authorized to provide support to non-commercial television and radio.” (3) “Provide $9 million in fiscal 1968 as initial funding for the company.” Further, “non-commercial television and radio in America, even though supported by Federal funds, must be absolutely free from any Federal Government interference over programming.” Also, “the strength of public television should lie in its diversity. Every region and every community should be challenged to contribute its best.” Finally, “one of the corporation’s first tasks should be to study the practicality and the economic advantages of using communication satellites to establish an educational television and radio network.” With these words, the President set in motion what might yet become the most useful action of a most bloody reign, and though he dealt somewhat gingerly with the key issues (freedom from federal interference, regional diversity, satellite versus land-line interconnection), he gave the Congress (known to those it fascinates as the Nitwit Ninetieth), a chance to do something unusual and in the public interest.
On April 11, 1967 Senator John O. Pastore, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communication, began hearings on Senate Bill 1160 which would make palpable the President’s dream to inspire and uplift. The hearings were well-conducted. A wide variety of interests, some candid, some not, were heard. The Senators who asked the questions (and sometimes answered them) were unusually dedicated and, all in all, the Upper House could be observed at its judicious best, particularly when the Bill finally came to a vote on May 17 and was passed. The Bill then went to the Lower House, the chamber most susceptible to special interests. On September 22, after a stormy time in committee (at one point the entire Republican membership voted against setting up any public television corporation), the House of Representatives passed the Bill, suitably weakened. Since then, the two Houses have worked out a joint Bill which the President signed on November 7.
MEANWHILE, the first nationwide attempt at conventionally interconnected non-commercial television was made November 5 by the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, a creation of the Ford Foundation. Beneficiary of a grant of $10 million and some autonomy, the PBL put on the first of what will be forty-five news programs this year. Executive Director for news is Av Westin, formerly of CBS. He is aided (or hindered) by an editorial board composed of a number of Establishment worthies headed by an academic from (where else?) Columbia. Behind the entire operation looms the somber Foundation, whose chief mover for television is the turbulent Fred W. Friendly, until recently president of CBS News. Though not much in public view these days, Mr.Friendly is as responsible as anyone for what has now come to pass.
The theme of the first program was the matter of race in the United States and how it affected the mayoral elections in Boston, Cleveland, and Gary. Of the 125 stations that were supposed to receive the program, 35 chose not to show it. Cleveland thought they should wait until after the election, while Tallahassee, Florida, and all of South Carolina decided to wait until hell froze over. Boston ran the program at the last minute but offered free time for those who felt they had been unfairly treated. All in all, the nervousness the first program caused is a tribute to the adventurousness of Mr.Westin and his staff. At least half of the first program was excellent television. The other half, Day of Absence (a fantasy about the disappearance of all the Negroes in a southern town) simply proved that to write plays it is not enough to be beautiful and black. Interestingly enough, the editorial board had objected to the play on aesthetic grounds, but the newsmen pushed it through as relevant comment and nearly wrecked the evening. It is never a good idea to mix fiction and reality. PBL would be better advised to prepare dialogues on various issues, to be written for the occasion and spoken by actors. From Plato to Camus the form has been effective on the page; on camera it could be marvelous. Nevertheless, the program’s good things outweighed the bad. The showing of a meeting between white waffling liberals and booming black rhetoricians was chilling. Coverage of the candidates in the three cities was also excellent. Yet watching Louise Day Hicks snub a black Boston voter, one could not help but think that, though it was a good thing to show up the lady racist in all her soft simplicity and sweet malice, the same technique could be used quite as effectively to show a noble candidate at a bad moment in order to give the impression that he was a rogue. After all, Time Magazine makes its fortune that way. The same approach in the iciest of mediums could be fatal to the good. Television with a point of view is all very well…but whose? Everything depends, finally, on the men who will make up the corporation.
At the moment the PBL is on the spot. If the news reporting is sharp and to the point, the politicians will be alarmed since they are the inevitable victims of close scrutiny; if alarmed, they are certain not to support the new network. On the other hand, should the programs be bland and tactful then there will be no need for the government to subsidize that which neither inspires nor uplifts. To be unable to win no matter what one does is a familiar television dilemma. In the “Golden” Age of television drama, the advertisers believed that the ideal play for television must not be too boring or the viewer would switch to another channel, nor too interesting or the viewer would resent the commercial break. Happily for all concerned, this truly golden mean was achieved more often than not.
TO UNDERSTAND the forces currently at work to discredit the idea of public television, one must consider the state of commercial television in the United States today. As a document, Friendly’s recent memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control, is instructive, though one often has the sense that he does not begin to say half of what he knows. Nevertheless, the story he does tell is interesting, and sad. Although commercial television has never been devoted to the public interest, the private interests which control it often used to allow good things to be done. They could afford to. In the 1950s an advertising minute of prime time (evening) cost $1,000. Today that minute can cost as much as $60,000. It was possible in the 1950s to do seven new plays a week. It was also possible to do reasonably “controversial” news reports and show them at times when “opinion makers” were watching. But human beings tend to take the good as much for granted as the bad. Gradually, without public protest, costs rose (also profits) and quality declined; by the 1960s commercial television had lost the intelligent viewer, and gained the world. It also lost, this year, Fred W. Friendly.
From 1937 to 1941 Friendly was a radio producer-reporter in Providence. During the war he worked on an army newspaper in the China-Burma-India Theater. In 1947 he met Edward R. Murrow, and together they produced the record “I Can Hear It Now.” Out of this association came a partnership. The two men complemented each other. Murrow was a respectable journalist made famous by his radio reports from wartime London. Friendly was an eager technician who made up in energy and, at times, boldness what he lacked in style and wisdom. Murrow thought and gravely spoke in measured popular cadence while Friendly promoted and probed and organized. Their first broadcasting venture together was the CBS radio news program “Hear It Now,” which promptly became television’s “See It Now,” sponsored each week by the Aluminum Company of America. In the seven years that Murrow and Friendly produced “See It Now,” a time span equivalent in television to the Wars of the Roses, they were able to strike an occasional blow for sanity in a country which was behaving with more than its usual irrationality. Senator McCarthy and television came into prominence together, and it is a nice irony that a medium so perfectly made to order for a demagogue should have proved to be the means of his undoing, thanks as much to Murrow and Friendly as to the Senator’s own extraordinary capers.
“See It Now” ‘s first foray into the shadow area of paranoid-politics is worth recalling, if only as a reminder that nothing like it will ever again be done on commercial television. In 1953 an Air Force Lieutenant named Milo Radulovich was asked to resign his commission because his sister and father had been secretly denounced for holding “radical” political beliefs. This sort of thing was common in the McCarthy era, and though it still goes on, means of redress are somewhat easier. After considerable investigation, Murrow and Friendly decided that the charges against the two relatives were probably groundless and, in any case, there existed no valid reason for the Lieutenant’s dismissal. They reported the matter to the public. The result was an eloquent television program, much applauded by the press (with the usual right-wing exceptions). Best of all, after some backing and filling, the Air Force restored Radulovich to active duty, and all was well in the land…except that Murrow and Friendly had broken CBS’s first rule of news reporting: “Ideally, in the case of controversial issues, the audience should be left with no impression as to which side the analyst himself actually favors.” The magnates of CBS were plainly not happy. As Friendly puts it in his flat way: “I never heard a word from any company executives [sic] about the Radulovich broadcast other than about the mail count, which continued to run in Murrow’s favor.” In Friendly’s book those company executives are like gods, irrational and superb, as apt to cast a thunderbolt as to reach out a healing hand.
THE TWO PRINCIPAL network deities are Chairman William Paley, the founder of CBS, and Dr. Frank Stanton who “operate CBS much like father and son, with all the complexities and nuances of such a relationship.” Since the Chairman is only seven years older than the Doctor, the father-son aspect must be a trying one for both. Friendly’s love-hate for these two men (rather more love for the Chairman, more hate for the Doctor) makes fascinating reading, if only because of what he does not say—after all, should something go wrong with his current plans he might one day want to return to CBS. The fact that there are only three major networks gives a certain poignancy to his account of life with the two magnificoes. Yet he is particularly revealing of Dr. Stanton when he writes that, “I believe that he despaired of the broadcast schedule about 1960; thereafter he did not bother to watch much of it except for news and special programs.” The fact that the two television proprietors seldom watch their own programs was a significant factor in the termination of Friendly’s career at CBS, thus, by indirection, helping to make possible what might yet prove to be a splendid alternative.
During the 1950s, “See It Now” was allowed considerable autonomy, because of the prestige of Murrow and the corporate pluckiness of the sponsor. In the course of 200 programs a large number of interesting topics were dealt with (school integration 1954, cigarettes and lung cancer, Oppenheimer post-pillorying, recognition of Red China and, inevitably, “a wonderful week with Carl and Paula Sandburg in Flat Rock, North Carolina”). Of the lot, the most famous was the March 9, 1954 Report on Senator McCarthy, then at his peak. Over half the American people in their wisdom approved his investigations. The great magnates of television and the press were as intimidated by the Senator as his fellow politicians, eight of whom he was to “purge” from the Senate in 1954. It was not the best of times. Simply by showing the Senator in action Murrow caused a storm.
In the interest of fairness, the network allowed McCarthy to reply on April 6. Although the Senator’s rambling accusations were ineptly presented, there was something, as always, in his mucker-manner which had the power to cause to beat faster that black heart of America which is ever responsive to the idea of conspiracy. By the time the Senator had finished, a third of the audience was convinced that he had proved Murrow to be a Communist or fellow-traveler. Dr. Stanton was distressed. So were others, but on quite different grounds. After seeing the two programs, the television reviewer Gilbert Seldes wrote: “I got the impression that the giant Murrow had been fighting a pygmy. Intellectually this may be right; politically I remain as frightened as if I had seen a ghost—the ghost of Hitler to be specific.” Despite Mr. Seldes’s overwrought analogy, the point was welltaken. It might indeed be in the public interest to bring down a McCarthy or a Louise Day Hicks. But suppose a network in the hands of devils decided to destroy a good President or candidate? Even though equal time were to be offered the victim, it is doubtful that he could ever in his own defense (and, right off, to defend is to be at a disadvantage) compete with the professionalism of network technicians, presided over by a famous and trusted television personality. This problem of responsibility may prove to be insoluble (significantly, Friendly opposed the broadcasting of Xerox’s pro-UN programs on the ground that now a sponsor is at liberty to create an anti-UN series).
Currently the networks are handling the problem of responsibility by avoiding controversy entirely. Only by a slight rise of David Brinkley’s eyebrow can the television afficionado determine whether or not what he is saying is to be taken literally (and even then it is of little interest what he really means).
On June 1, 1955 “The $64,000 Question” was born and commercial television was never the same again. The mass audience wanted to see money given away in the course of simple-minded guessing games, and the networks joyously gave them what they wanted. After all, as Dr. Stanton so wisely expressed it, “A program in which a large part of the audience is interested is by that very fact…in the public interest.” After 1955, in the public’s interest, the drama programs were axed while “See It Now” ceased to be a half-hour weekly show and became an hour program scheduled at irregular intervals. Nevertheless, Murrow and Friendly soldiered on. They could still stir things up from time to time, but it was getting more and more difficult to convince the management that intelligent controversy was the surest way to increase sales. By March 1958, the game was over. “See It Now” was killed, and Murrow, in a denunciation of the entire network ethos, declared that he was “frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything.” But that habit, once contracted, is not easily broken. In any case, Murrow and the management were no longer compatible. A new program—”CBS Reports”—went to Friendly alone. The career of the great broadcaster was at an end. But his sort of news program still continued though in a somewhat less emphatic way, for already there were those who wanted to eliminate news analysis entirely. The new president of the company, James Aubrey, was more than intrigued by the fact that the six commercial minutes of a CBS Report could be sold in an entertainment package for $40,000 a minute. Even more to the point, a news program at prime time invariably causes a loss of rating for the show that follows it—a dreadful situation known to the trade as “depression.” The commercial argument for eliminating the Reports was impeccable. Nor were the programs quite so vivid as the “See it Now” commentaries. As Friendly puts it, “Looking back now, I suppose that I was subtly influenced to do controversial subjects in a non-controversial manner…in balancing arguments rather than objectively weighing them, we were sacrificing one ingredient of good journalism.” Yet with or without the proper ingredients the Reports were to remain on the air for seven years. Both the Doctor and the Chairman were adamant on that score, for as the Chairman once told Friendly, “You have in your hands the most sacred trust that CBS has. Your job is to keep CBS news holy—and I expect you to do it.”
But no commercial network can exist part-profane and part-holy. By 1966 television had become, in Friendly’s phrase, a “profit machine whose only admitted function was to purvey six one-minute commercials every half hour.” Gone were the high ideals of the 1930s when the young William Paley was able to tell the FCC and CBS radio devoted “approximately 75 per cent of our time on the air to public service, as contrasted with sponsored programing.” Now everything was sacrificed to wringing as much money as possible from advertisers. A holy act such as the showing of the McCarthy-Army hearings was simply no longer possible. Nothing of national or world significance seemed to the accountants to be worth interrupting the flow of profits from those filmed halfhour situation comedies which, run and rerun, fill the national air with canned laughter and grotesque images. To their credit, however, they took a dim view of Friendly’s full coverage of the Pope’s visit to New York, and did not agree with him that “the mass that night at a special altar over second base at Yankee Stadium was an inspirational television program, and I was proud of television’s part in such an epic.” For once Mammon had better taste.
Last February Friendly, now President of CBS News, decided to show live the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s hearings on Vietnam. Despite Dr. Stanton’s warnings that the network would lose revenue by covering the debate live, Friendly persevered. He showed General Gavin’s testimony to the committee, and the result was electrifying. For a moment the United States were suddenly linked. A complex matter of state was at last being discussed by everyone. The national Assembly existed, and had been convened. Characteristically, CBS’s finest hour was not watched by Dr. Stanton, while the most mysterious of all the gods and the one least apt to interfere in human affairs, Chairman Paley, did not know about the program until the next day. The accountants, however, were on the job: they knew exactly how much money had been lost.
When Friendly requested permission to telecast George Kennan’s testimony to the Committee, the network gods simply de-materialized. In their place news officials and management consultants together decided not to show the hearings live. Instead a fifth rerun of “I Love Lucy” filled the air that historic morning. This decision, which was “clearly one of business over journalism, of dollar editing over the professional judgment of an entire news organization,” caused Friendly, somewhat late in the day, to resign.
NOW AS TELEVISION CONSULTANT to the Ford Foundation’s all-purpose hero McGeorge Bundy, Friendly was involved in the planning of what will, in effect, be a new network, without advertising. The Bill just signed is in large part a response to his efforts as well as to those of the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Commission, et al. The fact so many dominations and powers (among them the owner of KTBC-TV) agree that such a network is needed is proof that nothing can be done about commercial television. There is no way to improve it, nor has there been since the 1950s when the networks abdicated most of their programing to advertisers. The networks became sellers of time, displayers of “packages” assembled by advertisers. Needless to say, this alliance is highly profitable: CBS stockholders’ equity has increased 250 percent in the last decade; 485 percent since 1951. As for profit ratio, only two other American industries have a higher yield: drugs 20.3 percent and automobiles 19.5 percent.
Even in a semi-capitalist society, it would be cruel and unnatural to force such extraordinary money-making machines to reform themselves in the public interest. On the other hand, they ought to be forced to contribute in some way to setting up a non-commercial network. For instance, it has been suggested that the commercial television stations pay for the privilege of broadcasting. After all, the man who wants to drive his own taxi-cab in New York must pay nearly $30,000 for the dubious privilege of serving the public. Yet the broadcaster who wants to use the national air to make millions of dollars for himself pays nothing at all for an FCC license. Fees paid for licenses could go to the public network. In addition, the Carnegie Commission believes that a tax of between 2 and 5 percent on television sets would more than adequately subsidize the network’s year-to-year programing. As legal precedent for this tax, they point to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund: fees to hunt birds go into a fund to protect birds…a happy paradox which opens up all sorts of attractive vistas.
Both the Report of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television of January 1967 and the general line of thinking at the Ford Foundation agree in principle to set up an independent public television corporation with financing from federal as well as private sources. (Something like $200 million will be needed.) They also favor a national linking of the various new stations into one network. The 126 educational stations now in operation are not linked. That is to say they cannot receive simultaneously the same program. They cannot afford to use the land-lines (a combination of coaxial cable and microwave relays from tower to tower) which interconnect the commercial networks. To repeat a program initiated by any one of the NET stations, the original tape must first be sent to Ann Arbor to be copied. Not only is this a laborious and lengthy process, but that immediacy which is television’s peculiar virtue is lost.
The business of interconnection is most tangled. The Carnegie Report favors using the present land-line system, thereby enormously profiting the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, among others. There is some evidence that a majority of the House of Representatives believes that what is good for AT & T is good for the American economy. The Ford Foundation, however, demurs. On December 12, 1966 the Foundation made known to the FCC its preference for the use of satellites and the eventual abandoning of land-lines. Three or four satellites “hung” in the world’s common sky would cut transmission costs by half. The Carnegie Commission’s response to what it termed the “ingenious Ford proposal” has been wary, while the response of Comsat was less than ambiguous; satellite-to-home television, though suitable for “underdeveloped nations,” was not desirable in a highly developed country like the United States.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is caught in the middle. Some Representatives are devoted to the telephone interest; others are responsive to Comsat; a few no doubt take pride in the technological discoveries of Hughes’ Aircraft and its affiliate Teleprompter. None is indifferent. All members of Congress must deal with local television stations, if only as performers, while perhaps as much as 25 percent of the total Congressional delegation is financially interested in broadcasting.
THE SERIOUS ISSUE, however, is not whether AT & T and the other conventional interconnectors continue to make money. Rather it is the question of what the President refers to as “diversity” in television. Satellites will make for cheaper transmission, and the millions of dollars saved by the commercial networks could, theoretically, go into the public television account, as noted by Ford. This is all to the good. But what happens to the country’s 337 public television stations (the optimum number proposed by Carnegie) when they find themselves simply passive receivers of some central organization’s programs? The whole point of public television has been the encouragement of experimental programing at the local level. Interconnection would exist only to transmit the occasional extraordinary event. Yet with cheap satellite-transmission, the role of the regional station is bound to be minimized. In fact, satellites can make irrelevant the ground station by simply transmitting directly to the viewer’s set.
The dangers of central programing are obvious, not only artistically but politically. Defenders of the proposed new order point out that no public television station need take everything that is transmitted. The station can pick and choose. But there is little doubt that the viewers, aware that there is a choice between a locally initiated program and a national one, will choose the national one. After all, given the present choice between an educational program and a commercial one, the audience has proved altogether too emphatically that it prefers the fifth rerun of “I Love Lucy” to even the most spirited rendering of a Strindberg play. That of course is the majority’s right, but if public television does not provide for the minority audience, too, then it ought not to exist. Decisions now being made are crucial. Many right-minded people may end by doing the wrong thing. For instance, it is possible that those wellmeaning idealists who serve the satellite will end by creating a super network even more dreadful and ubiquitous than the ones we have at present. The whole matter needs a good deal of airing, and should satellite transmission come to pass it ought to be guarded around with many checks and balances. Diversity, no matter how banal, is preferable to the monolithic, no matter how excellent.
Conceivably, regional television stations might revolutionize the political as well as the aesthetic life of the country. Technical means now exist for viewers to “meet” on the air, and to register their approval or disapproval of men and issues…no doubt a dangerous experiment in democracy (face to face, Reagan would always defeat Humphrey), but then the charm of democracy is the constant risk the nation runs of being derailed by the will of the majority. Politics would lose all savor without the constant tension between the shrewd few acting upon the foolish many. Television could at least make the process plain for all to see, and be a part of. Also, television could offer citizens with a grievance the opportunity to face whoever or whatever it is that gives them pain, with a local ombudsman to mediate the encounter. The police, in particular, might be kept in line by this sort of constant exposure.
It will also be possible in the future to transmit newspapers and books through television, a final victory for linear type and a good joke on the Canadian prophet. For those who find distressing the passivity of television-viewing, an MIT professor has proposed that the viewer at home be allowed to select which camera he wants to see through at a sporting event or in an art gallery. As for plays, the viewer will be both director and playwright, choosing events as well as camera angles and thereby, in the professor’s pleasant phrase, “interactively participating.” This sort of participation should solve once and for all the problem of the West’s continuing cultural decline: if everyone is an artist then no one is, and the matter’s finished. In any event, E.M.Forster’s vision of the Machine is now reality and it will be a long time before there is a stopping.