A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States to 1933
The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933-1953
The Image Empire: A History of Broadcasting in the United States from 1953
Televi$ion: The Business Behind the Box
Cable Television in the Cities: Community Control, Public Access, Minority Ownership The Television of Abundance, Report of the Sloan Commission on Cable Communications, McGraw-Hill, 256 pp., $2.95. The reviewer participated as a consultant in the rep
In 1927, Philo T. Farnsworth, a backyard inventor, and his financial backer, George Everson, gathered for a demonstration of Farnsworth’s television apparatus. For the first time, Farnsworth successfully transmitted several graphic designs, including a dollar sign. As Everson recalled later, “It seemed to jump out at us on the screen.”
Money is the great theme of American broadcasting history, and it resounds throughout Erik Barnouw’s three-volume historical scrapbook and Variety editor Les Brown’s jivy narrative of one year in the life of network television. A single night-time minute of Frito and Feminique ads yields a network over $60,000. In 1970 television stations earned, before taxes, $404 million on a net fixed investment of $619 million. Money makes networks scrape before sponsors (the American Gas Company, we are told in Televi$ion, once vetoed a reference to the modus operandi of Buchenwald) and kowtow to stars (when Jackie Gleason moved to Miami, CBS built a new set of studios on the edge of his favorite golf course). It dictates television’s enthusiasm for low-brow entertainment and disdain for offbeat taste. The dollar lies behind all that is gross and displeasing in commercial television.
Or so many critics of television have preferred to believe. But, in fact, the current state of television reflects three linked causes, of which the greed of broadcasters is merely one. Because television is commercial, broadcasters seek after the biggest buck. Because television channels are scarce, the biggest buck is to be made from appealing to a mass audience. And because the mass audience doesn’t have “good taste,” TV appalls its high- and upper-middle-brow critics.
If any of these circumstances were changed, TV would be different. If all broadcast stations were owned by an independent government corporation or by an educational trust, television would probably offer more shows of interest to the highly educated (but, in view of American politics, its news programs might resemble the Voice of America more than the BBC). If there were as many stations on TV as there are on radio, even commercial broadcasters would tilt their programs toward minority tastes—with thirty-six channels peddling soap operas, at least one would venture the Balanchine ballet. Finally, if mass taste could be “improved,” by exposure to uplifting programming or by some other means, then the current system of broadcasting would less totally disappoint the critics.
Another possibility for change might exist even within the constraints of scarce channels and public taste. Current television fare is probably worse than it need be to attract a mass audience. “Sesame Street,” now loved by millions, has not been imitated by commercial TV. Imagination has never been the strong suit of the vast network bureaucracies. Les Brown’s book recounts the industry’s near total subjugation to “the numbers”—the Trendex and Nielsen numerical ratings which give an estimate of program audience—even at a time when advertisers were worrying about the age and class make-up of the audience as well as its sheer size.
One year CBS decided to drop several ancient, high-rated shows (including Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton) in an attempt to switch from the Alka Seltzer to the Pepsi generation. But almost simultaneously it discovered itself slipping behind in the season’s contest for the Most Watched Network—an informal but soul-sustaining honor it had won fourteen years running. So CBS simply reversed its strategy, poured millions into “specials” and John Wayne movies, and won by two-tenths of a rating point. The era of the young moderns could be put off another year. This and similar examples of network obtuseness have convinced some critics that TV might improve if the networks were dethroned in favor of independent producers.
Over the last four decades, each of these strategies of change has been pursued by TV and radio reformers—the loose agglomeration of foundation panels, concerned citizens, and activists on the Federal Communications Commission who have fought for higher-toned broadcasting. By challenging the dominance of networks, first over radio and then over TV, the reformers hoped to open the field to new, scrappy competitors. By expanding the number of television channels through the development of the UHF spectrum (channels 14-83) they thought they could make television more responsive to minority tastes. By promoting educational and “public” television, the reformers hoped directly to ensure a place for quality programming. Finally, they pressed the FCC to impose standards of program quality on the existing networks and commercial stations.
None of these strategies is inherently hopeless; but, as yet, none has worked. The networks ran radio until the advent of television and since then they have dominated TV. A recent FCC decision to pare the amount of evening time devoted to network shows has yielded merely the same old stuff produced by somebody else. The UHF channels have given themselves over to weary “Topper” reruns and high-school basketball. Educational television remains the great unwatched (though the success of “Sesame Street” and other venturesome programs, particularly documentaries, may excuse thousands of hours of public affairs tedium). The FCC has yet to revoke a station license because of poor programming.
The broadcast lobby’s monumental power accounts for much of this record. No politician can lightly offend the men who govern the tube. Most broadcast stations are owned either by giant media conglomerates (such as Time-Life, Westinghouse Broadcasting, and the networks themselves) or by the owners of local radio stations and newspapers. Fighting them is asking for trouble.
But the reformers’ problem has not simply been a failure of power, and circumstances have not been entirely beyond their control. Although most of the FCC’s members have taken their cues from industry, frequently one or more commissioners have pursued some independent notion of the public interest—reformers such as James Fly, Clifford Durr, and Frieda Hennock in the 1940s, Kenneth Cox and Nicholas Johnson in the mid-Sixties. The FCC’s staff—influential on the details of policy and often, by default, on its general direction—reflects the regulatory enthusiasms of the early New Deal. In sum, the shortcomings of television reflect not only the triumph of Mammon but the confusions of reform. Television’s liberals have exhausted themselves barking up the wrong antenna; and the Federal Communications Commission has flunked out as often as it has sold out.
Radio regulation began in 1927, when Congress set up a new Federal Radio Commission to regulate broadcasting in “the public interest, convenience, or necessity.” Radio stations were to be licensed for three-year periods, renewable at the pleasure of the commission. Licenses to set up a radio station were explicitly declared not to be private property, for in principle the public owns the air waves; renewal was a privilege, not a right; sales and transfers of radio stations had to be approved by the commission.
When the commission was set up, radio broadcasting was already a heartily profitable business, with greater bonanzas in sight. As profits mounted, so did the value of a federal franchise. Broadcast licenses could not be sold directly, but they could be transferred along with the physical facilities of a radio station. In 1926, before the Radio Act, a station whose apparatus was worth $200,000 was sold for $1,000,000. The new commission routinely approved similar deals and almost invariably granted license renewals to any station owner who could keep accurate logs of his programs and point his antenna in the right direction.
During the Twenties and Thirties, radio broadcasting came increasingly under the sway of networks. Networks owed their power to a chain of exclusive agreements linking them to stars and stations. H. V. Kaltenborn’s employment contract said he could broadcast only for CBS; Detroit station WJR’s affiliation agreement with CBS gave CBS the right to pre-empt any part of WJR’s broadcast schedule to put on its network shows. In return, WJR received the programs for free and could insert some of its own ads at station breaks. CBS sold the nationwide sponsorship of the programs to advertisers. The result of these arrangements was a circular web of control for the networks. Stars had to deal with the networks, since the networks controlled all the major stations; stations had to affiliate, since the networks monopolized the most important stars.
In the early and mid-Forties, reformers on the Federal Communications Commission (the successor the the FRC) mustered enough support to stage occasional forays on network power. A three-year investigation of network broadcasting led to new rules designed to restrict station affiliation agreements (but leaving untouched the networks’ exclusive contracts with performers). In 1946, a staff study developed a “Blue Book” of suggested programming standards which threatened, for the first time, to put some teeth into the FCC’s renewal procedures. In the future, the “Blue Book” proposed, the commission should require applicants to show that they hadn’t allowed too many commercials or stinted discussion of public issues.
Soon, however, it became clear that the future belonged to television. The “Blue Book” proposal was quietly dropped as attention shifted to the development of a “table of allocations” for TV—the formal divvying up of the VHF spectrum (channels 2-13). This was the spectrum the first commercial sets were made to receive. The commission could have chosen to set up a system of high-power regional broadcast stations, allowing viewers to receive up to eight clear VHF signals. Instead, the commission decided to stress “local service” by dispersing broadcast allocations as widely as possible. To avoid signal interference, these stations had to be limited in power and hence in geographical scope. In some areas an additional VHF channel was marked off for educational use.
Rival applicants for the right to own and operate a television station were chosen through a marathon series of comparative hearings and, ostensibly, according to formal criteria. But the criteria were self-contradictory and less important than the political influence the applicants could bring to bear. The right to a television station was essentially the right to print money. Often the winners were the owners of local radio stations (whose experience on the smaller printing press was, according to the FCC, valuable training for the large one).
Thanks to these decisions the three major radio networks swiftly extended their domain to television. Since few cities had four commercial VHF allocations there was no room for a fourth national network. The educational allocations, by withholding one channel from the commercial market, bolstered the monopoly power of local broadcasters and national networks.
Soon television stations began to harvest the enormous returns that had already become commonplace for radio. By 1955, Barnouw recounts, one TV station, whose physical assets were worth perhaps $1 million, was sold for $9.75 million. Programming, once more, was devoted to satisfying mass tastes with an occasional Sunday afternoon morsel for the intelligentsia. Ostensibly “local” broadcast stations became vehicles for the national programming of the networks, under essentially the same deal between the networks and stations that had been made in the days of radio. Only a few hours of home-town news, sports, and the weather differentiated one city’s network affiliate from another’s.