The TV Racket

A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States to 1933

by Erik Barnouw
Oxford University Press, 344 pp., $9.00

The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933-1953

by Erik Barnouw
Oxford University Press, 391 pp., $9.00

The Image Empire: A History of Broadcasting in the United States from 1953

by Erik Barnouw
Oxford University Press, 396 pp., $9.75

Televi$ion: The Business Behind the Box

by Les Brown
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 374 pp., $8.95

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

edited by Charles Tate
Urban Institute, 184 pp., $3.95 (another recent report on cable television is On the Cable: (paper)

Guerrilla Television

by Michael Shamberg. and Raindance Corporation
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 104 pp., $3.95 (paper)

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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.