The Hundred Million Dollar Lunch
Broadcast License Renewal Act: Report, together with Separate Views
Playing in the FM Band
Broadcasting is the bastard offspring of industry and art, and in its brief lifetime it has never fulfilled the promise of its parents. Despite the billions of dollars invested in their development and the enormous talents spent, radio and television remain wasteful businesses and mediocre pastimes. It’s no wonder that intelligent people find it hard to take seriously most of the programs that are broadcast. Both the managers of the industry and the products of its art are shabby and insincere, and it would be foolish to accept the claims of either at face value.
The politics of broadcasting, however, have a different meaning and more importance. The clichés we have all heard about broadcasting theory are largely valid (else, they would not be clichés): of course broadcasting leaves its mischievous mark on our consciousness; it prods us to consume without caring, perverts social anger into retinal onanism. Titanic transfers of power—the stuff of media politics—effect this subversion of our emotions and will. The money, the corporate empires, the status and stardom, the government interest—they all take the broadcast business out of the hands of ordinary consumers in a way that no other industry or art has done so deftly. Big Broadcasting, as a whole, seems removed from transactions in the marketplace. Automobile manufacture, abstract painting, beef production, Hollywood, publishing, haberdashery, and home appliances have their booms and slumps in some relation to the whims, demands, or criticisms of their consumers. Broadcasting, relying slavishly on mass consumer “ratings,” while limiting competition to a few, expands forever.
The triumphs of the big broadcasters have not completely precluded attempts by small groups of critics and social minorities for reform—or a piece of the action. The “consumer advocacy” of the last ten years has affected broadcasting, too. Specifically, it struck in three ways: the assault on the law and process of licensing broadcast outlets; the pressure for “alternative” radio programming; and the proposals for public “access” to television for the display of unconventional opinions.
Now most of the skirmishes, experiments, and litigations in the wars against Big Broadcasting are coming to an end. “Access” has been closed off in many cities by Federal Communications Commission rule and Supreme Court decision. Attempts to expand or experiment with alternative radio broadcasting have been halted or reversed. And any remaining hopes of successful challenges to the broadcast licensing procedure will soon be canceled by coordinated acts of Congress, the courts, and the commission.
It has been a slide down a slippery slope for the reformers since the great day in January, 1969, when the FCC decided to take Boston’s lucrative Channel 5 away from the incumbent licensee, WHDH-TV, a subsidiary of the Herald-Traveler newspaper, and turn it over to a challenging outfit called Boston Broadcasters Incorporated. That decision, which the pro-industry commission regretted even as it was proclaimed, climaxed a fifteen-year struggle by the Herald-Traveler station to fight off the competition. (It also effectively ended the life of the …