Television: The First Fifty Years
The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
Weighing in at over five pounds, Jeff Greenfield’s Television: The First Fifty Years is a huge slab of a book, ugly and sumptuous. Other efforts have been made to honor the kaleidoscopic complexities of TV—e.g., How Sweet It Was, by Arthur Shulman and Roger Youman, TV Book, edited by Judy Fireman—but their texts were wistfully nostalgic and the photos lacked beauty, clarity, suggestiveness.1 Television, celebratory and lavishly produced, seldom descends into scrapbook drabness: even the black-and-white shots from TV’s infancy have a faintly luminous glow. A still from a 1948 “Studio One” play shows Margaret Sullavan—head bowed, eyes shut—sitting at a table in a saloon, flanked by an officious waiter and an apprehensive man in a trenchcoat. The photograph is doubly evocative, capturing not only the glum, sunless realism of TV drama during what is called the “Golden Age,” but Sullavan’s own tragic loneliness. Other shots are cheerier: Arthur Godfrey sways in a grass skirt; Ed Sullivan chats with a demurely slutty Ann-Margret.
What makes Greenfield’s book unique among TV books are its plentiful color photographs. A few are smeary, like one from “Star Trek” that looks like something seen through a View-Master; or badly chosen, like the full page of Telly “Kojak” Savalas squinting under harsh sunlight, every pore painfully visible. But most of the color plates have a tacky glamour. Browsing through these pages is like ascending into Kitsch Valhalla: a boom mike hangs ominously above Miss Vicki’s head during her “Tonight” show wedding to Tiny Tim. Dean Martin, surrounded by plump songbirds in pink dresses, croons soulfully, while at the Ponderosa, Hoss and Little Joe play checkers.
The photos are like TV images—immediately accessible and cartoon-bright—but there are no details for us to linger over. So despite the book’s heftiness, it seems trashy: a no-deposit/no-return tossaway at $35.00. Not surprisingly, the most striking photographs can be found in the chapter on advertising. A full page is given to Jesse White, who portrays the Maytag repairman: the blue of his cap and jacket is startlingly vivid. Another features a sleek blonde sipping on a can of Royal Crown cola; her teasing, smirky smile tells you that RC is a prelude to something friskier.
There’s a contradiction in Television itself about the purpose of all these glistening lovelies. For the book-jacket someone at the publisher’s wrote, “The text adds spice and substance to the story told by the pictures.” However, in the preface Greenfield claims, “It was our intention in this book to use the hundreds of photographs not simply to stir nostalgic memories among our readers, but to illustrate some of the themes of the text….” Obviously, somebody’s blowing smoke rings, and I think it’s Greenfield. His 50,000-word meditation on the history and influence of television is marginalia, little more. In part, the text is diminished by the typography: the Helvetica sans-serif type is too thin to hold our attention. Sentences slide off the slick ice-white pages.
Greenfield has worked in television—as a “media consultant” (with David Garth)—and on radio at WBAI and WMCA, and his chapter about TV in his memoir No Peace, No Place was quirky and perceptive. But here he writes with smooth, efficient anonymity: no anger, no odd pleasures, no secret glimpses of the beast at work, no critical swoops or slices. He’s leaned so heavily upon two books—Erik Barnouw’s Tube of Plenty and Bob Shanks’s The Cool Fire—that he’s left himself out. The loftiness of the occasion seems to have subdued him; he’s like an after-dinner speaker under sedation, too numb to crack jokes.
If Television, thick with platitudes and glossy pix, is like a special edition of Life magazine, Remote Control is closer to US News and World Report—an endless buzz of quotes and statistics. Like Greenfield, Mankiewicz is a media insider; he’s worked as a press secretary, campaign manager, and syndicated columnist, and is now president of National Public Radio. Yet his book, written with journalist Joel Swerdlow, is also drained of personality. Remote Control seems to have been assembled by stacking scribble-covered index cards into piles labeled Sex, Violence, News, and so on. Each stack then became a chapter.
For the reader, each chapter becomes an ordeal. In the first chapter the authors, citing study after study, argue convincingly that the nightly farrago of bashings and whizzing bullets on net-work television is a national disgrace. They show how TV violence is severed from social and physiological reality. A detective—Kojak, say—enters a room and is sharply conked on the head. Moments later, he groggily recovers: no harm done.
But this simply is not so. Physicians report that blows on the head with chairs and gun butts regularly cause serious injury. In addition to death and paralysis…, possible effects include the temporary or permanent loss of motor abilities, the inability to speak or to understand speech or symbols, convulsions, dizziness, or chronic headaches, as well as emotional problems such as anxiety, fear, irritability, and depression….
Useful information. But the authors then pile on trivial and irrelevant detail—within the space of a few pages there are references to Snuff, Mandingo, Nik Cohn’s novel King Death, Kitty Genovese, Lewis Carroll (an obligatory quote from Alice in Wonderland), even a summary of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority. I was reminded of a cartoon in which Daffy Duck, after being pelted with baseballs, ashtrays, and beer cans, cries, “Everything but the kitchen sink!” And then a kitchen sink sails across the screen.
At its most maddening the book has a needle stuck in its groove. On page 169, the authors observe:
Many teachers, even at the college level, report that classroom behavior has become remarkably similar to living room behavior while a television program is on. Thus, students will talk more to each other during a lecture (theater people report that Broadway audiences, in the legitimate theater talk more now too, during the play), and some students will even get up during a class period and leave the room, perhaps to return later.
Not only do they use commas peculiarly, but on page 194 they write:
This habit of talking while watching television seems to have spread during the past several years to other types of received “entertainment” as well. The decibel count in Broadway theaters (and Off-Broadway) is up, as it is in movies, during the performances…. In fact, college teachers report the same phenomenon. During lectures, it is no longer uncommon for students not only to talk rather freely, but even to get up and…. [etc.]
What’s most bewildering about Remote Control is not its graceless prose or curious judgments (the authors see Roots as a steamy bloodbath, “a better-made production of Mandingo“) but its lack of politics. Throughout the book they lament the television industry’s timidity and arrogance, its mountainous profits ($4.1 billion in 1975, up from $3.8 billion in 1974), myopic coverage of news, hyped-up coverage of sports; the shrill advertising that promotes shoddy merchandise, the police-and-thieves thrillers that twist our perceptions of city life; all that and immeasurably more. Yet there’s no discussion of other methods of financing and programming—not a single mention of the BBC, for example—or a willingness to attack the economic underpinnings of commercial television. At the fade-out, Mankiewicz and Swerdlow scan the horizon and see a stormless future for the television industry.
We are not left, however, with impotent acceptance of the status quo. There are many things that can be done within the framework of commercial television, and there are many fine and dedicated people and groups committed to those changes. These pragmatic options range from community cable systems—including so-called “pay” television—to seeking a more meaningful stance from the Federal Communications Commission.
The sentiments are betrayed by the language: phrases like “fine and dedicated people and groups” and “a more meaningful stance” aren’t exactly seething with potent fury.
If David Hume committed this book to the flames, I would rescue one chapter from the embers—“Reading, Learning, and Behavior: Electronic Childhood.” It’s a survey of how TV affects children, examining the drop in SAT scores, the controversy over “Sesame Street” ‘s jazzy visuals, the unearthly serenity of “Misterogers Neighborhood,” and so on. Not surprising: TV books are usually at their best when describing the tube’s exploitation of children.
This is the unstressed theme of Erik Barnouw’s The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate. Barnouw is a master of distillation: The Sponsor is extracted from his earlier book Tube of Plenty (1975), which was itself extracted from his three-volume A History of Broadcasting in the United States. Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t spiked his narrative with new material. In Tube of Plenty there is a brief section on the power and glory of ITT which concludes: “ITT, in an apparent attempt to repair its public image, decided to sponsor a series of children’s programs to ‘promote international understanding.’ ” He follows up the story in The Sponsor. After being battered in the press for (among other things) its collusion with the CIA in subverting the Allende government in Chile, ITT sponsored a children’s series called The Big Blue Marble which “showed enchanting scenes of children in many lands, and involved a pen-pal campaign.” ITT then ran prime-time commercials about the program, tagged with the breathtakingly shameless slogan, “The Best Ideas Are Ideas that Help People.”
The Big Blue Marble films cost $4 million to produce but were given away to television stations, with the result that they appeared mainly in fringe periods. Not so the corporate commercials about the Big Blue Marble series and other inter-cultural good deeds. These commercials appeared in prime time at a cost of $4.2 million in 1974, and of $3.7 million in 1975.
Moreover, “the company’s name did not apparently come up in a single television network evening newscast during the first six months of 1975, when the good-deeds commercials were constantly on the air.” Isn’t that “apparently” misplaced? Anyway—ITT’s strategy was to rescue its reputation from public scorn by pumping the kiddie market; and it worked. “According to [the Daniel Yankelovich, Inc. research company], the ITT ‘cares about the general public’ rating more than doubled during a twelve-month period, going from 20 per cent to 43 per cent.”
As Barnouw documents in great detail, the American broadcasting empire is built upon such cunning. He quotes a headline from a 1930s radio trade-paper advertisement—“And a little child shall lead them—to your product”—and reveals how on television the huckstering is infinitely more seductive.
Although most viewing by children involves programs that are not “children’s programs,” many advertisers have found “children’s programs”—clustered on weekends and late afternoons—especially effective as sales vehicles because most children watch them without parents…. Moreover, mothers are subsequently found to yield to children in product selection to an overwhelming extent—to children five to seven years old, 88 percent of the time for cereals, 52 per cent for snack foods, 40 per cent for candy, 38 per cent for soft drinks. For older children, the percentages were even higher, according to a Harvard Business School study. As sales agent, the child is supreme.
How much longer can this continue? Unlike Mankiewicz and Swerdlow, Barnouw foresees tremors and pane-rattling turbulence for the television industry. “The sponsor, the merchant, has been living at the summit of our communication system. He has had things largely his way, and we are in trouble. He himself is aware of it. Impending change is in the air.” For Barnouw, a better financed, more adventurous public television network system is the best counter-balance to the tyranny of profit.
According to Jerry Mander’s visionary manifesto Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, the medium itself is the enemy: No matter how TV is reformed, we’ll still end up being lidless zombies, groping in the dark for the channel selector. Television (says he) is a plague, a narcotic, a hypnotic drone; like the fluoride in Dr. Strangelove, it is sapping our vital essences. So outlaw television—snuff it out. With all the anti-TV books around—not only Remote Control but The Plug-in Drug2 and The Show and Tell Machine3—the special value of Mander’s call-to-arms is that by dedicating himself to a concrete destructive end he can more effectively marshall his facts. Such utopian ferocity can clarify one’s own misgivings about the medium—or so I thought until I actually cracked the book open. I glanced first to the index for a reference to the BBC. No index. But there is a bibliography, a curious one. Included is a volume of poetry by Anne Waldman (Fast Speaking Woman), but nothing by Barnouw; Fahrenheit 451 is there, so is the sci-fi Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, but not the television criticism of Gilbert Seldes, John Leonard, Reed Whitte-more, Arthur Asa Berger. Clearly Four Arguments was going to be a counter-cultural crazy quilt.
Sprinkled throughout the book are remarks (mostly unkind) about the thought and influence of Marshall McLuhan. After describing how many people believed that the mass audience for the JFK funeral was a breakthrough in consciousness—an electronic epiphany—Mander grumbles, “McLuhan, who saw so much, could have helped us see through that crap.” Unlike, say, Richard Schickel, Mander isn’t merely indulging in fashionable anti-McLuhanism.4 For fifteen years he worked as an advertising executive in San Francisco; his mentor—and, for a time, partner—was a roguish advertising genius named Howard Gossage. He, Gossage, and George Dippel also collaborated on an amusing put-on entertainment, The Great International Paper Airplane Book.5 It was Gossage who, along with his colleague Gerry Feigen, plucked McLuhan from his academic warren and pushed him before hot lights and whirring cameras; they booked him into symposia and lectures from coast to coast, and the audiences (mostly business leaders) were left bewildered by his oracular brilliance. Gossage is even credited with a few of the Master’s mandarin aphorisms.6 Since Mander—who later became disenchanted with the expense-account world and entered Consciousness III—feels that McLuhan’s influence was pernicious, Four Arguments is perhaps a form of penance.
Yet his own ideas about TV are themselves a crude form of McLuhanism—McLuhan turned inside out. McLuhan, in his chiliastic Understanding Media, writes, “The next logical step [of electronic technology] would seem to be…to bypass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson.” Mander sees television as an omnipresent amorphous malevolent force—instead of creating a global village, TV is turning the multitudes into solipsistic morons. So, like his adversary, Mander is uninterested in the content of the programs. He praises Bergman’s made-for-TV Scenes from a Marriage, devotes a few paragraphs to Roots that are pure gas, but that’s about it. Perhaps he felt as if he were wrestling with air. Television is aesthetically bedeviling not only because of its technical limitations—the small, fuzzy image, the tinny sound—but because it’s such an anomalous form. As Michael Arlen once remarked, “We have The Novel, The Play—there is no The Television.”
Even so, television offers eclectic pleasures: Carol Burnett’s movie parodies, a mini-series like “I, Claudius” or “Rock Follies,” an appearance by Harry Ritz of The Ritz Brothers on “The Dick Cavett Show,” the flaky, buoyant mood of “M.A.S.H” and “The Bob Newhart Show,” or a made-for-TV film featuring Sally Field, Blythe Danner, Sissy Spacek. At its most enjoyable, television entertainment is intelligent, rowdy, and genially unpretentious. It amuses you and leaves you alone—it doesn’t try to change your life. Yet this is also what one misses from American TV: the insolence and urgency of an artist working at the top of his talent. In Europe, film-makers like Fassbinder, Herzog, Bertolucci, and the Taviani brothers have been given the freedom to do extraordinary work for television. Not here.
Most of the time American TV is simply trash—stupid, contemptible trash. Yet even when television tries to be tony, Mander thinks it fouls things up: “[Seeing] the Stuttgart Ballet performing on television leaves one with such a reduced notion of ballet as to reduce the appeal of ballet itself.” Perhaps the Stuttgart was dimly photographed from a distance—Mander doesn’t say—but when dance is tailored for the camera eye, it can be enthralling, even on the small screen. Appearances by Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, and Pilobolus on PBS’s “Dance in America” series have stimulated the public’s appetite for dance, not dulled it. Similarly, when “I, Claudius” was recently broadcast on PBS, Robert Graves’s novel ascended the paperback bestseller list. It’s a great mistake to soak in TV with a blissed-out passivity. (For example: “I liked wating television. I still like watching television. What I don’t like is having to think about what I’m watching”—John Leonard, The New York Times, April 17, 1977.) Mander, however, finds nothing to praise on television: where others see dancers or Roman senators, he sees only insidious configurations of electrons.
Paradoxically, the author seems to have absorbed all of his knowledge of recent history from television; he’s as out-of-it as the TV junkies he deplores. Here is his explanation for the Nixon downfall: “Having used the media so well, Nixon developed a fatal arrogance about it…. The gravest mistake that can be made by a media creature is to assault the machine. The machine doesn’t care about its fantasies. A new one will do. Bringing Nixon down was just as good for ratings as supporting him. Better. More action.” So much for Watergate, Woodstein, the White House tapes, ITT.
Even more eccentric is his analysis of Vietnam war coverage. Mander, who worked with the Sierra Club to preserve virgin redwoods, compares the stumps of fallen trees with the casualties of war.
[When] television decided to concentrate upon images of dead bodies in Vietnam, it came as no surprise to me. In the cases of both redwoods and Vietnam, images of death finally aroused the public. Images of life—whether the trees themselves, or the finely tuned Vietnamese culture and sensibility—accomplished nothing.
That “finely tuned” is odd, even odder is the notion that in the midst of orange-napalm carnage TV reporters could—or should—have presented Vietnam in all its National Geographic splendor.
As the above suggests, Mander loves trees, moonlight, the sound of trickling water. He’s a Small Is Beautiful pastoralist. Which is okay, except that he coarsens the ideas not only of E.F. Schumacher but of Jacques Ellul. The technological society (writes Mander) has made us urban orphans, uprooted from the rhythms of nature. “[When] we live in cities, no experience is directly between us and the planet…. There are no wild animals, there are no rocky terrains, there is no cycle of bloom and decline. There is not even night and day.” Now, even in Las Vegas the sky darkens. Of course Mander is railing against the sterile artificial environments that leave our senses starved, but he acts as if the only alternative is to raze the cities and, like James Fenimore Cooper’s trappers, take to the woods.
Mander’s lamentation over man’s fall from grace reaches an insane high when he tries to play Mr. Science:
We learn there is something called evaporation that takes the water we don’t need up to the sky. But is this true? Is there a pattern to it? How does it collect in the sky? Is it okay to rearrange the cycle with cloud seeding? Is it okay to collect the water in dams? Does anyone else need water? Do plants drink it? How do they get it? Does water go into the ground? In cities it rolls around on concrete and then pours into sewers. Since we are unable to observe most of the cycle, we learn about it in knowledge museums: schools, textbooks. We study to know. What we know is what we have studied. We know what the books say. What the books say is what the authors of the books learned from “experts” who, from time to time, turn out to be wrong.
Question marks fall from the passage like Chinese-torture drops of water. Mander sorely needed an editor to slash his work mercilessly, until only a few bloody sentences were left…perhaps enough for a pamphlet.
Even at their leanest, Mander’s musings about nature and technology shrivel under close scrutiny. When he writes, “Surrounded by nature, with everything alive everywhere around them, [pretechnological people] develop an automatic intimacy with the natural world,” one is reminded of Hazlitt’s rebuke—“Ignorance is always bad enough; but rustic ignorance is intolerable.” To recapture an Eden that never was Mander would begin by exiling television. “What is lost because we can no longer see fuzzy and reduced versions of drama or forests will be more than offset by the actual experience of life and environment directly lived, and the resurgence of human feeling that will accompany this.” It’s a lovely utopian velleity, just as banishing automobiles makes one think of smogless vistas, Wordsworthian calm. But it is only that: a velleity. Four Arguments, like Remote Control, is almost perversely anticlimactic—after 357 pages about the medium’s cool villainy, Mander concludes, “How to achieve the elimination of television? I certainly cannot answer that question.” Next time, try.
To be fair, Fireman's anthology (Workman Publishing Co., 1977) isn't entirely a stroll down Memory Lane. But even the more ambitious essays are of slender value, like Perry Meisel's swoon over "The Flintstones," or David Thorburn's homage to the subtle artistry of David Janssen.↩
Marie Winn (Viking, 1977).↩
Rose Goldsen (Dial, 1977).↩
Schickel, an early McLuhan enthusiast, later recanted in MORE; both pieces are shrewdly chic.↩
Simon and Schuster, 1967.↩
"Gossage was always kind of translating for the potty prophet . 'What Marshall means by all that is this .' But a lot was added in the translation, and McLuhan would look at Gossage like the Mad Hatter peering over the tea cup and say, in a voice that was part confused innocence, part modest genius, 'Gee, Howard, that's exactly what I meant to say when I wasn't saying it.' " Warren Hinckle, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (Bantam paperback), page 135.↩
To be fair, Fireman’s anthology (Workman Publishing Co., 1977) isn’t entirely a stroll down Memory Lane. But even the more ambitious essays are of slender value, like Perry Meisel’s swoon over “The Flintstones,” or David Thorburn’s homage to the subtle artistry of David Janssen.↩
Marie Winn (Viking, 1977).↩
Rose Goldsen (Dial, 1977).↩
Schickel, an early McLuhan enthusiast, later recanted in MORE; both pieces are shrewdly chic.↩
Simon and Schuster, 1967.↩
“Gossage was always kind of translating for the potty prophet . ‘What Marshall means by all that is this .’ But a lot was added in the translation, and McLuhan would look at Gossage like the Mad Hatter peering over the tea cup and say, in a voice that was part confused innocence, part modest genius, ‘Gee, Howard, that’s exactly what I meant to say when I wasn’t saying it.’ ” Warren Hinckle, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (Bantam paperback), page 135.↩