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.

In the Fifties, critics of television began to despair of VHF and attuned their hopes to the UHF spectrum. If the UHF band were fully used, the number of operative TV stations would be tripled, and the largest urban areas would receive eight or nine signals instead of three or four.

For technical reasons, the first television transmissions had taken place on VHF. By the time that the UHF spectrum was ready for the carving knife; the major broadcasters had already established themselves on VHF, and the home television sets in use could receive only the lower channels. A new station could survive on UHF only by persuading thousands of viewers to purchase a special signal converter and often a new aerial as well. Since no one had these converters at the outset, UHF stations drew but a tiny audience and could afford only the worst programming; since their shows were terrible, no one would buy converters.

For a dozen years, reformers on the FCC pondered a way out of this circle. Their first proposal had the splendid regulatory name of “selective deintermixture.” This was a kind of electronic busing plan, in which the VHF stations in selected television markets would be forced to migrate to the UHF spectrum, thus ending the coexistence of VHF and UHF stations within the same market (a situation in which the Vs always came out on top). But none of the fabulously profitable VHF stations wanted to be deintermixed. It would have meant abandoning their decisive commercial advantage over UHF. Television, never very useful for reporting local issues, had at last become one. Delegations of Chevy dealers and civic boosters, labor leaders and town officials, followed their local broadcaster to Washington to crush the integrationist plot. The FCC ditched deintermixture and called instead for all new TV sets to be outfitted for UHF. The plan became law, effective January 1, 1964.

The FCC expected UHF stations to make rapid progress as the new all-channel sets hit the market. But UHF programs remained either dreck—prehistoric westerns, fourth generation reruns—or highly specialized (in Los Angeles, one channel of all-inspirational television and one featuring stock market quotations garnished with Muzak; in New York, Spanish-language programming). Businessmen who had scrambled for UHF station permits turned them back to the FCC, leaving the commission in the embarrassed position of a land office without a rush.

Its response was to search for villains—in this case, cable television. Cable was first used for transmission of television signals in the early Fifties, when community antenna television systems (CATVs, an acronym still used for cable TV) brought signals into isolated mountainous and rural communities which were otherwise bereft of full network service. A CATV system consisted of a large, strategically located antenna to receive the broadcast signals, a system of cables to distribute the signals to subscribers, a franchise from the local town council, and a sack to put the money in. Subscribers paid about five dollars a month for near perfect reception of signals which would otherwise be blurred or unavailable.

The service proved popular and hugely profitable, and in the late Fifties and early Sixties cable entrepreneurs began scouting out new territory. Since most city dwellers already could receive three network signals, cable needed a new sales gimmick. The solution was to offer “distant signals”—out-of-town independent stations whose programs cable would import via microwave. For example, a cable company in San Diego would offer subscribers not merely perfect reception of the three network stations around their home town but three Los Angeles independent stations as well.

Cable TV can carry up to twenty channels of programming on a single co-axial wire; eventually cable systems may be able to offer double that number or more. Potentially, cable TV could provide viewers a choice of opera, jai alai, and prison documentaries in addition to extra helpings of standard TV entertainment. Enthusiasts see cable eventually replacing conventional broadcasting and offering the cultural, political, and minority programming now crowded off the tube: with channels to spare, cable operators might find it profitable to satisfy small audiences as well as large ones.

Cable’s potential abundance quickly excited visionary entrepreneurs and mercenary city councilmen all over the country; but it did not inspire the FCC. As the new urban cable systems began to proliferate, complaints poured in to the commission. The owners of the copyrights on television programs objected that cable companies made use of their programs without paying any royalties. Local broadcasters argued that the out-of-town signals brought in by the cable lured viewers away from their own programs. The networks charged that cable would subvert what they like to call the nation’s system of free over-the-air broadcasting.

When cable came before the commission in 1966, the pro-broadcaster commissioners saw cable as competition for their VHF clients, while reform Commissioner Kenneth Cox saw it as competition for his UHF nurselings. Together they voted to suppress. Since that time, the FCC (with commissioners Nicholas Johnson and Robert Bartley dissenting) has devised an almost inconceivably complicated network of rules designed to prevent cable from importing distant signals and hence from invading lush urban markets. The rules, arbitrary and uninteresting in themselves, are worth attention as artifacts of the regulatory mentality.

At first, the commission forbade new cable systems from importing distant signals into the nation’s top 100 television markets (containing about 90 percent of all TV viewers). It was in these areas, the commission said, that UHF would have its greatest chance; cable growth could only interfere. By 1968, the All-Channel bill had been in operation four years, and UHF prospects still looked dismal; few viewers were willing to tune in the UHF programs. The commission shifted ground. Its rationale for restriction was no longer that UHF would be hurt by cable, but that royalty-free importation of distant signals violated the equities of copyright owners. (The Supreme Court had just suggested, however, that it would not violate their legal rights.) A new set of rules effectively continued the ban on distant signals, this time for the benefit of the program owners.

Throughout this period, the commission ignored the common problem that afflicts both CATV and UHF: the unavailability of popular programming due to monopolistic controls. Virtually all TV programs are sold subject to long-term exclusive contracts: the station that buys The Sound of Music or even The Passion of Anna receives the exclusive right (within its market area) to use the program for two to seven years. Only the large, profitable VHFs can afford to bid for these exclusives on popular attractions—a station can justify spending the money for a popular show only if the show is worth more to it than it would be to any other bidder. By analogy, a Santa Monica newspaper could not, should it wish to, outbid the Los Angeles Times for exclusive rights to Dick Tracy. The effect of exclusivity is to shut out cable and UHF from virtually all of the most popular programming. It is for this reason that cable must pin its hopes on distant signals; while UHF, without even distant signals to ask for, must rely on stock quotations and evening prayers.

The FCC’s long battle against cable reflects some enduring peculiarities of the regulatory process. Regulatory agencies are founded on the premise that competition cannot work. Their staffs, accordingly, tend to distrust and disregard market forces. Much of the FCC’s hostility to cable TV derived simply from the fact that cable would complicate the commission’s plan for the television industry—a plan drawn up before the advent of cable and largely obviated by it. It never seriously occurred to the commission simply to let cable take its chances in the marketplace.

During 1971 the commission began to shift its position on cable, only to be sidetracked by the Nixon Administration. A recently adopted new set of rules—presented by the White House and industry representatives for FCC rubber-stamping—would increase access to programming for cable systems in the nation’s smaller television markets, while upholding exclusivity in the top fifty markets. This means, essentially, that in Syracuse, New York, you can get only Syracuse stations over the cable, but in Fresno you could see an imported Bakersfield signal. The difference legitimating this distinction is, bluntly, that the bigger markets involve more money.

Today the issue of money weighs against the cable industry but eventually it will work in its favor. Cable involves too much profit to abide permanent suppression. Currently, cable TV has about six million subscribers and over $300 million in revenues. But if it made more programs available by offering distant signals, it might, according to a recent estimate, obtain twenty-nine million subscribers and revenues approaching $3 billion.1 The long-range question for television is not whether twenty channels will be available, but who will own them and what they will be used for.

At present, cable television is almost entirely commercially owned, half by other media interests (chiefly TV companies). Ten corporations account for about 52 percent of the nation’s cable subscribers. Proposals have been made for local groups, especially in ghettos, to own their own cable, providing them with a flow of profits and guaranteed access for community programming. Cable Television in the Cities offers a useful compendium of different ownership proposals and technical information on how a community cable system could be run. Community control of a cable channel has many attractions for activist groups but few for established politicians, unenthusiastic about piping black (or any other) militancy into their constituents’ living rooms. It will happen, if at all, only in cities where political or cultural groups that want to control a cable channel are extremely well organized; for most of the country, commercial domination will remain the rule.

According to many reformers, this will pose no real problem so long as cable is made a “common carrier”—that is, if the cable operator is required to sell channel time to all comers at a uniform price. Since channels will be abundant, the price should be relatively low. Supposedly, inexpensive channels alone will ensure a new era of diverse and representative television.

But production expense as well as channel time is a major cost of broadcasting most programs. A half-hour of network television may cost $75,000 or more to produce. Some of the best news shows and documentaries have also been the most expensive. Low-cost channels would open up TV to civic groups and candidates for city council, but not necessarily to anything that most people would watch. Real change in television requires more than increased channel capacity. Either production costs will have to go down or new sources of revenue will have to turn up.

Michael Shamberg’s manual Guerrilla Television suggests that a revolution in production costs may already be under way. Shamberg (after an extended overture of neo-McLuhan jabberwocky on media, consciousness, and the rest) offers a detailed user’s guide to new portable video cameras and tape recorders. Any kid with a few hundred dollars can produce his own video tapes with this new equipment—cheaper than home movies and, in addition, erasable. The possibilities of these new cameras and tapes are just beginning to be worked out.

More important, tastes may be changing at the very time that production costs are going down. The older generation of TV malcontents has a vision of “good television” far removed from contemporary enthusiasms. The usual demand has been for intelligent melodrama, a revival of “Studio One” and “Playhouse 90” or an imitation of the BBC’s “Masterpiece Theater.” This hope may never materialize—the world may not have talent to produce 700 to 1,000 hours a year of serious entertainment, 1956 style. But if a younger generation of “media freaks” is willing to watch experimental programming, in spite or because of its lack of conventional polish, cable may indeed portend a revolution. Cable may also be able to offer stronger—and more cheaply made—documentary programs than in the past, and less inhibited reporting of the news.

For most people, however, slickness still has its value; “Sesame Street” costs $30,000 an episode. Quality television for most people means expensive television, and it will require a new source of revenue.

Here, once more, the stumbling blocks may be the FCC and Congress. The best source of new money for television would be a cable channel charging viewers by the program for expensive productions. But pay-TV on broadcast stations was halted for a decade by the opposition of networks and movie theater owners, and by the concern of liberals that viewers not be charged for what they now receive free. The liberal case has merit; but a ban on pay-by-the-program television runs the risk of permanently frustrating the chance for diversified TV. As before, the worthy aims of TV regulation may fall victim to its reactionary habits.

This Issue

March 9, 1972