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.1
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 Herald-Traveler, a financial dog wagged by its TV tail.) And the trauma to station owners occasioned by this one, uniquely successful, license challenge produced a reaction that will make a repetition impossible.
“Red” Quinlan’s long chronicle of WHDH’s demise is a tragical history of modern American capitalism. The important relationships exist not between love and death, courage and cowardice, but between profit and loss: or more particularly, between sign-on and sign-off. The station’s doom was set almost from the beginning, in that hyperbolic “hundred million dollar lunch” in a Washington hotel restaurant in 1954 when Herald-Traveler president Robert Choate fraternized with FCC commissioner George McConnaughey in furtherance of WHDH’s broadcast license application. That out-of-bounds contact between applicant and commissioner triggered demands for revoking WHDH’s license, and led to a byzantine scenario of charges and challenges, hearings and trials, rulings and legislation which outlasted the lives and terms on the commission of many of the principals.
For almost seven years the Herald-Traveler held onto its channel without a regular license, while competing broadcasting aspirants wrangled over the naughty lunch, the issue of media concentration in Boston, the quality of WHDH’s programming, and the larger policy problems of licensing. An FCC examiner conducted the longest hearing in the history of regulatory proceedings—completing just one short episode in the battle over Channel 5; the hearing examiner’s decision (for WHDH) was later reversed by the commissioners. It remains a mystery (which Quinlan never successfully solves) why they voted the way they did, contradicting both the theory and practice of nonregulation as practiced by federal regulatory agencies.
In the end, the issue of that expensive lunch (how good could the food have been?) was forgotten, and Channel 5 was transferred from the Herald-Traveler to Boston Broadcasters because of (1) concentration of media ownership in the Herald’s hands (newspaper, TV, and two radio stations), and (2) WHDH’s no-better-than-average programming. And in a rather cocky concurring assent to the FCC’s award decision, liberal commissioner Nicholas Johnson announced that henceforth the agency would take “media diversity” and “local ownership” seriously as criteria for licensing. Worst of all for the station owners, renewal applicants had to meet the same standards for licenses as new applicants. It would not be enough for a station to be doing an “average” job of programming if a challenger (such as BBI in Boston) came up with a superior proposal for community service. Johnson wrote:
The door is thus opened for local citizens to challenge media giants in their local community at renewal time with some hope for success before the licensing agency, where previously the only response had been a blind reaffirmation of the present license holder.
“Local citizens” did not immediately flock to Washington with giant-slaying challenge proposals, but enough competition (and rumors) developed to threaten the broadcast industry’s sense of its own invulnerability. The station owners (represented by the powerful National Association of Broadcasters) saw Nick Johnson and his open-door policy as the leader and vanguard ideology of the revolt against their establishment; before long, appropriate counterstrategies were plotted.
In 1969 Senator John Pastore, of Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, delivered a speech unto his broadcaster friends wherein he signaled that their rule would not be subverted. Soon, he introduced a strikingly craven piece of legislation to ensure that it would not be; his bill would have required the FCC to take away the license of a station before a competing application could be considered.2 Someone at the time likened that procedure to a requirement that an incumbent politician be impeached before an opponent could challenge him in an election. And at least in those days, impeachment was as much a political dead letter as outright license cancellation.
Pastore’s bill foundered on the objections of black political interests which were challenging several white-owned broadcasters for neglecting racial minorities (no TV station in the country is owned by blacks). The charges stung “Northern liberal” Pastore, and he retreated to a position of industry support from behind the scenes. According to a “public access” communications lawyer in Washington, Pastore actually told the then-chairman of the FCC, Dean Burch, to enact his bill’s provisions by administrative rulings instead of congressional legislation. Pastore would make it up to the industry later. Burch and the commission took the advice almost before it was given, and put forth rulings that slammed the door shut again on Johnson’s invitation to the public to challenge incumbent licensees.
There followed a sequence of skirmishes between the commission and the Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, a last, though hardly impenetrable, bastion of liberalism in the Nixonian capital. “Access” advocates and their active young lawyers repeatedly pressed the court for the old open-door policy; the FCC repeatedly enacted closed-door rulings, e.g., to lower the performance standard for a renewal applicant from “superior” to “substantial”; the appeals court repeatedly overruled the commission’s dilutions. And all the while, the few serious challenges to existing licensees were repeatedly defeated before the FCC.
Clay Whitehead, chief of the new White House Office of Telecommunications Policy, entered the fray in late 1972 with his attacks on the networks’ news departments. His charge of “ideological plugola” had nothing to do with the business side of broadcasting; in fact, the attack was meant to isolate the news people from the business people, and to strengthen the independence of station owners (including the networks-as-owners of their allotted five stations apiece).
It worked well enough at the time, but the owners remained uneasy; in broadcasting, the smallest hint of a threat to a license produces managerial hysteria. At length, the broadcasters pressed Pastore for another payment on his running bill (he criticizes “sex-‘n’-violence,” then he gives the stations protection against economic threats). This year he let the House initiate another version of his protective bill which will seal shut the public access door to commercial television.
The measure (HR 12993) has already swept through the House (379 to 19) and it is now before Pastore’s subcommittee, where of course it will be graciously treated. It would extend the duration of licenses from three to five years; establish a performance criterion of “substantial” rather than “superior” service for renewal applicants; eliminate considerations of media concentration and monopoly from license applications or challenges (all pending challenges on the basis of monopoly would also be discarded); and take jurisdiction for FCC matters out of the hands of the consumer-minded District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.
Naturally, not much of all this gets into the press—and none of it is heard on the air. Most major newspapers own television or radio stations, or want to. The Washington Post itself took time out from defending the public interest against executive privilege by arguing vigorously against an appeals court “access” order that its own WTOP radio accept antiwar commercial spots. Nor are politicians eager to vote against a bill so dear to the purses of broadcasters in this election year. Although the White House OTP seems to be phasing itself out, the Administration nonetheless approves of the proindustry bill. The FCC is pleased to farm out controversial regulations to Congress. And Nicholas Johnson is long gone; he just lost a congressional primary election in Iowa.
The impending passage of the closed-door bill is only one of several measures taken or proposed to secure the broadcasting establishment for the current occupants. The Supreme Court recently upheld The Washington Post in the WTOP case, and said that broadcasters need not worry about the First Amendment in refusing advertisers access to commercial time for programs or advertisements. The Post’s station had refused to sell time for brief spots to the Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace.3
At the same time, the FCC has issued an administrative ruling abolishing the “fairness doctrine” (misleadingly called “equal time”) as it applies to product commercials. The commission had said—in the heat of late-Sixties consumer advocacy demands—that dissenting citizens or groups could have broadcasting time for “counter-commercials” aimed at products that raised controversial issues: cigarettes that are harmful to health, cars that exude polluting exhaust, oil companies whose refineries foul the waters. With the expected cancellation of that doctrine, “fair” will be what pays the most money to a broadcaster.
“I’m approaching the end of my rope,” a communications lawyer and former FCC staff assistant told me recently. He has spend the last several years waging legal fights for public access to the world of Big Broadcasting. Now, with the court, Congress, and the commission cracking down, he fears the cause of communications advocacy is all but lost. “There’s less and less that reform-minded people are able to do to bring diversity to the media, to break it loose. The broadcasters say that with less regulation, they will be free to open up their channels. So we’re all supposed to hope for benevolent dictators. As for me, I must say I’m not content to put my hope in CBS to present my viewpoint every so often on ‘Sixty Minutes.’ ”
Diversity of opinion, style, and political consciousness has been excluded or tightly circumscribed in commercial television until now. The new rulings, laws, and decisions—if they all come to pass—would merely secure the fact of Big Broadcasting’s impenetrability, and end whatever moves up the access ramps have been made in the last few years. Despite the wishful thinking of advocacy lawyers and communications reformers, no different outcome should have been expected. Television has been a monolithic establishment almost from the beginning. It is as if the cathodic ether were divinely excluded from the demands of democratic diversity.
The rise of “underground”—later redefined as “alternative”—radio, however, has been some small cause for optimism. Because of relatively low costs and simple technology (for program production, transmission, and reception), radio has always been more accessible than television to idiosyncratic programming. Alternative radio can also attract the mass audiences that have always eluded “educational” television, to which it is occasionally compared. Experimental TV can be culturally exciting and intellectually worthwhile (NET’s recent program on Stravinsky for example) but it is traditionally confined to small or specialized audiences (of children or academics) in a few major urban or collegiate centers. Boston’s educational Channel 2—which is highly regarded almost everywhere except Boston—directs its programs generally to a self-conscious constituency of local upper-middle-class intellectuals. It is, of course, no threat but a useful cover for commercial television, allowing the networks to claim that risky or uncommercial programs get on the air.
“Rock-‘n’-radical” broadcasting—the current phase of alternative radio—began with the development of the Pacifica Foundation’s short string of listener-supported outlets: KPFA in Berkeley, KPFK in Los Angeles, and WBAI in New York City (another has opened in Houston, and an application for a station in Washington is long pending). Then in the late Sixties, several previously unenlightened FM broadcasters allowed counter-culture hipsters and new left movement activists to reprogram their ailing stations. The idea, of course, was to develop an audience of young people to whom the new cultural gear might be sold: boutique clothes, phonograph records, stereo equipment, health foods, hair styles.
Six years ago, a low-rated FM station in Boston, WBCN, cut out its heavy load of religious programming (and with it, half of the station’s income) and tuned in on the new sound: a little bit less of Jesus, and a little more rock and roll. Movement types took charge of the news department (the first news director saw the report of his own indictment as a Weatherman conspirator come over the AP ticker) and the salesmen started hitting the head shops and hi-fi centers for ads. For such apostasy, WBCN was rewarded with phenomenal success in the material world. It became the most popular radio station in the area, with rocketing ratings and expensive commercial rates.
The listener-supported stations have not won such mass audiences. Perhaps inadvertently, Steve Post’s long-winded history of WBAI, Playing in the FM Band, suggests by example how a certain tendentiousness and self-involvement make it hard to follow Pacific programming for any length of time. What’s wrong with WBAI, however, is nothing different from what’s wrong with the political culture from which it springs; and it certainly remains a valuable stop on the dial.
Pacifica and the few remaining “free form” commercial stations like WBCN continue to provide an “alternative” to unlistenable radio, but their position is strictly limited by the dominant system which defines “alternative” to the first place. That definition entails a comfortably subservient role to Big Broadcasting—or, in the case of real success, a participating place in the heavy center of the industry. That is, the alternative stations must remain small, struggling, boring, or eccentric; or they must move into the center of the band where taste and sensibility are standardized.
WBAI seems to have chosen the former, struggling position. WBCN, and the other big-time free-form stations, are moving into the cool center. How it worked out that way is depressingly simple: WBCN’s success with free-form rock programming encouraged management to make heavy expenditures on staff, equipment, and studios. New investors from far-flung commercial broadcasting syndicates were brought in. Debts were incurred. Revenues had to be kept at a high level just to keep the operation stable. High revenues were tied to high ratings. When ratings—inevitably—dipped, the managers decided to elevate them by eliminating unfamiliar music and some special-interest public affairs shows from programming during prime time. Although many listeners complain about the heavy load of commercials in every WBCN hour (and the content of the ads has changed from low-key hippie to hard-sell jingly), it was obviously more profitable to tighten up programming than eliminate the shampoo and beer spots. It now appears that free-form radio on WBCN—one of the last holdouts among major alternative commercial stations in the country—may be dead before the year is out.
The lessons in the experience of “alternative radio” are essentially the same as those in the tales of the access wars in TV: it is difficult to have a revolution—even a cultural one—within one industry. The pressures on WBCN’s format are inherent in all the institutions of Big Broadcasting. In fact, the best example of prior self-censorship can be seen in the operation of the TV station that succeeded the Herald-Traveler’s WHDH.
WCVB—the call letters used by the victorious Boston Broadcasters Incorporated—went on the air at three in the morning on March 19, 1972. Its promises, hopes, and budget were high. In its challenge to WHDH, it made extravagant proposals to the FCC for “local live” programming, community service, cultural uplift, political seriousness, minority integration. The list of directors (Oscar Handlin, Dr. John Knowles) was a page from the Blue Book of the Cambridge/Boston liberal establishment.
Two years later, the budget is still high, which is more than one can say about the promises and the hopes. Some critics think that WCVB is one of the best commercial TV stations in America, which it might well be. Unfortunately, that is not a very useful rating.
In its own way, the evolution of WCVB television parallels that development of WBCN radio, and suggests again the devastating effects of success. In the first blush of sign-on, WCVB began producing some fresh local programs. One of the best was a new-age religious show called “New Heaven, New Earth,” which dealt perceptively with the Berrigan brothers and Cesar Chavez rather than the reactionary Boston Catholic hierarchy. There were shows for old people, for women, and for children; an investigative reporters’ team promised to unearth the local scandals. Less than a year after it went on the air, WCVB mobilized its entire crew, spent $60,000 or more, and devoted an entire evening of prime time to a special project called “Time of Youth,” which ultimately won several awards and pleased the station’s creative staff no end.
It was about that time that management began to look critically at the tattered profit picture, and dream up new ways of expanding sales. Bob Bennett, the general manager, a hardnosed former Metromedia executive, had originally wanted to affiliate WCVB with the CBS network, but lost that deal in the wild last days of the fight with the Herald-Traveler, and had to settle for an ABC affiliation that has always made ratings a problem. Now, Bennett wants to commission WCVB as the flagship of a regional New England network and use the station as well to syndicate its most popular programs. According to many staff members those plans are draining money, attention, facilities, and prime time slots from the most interesting but least commercial programs, such as the women’s show and “New Heaven, New Earth.” Expensive equipment—such as a portable PCP-90 camera—are increasingly diverted from the less commercial shows to the potential money-makers. And now, eighteen months after “Time of Youth,” no one expects that such an exciting and expensive special project will be repeated.
A week’s viewing of WCVB, on and off, confirms the insiders’ prediction of creeping ordinariness. Channel 5 news is entirely conventional, while competing channels have become much more imaginative. Hard-hitting investigative reporting on WCVB now concentrates on such uncontroversial subjects as airport safety and drug abuse. Channel 5 editorials are the least progressive in the city. The “Good Morning” show, one of the station’s most popular programs in city-wide ratings, rarely deviates now from standard formulas established years ago for early morning or late night talkies; the obvious reason is that it is a leading program in the regional network listings.
All in all, the more interesting and original programming on WCVB seems an exception to the total impression of the station on the air. Nor was that result unexpected. Quinlan notes that Variety had predicted in 1972, “All foresee WCVB-TV playing the local game for a year or so, then cautiously returning to the network button and cash-register key like any other sensible men with a license to print money as it has been called.”
“It was the biggest hype to hit Boston,” Ed Siegel, a tough local television critic said not long ago. “But everything they do is for show. ‘5’ was better than the others at first, but now they’re no better. Now that they’ve got community acceptance, they don’t have to be any better.”
I don’t see any serious contradictions to the power of Big Broadcasting within the industry itself; there are no analogues to the self-destruct symptoms in, say, automobile manufacture. Such changes as may come will be the result of shifts of political power and upheavals in cultural values that it would now be foolish to predict. Media theorists have long debated whether radio and television form or merely reflect prevailing values. Perhaps the issue is more simply stated: the institutions spring form what people want, expect, and will tolerate. Every generation gets the soap operas it deserves.
August 8, 1974
The spread of cable TV suggested to some that all aspects of the established broadcast media could be reformed by an upstart technology. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening: cable is becoming simply an adjunct of the existing power grid. ↩
Only once has a TV station license been revoked outright, and then not by the FCC but by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. The station was in Jackson, Mississippi, and the case evolved in the context of the mid-Sixties civil rights campaign. ↩
CBS has invoked the Supreme Court’s dictum in refusing to sell the Mobil Oil Corporation time to state its position on controversial energy issues. The network and the court majority argue that since broadcast time is expensive, only the rich would benefit by a guarantee of access to “idea advertisers.” The argument appears disingenuous on its face. In the first place, Mobil (and other corporations) have offered to pay for equal time for their less wealthy adversaries in ideological battle. In the second place, the super rich control broadcasting already and opening up time to “idea advertisers” would hardly make a difference in the structure of corporate domination of the air. ↩