Blacks in TV in the Age of the
Civil Rights Movement, 1957-1970
The promise of a color-blind future in television was made prematurely. In its earliest years when TV seemed to promise artistic and social equality for blacks, the medium was neither widely available nor overwhelmingly lucrative. As television became nationally distributed and enormously profitable, however, the hopes and expectations of earlier years were virtually forgotten.
After its first two years of full-scale operation, television was still a fledgling industry. In December 1949, for example, there were only ninety-seven TV stations operating in 58 market areas throughout the nation. Although New York City and Los Angeles each had seven outlets, only a few cities had more than one station. Nationally, moreover, there were only 3,415,474 TV sets in operation. Sixteen states had no television outlets transmitting from within their borders.
Television was still in infancy at the end of 1949. Most TV was produced and seen in the midwest-northeast axis. Importantly, in the southern section of the United States—the region in which anti-black prejudice was considered by programmers and advertisers as inimical to minority participation in TV—television was barely a reality. There were only thirteen southern market areas with TV by December 1949. While that represented 22.4 percent of all cities having television, only 4.5 percent of TV sets were in the South. As the industry entered the 1950s, the South was retarded as a consumer of television. And given the freeze on licensing new stations by the Federal Communications Commission, not until 1953 was the South able to redress this imbalance. Until that date, there were no operative TV transmitters in Mississippi, Arkansas, or South Carolina.
It is also noteworthy that while southern stations carried network affiliations and network programming, in many instances stations such as WDSU-TV in New Orleans and WMCT in Memphis chose their evening programming from the offerings of all four national networks. This made it easier to preempt "controversial" programs coming from New York City or Hollywood. Local social standards could be respected by selecting carefully from network shows, being careful to present quality entertainment while rejecting programs with threatening messages and disruptive images.
The American South, moreover, was not tied directly into network TV until coaxial cable and relay stations were fully installed in the mid-1950s. Only then could most stations in this region receive shows directly from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Until that time, much southern TV was a blend of network and syndicated films, kinescopes, and local productions.
From its earliest years, moreover, TV was national and under the control of NBC and CBS, and to a lesser extent, ABC. Although it nurtured several series that found significance elsewhere, the DuMont network was a lackluster presence in early television. And as for unaffiliated stations making programs, most independents were economically strapped and relegated to rerunning vintage network series. The production companies making television shows increasingly churned out new programs for network exposure.
For the first decade of TV, most viewing was done on VHF channels: those outlets from channel 2 through 13. But because some VHF channels were reserved for other transmission purposes (FM radio, marine and aviation communications, civil defense operations), and because interference from stations broadcasting in nearby cities made some channels unusable, most viewers had access to five stations or less. Only Los Angeles and New York City had the maximum seven possible VHF outlets.
When the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1950s finally opened UHF channels 14 through 84 for operation, growth of this alternative spectrum was slow and ineffective in challenging the network monopoly. Although ABC, CBS, and NBC were legally permitted to own and operate UHF channels, they quickly abandoned the desire to invest in the new frequency.
Rivaling each other for supremacy, the three networks programmed to the largest possible audiences. Advertisers, too, wanted as many viewers as possible. In this broadcasting atmosphere, minority concerns—be they fine arts concerts, foreign language programs, educational forums, or positive black representations—received slight attention. If the ratings system proved that the mass audience preferred Amos 'n' Andy to Leontyne Price, or bumbling Willie Best to the accomplished Nat King Cole, then distorted stereotypes would endure at the expense of realistic depiction. That way the majority would be entertained and the profits would flow, programming would be homogenized, and narrower interests would be ignored.
TV's projection of a hopeful future for blacks emerged in these years of regional imbalance. In practical terms the promise was made before industry leaders understood the implications of a national video system having to be sensitive to local and regional predilections. And simultaneously with the geographic growth of television, it became enormously successful as a profit center for advertising.
As TV became increasingly available, it grew financially at an unprecedented rate. Table 2.1 illustrates the rise of the industry from obscurity to a billion-dollar operation in little more than a decade.
|Table 2.1 Total revenue of|
Television Networks and Stations
|1947:…..$1.9 million||1954:…..$593.0 million|
|1948:…..$8.7 million||1955:…..$744.7 million|
|1949:…..$34.3 million||1956:…..$896.9 million|
|1950:…..$105.9 million||1857:…..$943.2 million|
|1951:…..$235.7 million||1958:…..$1.03 billion|
|1952:…..$324.2 million||1959:…..$1.163 billion|
|1953:…..$432.7 million||1960:…..$1.287 billion|
By the end of the 1950s, with television revenues headed toward $2 billion, idealistic promises of an earlier time were lost in the whirl of success. As well as a national medium, TV was now big business. In light of disastrous financial repercussions that might follow the pursuit of old expectations, past pledges had to be re-evaluated. An executive with WHEN in Syracuse summarized in 1953 the new mentality and motor force of the video industry. According to Paul Adanti, "TV must not be sold as a promotion medium but as what it actually is—an advertising and sales medium with the lowest cost-per-thousand and the most effective results."