Blacks In The New Video Order,
After more than forty years in which three broadcast corporations and their affiliates monopolized what Americans saw on TV, the predictable stability of American television has been destroyed. The industry dominance forged by ABC, CBS, and NBC has been shattered; and the social-cultural role of this Big Three has diminished. As the importance of the networks declines, a new video order is materializing.
The weakening of network TV came swiftly during the 1980s. In less than a decade the Big Three lost one-third of their cumulative audience. In the early 1990s network ratings continue to decline, and none of the experts knows fully when the decline might end and what its ultimate consequences will be on American television.
This is because the disintegration of the monopoly was triggered not by an economic slump or massive audience disenchantment with programming, but by technological advances that are revolutionizing the meaning of TV in the United States. New electronic devices have redefined the relationship between viewers and their television sets. A multiplicity of new channels has appeared and offers expanded choice. "Pay TV" has begun to supplant "free TV." Of necessity, programmers have narrowed the focus of what they deliver in order to reach smaller target audiences. These are radical changes that are leading not only to the restructuring of the video industry but also to major alterations in the homogenized, white middle-class culture so overwhelmingly propagated via the networks.
In the 1980s, millions of American homes experienced a quantum leap into the age of personalized technology. Affordable new electronic gizmos such as the videocassette recorder turned viewers into programmers. Off-air recording allowed them to be more discriminating about spending time watching television. The consumer boom in prerecorded videotapes for purchase and rental increased the availability of video fare and challenged network dominance of the TV set. And other electronic products, from laser discs for movies and compact discs for music, to video games and personal computers, provided the public with seductive alternatives to TV as it had existed since the late 1940s.
But if television has changed substantially, it is primarily because of cable TV. Long a delivery system for people living in rural or mountainous areas where good reception was impossible, cable by the early 1980s had resolved the legal and technical impediments thrown in its way by over-the-air broadcasters. Quickly, the liberated medium began to transform the entire industry.
By bouncing TV signals off communications satellites orbiting in the heavens, cable programmers circumvented the networks and created their own national linkages. Delivering these signals directly to local distributors throughout the country, suppliers soon provided dozens of new, made-for-cable channels for subscribers who lived not only in rural areas but also in the largest American cities and their well-populated suburbs. And cable filled its channels with attractive programs—from vintage reruns to original productions and exclusive live-action events. Importantly, this augmentation of home entertainment seemed to reenergize all U.S. television, forcing greater competition, creating wider program diversity, and necessitating greater appreciation of viewer sensibilities.
By early 1991 cable TV had 55 million subscribing homes, representing 59 percent of all American households. Many in cable predicted even greater levels of penetration, possibly reaching 70 percent within a few years. With the wiring of the United States came enhanced choice. Whereas in 1964 only 8 percent of television households could receive nine or more channels, a quarter-century later 64 percent could receive at least fifteen stations and 45 percent could pick up at least thirty channels.
Instead of adopting the strategy of network broadcasting—luring broad, undifferentiated audiences with programs appealing to widely-held attitudes and tastes—cable outlets aimed at narrower constituencies. Whether aimed at country music fans, Spanish speakers, women, or Roman Catholics, whether formatted as all-news, all-sports, all-music, all-movies, all-educational, or all-comedy, cable channels ushered in the age of narrowcasting.
Crucial to this emerging arrangement has been the globalization of the entertainment business, which has been spearheaded by several multibillion-dollar transnational corporations. More than the simple distribution of old U.S. television films to foreign countries, the movement toward globalization has meant the control of the world's entertainment by a few mega-corporations responsible for production, distribution, and marketing of finished products. Massive enterprises such as Sony and Matsushita from Japan, Maxwell Communications based in Great Britain, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation from Australia, Pathé Entertainment from France, and Time Warner in the United States have been amalgamating diverse media companies to form global information empires that are vertically integrated and synergistically interrelated.
While Hollywood remains a city in Southern California, the "Hollywood" that produces television shows and motion pictures has been bought by corporations and billionaire investors headquartered throughout the world. Among recent acquisitions, Sony has purchased Columbia Pictures, Matsushita now owns MCA/Universal, Twentieth Century-Fox is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, and Pathé has acquired MGM-United Artists. In this arrangement, U.S. television gradually is being subsumed within an interlocking planetary system of commercial popular culture.
While U.S. laws forbid noncitizens from owning American radio or TV stations or networks, the case of Rupert Murdoch—and Australian who quickly acquired U.S. citizenship, then purchased the Metromedia network with its TV stations and used them as a foundation for his new Fox television network—suggests that even U.S. broadcast properties are being merged into global conglomerates.
Globalization is shifting the focus of entertainment production. When massive corporations like Sony and Time Warner control movie, publishing, phonograph, radio, television, and other media facilities, supplemented by production, distribution, and marketing subsidiaries, all located around the globe, they have indicated that their audience is no longer just the predominantly white United States with its persistent racial prejudices.
Entertainment transnationals seek to amuse the world; they need products that can be sold easily everywhere on the planet. While such merchandise may seek to entice American customers, their ultimate audience is multiracial and international.
In this reality, negative racial qualities in a TV show can cost money because they compromise the marketability of the finished article. Demeaning racial messages can drive disapproving viewers to other video forms, and satellite- and cable-delivered narrowcasting practically insures that at any hour on the TV schedule there will be an acceptable substitute for offensive programming. Moreover, since the majority of the Earth's population consists of people of color, racial disparagement can limit the acceptability and, therefore, profitability of a television production