Appearance and Reality
Television had come of age by the 1960s. Almost every American had access to TV, and for a growing number it was in living color, too. Manufacturers continued to churn out new receivers for eager buyers: 5.7 million sets in 1960, 11.4 million in 1968. With the average household using TV five to six hours every day, only sleeping occupied more human time.
Television was as lucrative as it was popular. The three networks and 565 stations in 1963 realized $1.8 billion in total revenues. Leading the pack, CBS that year earned $555 million—a rise of 700 percent over revenues in 1948. Moreover, CBS in 1963 pulled in 39 percent of all network business, compared to 35 percent at NBC and 26 percent at ABC. Such individual success within a fabulously profitable industry prompted Forbes magazine in 1964 to dub William S. Paley's network "the money tree of Madison Avenue."
There was little in U.S. society that television did not touch. From politics and mass consumption to entertainment, fashion, and morality, TV was the common carrier of the national standard. Touching so much of the American experience, it is no wonder that the distinguished writer Leo Rosten in 1961 described the omnipresent medium as "this marvelous, exciting, depressing, promising, wonderful, deplorable miracle.
Nothing better summarized the significant maturing of television than the first of the four "great debates" between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in the fall of 1960. The strengths and weaknesses of the medium were encapsulated in the first rhetorical confrontation—held September 26 in Chicago—between the Democratic and Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States.
Truly, TV had arrived. Here were contenders for the most powerful job on Earth appearing live on camera to compare their views for the benefit of the common citizen. It was an historical first. Television was at its communicative best, providing the nation with the opportunity to make crucial democratic decisions in the privacy of the home. The medium had become what its pioneers had predicted, a national political forum, and no politician thereafter could run effectively for office until deciding how to handle its intrusive existence.
But the debate was not wholly what it appeared to be; it had limitations emanating from the fact that it was on television. First, it was not really a debate. Sensing the power of TV to magnify a momentary mistake—a flash of anger, a slip of the tongue, a raised eyebrow, an appearance of arrogance or humiliation—the candidates agreed not to argue directly with one another. Instead, the format resembled a dual press conference, with soft questions lobbed by participating journalists. Anticipating such queries, moreover, the candidates were well coached on what to say and how to say it.
Viewers did not receive a profound comparison of ideas or prospective policies. Television seldom offered much more than the superficial. Instead, the audience that evening was the first to confront the critical importance of glamour in modern politics, the first to assess a candidate's capacity to lead the nation and the Free World based on how well he looked and performed on TV.
Nixon was gaunt and needed a shave. His light-colored suit blended with the light backdrop, and he started to perspire midway through the hour-long program. Kennedy was suntanned and worked without makeup. His dark clothing contrasted flatteringly with the surroundings, adding a note of savoir-faire to his demeanor. What the two men said was much less important than how they looked. Radio listeners actually voted Nixon the winner; TV viewers chose JFK.
A year earlier the senator from Massachusetts wrote in TV Guide of the importance of physical appearance in the age of video. He hailed the "new breed of candidates" that was successful because of a "particular reliance on TV appeal." Most of the breed were young men, for youth, according to Kennedy, "is definitely an asset in creating a television image people like and (most difficult of all) remember." He continued:
Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence—the presence or lack of these and other qualities make up what is called the candidate's "image." While some intellectuals and politicians may scoff at these "images"—and while they may in fact be based only on a candidate's TV impression, ignoring his record, views, and other appearances—my own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct.
The pattern of social success masking inherent shortcomings that was apparent in the Kennedy-Nixon debate persisted in network television during the next two decades. On the one hand there were impressive accomplishments; on the other there were festering problems that could not be resolved by television as then structured. National TV was firmly in place, and for the next twenty years its principal concern was the battle between three corporate giants struggling from rivalrous season to rivalrous season for ratings supremacy. Still, the angry and the dismayed criticized it for the impact it was having on American society—and for the impact they felt it should be having. It may have pleased many, even most Americans, but there were countless citizens who felt abused and disenfranchised by a national utility that seemingly ignored their protestations.
This was an enormously profitable time, however, well worth the periodic struggle against critics and would-be reformers. The business of TV settled into a routine of making money, as industry profits rose from a gross of $1.3 billion in 1962, to $1.9 billion in 1965, and to $2.5 billion by 1968. Significantly, about half of this money went to the three networks and their fifteen owned-and-operated VHF stations.
Statistics confirm the overwhelming control of television exercised by ABC, CBS, and NBC. As Chairman E. William Henry of the FCC phrased it in the mid-1960s, the three networks dominated "virtually all programming which the American public sees during their prime evening hours." That dominance had grown rapidly and definitively. In 1957 the three national program services owned (29 percent) or had some proprietary rights (38 percent) in two-thirds of their prime-time programming. In 1964 the figure reached 93 percent; only 7 percent of the nation's TV fare came from producers with no network ties. Moreover, by the early 1960s CBS was the second-largest producer of network filmed programs, trailing only MCA.
Network control did not end with first-run TV. Packaged reruns of old network series dominated the syndication market. The programs were familiar to audiences and usually had more attractive production values than first-run syndicated series. And with the limited non-network marketplace for filmed series, it was risky for Hollywood studios to gamble on first-run programs. According to Henry, in 1956 there were 29 first-run series released to syndication; a decade later there was one such series.
By far the most successful operation was at CBS, where President James T. Aubrey charmed the American people by emphasizing soap operas in the afternoon and sitcoms in the evening. Especially popular in prime time were rural comedies such as
The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, and Green Acres, which reprised the "rube" humor of turn-of-the-century vaudeville. Rube humor generated high ratings that enticed advertisers. Whereas advertisers in 1964 could buy a prime-time minute on NBC for $41,000 and on ABC for $45,000, champion CBS demanded $50,000, a figure that translated into $1 million every night.
Stockholders may have rejoiced along with most network executives that CBS—and network television, for that matter—had achieved what William S. Paley later described as "that elusive, fragile, ideal mixture of programming that caters to some of the more specialized, more refined tastes and yet pleases a large part of the mass audience most of the time."' But others felt it regrettable that the scarce public airwaves were being manipulated so unabashedly to make greater and greater amounts of money.
The broadcasting business had become the corporatized communications industry, a Wall Street/Fortune 500 operation with profitability as its principal goal. Edward R. Murrow was disappointed, declaring as early as 1958 that although "we have in this country a free enterprise system of radio and television ... I find nothing in the Bill of Rights or the Communications Act which says that they [the networks] must increase their net profits each year lest the republic collapse." To Fred W. Friendly, it was all quite simple: "The people from Harvard Business School taught the networks how to institutionalize their greed."
David Halberstam sketched the corporate fever that gripped TV by the early 1960s. "Companies like CBS became increasingly dominated by a new generation of bright young men who knew systems, how to take an existing structure and make it far more profitable," wrote Halberstam, "cutting quality here, adding a minute or two of advertising there, little changes which, when carried through for an entire year, might mean millions and millions of dollars. Their loyalty was to the bottom line."
Network officials usually responded to such criticism with statements about performing public good and providing the viewing public with what it wanted. But one eminent TV writer was more direct. David Karp noted in 1965, "TV is not an art form or a cultural channel; it is an advertising medium." Thus "it seems a bit churlish and un-American of people who watch television to complain that their shows are so lousy. They are not supposed to be any good. They are supposed to make money." And not without a touch of irony, Karp added, "The ugly truth about television is that the 'quality' of television programming has nothing to do with its 'success.' In fact, 'quality' may be not merely irrelevant, but a distraction."
The debate was intense and honest, but the fact remained that, inherently, if television were either good or bad, it was that way because of decisions made by men with vested interests. As distinguished professor Herman S. Hettinger of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania had suggested at the dawn of the television era, TV was among those new electronic inventions that were changing American communications, but "these inventions are amoral; they are agencies for good or evil, depending upon how men choose to use them." Then he posed questions that still demand answers:
Will they make us less reasoning, more given to catchwords and the oversimplification of issues, more prone to follow the attractively presented shibboleth, swaying from one extreme to another? Will these new arts add further to the pressure of speed, which is the enemy of reflection, and the mass of detail, which impairs assimilation? Will they provide increasing escape in passive entertainment? Or will the increasing supply of knowledge, attractively presented, open up new vistas to the average citizen, lay the basis for a growing discrimination in enjoyment and in the judgment of issues, and eventually develop a more wide-awake and civically conscious public?
As with the layered meaning of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the response to Hettinger's questions must be ambiguous, for they are answerable partially in the affirmative, partially in the negative. This is made clear by a consideration of U.S. television in terms of its political, cultural, and economic significance in its years of plenty.
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