Part I
The Emergence Of American Television: The Formative Years

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

Part II
One Nation Under Network Television: The 1950s

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

Part III
The Years Of Plenty: The 1960s and 1970s

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

Part IV
Toward and Video Order: the 1980s and 1990s

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12



Program Rivalries: Cable TV

Whatever the networks' success in programming for audience segments, the vitality of the networks was steadily eroded by new competitive realities within the industry. By the late 1980s, ABC, CBS, and NBC faced a collective crisis created by nothing less than a desertion of network broadcasting by much of the American public. The attrition was most dramatic. Average and median ratings cited in Table 11.4 reveal that between 1953 and 1988 there was a relentless decline in the popularity of top ten and top twenty programming. During that thirty-five-year period average ratings for the best TV had to offer plummeted 54 percent; median figures dropped by approximately the same amount.

Table 11.4
Average and Median Ratings of Top Network Series,
Top 10
Top 20
Top 10
Top 20
1953 47.746.3 42.7 40.4
195834.6 3.6 31.7 30.5
1963 29.9 29.827.3 26.6
196825.4 25.5 23.0 23.6
1973 25.324.2 23.6 23.4
1978 25.824.423.722.8
1983 23.023.1 21.7 20.9
1988 22.121.3 19.0 18.8

Ominously, much of that collapse occurred in the 1980s. Ratings rose slightly in 1968-1978, but during the following decade the collapse was startling: a 14 percent drop in the average rating for top ten series, and a 12 percent decline in the average rating for shows in the top twenty. Expectably, median figures also declined in that period, dropping 19.5 percent for top ten programs and 17.5 percent for top twenty shows.

Viewers have begun to reject network TV as it existed through five decades-and electronic entertainment as it flourished since the late 1920s. With greater choice in what to watch and when to watch it, plus an incipient trend toward rejection of all TV programming, both broadcast and cable, the future of broadcasting in the United States has become uncertain. The most obvious catalyst in this development has been cable TV.

The television universe was large, composed of 669 VHF stations (122 of them educational outlets) and 645 UHF stations (218 of them educational operations). But there existed what former FCC chairman Dennis Patrick described as "ferocious competition that was unimagined 10 years ago." By November 1989 more than 57 percent of the nation's households were wired, and more than 29 percent were receiving pay cable channels as well. Moreover, there were 8,413 cable systems serving local subscribers with a mix drawn from 55 basic networks, 8 pay networks, and 6 pay-per-view operations.

And Americans were finding a broader choice in cable. By the end of 1988 some 64 percent of the households in the United States could receive at least fifteen channels, and 45 percent could pick up at least thirty channels. Significantly, most of this availability was in suburban and rural areas. Within the largest U.S. cities, where cable was unavailable or rela­tively new, the full impact of pay TV was yet to be determined.

Nonetheless, by the end of 1988 there were significant numbers of cabled households in big-city market areas such as New York City (47.8 percent), Los Angeles (46.5 percent), and Boston (63.5 percent). Among the twenty largest market areas, the highest cable penetration rate was in Pittsburgh (66.5 percent); the lowest penetration was in Chicago (40.7 percent.)

Important for cable operators, additional households were waiting to receive cable. A survey of nonsubscribers in 1989 demonstrated that more than one-third was without cable because it was not yet available—and 22 percent felt it was too expensive. Only 24 percent rejected cable because of disinterest.

While the principal attractiveness of cable has been its channel avail­ability and diverse programming, for the most part the cable revolution was accomplished through the attractiveness of off-network reruns. From the vintage Westerns that dominate weekends on CBN The Family Channel, to the women-centered series (e.g., Cagney & Lacey, Partners in Crime, Lady Blue, Falcon Crest, and Kay O'Brien) common to Lifetime, and the vintage child-oriented programs (e.g., Dennis the Menace, Lassie, My Three Sons, and The Donna Reed Show) on Nickelodeon, cable relied on historical television to assure its future.

Several networks, however, offered innovative programming: the two commercial-free channels of C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) aired not only the proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate but also speeches, conferences, and major events affecting public policy. Many of the educational programs on The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel consisted of old films—often from Europe, Australia, or Canada—but they were new to U.S. television. And the all-news formats on Turner Broadcasting System's two actualities outlets, Cable News Network (CNN) and Headline News, were unprecedented in U.S. video.

A major problem confronting cable as it enters the 1990s, however, is the need for original entertainment programming to supplement the network reruns. Certainly the music video has not been exclusively a cable feature, but these filmlets produced to advertise performers and their record albums have created two cable channels—MTV: Music Television and its VH-1: Video Hits-One offshoot—and they have been a prominent part of the program schedule on Black Entertainment Television, The USA Network, The Nashville Network, and others.

Rising popular interest in stand-up comedy in the late 1980s not only spawned a rash of comedy specials and series such as It's Gary Shandling's Show on pay cable, but also the fad led to the creation in November 1989 of The Comedy Channel, an HBO-owned program service devoted solely to comedy, as well as HA! The TV Comedy Network produced by MTV, which debuted in April 1990.

HBO also has spent considerable sums for exclusive coverage of boxing championships, new series and miniseries, and made-for-cable movies. Similarly, Showtime has invested in comedy specials, sitcom series, and stage plays. The move toward original productions has come more slowly to basic cable, yet The USA Network, Lifetime, CBN The Family Channel, and Turner Network Television (TNT) have shown first-run programs and specials.

Cable operators have found fresh programs to be an effective means to attract advertisers as well as audiences. As noted in 1989 by Farrell Reynolds, the president of broadcast sales for Turner Broadcasting, "Ad­vertisers are attracted to original programming like moths to a flame." With increasing popular interest in cable—the total cable share of the prime-time audience rose from 13 percent in 1985 to 22 percent in 1988—there are signs indicating a placement of advertiser money in cable. With the demographic precision offered by cable narrowcasting, plus the rela­tively low price of cable fee structures, the economy and target marketing potential of cable have attracted major advertisers in recent years, as dem­onstrated in Table 11.5.

Table 11.5
Top Cable Network Advertisers,
1987 and 1988
Rank Company 1988
% Change
1Procter & Gamble $30.2 $23.7 +27
2 Philip Morris $23.1 $20.6 +12
3 Anheuser-Busch $21.4 $22.9 - 7
4 Time, Inc. $21.1$16.4 +29
5 General Mills $20 $18.6 + 8
6 RJR Nabisco $14.2 $14.7 - 3
7 Eastman Kodak $11 $ 2.5 +331
8 Clorox, Inc. $10.1 $ 6.9 +47
9 Mars, Inc. $10 $14.9 -33
10 Chrysler Corp. $9.5 $ 6.1 +55

Cable TV, with its dozens of commercial networks, still attracts far less revenue than the three major broadcasters. Estimates for 1989, for example, placed total network advertising at $21.1 billion, a rise of 4.1 percent; cable advertising was expected to reach only $1.5 billion, but that would constitute a rise of 65 percent over the previous year."

Though sparse, cable-originated programming has found respectability within the industry. Not only has cable honored its own productions via the annual Ace awards, presented by the National Cable Television Association, but also made-for-cable programming moved into the artistic mainstream in 1988 when shows from Turner, HBO, Showtime, and Disney were nominated for fifteen Emmy awards. This was the first time in the history of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences that cable products had been permitted to compete against broadcast TV. Importantly, the HBO production Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam won two Emmy awards. It was chosen for outstanding informational special, while its writers William Couturie and Richard Dewhurst were selected for individual achievement in informational pro­gramming. The bittersweet documentary about young American combat­ants in the Vietnam War gained further acclaim when it was released abroad as a theatrical motion picture.

The most expansive commitment to cable-originated fare, however, has been in sports; and significantly, this is where the broadcast networks have taken their most expensive stand against the encroachment of cable. The relationship between network TV and sports has been long and profitable. Network video played an influential role in shaping American sports to fit the demands of show business. As it affected baseball, for example, the networks brought billions of dollars to the sport. Whereas the average major-league baseball salary was $24,909 in 1969, it leaped in 1979 to $113,558 after a decade of increased TV interest in the sport. The money needed to meet sizable team payrolls came from lucrative contracts negotiated by individual teams with stations desiring local coverage, plus arrangements between Major-League Baseball and network television for exclusive rights to a game of the week, plus the "jewel" events: the All-Star Game, the League Championship Series, and the World Series.

With the maturation of cable TV, professional baseball profited handsomely. By 1989 the average major-league player earned $485,000 annually. Moreover, there were 108 players—one-sixth of those in the major leagues—earning $1 million per year; and 21 of these were con­tracted for at least $2 million annually. And commercial television paid for most of it.

To sign Major-League Baseball to a four-year network contract, effective with the 1990 season, CBS agreed to pay $1.06 billion, a considerable sum for a network claiming financial difficulties. But the CBS deal could not blunt the appeal of cable. Baseball officials contracted with ESPN to televise 175 games each season—an average of six games per week, several preseason contests, and extra games on holidays—during the same four-year period. The cost to ESPN was $400 million.

As striking as these figures were, they were surpassed in local arrange­ments between individual baseball teams and cable operators. In Chicago and Atlanta, it was no coincidence that professional baseball teams—the Cubs and Braves, respectively—were the anchor attractions on two superstations, WGN and WTBS, outlets that otherwise were committed to rerunning old sitcoms and movies. The fact that the owners of the superstations—the Chicago Tribune and the Turner Broadcasting System, respectively—also own the Cubs and Braves reaffirms the symbiotic rela­tionship between pro sports and commercial television. This vital linkage was made most apparent in 1989, when the Madison Square Garden Network—a regional cable operation that offers baseball, basketball, hockey, football, track and field, tennis, horse racing, boxing, and wres­tling to more than 2.4 million subscribers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—paid $500 million to the New York Yankees for twelve years of Yankee baseball games.

By the end of the 1980s, industry competition to televise the best college and professional attractions resulted in new heights of sports saturation and expense. In one decade, the commitment of ABC, CBS, and NBC to sports programs rose from 1,288 hours in 1979 to 1,490 in 1989 (excluding Olympic coverage), an increase of more than 15 percent. College basketball on network TV mushroomed from 34 events in 1980 to 74 in 1988—and on cable from 129 events in 1980 to 234 in 1988.

And with visibility came increased cost to the televisers. Commencing with the 1990 season, NBC agreed to pay the National Basketball Association $600 million over four years to air twenty to twenty-six regular games and as many as thirty playoff games. For the cable rights to NBA games, Turner Network Television paid $275 million for four seasons, triple the rate it paid for the last contract period. For rights to the Olympic Games, NBC paid $401 million for the 1992 Summer Games, while CBS agreed to $243 million for the 1992 Winter Games and $300 million for the 1994 Winter Games.

CBS also spent $1 billion for exclusive rights beginning in 1991 to seven years of the college basketball championship tournament mounted each spring by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. As impressive as such figures may be, they were topped when the National Football League—"the gold standard in television entertainment programming," according to President Roger L. Werner of ESPN—negotiated a new TV contract in 1990. For rights to games in the four seasons from 1991 through 1995, ABC, CBS, NBC, Turner Broadcasting, and ESPN paid the NFL more than $3.7 billion. Its previous three-year arrangement with ABC, CBS, NBC, and ESPN totaled more than $1.4 billion.

Ironically, there is no guarantee that the networks will realize profits from such expenditures. ABC lost $64 million on the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, and the World Series of 1989 that pitted San Francisco and Oakland—a series of regional interest at best, but one that was interrupted for ten days by a deadly earthquake and ended unspectacularly by Oakland after four consecutive one-sided victories—brought ABC historically low ratings and a loss of $20 million. During the past decade popular interest in baseball actually declined on NBC's Game of the Week, dropping from a 7.6 rating/28 share in 1978 to a 5.6 rating/18 share for the 1988 season.

Motivation for the large expenditures is varied. Certainly, live sports are attractive to viewers and therefore to advertisers, but many TV executives understand sports in terms of enhanced prestige and reputation for a network and its stations. This is especially true for cable TV, where much of the lure for subscribers has been ESPN, Sports Channel, WTBS, WGN, and TNT. At CBS, however, sports have become the programming weapon of choice in an attempt to fight out of the network cellar. Here sports are expected to attract a sizable audience, but also to promote the entire CBS prime-time schedule. As Neal Pilson, president of CBS sports, noted at the end of 1989, his massive expenditures on sports were "part of a much larger corporate strategy, a larger mosaic to recapture the No. 1 position in prime time. We will use sports as a weapon to do that."

Cable and electronic TV accessories liberated American viewers from the limitations historically integral to U.S. broadcasting. In the medium dominated for decades by three similarly structured networks, the only commitment to diversity had been the underfunded Educational Television /Public Broadcasting Service. But even here there were exasperating limitations, as ETV/PBS stations—with their variety of stunning performances and informative public affairs and documentary programming, plus an abundance of dull educational series, nature films, cooking and gardening shows, British miniseries and comedies, and old feature films—were often buried inconveniently on the UHF spectrum. The TV order taking shape in the 1980s, however, was as close to narrowcasting as Americans had ever encountered. By the end of 1989 approximately half of American homes received thirty or more stations.

As new technologies made possible a multiplicity of channels and TV usages, the long-suppressed pluralism in popular tastes was manifest in the diffusion of the broadcast audience. While the United States re­mained a nation committed to television, it was a new type of medium. The future of American video was aptly demonstrated in 1987 in a survey of preteen viewing habits. The day before the survey was taken, 30 percent of the children had viewed a prerecorded cassette, and 70 percent had watched cable programming. Mothers of the respondents advised further that their children were turning from traditional broadcasting for many reasons, among them perceptions that afternoon cartoons were poorly made, that after-school programs were too similar, that there were too many reruns and outdated situations, and that too many daytime offerings were oriented toward boys.

As if alternative video forms were not threatening enough, another incipient audience trend noticeable in the 1980s was a movement away from all forms of TV. As early as April 1983 a report commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters indicated that Americans were becoming dissatisfied with the medium. Whereas 41 percent of the respondents in 1977 said television was important to their lives, the figure fell to 32 percent in 1983. During the same six-year span, belief that the medium was livelier and more realistic dropped from 72 to 59 percent, and the conviction that video was varied and better than in past seasons dipped from 65 to 52 percent.

Since the impacts of the VCR and cable TV were not widespread in 1983, reasons for this early disenchantment lie elsewhere. According to the NAB, network rejection was caused by adverse reactions to too much sex and violence, the lack of family programs, and "sillier and more juvenile" situation comedies. "From the mid-1970s and continuing into the present day, viewers have become increasingly evaluative, judgmental, and critical of programming offered them by the three commercial televi­sion networks," concluded an executive of the research company that developed the NAB study. Although network representatives attempted to dismiss the report as flawed, the research executive explained pointedly, "The hardest attitude for the television industry to overcome is the belief that the public out there loves them. But the industry needs to understand the dissatisfaction."

What the NAB report detected in 1983 was confirmed by A. C. Nielsen statistics following the 1986-1987 season. For the first time in the two decades Nielsen had recorded such figures, weekly TV viewing time declined in the average household—falling from fifty hours, sixteen mi­nutes during the previous season to forty-nine hours, forty-eight minutes. The loss was noticeable among children as well as among adult women and men. Importantly, the pattern of diminished viewing continued into the 1987-1988 season, declining by another forty-four minutes.

One CBS executive blamed network disintegration on the new competitors. As he understood the situation by 1987, people were still watching the "megabits" on commercial television—although these were becoming more and more difficult to develop—but they were turning to recorded entertainment during those less attractive hours when in earlier decades viewers had little choice but to endure this "middle range" net­work programming.

Spurred by the weakening of network control, many other commu­nications corporations entered TV, eager to establish new interests or expand existing interests. This was no economic democracy, no opening in which small business and inventive entrepreneurs with new ideas were welcomed to compete. Major movie studios, wealthy film syndicators, large newspapers, and national magazines as well as ABC, CBS, and NBC all jumped into the opening in search of profitability. The capitalistic ethic that had fashioned the network monopoly remained operative.

Media sociologist Todd Gitlin was correct to point out that cable stood a good chance of becoming a monopoly industry itself. When he wrote, statistics from 1981 showed that the top ten cable operators controlled 44 percent of all subscribers, the bulk of cable programming came from only a few distributors, and most cable executives had been nurtured in "the television-industrial complex" that shaped monopoly broadcasting. Today, similar patterns of dominance exist in cable. Government has expressed great interest in regulating the new industry, but Congress and the FCC have been preoccupied with sexual explicitness, profanity, and violence as well as the rising subscription rates; few in government seem concerned with oligop­oly. The reluctance of government to become regulatory involved in the winnowing-out process practically guarantees that big corporations will continue to devour smaller corporations on all levels of the business until, eventually, only a few mega-corporations will remain.

This, however, is how capitalism works, particularly in the United States in a time of deregulation—or, as Chairman Mark Fowler of the FCC termed it, "unregulation." And given the enormous start-up costs required to launch a TV operation, be it cable or broadcast, it seems inevitable that only the wealthiest telecommunications operations will survive and control most of the business.

As far as it affects the average viewer, however, the more pertinent question concerns the effects that such developments will have on pro­gramming and culture. Even under the dominion of a few corporations, cable has several structural checks against its becoming a streamlined opera­tion similar to the broadcast monopoly. Above all, because cable is subscriber-based, it must please its audience every month or run the risk of expensive disconnections.

The promise and raison d’être of cable television is program diversity; failure to deliver what subscribers consider a sufficiency of choice could be fiscally self-destructive. In the era of broadcasting a disgruntled viewer could either write a letter of protest or turn off the set. The former usually had little obvious impact, and unless that viewer were also in a "Nielsen home" (one of the few thousand homes nationwide selected to provide the A. C. Nielsen Company with the information from which it computed program ratings) turning off the set had no impact on the broadcasters. In the new video order, the angry viewer is a potential defector from the system, and perhaps the harbinger of a costly exodus by others of similar mind.

Because cable TV is reliant on the economic stability of the national economy, it needs subscriber loyalty as a hedge against economic hard times. Cable must become relatively indispensable to its viewers. Again, to accomplish this it must deliver on its promise of something for everyone. If cable is treated by viewers as a luxury instead of a utility, economic downturns will have direct results in the loss of subscribers. Broadcasting has survived recessions and depressions—in fact, network radio proved invaluable to social morale in the 1930s, a decade marked by the worst depression in U.S. history. Cable TV might be hard pressed to survive such a collapse.

The potential of cable to streamline its programming is tempered by the fact that it operates as a supplement or complement to—but not an alternative or replacement for—free over-the-air video. Unless the broadcast networks were to collapse totally, or move themselves to cable exclusively, they will continue to balance the cable presence. The networks, moreover, will continue to earn the lion's share of the total adver­tising dollar because they still deliver the largest audiences. Network viewership is divisible by three while the full cable audience is divided among scores of channels. Whereas a leading network rating in prime time may be 16.0 (as it was for NBC for the 1988-1989 season), a cable network rating of 2.0 is considered outstanding.

Although there has been fundamental change in the delivery of TV programming, what has not changed is the public preference for familiar types of entertainment and informational programming. To a disappointed Gitlin, writing in the early 1980s, this meant only that "sports, old movies, news, and syndicated shows are the staples of the new cable networks, and they are likely to remain so. What they offer is not so much different as more of the same." In apparent frustration with the medium he had so well dissected, he was led to conclude:

If there is ever to be an American television industry that aims to do something different, to challenge us rather than hook us and fawn on us and condescend to us, it would have to come because publics organize to resist it. . . . In the end, if public life were sufficiently rich and engaging people would already be communicating literally, "making common"—rather than relying on the little electronic box to ease our days.... This is why the predicament of American television is the predicament of Amer­ican culture and politics as a whole. Walt Whitman wrote: "To have great poets there must be great audiences, too.

In such resignation is acknowledgment of the immutable nature of popular culture in a capitalistic United States, an explanation for the persistence of entertainment formats. As Gitlin suggests, to long for consistent quality or profundity or persisting originality in TV is to anticipate a restructuring of American television and culture along lines that most of the population would not necessarily applaud, or subscribe to, anyway. Commercial television, be it broadcast or cable, will never lead by example an aesthetic or moral transformation of the American people; as a business, it will seek only to service its constituency and make money doing it. This is not the precondition for television "to challenge us."

Along the way, however, there will be moments of uplifting pro­gramming—wonderful dance and theater, music from the masters, proba­tive news and documentaries. But this will always be of a minority interest. The record of broadcasting in this matter has clearly been dismal; public television has performed considerably better. But only the narrowcasting capabilities of cable television have the potential to deliver such programming consistently.

To John Fiske, a leading theoretician of video culture, the functionality of television was based on its organization and purpose, and they were fairly obvious. "Television is, above all else, a popular cultural medium," he wrote in his book Television Culture. "Television is a conven­tional medium—its conventions suit both the audiences with their needs for a familiarity and routinization and the producers, for established con­ventions not only keep the costs of production down, they also minimize the risks in the marketplace. The economics of television gives it a conven­tional form, even when its content is more progressive."

Given such determinants, the persistence of the familiar must be understood as inevitable in U.S. television. Since TV is filled with popular culture, and since popular culture appeals to the commonalities within the mass population, it will continue to dominate any medium of commercial entertainment and information. The strength of cable, of course is its ability—if not the necessity—to program "less-popular culture," enter­tainment and informational attractions of interest principally to intellec­tual, racial, occupational, or aesthetic minorities. Importantly, however, such programming is still within the boundaries of conventionality and familiarity required by the viewership and the medium.

The disconcerting part of the equation, however, is that the American people are having to pay directly for their video smorgasbord. Granted, so-called free television never really was without cost to the viewer. All those millions of dollars spent for advertising had to be recouped in the cost of advertised products. As indicated in late 1989 by Richard Gessner, president of Massillon Cable TV of Massillon, Ohio, and chairman of the Community Antenna Television Association, "the only thing that's free about 'free TV' is the free use of the public spectrum.... Whenever a person buys a new car, a box of soap powder, a frozen TV dinner, cosmetics, clothing, national chain store merchandise, or any product or service advertised on TV, a substantial portion of the price goes to pay for over-the-air free TV—even if the person does not own a TV set." Gessner calculated, moreover, that in 1988 the average American household paid $285.56, or $23.80 per month, to support free TV.

With cable, however, subscribers must pay the televisers directly: about $15 monthly for basic cable and upward of $10 per month each for pay channels. Intrusive commercials continue to proliferate on most of the basic cable networks, presumably keeping prices from spiraling even higher; and those with narrow interests still are not satisfied with regularity. After forty years as the disseminator of the common culture, broadcast is now only part of the TV spectrum in the United States. Millions of people, especially the less wealthy, will never know television as it fully exists because TV is no longer free. The social implications of this development will require many years to materialize.

When they first surrendered the airwaves to private commercial companies, Americans set their culture on its present course. That most capitalist countries arranged their video service otherwise—France, Can­ada, and Great Britain, for example—proves neither that they served as many people as well as U.S. television, nor that they produced as prolifically and attractively as the American industry. If anything, the recent drift in Europe toward privatization of telecommunications constitutes an admis­sion of sorts that private business may run television more effectively and approvingly than government.

Entering the 1990s, the United States is left with a hierarchical television system in which broadcasting continues to serve those unwilling or unable to purchase TV, while alternative technologies satisfy those with money and access. Perhaps this was the only way a diverse population could produce the narrowcasting selection it needed to satisfy less than mass tastes. This may no longer be one nation under network television, but it remains the same nation still deeply under the beguilement of the medium.


¤ Continue Reading       ¤ Previous

Archive Home    About Us    Contact Us                            ©2009 J. Fred MacDonald