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Preface

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

 

 

Changes in the Industry

The quiz show scandal presented network television with a difficult task that it would face again in the future: how to recover from serious blows against the existing industry while increasing popularity and profits. In part it was accomplished with new popular shows—curtailing the over­abundance of Westerns and emphasizing benign situation comedies; ma­ture, even intelligent dramatic series; and turning to a staple of American pop culture, the detective/police series. Since it would take time to adjust season schedules, most of this upgraded programming would occur in the following decade.

But the most important weapon in the network arsenal could be employed immediately. The monopoly that was national television was shaken but not broken by the scandal. A sound scolding by Congress was foreboding, but as long as nothing altered the fundamental structure of national television, the American public could be expected to get over any residual pique.

The first and most permanent result of the scandal was manifest in TV advertising. If regularity and controllability had been goals of network streamlining in the late 1950s, the quiz show affair demonstrated network deficiency in the sponsorship of programs. Seeking the most palatable way of blunting governmental and network confusion, the networks worked with the leading agencies to reform the relationship between advertisers and programs. No longer would single sponsors be strongly identified with individual series, as had been the practice during the halcyon days of radio and in the first decade of TV. The agencies accepted a "magazine" approach in which several companies would buy commercial time on a single program or series. Charges for such commercial time would be set by the networks in accordance with ratings figures gathered during measurement periods scheduled throughout the year.

But the scandal only catalyzed changes in network advertising that had been evolving for several years. Rising costs of program production and airtime made cooperative sponsorship inevitable. There was a limit to how much advertisers could afford. By one estimate, 88 percent of the television advertisers in 1964 would have been priced out of the TV market were they underwriting a series alone."' Further, since there was a finite number of hours in a broadcast day, the sale of a full half hour or hour to one sponsor appeared increasingly inefficient to the networks. This was especially true because there were scores of would-be advertisers desiring access to the enormous market serviced by national video.

As early as January 1954 Television magazine published the opinions of ten leaders of the advertising community on the question of television advertising. Several discussed the need for arrangements that would open national TV to new clients who could not afford to sponsor complete programs, and to clients who had only periodic need to advertise on television. To Leo Burnett a pressing concern was for "networks and stations to find a way to accommodate the seasonal needs of certain major advertisers ... if TV is to serve business, and be supported by business, it must realistically recognize the varying conditions of business."

William R. Baker, Jr., the chairman of Benton & Bowles, suggested that "another avenue open to the small advertiser to participate in a low-cost yet effective and practical manner in television is through the use of what has been termed the 'magazine' concept of TV sponsorship."

Fairfax M. Cone of Foote, Cone & Belding was most direct. Declaring that "I see no reason why a little group of companies should own all the best time," Cone saw the solution years before the network made it canon. "I believe there is an answer that has to come: the magazine concept of telecasting. Under this plan ... stations and networks would select and produce all programs" while advertisers and agencies would concentrate on making commercials. "Just as a newspaper or magazine editor selects the editorial content of his publications, station and network producers would build their programs," Cone noted. "But it is most important in such a plan for the networks to rotate commercial messages, just as magazine publishers rotate their pages of advertising, to give all their advertisers a fair break."

CBS advertised as early as 1953 that it was building "new flexibility" into TV with innovative advertising options: alternative-week sponsorship with cross-referencing of advertisers; division and sale of daytime programming in segments of five minutes; and a participation plan "whereby the cost of some of the biggest shows may be assumed by as many as three or four sponsors on an equal basis."' 2

While CBS proposed, ABC disposed. As the distant number three network, ABC required bolder strategies to compete—indeed, to survive in its first years. The merger of ABC with United Paramount Theaters in 1953 brought to the leadership of the network Leonard Goldenson—a film man, not a broadcaster. One of his first steps was to rid ABC of its sponsored half hours and hours and turn, instead, to the advertising agencies to sell time on programs selected by the ABC management. He also moved aggressively into the area of film, signing Walt Disney studios to produce Disneyland, and then Warner Brothers to introduce Cheyenne, Maverick, and many other Western and private-eye series by the end of the 1950s. M-G-M and 20th Century-Fox also debuted series on ABC.

Importantly, Goldenson sold advertising time on Disneyland to several sponsors, and the same was true for most other ABC series. In this way, for example, the Disneyland telecast on February 29, 1956, contained two generic commercials from the American Dairy Association (one for milk and one for butter), an advertisement for Swift canned meats, and two commercials from American Motors for its 1956 Rambler automobiles.

"We made up our minds we would not wait for the advertisers to come to ABC," explained Goldenson. "They brought us only their poor programs. They took their best ones to the other two networks, and when a good one developed at ABC, they took that away, too. So we simply took control of the programs. The ABC model worked, elevating the network in terms of viewership, program quality, and profits. Soon CBS and NBC began to adopt the ABC style.

As Business Week magazine reported in late 1959, the ending of one sponsor/one program arrangements freed advertisers and their agencies from any compunction to prevent o over-commercialization on TV. "When the advertiser was sponsor, it behooved him to be sensitive to the frequency and length of his program interruptions," noted the magazine. "As a buyer of minute packages which disperse his message over an assortment of programs on various nights of the week, he is unburdened of that aesthetic decency as well as other responsibilities.

More than ever, according to journalist Les Brown, advertisers came to influence American television by their patterns of spending. "When by consensus advertisers determine that Saturday morning is a cheaper and more efficient way to reach young children than by investing in early prime time," Brown wrote in 1971 in his perceptive critique Televi$ion: The Business Behind the Box, "the juvenile-slanted shows vanish from 7:30 P.M., which had been the children's hour since the start of television." He continued:

When the advertiser's need is to set his fall budgets six or seven months ahead of the season, the networks adjust their fall planning accordingly. When advertisers manifest an interest in sports, they proliferate on the home screen; an aversion to original plays, they evaporate. And when the advertisers spurn the viewers who are past the age of fifty and assert a preference for young married couples, the network obediently disenfranchise the older audience and go full tilt in pursuit of the young.

The quiz scandals were a turning point in TV history. Certainly, quizzers with big prizes would return to television, especially as daytime entertainment. But the clear victors in this scandal were the networks. A mild federal law against TV fraud was a minuscule price to pay for control over advertising and programming. Where elected officials did not favor, and public opinion did not want, government control of programming, the networks eagerly filled the void. Already they had enormous wealth and power, which they used to shape U.S. television. Now they would control the pricing and placement schedules for airtime. Frank Stanton explained the new arrangement with candor: "From now on we will decide not only what is to appear, but how?"

Oliver Treyz has dated the decline of commercial television as begin­ning with the decision by network executives to assume total control of their industry. "In the old days when the advertising agencies did the programming, there was more competition, more creative people, more thought going into programming," revealed the former president of ABC-TV. "The minute a network assumed the programming power, the industry lost its diversity and fired most of the creative people and the power gravitated to a few."

By the early 1960s the networks had moved deeply into all aspects of the industry. As CBS management told its stockholders less than four years after the scandal, they could count on the "continuing participation of the Network's programming officials at every stage of the creative process from the initial script to the final broadcast. This meant plan­ning, production, exhibition, and distribution, creating what one industry analyst described as "a vertically integrated medium."

The networks profited at every turn. Ostensibly the filmed programming that filled national TV was the creation of Hollywood moviemakers, but with only ABC, CBS, and NBC to sell to, the flat-rate prices for filmed series stayed low and production houses actually went into debt creating new series for television. Hollywood producers did not start to profit until their series went into off-network syndication, where they could be stripped (aired two or more times per week) as reruns and sold in each market separately. But to provide enough shows for a normal twenty-six-week rerun commitment, a production company needed to complete a hundred programs—and that took from three to five years on national television, especially as the networks steadily decreased their first-run annual commitments from fifty-two or thirty-nine episodes in the early 1950s, to twenty-eight installments in the 1960s, to twenty-two or less by the 1970s.

And if a series did become a national hit, running sufficiently to accumulate enough episodes for syndication, the networks invariably owned a sizable percentage of the syndication action. By putting up some of the seed money (up to about $50,000) needed to produce a pilot episode, a network often demanded ownership of as much as 50 percent of the series. Further, it could demand syndication rights up to 35 percent of future revenues as part of the price for televising the series in the first place. Even merchandising rights—a percentage of the T-shirt and decal trade—went to the networks. According to an FCC report in 1970, the networks had contracts guaranteeing them a portion of the non-network income of 98 percent of their prime-time series.

The broadcasters needed only to sit back like great emperors and await the arrival of vassal production companies come to peddle programs. Then the broadcasters could invite advertisers to buy sixty-second com­mercial openings on the shows selected for airing, selling six minutes each hour (plus two minutes per hour for the local stations), or 21 minutes per prime-time day to corporations seeking access to a nation of consumers. The actual rates, of course, varied, depending on the ratings and other factors. In no case, however, was time cheap. And though network radio had a long history of sustaining series—programs without commercial sponsorship that were broadcast for prestige value, often for many years—modern TV did not broadcast sustaining series. In his penetrating analysis of the great media empires, The Powers That Be, David Halberstam de­scribed the condition of CBS and network television as it entered the 1960s:

So it was not good enough to succeed, to put on a good program that was sponsored, and make a profit, now there had to be a dominance of the ratings, a super-profit.... Nielsen was the new god of television; his truths were not truths, they were commandments; what was rated high was good; what was rated low was bad. There was room for nothing else, no other value systems, no sense of what was right and what was wrong. The stakes were too great, and became greater every year.'

By 1960 television had become a mature and streamlined business, a great "cash cow."The focus now shifted from invention to convention, from carving out an acceptable social role for itself to counting the rewards of investment, planning, and monopoly. This is not to say that U.S. television atrophied. Often the networks offered exhilarating and engrossing programs; occasionally these productions deserved and received critical acclaim for their entertainment qualities, or less frequently, their educational values.

But the exciting early spirit of video had dissipated. TV was no longer a novelty; there were fewer niches to find and fill. Clearly, the years of experimentation had passed, as bold programming ventures yielded to the process of homogenization. Much of what the networks now offered was bland old wine poured into new bottles: filmed formulaic dramas with little lasting importance, silly situation comedies featuring gimmicks borrowed from stage humor a half-century old, sports competition in­creasingly shaped to fit the needs of TV advertisers, violence and sex substituted for well-crafted suspense and mystery.

Already the voice of aggrieved criticism was to be heard. Writing in early 1962, the noted Canadian film director Norman Jewison criticized network decision-making that "leaves us with a congestion of dull, unimaginative shows.... This is not reasonable, intelligent, and hardly understandable. " According to the man who later directed such films as The Cincinnati Kid, In the Heat of the Night, and Fiddler on the Roof:

Video programming can improve if it caters to the selective viewer, the one who wants a representative grouping of programs on his TV screen. Why must we have a plethora of Westerns one year, detective shows the next, and so on? There should be a versatility of shows, whether it be variety, Western, private eye, or animated cartoon. There shouldn't be a sudden rash of copyists of one successful formula, for all they do is cancel their own efforts in the long run.

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