Dynamics of Video Competition
With the emphasis on profitability at all levels of broadcasting, commercial TV in the 1970s drifted farther from the idealized potential many of its pioneers had recognized. Television was a national informant, but it was far too shallow and ephemeral in its coverage of the news. But when the networks proposed all extension of their evening newscasts to one hour, the affiliates balked. They argued that it would cost them money if the networks preempted an extra half hour of local evening programming.
When the FCC in 1972 instituted the PTAR, it had hoped that local stations would produce community-oriented programs to fill part of the void. Most broadcasters, however, saw the extra time as thirty more minutes to make money with high-power, attractive strips. Instead of investing in productions that were local and original, they turned five nights a week to syndicated game shows, gossip, and audience-participation programs; or they extended lucrative local newscasts that were already too long, too repetitive, and too superficial. But whatever the format, they organized the extra thirty minutes optimally to accommodate clients seeking advertising airtime.
Given the realities of the business and of the nation, it was quixotic to anticipate anything less than such developments. Yet those wanting an improvement in the quality of TV programming continued to urge reform. And when the FCC, Congress, CBS, and the National Association of Broadcasters collaborated in the spring of 1975 to create the family viewing hour, idealism seemed triumphant. The ruling establishing the family viewing hour required that from 7:00 P.m. to 9:00 P.M. EST (6:00 P.m. to 8:00 P.m. in the Central time zone) stations telecast only shows that were appropriate for viewing by a general family audience. The move was taken in reaction to mounting governmental and citizen complaints about sex and violence on early-evening television.
Support for the decision was less than unanimous. Vested interests within the business quickly challenged the rule in court. To the operators of independent stations it was an infringement of a newly found profit center: non-network stations were attracting large audiences and new revenues airing
The Untouchables, The Mod Squad, and other sex-andviolence series opposite the game shows and talk programs now filling the access half hours of many local affiliates.
For the politically liberal community in Hollywood—producers/writers/ directors such as Norman Lear, Larry Gelbart, and Danny Arnold; actors such as Carroll O'Connor, Alan Alda, and Mary Tyler Moore; as well as industry labor unions such as the Screen Actors' Guild, and the Directors' Guild—establishment of the family viewing hour was tantamount to government censorship. They considered it to be an infringement of civil liberties. As writer David Rintels explained it, "A policy directed against sex and violence has in practice turned out to be something very different, a crusade against ideas."
In November 1976 a federal court overturned the family viewing hour as a violation of free speech. Although the court would allow the networks to adopt the family viewing hour voluntarily and without FCC threats or NAB coordination, the offer was never seriously considered. Victorious in the courts, Rintels was uncertain about the consequences. "Does our victory in the family [viewing] hour case open the floodgates to vulgarity and violence?" he wondered in a speech shortly after the court decision. "I pray it does not. I don't think it will. But there are only three people in the world who can answer that question, and they are the men who run the networks." But Rintels held out hope:
If they, or any one of them, succumb to the need to hype their ratings, to make more money, we could again be swallowed up by the gratuitous excesses. If they think that now, because of victory in the lawsuit, they are immune from government constraint and can be reckless with matters affecting taste and sensibility, it would be a disaster for all of us. If they choose not to see that you and we are all deeply, personally committed to seeing better, freer, more responsible television, then it could be that we have won our lawsuit and lost our last, best chance for better television. But I can't believe that any of that will happen."
There was no sudden rush to sex and violence in network TV. But, certainly, ABC, CBS, and NBC retained that right, which they exercised occasionally in special and theatrical movies such as Death Wish, Ritual of Evil, Murder Once Removed, and
Operation: Cobra, which began during the first hour of prime time. The transition period was slow but inexorable. By the early 1980s it was complete. In the fall of 1983 network series beginning at 8:00 P.M. Eastern/7:00 P.M. Central included
Knight Rider; The A-Team; The Dukes of Hazzard; Magnum, P.I.; Scarecrow and Mrs. King; T.J. Hooker; Hardcastle and McCormick; and
The Fall Guy.
The reemphasis on sex and violence was not so much the result of network crassness as it was predetermined by the program limitations the networks placed on themselves. Sex and violence may have been criticized, but they were chronic winners. And by the late 1970s there was little attempt to program anything except those genres and forms that survived the decades.
The narrow, repetitive nature of such entertainment was not coincidental; it was a function of the organization and dynamics of American commercial video. In the three-headed monopoly that was national television, program diversification threatened audience flow, made audience size less predictable and destabilized advertiser expectations. There was really no need for costly experimentation or programming for smaller demographic units, since the three networks were already handsomely profitable, and financial uncertainty developed when programmers strayed too far from the expected. Invention was basically counterproductive; conventionality was the monopolistic way.
Fiscal success lay in mutual reinforcement of that limited menu popularly accepted as network TV. And the networks ensured that their narrowly ranged fare would be widely consumed because what they offered was all there was to see.
The degree to which ABC, CBS, and NBC winnowed choice is noticeable in a comparison of two TV seasons: the fall of 1953, with 155 programs on four networks; and the fall of 1979, with 70 offerings on three networks. The prime-time schedule, relatively full in the early years of the medium, was streamlined to a few entertainment genres that had been worked and reworked for more than thirty years. Gone were network shows devoted to religion, current events, science, and the general edification of viewers; absent, too, were musical features, comedy-variety productions, Westerns, quiz programs, and talent shows. As indicated in Table 9. 1, whereas comedy formats occupied 21.3 percent of the 1953 schedule, they constituted 45.7 percent in 1979. When crime shows are added to the latter figure, the total demonstrates that by the end of the 1970s almost 63 percent of the network evening schedule was either comedy or crime.
The audience was not unaffected by the repetitive quality of U.S. television. After decades of loyalty and forbearance, viewer ardor for TV was in decline by the late 1970s. This was detected in the research of Robert T. Bower. Continuing the academic task begun in 1960 by the late Gary A. Steiner, Bower compared audience attitudes toward the medium in 1960, 1970, and 1980. His conclusion, that "there appears to be a definitive fading of enthusiasm, but one that stops far short of rejection," was proven by data gathered from about two thousand respondents in each of these years.
Bower found Americans sliding toward middle-ground neutrality in their assessment of television. Scoring from 0 for the least favorable attitude to 5 for the most positive attitude, respondents were asked to assess the quality of TV in seven judgmental categories: exciting-dull; important-unimportant; generally excellent-generally bad; in good taste-in bad taste; interesting-uninteresting; wonderful-terrible; for me-not for me. With a possible range of 35 for the superfan to 0 for someone who despised the medium—with 17.5 as the neutral middle ground—the average attitude score dropped from 24.3 in 1960 to 22.3 in 1970 and to 20.9 in 1980. More significantly, Bower discovered a decline of 40 to 50 percent in the ranks of the video superfan, the supporter who felt TV was relaxing, interesting, excellent, exciting, important, and getting better.
More negative in its conclusions was a TV Guide poll in the spring of 1979. It indicated that 44 percent of the American people now were unhappy with what they found on their screens. Dissatisfaction was strongest among better-educated and more affluent viewers; conversely, the medium was most acceptable to young adults as well as blue-collar workers and the poorer sectors of society. But across the board, a total of 75 percent of those surveyed felt the quality of programming was getting worse (33 percent) or was unchanged (42 percent); only 22 percent felt television was improving. And when asked to grade the medium in terms of the program choices offered, 56 percent rated TV poor (16 percent) or fair (40 percent); 41 percent considered it good or excellent.
The writer for TV Guide understood these figures as reflecting an audience of great diversity compelled to watch a medium dedicated to homogenized programming. There was no single "audience" for TV, suggested Myles Callum, "there is only a diverse, demanding, fascinating galaxy of demographic groups and subgroups, in short, many audiences, each with its own profile, passions, and peeves.
What Callum touched on went to the core of network broadcasting. How could three similarly programmed national video services ever satisfy a citizenry as varied as that of the United States? How unfair was it to the nation when the networks homogenized cultural and intellectual diversity in the name of economic profitability? How artificial, even destructive, was a TV system that turned a national asset into a monopoly whose first duty was to corporate shareholders, not to the citizenry that "owned" the airwaves and expected so much from them?
Fall 1953 vs. Fall 1979
| % 1979|
|Music|| 20|| 12.9 || ---|| ---|
|Quiz Show|| 17|| 11.0 ||--- ||---|
|News (non-newscast)||12||7.7||3 4.3
|Sports ||12||7.7 ||1||1.4|
|Talent Show||6||3.9||--- ||---|
|Science Fiction||3 ||1.9||1||1.4|
|Discussion (non-news)||2||1.3 ||---|| ---|
|U.S. Military||1||0.6||--- ||---|
|Travelogue||1|| 0.6||--- ||---|
|Varied || ---|| ---||2||2.9|
|Other Comedy||---|| ---||6 ||7.2|
|Feature Film || --- ||---||7||10.0|
After decades of sameness, Americans were growing disenchanted with TV. Whereas once giants of American show business such as Skelton, Ball, Gleason, and Sullivan helped to realize the early video promise, the medium was dominated now by lesser lights. Whereas once most Americans devoured it nightly, television by the end of the 1970s was repetitive; recombinant; cautious; and to millions of viewers, boring. Although Nielsen figures still showed a rise in the time viewers spent daily with television, the
TV Guide poll reported that 49 percent of the respondents were watching television less than they did a few years earlier.
From the beginning the secret to network success had been popular faith that commercial television was the best that could be achieved, and that in serving a people as diversified as the U.S. population, the networks were satisfying most of the people most of the time. But after thirty years of the same genres and forms it became increasingly difficult to convince viewers that television was the best it could be.
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