The Networks at Home and Abroad
It is tempting to consider the national culture propagated via television as a timely reflection of popular thought in the United States. In such a view, programs were on TV because they spoke to verities of social life at the time they were popular. They enjoyed success because the audience recognized—subconsciously, perhaps—their articulation of relevant attitudes and values. While such interpretation has the veneer of credibility, it overlooks the process of programming in network TV.
Decisions to telecast series are not made by scholarly researchers shaping shows to mesh with their assessments of public opinion and cultural trends. Ultimately, the choice of programs rests with upper management, after ideas have risen through layers of subalterns hired to develop and evaluate concepts. In a lengthy memorandum to his subordinate Felix Jackson in the NBC Programming Department, David Levy offered insights into the decision-making process of national TV. Written in April 1961—and reprinted in Levy's lengthy letter to Robert Sarnoff three months later—the memo suggests that programming had become the preserve of business managers operating with one eye on the ratings and another on the contractual arrangements between the network and various commercial entities within the television industry.
Levy wrote at a time when NBC trailed CBS and ABC in the ratings; the letter analyzed prime-time scheduling for the summer of 1961. The following excerpt, with several bracketed annotations, indicates clearly that commerce and not cultural sensibilities ultimately determined the NBC lineup:
On Sunday, we scheduled THIS IS YOUR LIFE at 10:30 because we had a firm commitment for two years with Ralph Edwards [host and producer of the series] and because P&G [Procter & Gamble] felt that their program judgment was correct in insisting on scheduling PETER AND MARY [Peter Loves Mary] at 10:00 on Wednesday. As you know, the Program Department objected to this move, but we either had to make it or lose the business without any further consideration of the fact that
THIS IS YOUR LIFE has been the No. 1 show in its time period, and scheduling it at 10:30 opposite a program with similar appeal, but deeply entrenched [What's My Line on CBS], was certain to place it at least second.
BARBARA STANWYCK [The Barbara Stanwyck Show], whose show was scheduled at 10:30 Sunday, was scheduled in a 10:00 time period because Alberto Culver [sponsor] made that a condition of their order which originally covered
LAWLESS YEARS [ The Lawless Years] at 10:30 Thursday as well as other business. The only place where STANWYCK could be scheduled as early as 10:00 was on Monday.
As you know, we could not clear stations on Thursday and had to give up the
LAWLESS YEARS despite the fact that it had been winning its time period due in large measure to its scheduling following
THE UNTOUCHABLES on ABC. The positioning of STANWYCK at 10:00 made it mandatory to find a new time period for NBC Specials. Regrettably, the only period which was saleable and available was 10:00 Tuesday. I would like to point out that the Program Department was vigorously opposed to the scheduling of STANWYCK at 10:00 Monday because (1) we felt that the Specials would do poorly against GARRY MOORE [The Garry Moore Show on CBS], and (2) we felt that STANWYCK would be on third place on Monday. Incidentally, in all of these positions that the Program Department took with respect to STANWYCK, Specials, and PETER AND MARY, we were supported by the Research Department. I might also add that many members of the network Management felt the same way, but these business accommodations were vital to making sales. As a result of the STANVVYCK move, we had a weak 10:30 period available on Monday and business considerations alone prompted us to accept the BERLE BOWLING show [Jackpot Bowling]—never considered a winner by anybody at NBC.
In addition, we accommodated BELL TELEPHONE [The Bell Telephone Hour] by giving them 9:00 on Friday since they flatly refused any later time period. This, of course, made the MICHAEL SHAYNE spot of questionable value as far as being a winner in its time period. Finally, it was decided to continue with
THE NATION'S FUTURE on Saturday which effectively killed Saturday from 9:30.1 might add that the Program Department as well as the Research Department vigorously opposed the scheduling of DEPUTY [
The Deputy] on Saturday, but here again business considerations prompted our acceptance of this admittedly weak Western. The scheduling of PEOPLE ARE FUNNY repeats at 6:30, hardly an ideal show to lead into SHIRLEY TEMPLE [Shirley Temple's Storybook], was also prompted by a business opportunity for revenue.
Although the networks extracted part of the profits of the series they aired, responsibility for most of the filmed TV series rested with the major movie studios that had gravitated to the medium. Here were motion-picture giants such as M-G-M, MCA/Universal, 20th Century-Fox, and Paramount (which purchased Desilu in 1967)—as well as powerful independents such as Bing Crosby Productions and Quinn Martin Productions. Many smaller studios had gone out of business, however, as filming for television became costly. By 1968 a ninety-minute series such as
The Name of the Game or The Virginian cost $275,000 per episode—or $7.15 million for the twenty-six episodes broadcast during a normal season. Comparable budgets were needed for hour programs such as
Mission: Impossible (at least $180,000 per episode) and half-hour situation comedies such as
Hogan's Heroes ($80,000 or more per installment).
Moreover, production of a series was far from a guarantee of success. Network programming was a highly inefficient operation. According to the ratings standards by which ABC, CBS, and NBC operated, much on TV was rejected by the public. Of the 379 new series introduced in the ten-year period 1966-1976, a total of 60 percent disappeared after one season; 17 percent lasted a second season; 14 percent lasted for three or four seasons. Only 9 percent remained on the air for five years, the number of years usually conceded to be required for profitable rerun syndication.
As illustrated in Table 8.1, between 1960 and 1970 the per-season failure rate for fall prime-time series averaged 38 percent. Although figures suggest greater efficiency by the end of the decade, these smaller totals actually reflect network reconsiderations of what constituted audience acceptance. Whereas cancellation usually awaited shows failing to garner
at least a 30 percent share of those viewing TV, changes in programming philosophy, a preference for shows lasting sixty minutes or longer, and greater care in shaping series to fit audience specifications meant by 1970 that the networks retained weaker programs longer. Nonetheless, mortality figures never became negligible. During the years 1984-1986, for example, the networks canceled 146 prime-time series.
Prime-Time Cancellation Rate,
Fall 1960—Spring 1970
Despite scheduling failures, however, commercial TV continued to be profitable. Between 1960 and 1977 gross advertising revenues for the industry rose from $1.62 billion (13 percent of all U.S. advertising) to $7.5 billion (20 percent). While the network share of this total actually dropped from 50.4 to 44.2 percent, network gross income rose from $820 million to $3.3 billion.
But there were other revenue sources for the networks. These ranged from domestic off-network syndication to leasing network studios to independent producers contractually bound by the networks to use those facilities. As it affected their economic power, however, the most promising source of additional revenues came from the international dealings of the American networks. By the late 1960s, ABC, CBS, and NBC were at the forefront of the movement toward the economic rearrangement of the world along multinational corporate lines. Forging for themselves preeminent roles in the globalization of electronic mass communications, the three American networks were fast becoming TV programmers for the world.
With their substantial profits, the networks were able to think beyond U.S. television. This was the time to diversify, and in the early 1960s they began to buy outside the telecommunications field. CBS led the way, purchasing companies as varied as the New York Yankees baseball team, the cartoon filmmaker Terrytoons, the Steinway piano company, the toy manufacturer Creative Playthings, and several magazine and book publishers. Through RCA, its parent company, NBC spent its massive profits on such businesses as the Hertz automobile-rental company, a carpet manufacturer, a real-estate-management operation, and a venture into computer manufacturing.
More significant, however, was their involvement in international broadcasting. At a time when major corporations in Europe, Japan, and the United States were moving beyond their national borders to establish dominance in other nations, the American television networks were the most attractive communications corporations in the world.
ABC, CBS, and NBC had been thinking globally for a long time. With distribution rights to thousands of hours of episodic filmed series, U.S. networks since the 1950s had profited from leasing their programs abroad. And there were many outlets for the American products. By 1959 there were 435 stations and 23.2 million sets in non-Communist foreign countries; there was also a great demand for prepackaged filmed programming.
Media historian Erik Barnouw has shown how American exports undermined local creativity. When the networks and other American distributors leased their films cheaply to Australia, Canada, and other countries, they often gained dominating positions that allowed them to thwart native film industries unable to match the low prices offered by the Americans. Throughout the Cold War, moreover, foreign aid was tied to the import of American-made products by recipient countries. Among the products urged on them were transmitters, studio equipment, and supplies for television facilities. "In the mid-1950s," wrote Barnouw, "television, like missionary expeditions of another era, seemed to serve as an advance herald of empire. Implicit in its arrival was a web of relationships involving cultural, economic, and military aspects, and forming the basis of a new kind of empire. All this was not entirely unplanned."
American TV, with its cultural values and social assumptions, became global in the 1950s and 1960s.
The International Television Almanac for 1962 gives indication of this penetration, describing aspects of the world market as follows:
|Argentina:|| "Programs consist mainly of American TV serials, and strong resistance has
already resulted from this circumstance.-|
|Australia:|| "Despite agitation by Actors Equity, the bulk of material on TV—certainly, the most
popular programs—are American filmed shows."|
|Brazil:|| "Transmissions comprise all kinds of programs, musicals, humor, sports,
interviews, live theater, etc., including lately also filmed serials, which had been
thought of as impossible due to their being mostly in English language with Portuguese
|Italy:|| "Best programs are still unabashedly modeled on American shows. For three
years the equivalent of The $64,000 Question was the leader here. Now it has been supplanted by
Twenty-One and Name That Tune. Some American kinescopes have been shown here (either dubbed or with a superimposed spoken commentary) to great success."|
|Peru:|| "Programming depends greatly on Westerns and mystery (detective) shows from the
United States that have been Spanish-dubbed in Mexico.... Film programs are preferred to
live because of the cost factor."|
| Sweden:|| "An ordinary TV week in Stockholm sees about fourteen hours of 'live'
programs and six hours of film: Swedish, French, American (U.S.A.), British, and
Soviet pictures have been shown on TV, and serials like Perry Mason, The Perry
Como Show, Hitchcock Presents, Gunsmoke, Disneyland, Robin Hood (British), and
The U.S. networks were heavily committed to overseas business activities. By the early 1960s ABC was billing itself "the world's largest buyer of programs for telecasting outside the United States," while CBS claimed it was "the world's largest exporter of films produced for television," and NBC reported sales in 110 markets in 60 countries." Exporters of U.S. television programs in 1968 anticipated a foreign gross of $70 million to $80 million. And one observer estimated that in 1969 approximately 80 percent of the current programs in Latin America shows such as
The Flintstones, I Love Lucy, Bonanza, That Girl, and Route 66—were produced in the United States.
The networks created other affiliations with foreign operations. NBC became a partner in managing the Nigerian federal TV system, and by 1965 had direct minority investments in thirteen foreign stations in eight nations. Moreover, through NBC International, the corporation by 1968 was selling its programs in eighty-two foreign countries. Although CBS was less active in foreign dealings in the 1960s, it was involved in cable TV in six countries; it held minority positions in broadcast outlets in five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean; it had production companies in Argentina, Peru, and Venezuela; and CBS had technical-advisory arrangements with TV outlets on five continents.''
By far the most successful foreign operations were the Worldvision enterprises of ABC International. Founded in 1959 by the perennially third-ranked U.S. network, Worldvision soon catapulted ABC into the premier position in international telecommunications. In Venezuela, for instance, the network was part owner of three of the nation's fourteen stations, and it managed programming for eight others. Only three Venezuelan outlets were free of direct Worldvision input. ABC International also advanced funds to create the Central American Television Network (CATVN)—an arrangement among ABC-supported stations in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—principally to broadcast filmed programs supplied by ABC.
By 1968 ABC Intemational/Worldvision operated in sixteen Latin American countries and eleven other nations outside the Western Hemisphere. ABC was also tied to the Arab Middle East Network involving Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and Iraq; and the Latin American International Network Organization (LATINO), which contained Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, and Venezuela. Through its 64 TV transmitters Worldvision in the late 1960s reached 20 million television households, fully 60 percent of the TV homes in foreign countries with commercial TV. Importantly, by the end of its first decade ABC was distributing almost nine hundred filmed programs to more than ninety countries.
Such expansion was not without impact on international communications. Cheap U.S. films stifled film production in those countries committed to American TV products and corporations. The import of American cultural values through the programs often clashed with national culture. Significantly, American influence in foreign markets upset plans for noncommercial television in the state-run style of most European video. This was especially true in less-affluent developing countries, where the influx of private U. S. capital first brought television to the citizenry. In Latin America, for example, the alternative public TV was undermined by the pressure tactics and popularity of American-style commercial broadcasting.
Globalization also spread American capitalism in the postwar era. With the hardware and software came American advertising agencies ready to devise commercials for U.S. products, whose manufacturers soon followed. This formidable video package of transmitters/programs/advertisers influenced many countries in terms of patterns of mass consumption and domestic economic growth.
Even sophisticated Great Britain was affected by the power of American video and commerce. As Barnouw has shown, by helping to persuade Parliament to sanction the first British commercial broadcaster—the Independent Television Corporation, which debuted in September 1955—the J. Walter Thompson agency played a major role in breaking the video monopoly of the sponsor-free British Broadcasting Corporation. Whereas U.S. advertisers used to beam commercials at British consumers from studios in Radio Luxembourg, the opening of ITC opened the British market to television spots transmitted from British soil."
American-made programming was also strategic to waging the Cold War. The U.S. Information Agency, the foreign propaganda operation of the federal government, worked closely with the networks to place American-made shows on world TV. The USIA lobbied abroad for U.S. video interests, collaborated with corporations such as NBC to produce informational telefilms for foreign distribution, and even urged U.S. networks and producers to put out positive images of American life.
The USIA helped to distribute American entertainment, ranging from semi-classical music on
The Voice of Firestone to anti-Communist espionage dramatics on I Led 3 Lives. As early as 1959 TV Guide, a strong supporter of U.S. television series as Cold War propaganda, urged "intelligent cooperation between the USIA and the producers" in the effort "to see to it that American shows reflect our country in a favorable light when they are presented to foreign audiences."
There were occasional problems, however, with U.S. video exports. Cultural differences could generate suspicion and distrust. References to Jews—a child studying Hebrew on Room 222, the Star of David sewn to the boxing trunks of 1930s heavyweight champ Max Baer on
Greatest Fights of the Century, a son named Israel on Daniel Boone, Libyan insistence that
Ben Casey, like the Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion, was obviously Zionist—compromised series in anti-Zionist Arab states. Many British and Australian veterans, who had fought Nazis in North Africa long before the United States entered World War II, resented the glorified image of Americans as seen in the war series
The Rat Patrol. The Swedes canceled Gentle Ben because they did not want their children becoming friendly with the bears that were plentiful and dangerous in their well-forested country.
Although these examples illustrate the way individual series conflicted with national characteristics and social values abroad, the import of any U.S. television series necessarily brought with it a foreign value system. At a time of intense nationalism, especially in the disintegrating white empires in Africa and Asia, the propagation of the values inherent in U.S. video often was received with disdain. As early as 1961, when foreign sales reached an estimated $35 million, correspondent Murray Horowitz reported in Variety that the "expanding foreign market is astir with problems. From Rio to Sydney, rising tides of nationalism are seeking to stem the influx of American shows, mainly vidfilm series." According to Horowitz, the most telling accusation was that American-made series were often too violent and sadistic.
But TV-generated anti-Americanism was not limited to neophyte nation-states. A Canadian critic in 1967 bemoaned the domination of his country by U.S. video products. According to Henry Comor, president of the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists, "American television has damaged, almost irreparably, the Canadian television industry. It has made it impossible for Canadian performers and writers to earn a living in Canada.... Our writers and our performers have now found their way to Hollywood." Arguing that the appeal and abundance of U.S. television—much of it received in Canada from American stations broadcasting across the border—subverted the interests of his country, Comor continued:
American television has made the development of a Canadian cultural identity almost impossible. American television has distorted the values of Canadians about the realities of their own lives and their own history. Through its own faulty development, American television has negatively influenced the development of a worthy native television in Canada. American television has destroyed television as an art. Canadians are often told that their potential enemies are Russia and China. In my view, the United States is a much more dangerous enemy. Our armed forces should be there to protect us against the United States. Canadian guns should be trained on New York and Los Angeles and not on Moscow and Peking. I am serious when I say this. Partly serious.
The globalization of American pop culture was irresistible. Herbert I. Schiller, one of the first scholars to discuss this phenomenon, described it as "a global American electronic invasion" and an "electronic siege" of the rest of the world. Some nations such as Great Britain and Canada tried to defend themselves with quotas limiting the amount of U.S. entertainment acceptable on their TV screens-14 percent of airtime in the case of Britain, 45 percent for Canada.
In the 1970s, however, the fortunes of international distribution abruptly ended for the networks. FCC rulings and judicial decrees confined network activity in this area to only those programs wholly produced by the networks. This effectively limited ABC, CBS, and NBC to news and documentary programming. Major producer/distributors such as Paramount, Warner Brothers, and MCA/Universal eagerly filled the void.
While problems of program content and intent persisted, demand for American series also dipped because nations such as Japan and Great Britain developed their own TV industries and entered the global syndication market. Although in the readjustment years 1970-1972 the gross figures dropped 15 percent to $85 million, by the end of the decade TV sales abroad totaled about 20 percent of gross revenues earned by U.S. television producers. In 1988 the major market for American TV was Europe, where syndicators earned $630 million."
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