This is a study of the most important social and cultural force in the United States during the past four decades. Since it emerged in the late 1940s as a nationally available medium of mass entertainment and information, commercial television has been the principal window through which Americans have viewed their world. What was new or popular or influential in American life came now through TV. The medium made nationwide events out of local happenings; and it transformed national, even international, events into neighborhood concerns. It made celebrities and toppled leaders. And as it described and interpreted the recent movements of humankind, it revealed the strengths and foibles of ourselves and others. It has shown us to be neither fully moral nor invincible: through TV we have realized our limitations.
The medium has also forever linked us to the capitalist ethic, by which it has been controlled from the outset. TV has operated as a commercial billboard, rudely invading the privacy of every American with its pitches for dog food, clothing, Buicks, fast food chains, and even candidates for the presidency of the United States. Still, the audience has never ceased to remain fascinated with the splashy spectacle. Indeed, its commercial announcements have become enduring cultural artifacts viewed devotedly for their nostalgic and artistic qualities.
Television rapidly became the cutting edge of social, political, economic, and cultural developments in the United States. It seemed to deliver the fullness of life of which the Great Depression and World War II had robbed earlier generations. It represented a reward for years of forbearance. TV was the ultimate American medium, requiring no physical labor, offering wonderful diversion, reaffirming the reliance on technology that Americans had developed in the twentieth century, and symbolizing a victory over deprivation that cut across class lines. Truly, video in the United States was the "tube of plenty," as media historian Erik Barnouw has described it.
Significantly, American television has always meant network television, TV as delivered by CBS, NBC, and ABC, with an early assist from DuMont and a late boost from Fox. If television played a key role in the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, or the Watergate scandal, it was because of what the networks programmed. If there has been controversy about excessive violence, the manipulation of children through materialistic messages, or sexual permissiveness on TV, it is because of what the networks have provided. The history of American video is the story of the powerful control of the medium by the major networks.
Nevertheless, the history of TV has not been static. Rising from its indebted infancy to become a major force in U.S. corporate life, commercial television has fallen upon hard times. Nowadays, ABC, CBS, and NBC are threatened, faced with dwindling viewership, massive economic problems, and formidable competition from alternative video forms. Whereas watching television once meant almost everyone tuning in to network shows, by the end of the 1980s the network share of the U.S. audience had fallen to two-thirds of the TV audience. Americans are deserting traditional television. There has even been talk of the inevitable demise of one of the three networks.
This book is a study of the American experience with television. It is at once the history of a dream come true and a dream transcended, for what had been dearly anticipated—TV as an exciting forum of diversion and edification—became a mystifying reality. But the audience is moving on. While not fully an analysis of cultural and economic collapse, it is the story of a cultural industry, the marriage of business and artistry that has permeated American civilization through the past forty years.
In his perceptive screenplay Network, the brilliant dramatist Paddy Chayefsky described television as a charade believed in by too many:
Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park, that's what television is! Television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats and storytellers, singers and dancers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion-tamers and football players! We are in the boredom-killing business. ... We'll tell you Kojak always gets the killer, and nobody gets cancer in Archie Bunker's house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don't worry: just look at your watch—at the end of the hour he's going to win. We'll tell you any shit you want to hear! We deal in illusion, man! None of it is true!
This book offers no passionate condemnation of the TV business or hosanna concerning its sociological contribution. Both as enterprise and social force, television has had marvelous achievements that have diverted, bemused, informed; likewise it has exerted disastrous influences that have brutalized, skewed, and otherwise misrepresented reality. This book attempts to consider all sides of the legacy. There are no calls here for the nationalization or dissolution of TV as an act of moral service; neither is there a hidden agenda intending to applaud the medium for uplifting humanity.
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