Shaping a National Culture
Regardless of the relative strengths and achievements of NBC, CBS, and ABC, whenever their programming became available in a TV market it quickly conquered the audience and crushed local video production. First, the network fare usually was more glamorous and attractive; and second, since there were few genuinely independent stations in the United States, most stations were network-affiliated and eager to push aside costly locally produced fare in favor of highly rated national programs.
This pattern is noticeable by a comparison of leading programs in New York City, where the four networks flourished, and in Chicago before the coaxial cable in 1949 brought that city into direct contact with network shows. As seen in Table 4.1, Telepulse ratings from early January 1949 indicate that while New Yorkers were watching shows originating from the networks in New York City, only one national series,
The Philco TV Playhouse, was among the top ten choices in Chicago.
Comparative Telepulse Ratings,
|New York City|| Chicago|
|1. The Texaco Star Theater|| 1. Wrestling (Thursday)|
|2. Arthur Godfrey and His Friends|| 2. Super Circus|
|3. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts|| 3. Feature film (Friday)|
|4. The Toast of the Town|| 4. Vaudeo Varieties|
|5. The Kraft Television Theater|| 5. Feature film (Henry VIII)|
|6. The Original Amateur Hour|| 6. Wrestling (Wednesday)|
|We, the People|| 7. Hockey (Sunday)|
|7. The Arrow Show|| 8. Wrestling (Monday)|
|9. he Bigelow Show|| 9. The Philco TV Playhouse*|
|10. The Gulf Show|| 10. Feature Film (Tuesday)|
|* Network/non-local origination|
The difference in Chicago TV viewing is noticeable in statistics from a later date. Once opened to direct telecasts of network features, stations gradually introduced national programs and canceled many local productions. As indicated in Table 4.2, the ratings in October—November 1950, Chicago was solidly integrated into an American audience.
Comparative Telepulse Ratings,
October 29-November 17, 1950
| New York City || Chicago|
|1. The Toast of the Town||1. The Texaco Star Theater|
|2. Four Star Revue || 2. President Truman speech|
|3. The Philco TV Playhouse || 3. Toast of the Town |
|4. President Truman speech||4. Fireside Theater|
|5. The Colgate Comedy Hour||5. Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts|
|6. Your Show of Shows|| 6. Your Show of Shows |
|7. The Toast of the Town || 7. Community Theater* |
|8. Studio One || 8. The Fred Waring Show|
|9. T Fireside Theater || 9. The Kraft Television Theater|
|10. The Children's Hour* || 10. The Sachs Amateur Hour* |
|* Non-network/local origination |
National programming made its easiest conquests in those markets where there were few stations and a shortage of money and facilities for local creativity. San Francisco was such a city. By 1950 there were three stations serving the San Francisco—Oakland Bay area, all of them network affiliates. Locally originated programming was scarce. Instead, KRON-TV, KPIX, and KGO-TV received their shows from New York, Chicago, and even Los Angeles. As did much of the nation, viewers in San Francisco watched network films—series shot originally on film, and movies of programs aired live on the East coast and in the Midwest. Table 4.3, listing the leading programs in San Francisco in October-November 1950, illustrates the decisiveness with which that market was consumed in the national picture.
October 29—November 17, 1950
* Non-network/local origination
- San Francisco
- The Texaco Star Theater
- The Original Amateur Hour
- The Toast of the Town
- The Gene Autry Show
- Hopalong Cassidy
- The Ruggles
- Arthur Godfrey and His Friends
- Parti-Pak Theater (feature film)*
- Stanford-USC football*
Although the transcontinental connection between the West Coast and the rest of the nation was achieved in September 1951, until cable capacities were enlarged and supplemented by more radio relay facilities, much of the nation continued to view network offerings on 16mm film.
Via Railway Express, air freight, or the U.S. mail, filmed series such as I Love Lucy,
Big Town, and The Gene Autry Show were distributed to stations not directly linked with the networks, or to localities where limited cable capacities or a scarcity of outlets made it impossible to
transmit all the programs aired by the four networks.
For those situations where live network shows could not be seen as they were being televised, by mid-1948 the kinescope process was used to film performances for future broadcasts. Kinescopes were 16mm motion pictures of live programs filmed directly off the screen of a television receiver. The procedure produced an image with a grainy, flat quality. But for many years the most popular offerings on TV such as
Your Show of Shows, with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca; Ed Sullivan's The Toast of the Town; and
The Colgate Comedy Hour, with its various guest hosts, reached less accessible communities only as kinescopes.
There was resistance, however, to the usurpation of American television by the networks. Two scholars, Dallas Smyth and Donald Horton, argued in January 1951 that TV was already compromising its potential. In a typical week of television in New York City they found only 4 percent of the time dedicated to "informational" programs, while 55 percent was concerned with "Wild West drama, crime, drama, sport, quizzes, stunts, and contests." In prime time, they concluded, a clear majority of time was devoted to entertainment programs with relatively low or perhaps negative survival value for the individual viewer or for society."
Another critic, Senator William Benton of Connecticut, was concerned about the failure of TV to educate. His fear in mid-1951 was that the creative talents of commercial broadcasters "may be channeled, in television as in radio, into a limited number of stereotyped but salable program formats." He wondered, prophetically, "Can we afford to waste as much time and talent on trivia in television as we have in radio?"'
It was difficult, however, to resist national programming. First, network-owned and-operated stations, located in the largest cities and serving about one-quarter of the U.S. population, rarely preempted shows coming, after all, from corporate superiors in New York. Once local stations began a network series, they could not cancel the series on their own. Furthermore, an affiliate station in the 1950s was contractually obligated to option as much as twelve hours of each broadcast day to the network. This "option time" as well as other contractual agreements effectively turned the local station into a possession of a New York-based network.
Virtual ownership of local stations was critical to network advertising strategies. As Stan Opotowsky explained in his pioneering study of video history TV—The Big Picture, CBS and NBC in 1951 discovered that they could reach two-thirds of the U.S. population through stations in only seventy-seven cities. They quickly affiliated with the fifty-five most important of these as their "basic" network. To this was added a second tier of fifty-three areas, "desirable" because of the consumer buying strength they represented. A third tier of eighty mostly small communities gave the network virtually complete national coverage.
With such a grand design fully in place by the late 1950s, a network could sell programs based on the number of consumers an advertiser wished to reach. CBS, for instance, carried
The Danny Thomas Show on 202 stations because the sponsor wanted to saturate the nation with its commercials; but the sponsor of
Have Gun, Will Travel opted for 163 stations—and a cheaper price tag—as sufficient coverage for its advertising messages.
For their part, however, local broadcasters relished national shows. They usually "cleared," or accepted, network programs because they attracted large audiences, and high ratings meant that individual stations could charge high rates to their own advertisers for the minutes—usually the time between programs—ceded to them by the networks. Besides, the networks paid their affiliates about 30 percent of the normal local rates to clear national programs.
Failure to accept the network programming was rare. When a local did fail to clear a show it was often because the series was not highly rated and a syndicated program (usually on film) was more attractive. The most common reason for opting out of a network showing, however, was that station managers judged the network show to be too controversial for local sensibilities. This was the common excuse in the 1950s when southern affiliates preempted national offerings in which African-American performers were favorably presented. Failure to clear a national program, however, opened a station to stiff competition from local network rivals and to great pressure from corporate officials in New York.
From the beginnings of the medium, syndicated series offered local programmers an alternative and a supplement to network fare. For independent stations they were the lifeblood of scheduling, since local production was never sufficient to fill a full broadcast day. Network affiliates and owned-and-operated outlets needed syndicated shows to fill the morning, afternoon, and late-night hours not covered by network fare, and local stations needed the attractive series provided by syndicators.
Syndicators handled both first-run and off-network reruns, distributing their series to individual stations in each TV market. The first-run programs came from scores of small and large studios, which, like Guild Films (Liberace), Ziv Television Productions (The Cisco Kid), and the Columbia Pictures subsidiary Screen Gems (Jungle Jim), produced shows that rivaled network entertainment. Many memorable efforts in video history—from
Seahunt and The Adventures of Superman in the 1950s, to Hee Haw since the 1970s, to
Fame in the 1980s—were first-run syndicated series.
Although there was always a risk scheduling a new first-run program, reruns of network series were known commodities. Often such programs were syndicated by the film sales divisions of the networks on which they originally appeared. Nonetheless, whatever the alternatives to national programming, the networks still controlled most of what Americans saw on television. By 1955 programs from ABC, CBS, and NBC filled 78.2 percent of their affiliates' prime time.
Local TV could resist standardization only in time periods where the national shows were scarce. Until the mid-1950s, when the networks were able to fill the daytime hours, many affiliates televised their own morning and afternoon features. Although these productions were often built around film-syndicated series, old movies, travelogues, B Westerns, varied syndicated shorts—they attracted advertisers and generated revenue for the fledgling outlets.
Attracting advertisers was the most vital function of any station. There were several ways in which this could be accomplished. Inheriting the fiscal arrangements developed by radio, the networks relied heavily on large corporations to underwrite entire programs. In this way, a major company such as Procter & Gamble or General Foods would sponsor complete shows, with production matters—including creation of TV commercials—handled through its advertising agency. In this manner Colgate-Palmolive Peet had its
Colgate Comedy Hour; others included The Texaco Star Theater,
The Voice of Firestone, The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, The Ford Theater Hour, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Chevrolet Tele-Theater,, and
The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. Even the NBC evening news was called
The Camel News Caravan. Many sponsors, however, were content to pay for programs without a corporate relationship in the title; for example, Chesterfield cigarettes with
Dragnet, Lincoln and Mercury automobiles with Toast of the Town, and Maxwell House coffee with
As production costs mounted, corporations by the mid-1950s began to share their programs. This usually meant that sponsors alternated their underwriting of a single show. In this way, for example, the dramatic showcase
Robert Montgomery Presents Your Lucky Strike Theater alternated with Robert Montgomery Presents The Johnson's Wax Program, and during the summer,
Robert Montgomery Presents The Richard Hudnet Summer Theater. Sometimes arrangements consisted of alternating series from different production units, as did
The United States Steel Hour with The Motorola Television Hour in 1953-1954 and
The Elgin Hour in 1954-1955.
Individual stations relied less on single sponsors than on participating advertisers who placed their commercials in specific shows, or on general advertisers who allowed station programmers to insert their ads periodically throughout the day. A popular alternative to these arrangements was barter syndication. Here, programs were given or sold inexpensively to local outlets; in exchange, the syndicator retained several commercial minutes in the show and then sold them to national advertisers seeking to place their spots in specific local markets.
Whatever their origin, be it network TV or first-run syndication, this was mass programming meant for the cumulative U.S. marketplace. To resist the imposition of this homogeneous national culture, a locality needed money and independent facilities. It is not surprising that the market that most successfully withstood network encroachment was Los Angeles. Here, in the fourth-largest U.S. population center, there was ample capital as well as production expertise. Furthermore, television in Los Angeles was flourishing even while the networks in the East and Midwest were being organized. By 1949 there were seven stations operating in the city. Importantly, three of them had no affiliation with a national network: KTLA, KFI-TV (later KHJ-TV), and KLAC-TV. These independents found sufficient means to lease or create competitive shows.
This was especially true of KTLA, which was owned by the television subsidiary of Paramount Pictures. By mid-1949 KTLA was nationally syndicating kinescopes of its own series, such as
Time for Beany; Armchair Detective; Pantomime Quiz; and The Spade Cooley Show, a country and western musical variety hour featuring "your fiddlin' friend" Spade Cooley and his orchestra. As Table 4.4 suggests, before the opening of the coaxial link in late 1951, viewers in Southern California preferred local live programs, mostly sporting events and musical programs, over network films and kinescopes.
Table 4.4 Telepulse Ratings,
October 29—November 17, 1950
* Non-network/local origination
- Hopalong Cassidy*
- The Alan Young Show (local and live, but CBS)
- The Movies (Sunday)*
- UCLA-Oregon Football*
- Harry Owens Royal Hawaiians*
- The Spade Cooley Show*
- Rams-49ers pro football*
- The Texaco Star Theater
- Ina Rae Hutton Orchestra*
- The Lone Ranger
Even with coast-to-coast linkage, network TV had to wage a strong battle to win Los Angeles viewers. By the summer of 1952 national favorites such as
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, which ranked fourth in New York City and second in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia, was not in the top fifteen in Los Angeles. And Lawrence Welk's non-network program was seventh in the Los Angeles ratings, while the local country and western revue,
Hometown Jamboree, decisively defeated The Jackie Gleason Show.
For years the networks were hampered by residual local tastes which as late as October 1953 placed three independent productions—the live big-band musical programs of Lawrence Welk and Ina Rae Hutton and her All-Girl Orchestra (both on KTLA), plus disc jockey Peter Potter's musical panel show
Juke Box Jury (on CBS-owned KNXT)—among the leading shows in the city.
National TV programming was hampered in Southern California by two technical problems. The difference of three time zones meant that shows originating in the East at 9:00 P.M. would be telecast inconveniently at 6:00 P.M. on the West Coast. On the other hand, kinescopes had a fuzzy picture quality, and they were days old—sometimes weeks old—before they were screened. This made kinescopes less attractive than live or filmed alternatives for, as
TV Guide reported, "in some cities viewers apparently prefer to watch even a bad live show rather than a good show on kinescope." As Table 4.5 demonstrates, even six months after the transcontinental connection, highly rated live productions from New York City often performed miserably in Los Angeles.
Comparative Ratings, March 1952
|Live 9:00 P.M. EST|
Live 6:00 P.M. PST
|Program||Los Angeles|| New York||National |
|The Fred Waring Show|| 4.4||9.2||13.5|
|The Goodyear/Philco Playhouse||6.7||21.3|| 31.4 |
|Strike It Rich || 5.8||21.0||27.0|
|Live 8:00 P.m. or 9:00 P.M. EST|
Kinescope 8:00 P.M. or 9:00 P.M. PST
|Program ||Los Angeles || New York || National|
|The Ken Murray Show ||10.2||25.8 || 26.5|
|The Big Story ||10.7 ||21.4 ||27.5|
|The Colgate Comedy Hour || 19.6|| 28.9 || 36.1|
Still, Southern California viewers would not resist forever the attractions of national television. In some cases local hit shows were purchased by the networks, then brought to the national audience. In the fall of 1953, for example, ABC aired
Juke Box jury and in the summer of 1955 the network introduced The Lawrence Welk Show. Further, as the networks turned increasingly to filmed series, the curtailment of live productions alleviated problems in scheduling and the quality of kinescopes. By the end of the decade the use of videotape and advancements in transmission eliminated almost totally the broadcast difficulties of a society extending across four different time zones.
A show business veteran as savvy as Groucho Marx understood early, however, that in terms of consistent, high-quality entertainment, local video could not compete for long against the elaborate capabilities of the networks. As he explained it with droll frankness in 1949:
We get lots of live TV out here in Hollywood, but it consists mostly of girls talking through dummies; animals pretending they're people; round table discussions by squareheads; hordes of stunted-looking professional kids; amateur boxing by professionals; and farm reports by a local Titus Moody. But the big-league stuff is all kinescope.
Despite the triumph of national television fare, perceptible local tastes would endure beyond the 1950s in those localities with surviving independent outlets. Stations such as WGN in Chicago—which lost its CBS and DuMont affiliations by the mid-1950s—and WOR-TV in New York City—which abandoned hope of being the flagship station of a stillborn Mutual television network—would play prominent roles in their respective communities. Gradually, however, the process of homogenization triumphed as local originations gave way to programs fashioned in Hollywood and New York City. By the late 1970s American TV was the same everywhere.
Mass programming plastered over the differences inherent in the diverse U.S. populace. There always would be ratings differences based on age and gender as children gravitated to shows not usually favored by men or women who, themselves, often demonstrated divergence in terms of time spent with TV and program favorites. Ratings from 1958 reveal that divergent viewing patterns resulted from scheduling differences and community tastes. The soap opera
The Brighter Day earned a 17.8 rating in Pittsburgh at 4:00 P.M., when 32 percent of the TV homes watched television; but the rating dropped to 1.9 in San Francisco, where it was broadcast at 1:00 P.M., when only 13 percent of TV homes were viewing. Whereas
Gunsmoke had a rating of 49.9 in Boston, it gained only a 17.0 rating in Milwaukee. And market size seemed immaterial, too, as
The Lawrence Welk Show ranked seventh in Los Angeles but only sixteenth in more populated Philadelphia.
The victory of national entertainment was striking not only in its destruction of local initiative but also in its influence on the way viewers lived and thought. Even in its earliest years, TV was more than a device for home diversion and enlightenment; it also was a persuasive conduit for the propaganda of mass marketing. The obvious commercial impact of the new medium was demonstrated in 1955 by an NBC study of the coming of television to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Until November 1953, when a local station began operations, residents with TV sets needed elaborate roof antennas to receive weak transmissions from stations in Chicago, Toledo, Cleveland, and surrounding markets. But with the opening of its own outlet, an NBC affiliate, Fort Wayne wholeheartedly entered the television age.
A survey of almost 7,500 households before, and six months after, the arrival of local video illustrates the pervasive impact of television advertising on viewers. According to the report, after a home received TV the new medium quickly became the chief source of advertising impressions, attracting viewers for 173 minutes per day—compared to 94 minutes spent daily with radio, magazines, and newspapers combined. The NBC report concluded, too, that the new medium shaped consumer attitudes, firmly implanting sponsors' brands and messages in the minds of viewers, creating familiarity and respectful feelings toward advertised brands, and undermining sales of unadvertised brands. This conclusion was trumpeted in a contemporary NBC sales film entitled
Strangers into Customers that reported on the Fort Wayne experience.
Although network fare could quickly make viewers respect nationally advertised products, the messages communicated on commercial TV still had to mesh with popular attitudes. But television was pictures as well as words in the private home, and as such it was more likely than the movies, print, or radio to clash with local mores. In those instances where resistance was large and vocal, video was compelled to adapt. Still, like local TV production, local values were ill-equipped for long-term resistance to the national medium. This was apparent early in the record of American television as it confronted controversial issues such as racial discrimination, violence, and socio-sexual attitudes.
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