Network TV and the New Technology
National television had never offered viewers what they wanted; it offered what audiences most accepted. And as network officials discerned the most popular program types they streamlined their business, canceling "unpopular" ones and extending the running time of surviving types. In the fall of 1950 there were 177 network prime-time series in a variety of formats, most running 15 or 30 minutes. By the fall of 1986 there were only 74 network evening programs, most running one hour. The pluralistic potential in the American population was forced to select from the standardized products of the mass culture industry.
As a result, there were entertainment genres that never appeared in prime time. Among the forgotten forms were foreign-language shows, literacy programs, intellectual shows, uninterrupted feature films, all-news formats, racially and regionally oriented programs, sexually explicit entertainment, and business information. Also missing, except in peripheral viewing hours, was a consistent commitment to educational, children's, and fine-arts programming, to public-service shows, roundtable discussions, and documentaries. Except for
ABC Monday Night Football, even sports programming—a proven winner with male audiences—was excluded from prime time.
As long as nothing new or uncontrollable entered U.S. television, the networks flourished according to guidelines established decades earlier. But technological innovations emergent in the 1980s mounted the greatest challenge to commercial broadcasting since the Warner-Hatfield amendment in the 1930s. Above all, affordable and available advances in electronic technology made it possible for viewers to find the wide range of choices long absent from broadcast TV.
The videocassette recorder (VCR), widely available in the decade, made it possible to play prerecorded features that were neither interrupted by unwanted commercials nor shortened to fit the time requirements of a TV scheduler. The most popular use for the VCR, however, was in time shifting, taping off the air and watching the resultant recording when convenient for the viewer.
Growth of the VCR was phenomenal, rising from 4 percent of all TV households in 1982 to 60 percent in early 1988. By this date, too, 21 percent of all TV homes contained at least two recorders. In large cities the penetration figures were high: in Los Angeles and San Francisco, 64 percent of the homes had VCR's; for New York City and Chicago the figure was 62 percent; and in Washington, D.C., and Dallas—Fort Worth it was 60 percent.
And owners used their machines. According to Nielsen figures for the first quarter of 1988, each month the average VCR household made 14.1 recordings and watched 16.9 recordings. During an average week the average household watched recordings for 296 minutes and taped for 179 minutes. Further, VCR owners also rented an average of 2.3 videocassettes per month, and 41 percent had purchased at least one prerecorded videocassette during the previous year.
If the VCR turned viewers into programmers, the electronic remote control device gave Americans even greater control over what they chose to watch. The remote control unit that was standard equipment with VCR's allowed a user "to zap," or fast-forward, through intrusive advertisements. And those with similar devices for their TV sets were able "to zip" or "to graze," jumping from channel to channel to avoid commercials or to follow more than one show at a time.
Other electronic technologies were threatening network control. Videodiscs delivered inexpensive feature films with remarkable clarity. The camcorder (camera and recorder) was the fulfillment of what Sony marketed in the mid-1960s as “Creepy Peepy,” turned the domestic TV set into a playback monitor for "home movies." Video games converted receivers into amusement centers. And those with home computers sometimes used their sets as monitors.
On a higher plane, orbiting satellites served as space stations off which to bounce a TV signal and send it from anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world. As transmission equipment became more portable and affordable, it became possible for programmers with enough product to create their own networks. While in the backyards of private homes massive satellite ground-dishes received a vast array of shows: programs from foreign countries, movies, distant domestic stations, closed-circuit network feeds, and other transmissions not intended for public viewing.
A problem in this new programming approach was how to deliver those signals to millions of consumers, few of whom owned a ground dish. The solution was through coaxial cable wired directly into the home. The result was a boom in the business of cable television.
Other alternatives to conventional network broadcasting had appeared periodically since the early years of TV. Beginning in the late 1940s and 1950s Phonevision was an alternative by which uncut feature films, concerts, and the like might be delivered free of commercials to subscribers. Another early proposal came from film studios and theater owners who wanted to wire movie theaters and then charge customers to see Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, sports and dramatic attractions. By the end of the 1950s the enemy of broadcasting was over-the-air "pay TV" in the home. Although broadcasters beat back these proposals, they could not eliminate the threat totally. That was because an alternative delivery system, cable television, was a reality and it was necessary to millions of viewers.
When it first appeared in 1949, cable (Community Antenna Television, or CATV) was intended to bring local and network transmissions to those rural or mountainous areas where over-the-air signals could not be received clearly. The technology was simple: a large antenna perched on a high local mountain pulled in the signals; coaxial cable from the antenna was fed to amplifiers; the amplified signals were then delivered to subscriber homes by more cable. Without such technology, millions of Americans would not have had TV service.
Inexorably, however, cable operators expanded their technical and fiscal horizons. With the spread of microwave transmissions—point-topoint, line-of-sight emissions at high frequencies—local cable companies could supplement their original fare by adding stations from distant locations. They even envisioned the eventual delivery of programming exclusive to cable.
By the 1960s cable was being fought by several entities in the broadcast TV industry. Fearing that cable programming would dilute their audience size, especially in the three-station markets that were the norm at the time, local station owners and the networks worked in the courts and in Washington, D.C., to arrest its spread. Syndicators, too, worked against cable. They were upset because operators were pulling station transmissions out of the air and distributing them to subscribers without paying rental fees for the programs being aired. The FCC, too, was upset about cable. The commission wanted to protect the broadcasting industry, and especially its greatest disappointment, the UHF station. The FCC feared cable would crush all hopes that UHF would someday become a real competitor to VHF and network domination of television.
After considerable litigation and political lobbying at the FCC and in Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966 upheld the authority of the FCC to regulate cable. The Court stipulated that cable operators in the top one hundred markets had to apply to the commission for the right to carry distant transmissions. Flooded soon with applications, the FCC took a familiar course of action: in 1968 it issued a freeze on the issuance of licenses, a condition that lasted until 1972.
Even with the lifting of the freeze, cable had technical problems that inhibited its growth. To expand, cable operators had hoped to attract subscribers—especially those in the big cities and suburbs where, unfortunately, there was no broadcast reception problem—by delivering original programming nationwide. But national distribution via land-based microwave relay stations was cumbersome and expensive. The answer, however, was in the stars. By bouncing signals off orbiting communications satellites, then receiving them on the ground in satellite "dishes," cable operators could offer attractive program service that would compete with the networks in drawing audiences.
The missing element in the equation, the financial support for a long-range commitment to satellite transmission, was provided by Home Box Office, a new pay-TV venture owned by Time, Inc. On September 30, 1975, HBO launched regular satellite transmission with the heavyweight boxing championship bout between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Transmitted live from the Philippines via the RCA Satcom I satellite, this was the "thrilla in Manila."
Only two Florida cable systems bought the live feed to sell to their subscribers. And competitors were slow to follow: Turner Broadcasting's WTBS went satellite in December 1976, and the Showtime pay-cable network did not link up until March 1978. But the precedent was set. By the 1980s, cable was delivering via satellite a multiplicity of program signals from origination points throughout the United States and the world. And this diversity was not limited to exurbia and rural America; cable TV was moving into the big cities and their suburbs.
Cable offered new local and regional channels plus new national networks devoted to specific interests such as news of the day, popular music, religion, financial matters, sports, Congress and national politics, travel, home shopping, and weather. With these specialties, cable could appeal more effectively to narrower interests such as those of African-Americans, children, country and western music fans, nostalgia buffs, fundamentalist Christians, Roman Catholics, and speakers of languages ranging from Spanish to Polish to Korean.
Cable systems throughout North and Central America also delivered "superstations"—WTBS from Atlanta, WGN-TV from Chicago, and WWOR-TV from New York City—as these local stations became national, even international, thanks to innovations in telecommunications technology. For several dollars beyond the price of basic cable, subscribers also could receive pay cable channels such as HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and The Movie Channel, which presented recent Hollywood films—uninterrupted by commercials and uncensored by sensitive network officials—as well as exclusive comedy, music, and variety specials. Pay-cable networks with more specialized fare offered old movies (American Movie Classics), foreign feature films (Bravo) sexually provocative programs (The Playboy Channel), and children's shows (The Disney Channel).
Because cable TV was also pay TV, the profit potential of this new video reality quickly attracted leading U.S. communications industries. The most successful programmers—and a few of the programming services in which they held equity interest—included Time, Inc. (HBO and Cinemax), Viacom (Showtime, The Movie Channel, Nickelodeon, MTV: Music Television, and VH-1: Video Hits One), the Hearst Corporation (Arts & Entertainment), Warner Communications (Turner Broadcasting System, Movietime, Cable Value Network), and Walt Disney Productions (The Disney Channel).
Opportunities in cable also nurtured the growth of powerful new corporations. These media companies—and a few of their equity holdings—included Telecommunications, Inc. (Turner Broadcasting System, American Movie Classics, The Discovery Channel), and Cablevision (American Movie Classics, Turner Broadcasting System, Sports Channel America).
Other corporations moved into the hardware of cable, accumulating many local cable systems and creating in the process a new video entity, the multiple system operator (MSO). And in many cases programmers were also MSO's. Time, Inc., owned one of the largest MSO's in the nation, American Television and Communications Corporation (ranked second in 1989), and Viacom operated Viacom Cable (ranked twelfth). Warner Brothers became involved in cable television as an MSO through Warner Cable Communications, and as a program supplier via Warner Satellite Entertainment Company. Among the MSO's owned by newspaper-based corporations were those of Scripps-Howard, Post-Newsweek Cable, and Times Mirror Cable TV. Other cable names familiar to communications enterprises were Cox, Newhouse, RCA, and Westinghouse.
The cable threat may have been imposing, but it was only the most obvious aspect of a multifaceted technological assault on the network TV empire. In mid-1982 the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency painted a bleak picture of the future of broadcast television. According to an agency report, even more challengers to national broadcasting were about to appear as "Interactive cable is here, pay-per-view looms as the next big money-maker, cost of dishes and transponders is coming down, MDS [multidirectional signal] could develop into a multichannel delivery system, STV [satellite television] has been deregulated, and DBS [direct broadcast signal] has just been given the green light by the FCC."
Of all these new technologies, pay-per-view (PPV) was potentially the most damaging to the old television order. PPV is a system under which a wired household receives special programs—a first-run film, a championship sports attraction, a special dramatic or musical performance—by paying an extra fee to the cable company. As an addition to the distribution continuum of American commercial culture, it constituted one more level of exploitative exposure. Now a Hollywood motion picture could follow a lengthy and lucrative route; from first-run theatrical release, to PPV, to home video sales and rental, to pay cable, to broadcast network, to syndication and/or basic cable lease.
Quickly, PPV became a familiar part of cable service, reaching about one-fifth of all wired households by 1989. By this date, too, cable subscribers no longer had to schedule PPV purchases days in advance: through improved telephone technology it was now possible for last-second impulse buyers to phone for automatic connection and billing.
More than any other technical innovation, PPV has the potential to revolutionize video and the popular culture industries in the United States and the world. The billions of dollars realizable by appealing to those willing and able to purchase television creates possibilities still unforeseen for the construction of commercial audiovisual products.
Robert Wright, the president of NBC, well understood the direction in which TV was going. In mid-1989 he told a group of business journalists that the future of all television is pay. As he contemplated the billions already being generated by forty thousand home video stores and twenty-three major nationally distributed or internationally distributed cable networks, as well as PPV, Wright concluded, "We're going from a period in the late seventies where there was an insignificant amount of total dollars, contributing to or driven by television, to the so-called Golden Age of television in terms of actual cash paid by consumers." The days of "free TV" are limited, he suggested. "You just can't make it" with advertiser support alone in the new communications order. Wright felt confident that audiences would pay for TV, and revenue raised this way would finance even better programs and technical services.
But French political scientist and telecommunications authority Jacques W. Oppenheim has raised profound social and moral questions about pay TV in general and PPV in particular. In his recent book
Code: television d la carte, he indicated that the nature of video entertainment was already being altered by pay TV. Instead of remaining a mass medium serving an audience of equals, he recognized this new a la carte television as a parasitic development, basically unnecessary, but flourishing halfway between films and classic video.
Success in this context, according to Oppenheim, turned television into an elitist instrument; a pay-TV subscription became a symbol of higher social standing, an emblem of class. "Through the scrambled images and the subscription, there is a secret aspiration toward 'cultivated' culture," he wrote of pay TV. "The decoder permits consumption 'with discretion,' day and night, a cineaste culture of exclusive and specific programs that the masses of televiewers cannot receive free of charge. Such is the contractual substance of the business of pay television. In this it meshes perfectly with the cult of difference and distinction that holds together the society of consumption."
Statistics illustrate that the onrush of new electronic technologies in the 1980s was dramatic and sudden. Whereas in 1964 only 8 percent of television households in the United States could receive nine or more channels, that figure reached 71 percent by the fall of 1987. Figures for cable penetration—the number of households subscribing to basic cable service—were likewise impressive, rising from 17.1 percent in early 1978 to 57.1 percent in late 1989, and projected by the cable industry to reach 70 percent by the early 1990s, when the largest American cities are to become more accessible to cable operators.
Another indication of the changing environment was a dramatic downward trend in network viewing. Although network prime time averaged a 56.5 rating/90 share during the 1979-1980 season, the figure fell precipitously, to 48.5/77 for 1984-1985 and to 41.5/67 for 1988-1989—a ratings drop-off of 26.5 percent and a share loss of 25.5 percent in less than a decade.' Although summer ratings are always lower than statistics from the previous season, in the last half of July 1989 the networks reached an all-time low of 55 percent share of the total TV audience. As an executive with Grey Advertising explained the figures, comparing network programming with the original programming on independent stations, cable, and the small Fox network,
All the networks do during the summer is air busted pilots. The American public is not stupid. Network thinking is, Why should I do original programming when the HUT [homes using television] levels are down? It's about the same kind of thinking Detroit used to have competing against the Japanese in the automobile market.
Broadcast TV in the 1980s found it difficult to compete with pay television. After years of accepting variations on the same fundamental themes, viewers seemed ready to abandon the networks for the variety of choices now available. And cancellation rates for prime-time series suggest that officials at ABC, CBS, and NBC were unable to find series attractive enough to assure audience loyalty. Where the three networks together scheduled approximately one hundred series per calendar year, as seen in Table 10.1 cancellation figures since the early 1980s reveal clearly that the networks were not pleasing viewers.
Network Program Cancellations,
| 1986 ||48|
A Roper poll in 1989 demonstrated that network attrition was attributable, in great part, to viewer preference for cable programming. While respondents continued to express their preference for network news, by a spread of 47 percent to 26 percent they felt cable delivered "better entertainment programs." In other areas, too, cable performed better than "regular TV." Cable TV was considered "more educational" (47 to 28 percent); it provided better cultural shows (51 to 21 percent) and sports (61 to 17 percent); it offered better children's fare (39 to 31 percent); and it generally offered better program quality (37 to 32 percent). Cable also outperformed broadcast television in breaking taboos—offering more sex (71 to 6 percent), more violence (58 to 11 percent), and more profanity (69 to 7 percent).
As well as rivalry generated by new electronic mechanisms, network television in the 1980s encountered substantial competition from two over-the-air competitors: local independent stations and the new Fox Broadcasting Company. If national programmers suffered disastrous seasons with scores of short-lived series such as
I Married Dora, Leg Work, and Peaceable Kingdom, independent stations could fill their prime-time hours with proven hit shows. To counter weak network offerings, the syndication market provided the independents with reruns of the greatest series in broadcast TV—from
The Honeymooners and The Andy Griffith Show to All in the Family and
The Cosby Show.
Long-time anemic players in the broadcast industry, independent stations were revitalized also because production studios—themselves invigorated by the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules and the Prime Time-Access Rule—found it profitable again to produce for first-run syndication. Such syndicated successes as
Wheel of Fortune, Donahue, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The People's Court, and
Star Trek: The Next Generation provided stiff competition for failing network stations—and even for cable outlets.
The result was a further decline for traditional broadcasting operations. In 1983 ABC, CBS, and NBC held 80 percent of the prime-time audience and 71 percent of the 24-hour viewing day; independent stations averaged only 14 percent of prime time and 20 percent of the complete TV day. But by late 1988 the slippage was stunning: the spread between the three networks and independents was now 68 percent to 20 percent in prime time and 60 percent to 23 percent over a full day.
The inauguration of the Fox television network in April 1987 created something absent since the collapse of DuMont in 1955—a fourth broadcast network with a national presence. Although the challenge from Fox was not as decisive as that from the independent stations, even during its formative first years Fox programming detracted from the ratings generated by ABC, CBS, and NBC. During the first nine weeks of the 198990 season, for example, the average ratings for programs on the major networks (NBC at 15.2, ABC at 13.5, and CBS at 12.5) were clearly held down by the 6.6 rating averaged by Fox programs.
The new network was hindered, however, by formidable problems. Billions of dollars in debts were incurred by Rupert Murdoch in creating Fox from purchases of the small Metromedia television network and the 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation. Moreover, with a paucity of available VHF channels the new network had to build its national presence through affiliate contracts with less popular UHF stations. Because Fox Broadcasting, even by the end of 1989, continued to lack affiliates in all TV markets, less than 90 percent of the American audience had access to its offerings. Although weekly ratings figures usually showed Fox series at the bottom of the charts, it is significant that after nine weeks of the 1989-1990 season several of its programs—Married With Children (ranked fifty-fourth out of ninety-four prime-time programs),
America's Most Wanted (ranked sixty-fifth), and Totally Hidden Videos (ranked seventy-fifth)—drew greater ratings than many shows on the three major networks.
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