Most Americans embraced TV as a parlor device for personal and family diversion. As demonstrated in an exhaustive survey of the audience completed in 1960, the vast majority of viewers did not deliberately rely on video as a source of information. "He would like TV to be more informative and educational but certainly not at the expense of entertainment," concluded Gary A. Steiner about the average video user. "Aside from the day's news and weather—which he watches regularly—he rarely uses the set as a deliberate source of information, and he is extremely unlikely to turn on serious and informative public affairs presentations, even if he is watching while they are on the air."
It is ironic that while most viewers avoided informational programs, by the 1960s television was the window through which much of the U.S. citizenry came to see and understand national and world realities. It had been the dream of the early developers of TV that it should one day become a significant source of mass enlightenment. But no pioneer adequately anticipated the social implications of the accelerated enlightening and politicization of millions accomplished via television.
TV in the 1960s was the nation's primary source of information. The introduction of new electronic equipment such as videotape and lightweight portable cameras only expanded news coverage, while the communications satellite Telstar, successfully launched in July 1962, and internationalized the scope of American television. Although news generated ratings far below those of prime-time programs, NBC and CBS increased production of documentaries, expanded the size of their news staffs nationally and locally, and in September 1963 doubled the length of their evening newscasts to a half hour.
In reporting on such matters as the struggle for civil rights, the Vietnam War and domestic protests against it, the emerging ecological and women's movements, and emerging alternative life-styles, TV gave flesh to social developments that remained relatively cerebral when reported by other media. Certainly, newspapers offered deeper coverage, but television was better at personalizing and capturing the drama in the events of the day. Radio may have been instantaneous in reporting the news, but through its words and images video offered audiences a fuller vantage from which to observe.
By what it did and did not televise, national video framed the events of a turbulent era and offered them to a nation seeking to understand their meaning. What William Small, CBS News director in Washington, D.C., noted about the relationship between video and the civil rights movement could apply to the coverage of most major social movements as they reached TV. In contrast to a half century in which whites were ignorant of or indifferent toward the lynching of more than 4,500 black citizens, "television coverage that grew in the 60s served as companion to demonstrations. Unlike those of other years, attention was now paid. With success, the demonstrations grew, the coverage increased, and the Revolution spun on with frenzied momentum."
TV was not the prime mover in these events, but it did affect them. In some cases the presence of video equipment actually triggered manifestations of discontent intended to influence audiences at home. In other instances, the need for attractive images affected decisions on what to report. But those reports set the sociopolitical agenda for the nation.
As millions watched, the nightly newscast expanded awareness and compelled viewers to confront urgent problems. Many felt that television was shaping American politics unfairly, deciding what the truth was and telling viewers what to think. Negative criticism of images of U.S. Marines burning a Vietnamese village, for example, prompted charges of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. A CBS documentary on hunger in the United States raised protests from government officials charged with distributing surplus food; it also prompted Congress and the FBI to investigate the network. When Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson wondered aloud if violence on TV had not played a contributory role. And many attributed the defeat of presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968 on network coverage of the police repression of massive street demonstrations held outside the Democratic National Convention that summer in Chicago.
Television is a medium of communication, and politics is about communicating. Politics, naturally, flourished on television. Even electoral affairs were affected by the medium. From the great debates to the perfecting of the "media event"—that speech, gesture, or otherwise routine event planned by a candidate solely to create attractive pictures for TV news—TV molded modern politics. Add to this the live press conference, the well-covered domestic or foreign visit, the political commercial, and telegenic candidates—all meant to manipulate for partisan ends.
In this politicized atmosphere, reality soon touched fantasy. Advancements in the civil rights movement were reflected in the growing number of black actors appearing as guests, regular supporting characters, and even stars of their own shows. In fact, the appearance of African-American stars and stories on U.S. television became an informal means by which to measure the effectiveness of civil rights efforts.
This trend reached its apogee in the late 1960s during a relative Golden Age for African-American imagery that included the first black newscasters on network TV, plus series such as
Julia, I Spy, The Bill Cosby Show, The Mod Squad, The Outcasts, and Room 222. By the fall of 1968 at least one black regular character appeared in twenty-one of the fifty-six nighttime dramatic series, and one black writer exclaimed, "Black people are hot! You could almost go roller skating in the street and they'd put you on television!"
Even a breath of the 1960s counterculture wafted into national programs. Although the networks were always inhospitable to sharp criticism of the U.S. system of government and its established authority—especially when criticism was directed against the federal government, which held regulatory power over the networks—That Was the Week That Was in 1964-1965, and later
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour satirically prodded the powerful. More good-naturedly,
Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In from 1968 to 1973 also blended politics and humor, touching on social issues with more burlesque and less censorship than its predecessors.
But there were the structural shortcomings, flaws that blunted the potential of television to communicate as fully and accurately as possible. TV news did sketch the world, but it did so in shorthand fashion. Although NBC and CBS doubled the length of their nightly news in 1963—and ABC joined them early in 1967—network newscasts compressed U.S. and foreign developments into less than thirty minutes.
Compounding the illusion of thoroughness, the networks reported more or less the same stories with the same techniques and with essentially the same point of view. Local coverage was less sophisticated. It was concerned mostly with fires, shootings, demonstrations, accidents, and human-interest events that could be readily filmed or videotaped. The one actuality form having depth, the documentary, tapered off to insignificance by the late 1960s. But even when they did look at issues, broadcast journalists usually avoided profound analysis, statistics, economic dynamics, and ideological matters. TV required pictures, story, and personality; facts and figures, it was felt, only drove the mass audience to rival stations.
Certainly, national television played a role in discouraging the popular will to wage war in Vietnam. The relentless flow of information about the military engagement provided data with which increasing numbers of Americans decided the effort was futile. On the other hand, TV had contributed considerably in creating the will to fight in a nation with a long history of isolationism, through a decade or more of aggressive entertainment (spy series, military documentaries and sitcoms, war dramas, Westerns) and a relentlessly anti-Communist perspective on news events. Moreover, if national television undermined the war effort, as some have alleged, it took many years to accomplish that result—from 1965, when the U.S. military buildup began in earnest, to early 1973, when American involvement ended.
The civil rights movement, too, profited from TV coverage. The moral dynamism of the movement galvanized many African-Americans, turning indifference into activism. The movement on television also shattered white-middle-class complacency; it compelled whites to reevaluate personal feelings, social institutions, and national myths.
The movement and the enthusiasm of television for it constituted only a temporary engagement. The racism of centuries could not be overcome in ten or twelve years. Soon video interest, along with much of white public opinion, shifted to other matters as the movement collapsed under political, economic, and social pressure. Actress Ruby Dee was close to the truth when she remarked in late 1968, a time when black actors at last were entering national culture as stars of their own dignified series, "We're in the most commodity-conscious nation in the world, and the black man is the commodity of this year. If black people sell, they'll be back. If they don't, they won't."
That those in government understood the political implications of national television was made obvious by two events during the decade: critical speeches delivered by Chairman Newton Minow of the FCC in 1961 and Vice-President Spiro Agnew in 1969. From differing perspectives, these attacks on TV opened and closed the decade on a note of official consternation. In both cases, influential executives assailed broadcasting because they felt it was distorting what the citizenry saw and understood of reality.
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