Politics and National TV
In search of an explanation, some in broadcasting blamed the decline on new measurement techniques and equipment, specifically the electronically advanced "People Meter," introduced by the A. C. Nielsen Company in 1987 to replace its thirty-year-old diary system. Others maintained that viewers were simply bored because the same production companies had been producing the bulk of prime-time entertainment for too many years. Another explanation held that the networks did not provide enough exposure to their new series, that if a show did not deliver within a few telecasts it was rudely bumped to another time slot or canceled outright. The true culprit, however, was the changing reality of telecommunications in the 1980s.
But this change was more than alternative distribution and program services or millions of VCR's in private hands. Industry upheaval was precipitated, too, by the politics of the decade. The presidential victories of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 were exhilarating experiences for the American political right. The popular president espoused conservative values, and he soon took steps to realize his ideological agenda.
In broadcasting this was evident in the movement toward deregulation championed by Mark Fowler and Dennis Patrick, the young and philosophical FCC chairmen appointed by Reagan. Like the president and conservatives in general, Fowler and Patrick rejected the classical liberal belief that broadcasters, as lessees of the public airwaves, had a special responsibility to serve that public. Fowler enunciated his ideas in 1984 before an audience of radio and TV executives: "It was time to move away from thinking about broadcasters as trustees," he declared. "It was time to treat them the way almost everyone else in society does—that is, as businesses." As he understood it, "Television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures."
Broadcast deregulation was born of the laissez-faire principles that guided conservative economic thought. Here was the classic faith that good men will do good if unfettered by government: specifically, less government involvement in business matters would lead to enhanced competition, create inevitably better service, and increase profitability. Indeed, from this point of view TV was no more than a business.
Fowler summarized his controversial philosophy in Television Quarterly in 1982:
One principle now guides the commission's efforts. It is the policy of "unregulation," and simply it means that we examine every regulation on the books and ask, "Is it really necessary?" If, in our judgment, it has outlived its usefulness, we must make every effort to get rid of it. This approach is in harmony with the concept that government should eliminate unnecessary regulation of business and society. Our ultimate aim in broadcast regulation is to operate as a traffic cop, not as justice Frankfurter suggested, as a determiner of the traffic. We are calling on broadcasters to solve their own problems, and meet their needs, even insofar as engineering coordination is concerned, rather than devote commission resources to those tasks. . . . The end result should be a commercial broadcasting system where the marketplace rather than the myths of a trusteeship approach determines what programming the American people receive on radio and television and who provides it.
Deregulation unleashed the networks from many federal restrictions, freeing broadcasters to conduct their affairs as never before. The networks were given increased leverage within the industry when limitations on ownership of TV stations were increased from the ceiling of seven established in the late 1970s to as many as twelve (as long as their stations directly served no more than 25 percent of the national population)—plus interest in two more if these were controlled by minorities or women.
Instead of every three years, stations were now asked to renew their licenses every five years. Requirements that some broadcast time be devoted to community issues and reported annually to the FCC were dropped in favor of a vague provision urging broadcasters to address local matters. Freed from length-of-ownership restraints, investors could now buy and sell TV stations as if they were simple commodities.
One of the most disputed actions of the commission in the Reagan years involved revocation of the fairness doctrine. As an interpretive outgrowth of Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934, the doctrine since 1949 was a Commission policy requiring that broadcasters balance their representations of controversial issues with reasonable opportunity for representation from all sides. But in the theoretical framework of deregulation, this proviso constituted government intrusion into the business affairs of station owners.
When the doctrine was revoked late in Reagan's second administration, Democrats in Congress sought to resurrect the policy by making it a formal law. But the president vetoed the measure to which Congress had attached its fairness doctrine law as a rider. Early in his tenure, moreover, President George Bush pledged to follow Reagan's precedent should Congress attempt to pass a similar bill.
Deregulation reflected network weakness more than broadcast strength. The ability to own more stations did not ensure increased corporate power; it meant only that the networks could struggle to maintain their dominance and profitability in the face of formidable new competition. No longer the embodiment of American television, network TV now became just another free-market business—albeit strategically situated within the industry—and regulated only by the ethics of capitalistic enterprise.
If political conservatism affected the control of broadcasting, it influenced as well the content of television. In many regards this meant renewal of the ideological criticism so prevalent during the Nixon presidency. The centrist point of view traditional to broadcasting came under fire in the Reagan presidency. It was not that the networks had been uncooperative with government in the past. They had all been anti-Communist, patriotic, and supportive of and friendly with official Washington since the Truman presidency.
The networks had their loyalty oaths in the 1950s, and various executives and on-air performers cooperated with the Pentagon and other federal agencies. But these were basically consensus activities, harmonious with the philosophical direction of national government at the time. Thus network TV seemed sympathetic to the civil rights movement, much as the federal government had been since the early 1960s. Coverage of the Vietnam War seldom doubted presidential direction, and protesters were appropriately presented on TV as radicals or misguided people out of step with carefully planned national policies.
The challenge of the Reagan presidency came from a new and passionate style of political conservatism whose adherents since the mid-1960s had found in the Republican party an increasingly hospitable constituency for their understanding of the world. Fumblingly, this New Right had made its first moves against the communications industry during the Nixon years and failed. Tested and ready for power, conservatives by the 1980s were organized and dedicated in their hope to fill the ideological void left in politics by an American liberalism torn apart by the great issues of the past half century.
Until the 1980s the only prominent TV spokesman for this point of view had been William F. Buckley, Jr., an erudite conservative idealist whose talk show
Firing Line began as a syndicated feature in 1966 and came to PBS during the Nixon presidency. There had been little network effort to supplement Buckley's lone voice. When ABC news anchorman Frank Reynolds and producer Blaine Littell were questioned in 1968 about political bias in network journalism, they summarized the problem confronting the New Right in its search for national legitimacy. On an NET documentary Reynolds and Littell were forthright:
Reynolds: Ali, sure, I suppose maybe there is an Eastern Establishment, left-wing bias. But that just happens to be because the people who are in it feel that way. On our program, I know we have people who are hardly members of that Establishment. They make appearances as guest commentators.
Questioner (to Littell): Would you put a conservative on as often as you'll put a liberal on?
Littell (smiling): If you can find them, you bet.
Questioner: "If you can find them." Now, what does that mean? Littell: There's a problem, but
Questioner: How hard do you look?
Littell: We look very hard. And what seems to be true is that most people who write well and are in the arts and in the business of communicating, tend to be liberal. Conservatives tend to be businessmen, and businessmen do not tend to write well.
Network political thinking was evident when ABC News began a regular commentary feature on its evening newscast in mid-1968. ABC offered a narrow spectrum indeed. Although the network assembled twenty-six thinkers from academics, arts, politics, science, fashion, sports, and international affairs, the overwhelming majority was from the moderate-to-liberal middle ground. Few of the viewpoints ever matched the network promise of "commentary that will reflect the different schools of opinion in our society."
Robert Higgins in TV Guide studied 150 of the pronouncements and found only ten that were "hard, abrasive ideological opinions." Of these, only one came from the left, an angry statement on civil rights from actor Ossie Davis; two came from the conservative right, including James J. Kilpatrick's insight that the Poor Peoples' March and encampment at Resurrection City was "show biz.... Many of the abandoned shacks were a litter of beer cans.... Most of the residents were loafing in their bunks, drawing welfare checks."
Unapproached by ABC were articulate spokesmen for the American left such as Herbert Marcuse, Abbie Hoffman, and Paul Krassner; and on the right the network failed to invite the opinions of prominent editors such as Arthur Krock and David Lawrence as well as writers such as John Chamberlain, Ralph de Toledano, and Victor Lasky.
After only eight months, the commentary notion was abandoned by ABC News. Blaine Littell admitted that the network had been "hugging the middle," going after "the common denominator. There are many vital issues that we won't go near. We censor ourselves." But a newsman at CBS was more pointed: "Nothing scares the networks more than the full spectrum of American political thought."
Even during the Nixon presidency, White House operative Patrick Buchanan expressed the frustration of the New Right. Appearing on The Dick Cavett Show in March 1973, he was characteristically blunt as he denounced PBS for its failure to provide a balance between liberal and conservative points of view:
... if you look at public television, you will find you've got Sander Vanocur and Robert MacNeil, the first of whom, Sander Vanocur, is a notorious Kennedy sycophant, in my judgment, and Robert MacNeil, who is anti‑administration. You have Elizabeth Drew ... she personally is definitely not pro-administration; I would say anti-administration.
Washington Week in Review is unbalanced against us ... you have Black Journal, which is unbalanced against us ... you have
Bill Moyers, which is unbalanced against the administration. And then for a fig leaf, they throw in William F. Buckley's program.
In the 1980s, however, New Right commentators became familiar as panelists on political discussion shows. In the era of Ronald Reagan several even hosted their own programs. Among these were George Will on ABC, Patrick Buchanan and Robert Novak on CNN, and John McLaughlin on PBS and CNBC. One program,
Crossfire, on CNN, actually turned the conservative-liberal dichotomy into a verbal wrestling match as controversial guests endured the rantings of Buchanan and his liberal political opponents, Tom Braden and later Michael Kinsley.
Although such theatricality did little to advance understanding or consensus, it constituted a widening of the political spectrum, at least to the right, permissible on U.S. television. Although few authentic American leftists were ever invited as guests—and certainly no anticapitalist, socialist, laborite, Communist, or radical type ever hosted his or her own series on capitalistic American TV—this was a step toward expanding public debate so long absent from broadcasting.
The conservative push into public-service video was complemented by the appearance of politicized TV religion in the 1980s. In the early days of TV, religious leaders such as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen who sought wider electronic congregations relied on airtime donated by the networks and local stations. But in the 1950s revivalist preachers such as Oral Roberts and Rex Humbard discovered they could amass large religious followings—and sizable ministry fortunes—by leasing airtime on local stations from which they spread religious messages and solicited cash donations.
Broadened video capabilities by the 1980s energized a new generation of fundamentalist ministers eager to invest in satellite technology and the divine. Through modern technology, Protestant evangelists such as Jimmy Swaggart, James Robison, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell could disseminate their programs to cable systems and local outlets throughout the country and even throughout the world.
But the most ambitious among the brethren need not settle for one station or one show. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker supplemented their anchor program
The PTL Club with religious productions from other preachers and formed the PTL Network. From his nationally syndicated program
The Old-Time Gospel Hour, the Reverend Jerry Falwell initiated the influential Moral Majority in 1979 as an overtly political advocacy organization.
Pat Robertson best demonstrated the power of religion and video technology. To create the Christian Broadcasting Network (now called CBN The Family Channel), he used his politicized Christian talk show,
The 700 Club, as a keystone, then added other religious shows as well as reruns of vintage network sitcoms and Westerns, plus family-oriented series imported from Australia. Robertson used his daily TV exposure and championing of conservative politics to launch a truly temporal career in politics, running unsuccessfully but formidably in state primaries in 1988 for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.
Televangelism added the moral fervor of fundamentalist Christianity to conservative secularity. The potent New Christian Right melded biblical authority and partisan politics to create a compelling mandate for supporting the Reagan presidency. Many televangelists regularly addressed current political topics. On domestic issues they spoke out strongly against abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, sex education in schools, girlie magazines, and homosexual rights. On international matters they usually recommended vigorous interventionism to resolve problems threatening U.S. interests, especially in terms of fighting Communism and terrorism.
With increased visibility on public-affairs and religious programs, political conservatives sought also to influence network entertainment. The Reverend Donald Wildmon founded the National Federation for Decency in 1976 and merged it in 1981 with the efforts of the Moral Majority to create the Coalition for Better Television. Other advocacy groups with interest in TV imagery included The Eagle Forum headed by Phyllis Schlafly, the Clean-Up TV campaign of Reverend John Hurt, and Accuracy in Media headed by Reed Irvine.
Typically these groups voiced opinions critical of network shows. Their condemnations ranged from generic complaints against violence and graphic sexuality on TV to specific anger when one of their major issues—e.g., abortion, homosexuality, the Soviet Union—was shown in a tolerant light. The political implications of such criticism were overtly demonstrated in the wake of the ABC broadcast of
The Day After, a two-hour, made-for-TV film concerning thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Even before it aired in November 1983, conservative political groups charged that the series was propaganda for pacifism and pro-Soviet policies; they threatened chary sponsors with boycotts and demanded airtime to rebut the subversive values they detected in the film. Not only did ABC arrange for right-wing spokesmen to appear on a panel discussion following the telecast, but the network also commissioned a major anti-Communist miniseries as counterprogramming. Ironically, although
The Day After appeared with few advertisers, it garnered the largest audience (46 rating/62 share) of any made-for-TV movie in TV history, and it was the fifteenth-highest-rated telecast in the three decades, 1960-1989.
In part to allay conservative suspicions about ABC, the network commissioned and in 1987 broadcast a seven-part, 14.5-hour miniseries
Amerika, a fictional story depicting patriotic reactions to a Soviet military occupation of the United States. Even before it was aired there was nationwide controversy. This time, liberal protest ranged from picketing the ABC offices in New York City to an article in
TV Guide in which celebrated journalist Harrison Salisbury asked and answered an obvious question: "Could it happen here?... I've spent forty years reporting on Moscow from the inside and outside, and I'm afraid this rather murky script doesn't convince me. Too many holes in the concept."
Unfortunately for the network and the future of overt Soviet-bashing, Amerika averaged mediocre ratings (19 ratings/29 share). Moreover, it cost $41 million to produce and returned only $22 million. With little prospect for a lucrative rerun,
Variety accurately termed the financial result "a big loss to swallow."
The influx of conservative political values into U.S. television did not represent a crushing of the centrist consensus viewpoint familiar to viewers. Still, from the selling of Chrysler automobiles by displaying the U.S. flag, to the opening of the 1984 Olympic Summer Games as a musical salute to American political freedom, the essential spirituality of political conservatism was incorporated into national TV.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in children's programming. Between 1979 and 1983 network television abandoned children's fare as average time devoted to such programming dropped from 11.3 to 4.4 hours per week. Much of the decline resulted from cancellation of after-school productions in favor of money-making shows aimed at older viewers. Independent stations, however, quickly filled the void. Primarily through syndicated adventure cartoons they soon were engaging the nation's youth with an array of lethal superheroes equipped with technologically advanced weaponry, all fighting to impose American ideological values throughout the universe.
With Rambo and His Force of Freedom, totalitarian evil was thwarted routinely by All-American Rambo and his fellow soldiers of fortune. Good guys thwarted oppressors and rescued helpless innocents in futuristic shows such as
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe; She-Ra, Princess of Power; Voltron; M.A. S. K.; Defenders of the Earthjayce and the Wheeled Warrior; and
Thundercats. Even that senior militaristic series G.I. Joe made a triumphant return, waging war against the international terrorist activities of the evil COBRA. As one critic has described this onslaught of politicized juvenile champions, the cartooned heroes waged a battle that was decidedly moral and ideological:
In this struggle between Good and Evil, light and darkness, blondness versus purpleness (or sickly yellowness), blue-eyedness versus glowing red-, purple-, or yellow-eyedness, what is at stake is nothing less than "the secrets of the universe" (He-Man), "the universe" (Voltron), "the destruction of the universe" (Jayce), "the ultimate battle for survival" (Sectaurs), "the fate of the entire world" (Robotech), "the ultimate doom" (Transformers)....
Ironically, the expansion of televised political dialogue by the American right occurred as the popularity and boldness of network TV journalism declined. Throughout the 1980s the audience for network TV newscasts atrophied, falling more than 22 percent from a 76 share in 1979-1980 to a 59 share in 1988-1989.23
Certainly the maturation of CNN and other newscasts accounted for some of this lost audience, but there were other factors. Perhaps because the Watergate scandal had illustrated the disconcerting potential of expose at the highest level, viewers did not want to know "the whole truth." Perhaps network management did not wish to upset a citizenry that seemed pleased with Ronald Reagan—after two decades of war and economic dislocation presided over by a succession of one-term chief executives. Perhaps, too, corporate interests came to influence the willingness of network journalism to pursue decisive stories to their logical conclusions. Whatever the root causes, network news failed to press controversial issues during the 1980s.
When the Reagan administration prevented the press from observing the U.S. military invasion of Grenada in October 1983, there was momentary protest by some network personnel, but the government had its way, and most of the public approved. The networks failed also to press the issue on corruption in the administration—in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in the regulation of the savings and loan industry, and in many other areas of executive responsibility—until Reagan was out of office and the Bush administration and Congress started to investigate the criminality. And the Iran-Contra scandal, although it temporarily convicted an eloquent Marine Corps colonel and a few of his operatives, was not pursued by TV news to the highest levels of responsibility.
The degeneration of television journalism is poignantly revealed in a comparison of network coverage of presidential elections two decades apart. An analysis of more than 280 daily network newscasts aired between Labor Day and Election Day in 1968 and 1988 illustrated that pithy "sound bites" and candidate commercials have come to dominate American political discourse on TV. As reported by Kiku Adatto of the Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University, the average bloc of uninterrupted political speech on TV fell from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 9.8 seconds in 1988. Whereas about half the sound bites in the 1968 campaign lasted at least 40 seconds, only one percent lasted that long in 1988. Most strikingly, while candidates in 1968 spoke for a minute without interruption in 21 percent of all newscasts, this never happened in 1988.
And as for political commercials fashioned by advertising professionals, Adatto noted that in 1968 excerpts from paid political announcements appeared in news stories only three times, but in 1988 it happened 125 times as commercials became the news. And in the latter case, reporters addressed the veracity of the claims in those commercials less than eight percent of the time.
Such acquiescence by TV news prompted Congressman David Obey of Wisconsin to tell PBS journalist Bill Moyers in late 1989, "I don't regard network news organizations as being serious news organizations. I regard them as a public affairs/entertainment division of a profit-making corporation." And Michael Deaver, the presidential adviser and mastermind of much of Ronald Reagan's political imagery, was equally blunt. When asked by Moyers if it was "hard to get the media to go along with you on the use of those visuals," Deaver responded, "Not at all, because the media, while they won't admit it, are not in the news business, they're in the entertainment business.
Even one of the industry's own journalistic pioneers, Sig Mickelson, who headed news operations at CBS Television during most of the 1950s, has drawn pessimistic conclusions about the relationship between TV and politics. According to Mickelson, "The promise that television would open up the electoral system, encourage candidates to be more candid with voters, increase the turnout at the polls, and create a more responsive democracy has collapsed in an era dominated by packaged campaigns and avoidance of issues.
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