Increased Public Debate
Despite occasionally successful series, films, and miniseries—perhaps because such productions illustrated the potential of TV as entertainer and educator—network TV generated considerable debate in the 1970s. Particularly devastating were those critics inside the industry. One of the most stinging rebukes came from Commissioner Nicholas Johnson of the FCC, who concluded in 1970 that television had been a failure. In the qualitative tradition of Newton Minow, Johnson felt enormous disappointment in comparing the potential and the reality of television in American society. "Not only has it failed to make us a better race of men, it has actually made us worse than we were before," he stated. "Not only does television not exercise its power to turn us on as individuals, it is so busy getting us to turn it on that it educates us away from life." Johnson continued:
One of the most vicious of television's predatory habits is its stalking of the poor. The affluent have nothing to lose but their money and control over their own lives and personalities. The poor are not so lucky. They must sit there, without even the depressing knowledge that money can't buy happiness, and be constantly told that their lack of material possessions is a badge of social ostracism in a nation that puts higher stress on monetary values than moral values. That television—as it is presently run—is the enemy should be obvious to all.
Johnson's was not a voice in the wilderness. Other prominent detractors were upset at the condition of television in the United States. For Fred Silverman in 1977, TV was performing poorly in its role as social leader, televising pap instead of insights into the problems of society. For Leonard Grossman, the president of PBS, the controlling ethic of TV had become greed. "Greed is in charge of TV, fear is what runs TV," he proclaimed in 1978. "The struggle for corporate power dulls creativity, kills experimentation, makes everyone follow the leader." Grossman also attacked the FCC, alleging that "the government is responsible for the state of TV today.... If TV did not do what the government really wants, the FCC would move in on it."
In a three-part series in TV Guide in 1978, Neil Hickey focused on the intense rivalry for ratings and profits among the networks, suggesting that this frantic maneuvering was a prelude to more serious convulsions. In agreement with Hickey, producer Aaron Spelling wondered, "How in the hell do we stop this network mania?" Norman Lear called network rivalry "the most destructive force in television today." And Frank Price, the president of Universal Television, argued that if "the heavy emphasis on ratings" and the urge "to acquire greater and greater profits" were lessened, the networks might "feel a little more free to put on something they thought was good."
One of the most blistering attacks on national television came from Ted Turner, a millionaire broadcaster not without professional motives for bashing the established networks. Distressed by the violent imagery on network video, Turner spoke forcefully before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives in 1981. He was unequivocal when declaring. "A large portion of our population is sick and the major culprits are the tremendous television networks and the motion picture companies that make the horrible movies and TV programs that are turning our young people into a society of lawbreakers, murderers, drug addicts, and perverts." Turner continued his assault on national television:
They glorify violence, illicit sex, reckless driving, materialism, and just plain stupidity. Their entertainment programs make a mockery of all our institutions that have made our Nation the greatest, freest, best governed, most prosperous, and most generous the world has ever seen. For at least the last 10 years their programming has become antifamily, antireligion, antilaw, antieducation, antibusiness, and antigovernment. They have sold us down the river to fatten their pocketbooks. They were given their use of the public's airwaves with a promise and understanding that they would use our airwaves to serve the public interest.... they have done just the opposite.
Network TV, however, was not without prominent defenders. As early as 1967, distinguished CBS journalist Eric Sevareid, reacting to a series of rebukes of the medium published in
TV Guide, chided the critics for their snobbism and lack of common sense. Seeking to praise the medium while acknowledging its imperfection, Sevareid referred to television as a "medium for amusement, information, enlightenment, inspiration, boredom, irritation, and anxiety." He concluded with support, arguing that TV "is already imbedded in the warp and woof of America, is going to be with us permanently, often reflects the mediocre in our society, rarely the worst and sometimes the finest." ABC's president, James Duffy, was a staunch defender of network prerogatives. "We have nothing to be ashamed of...nothing to be defensive about...simply because we're a giant. It's always been the fashion to kick giants," he told fellow broadcasters in 1970. But two years later he was ready to become defensive." The broadcast medium—radio and television—has allowed itself to become a pawn that has been pushed around too freely by powerful pressures," he declared. "Our American system of broadcasting remains, despite its critics, the most varied, balanced, representative, and responsive in the world. Let us begin to be more vigilant—and more militant—in our defense of it."
NBC's president, Herbert S. Schlosser, addressed those who felt that network TV was creating instead of solving national problems. Blaming TV for social disharmony, he claimed, was a disservice because it "diverts attention from the real causes of these problems." To Schlosser, "Many studies have shown that poverty, drug addiction, and urban decay are most responsible for the nation's rising crime rate. Television did not create these conditions. On the contrary, it has been a prime instrument in focusing public attention on them with great impact." And on the question of the service delivered by TV, Schlosser was similarly supportive. According to him, the system of broadcasting that existed in the United States "reflects and fits the diversity of our democratic society."
The clash of insider opinion suggested that the industry lacked not only a clear understanding of what it was doing to U.S. society but also agreement on its proper function within that society. Such divisiveness was only aggravated by the swelling condemnation of the medium from organizations and individuals outside the industry. There had always been criticism of the medium. Any institution as pervasive and influential as broadcast TV would invariably provoke contention. And as Kathryn C. Montgomery well illustrated in her book
Target: Prime Time, public argumentation was often constructive, sometimes prompting TV executives to adjust their product to ameliorate problems.
This was the time, for instance, of "jiggle" television, where successful shows such as Three's Company and Charlie's Angels exploited braless women and sexual innuendo to rise to the top of the ratings. Such obvious breaks with the essential prudery of broadcasting offended many who felt that the networks were encouraging moral reevaluation.
Politically, coverage of the last years of the Vietnam War rankled liberals and conservatives in U.S. politics, both sides feeling that TV was deleterious to their perspectives of the conflict. Minority groups, often with support from governmental committees and commissions, organized to demand more on-screen and behind-the-scene representation for African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and women. And groups concerned with the welfare of children frequently assailed network TV for its manipulation of youngsters through an overabundance of commercials, sexual content, and gratuitous violence.
More than ever, social groups and individuals challenged what was on the networks and what they felt the networks should be programming. Since networks were not licensed entities, the most direct tactic in confronting remiss broadcasters was to petition the FCC not to renew the licenses of individual stations. In a significant case decided in 1964 and confirmed by litigation in 1966, licensees operating WLBT, an NBC and ABC affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi, had their renewal challenged by the Office of Communications of the United Church of Christ and a group of local citizens. The challengers successfully argued that the station owners had failed to serve African-American viewers, who composed 45 percent of the Jackson population, and therefore had not met the public-service obligations of a broadcast licensee. Before the WLBT case, only other station owners claiming electrical interference or economic injury could petition the FCC to deny renewal.
It was not an easy victory. The case began in 1964 with the FCC denying standing to the challengers. In 1966 a federal Court of Appeals ordered the commission to consider citizen protest in renewal cases; but even then the FCC renewed the license. Only in 1969, after the Court of Appeals overruled that FCC decision, was the WLBT license ceded to a new operator.
With success in Jackson, however, the doors to citizen protest before the commission were opened. As
Broadcasting magazine understood its significance, "The case did more than establish the right of the public to participate in a station's license-renewal hearing. It did even more than encourage minority groups around the country to assert themselves in broadcast matters," the magazine noted. "It provided practical lessons in how pressure could be brought, in how the broadcast establishment could be challenged."
Results came quickly. Whereas only two petitions to deny renewal—affecting two stations—were filed in 1967, there were fifty petitions affecting 150 outlets filed in 1973. And in a ringing victory for civic action, the FCC in January 1975 refused to renew the licenses of eight TV stations of the Alabama Educational Television Commission. Although this was a public television operation, a chronic record of racial discrimination was sufficient to strip the broadcaster of its license.
Among the more prominent protesters, the Office of Communications of the United Church of Christ annually published statistics showing patterns of bias against racial minorities on TV. Other prominent action groups included Action for Children's Television, which lobbied the networks, the FCC, Congress, and the NAB to obtain beneficial programming for children; the Black Media Coalition, which represented black interests in programming and employment; and the Parent-Teacher Association, which published a periodic
Program Review Guide, rating programs from "most commendable" (e.g.,
Little House on the Prairie, Eight Is Enough, The Waltons, Donny and Marie) to "least quality" (e.g.,
Soap, Maude, Kojak, Three's Company).
Another grassroots protest group, the National Federation of Decency, established in 1976 by a Mississippi minister, Donald Wildmon, was an early manifestation of that mix of conservative politics and Protestant fundamentalism so influential in the 1980s. In February 1977 Wildmon organized—in great part because TV news coverage took his local appeal to the nation—a national "Turn Off TV Week." And as late as the summer of 1989, he launched a national crusade against network programming. The focus of such Old Testament wrath was the violence and sexual permissiveness Wildmon detected on network television.
The condemnation of video practices reached new levels of popularity in the 1970s. For TV writers Richard Levinson and William Link, such protests from grass-roots organizations exercised a salutary influence. In their view, people in broadcasting "do not have any particular purchase on the truth," and pressure groups functioned as "a necessary goad." They suggested, "Without their complaints, strident or otherwise, the television community would perhaps fall victim to its own parochial interests."
But industry officials were less understanding. They often greeted organized criticism with irritation. Typically, Robert Wood of CBS warned in 1973 that television needed to be on guard against "a small, vocal, and, at times highly organized minority" wishing to decide what would appear on TV. The theme was reiterated by NBC's board chairman, Julian Goodman, who urged network affiliates the following year to be more aggressive in representing their interests. According to Goodman, "Broadcasters have a responsibility to speak out—publicly, forcefully, and persistently—on the direct and indirect attacks made on our service."
By the late 1970s a widening estrangement between national television and segments of its audience had developed. The top-rated program on television in the 1979-1980 season was 60 Minutes, with an average rating of 28.4 percent, but that suggested that 71.6 percent of the nation did not watch the program. Where HUT (homes using television) figures in 1977 reached 62.1 percent, it meant that on a given evening 37.9 percent of the American people were not using their TV sets.
Robert Mulholland, the president of NBC, recognized this discontent with broadcast TV when he noted in 1978 that "only about 28 percent of new series last from one September to the next." Similarly, writer-producer Hal Kanter raised the theme when he criticized the planners of the 1978-1979 season for "the woeful lack of gutfelt, intuitive showmanship and the gamblers' instincts that established American entertainment as a major world commodity." Upset at an increasing reliance by network programmers on the methods of social science to discern audience tastes, Kanter added, "The development of scientific approaches to prejudging audience acceptance has burgeoned to the point where it has become a crutch, not a tool."
More foreboding than citizen and industry criticism, however, were reform activities from the federal government. Here the most persistent complaint was against violence in programs seen by children. The interest was not new to the decade. As early as 1954 the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency focused on the linkage between TV and juvenile crime.
The discussion was reinvigorated during the Kennedy administration. Senator Thomas Dodd was especially upset at the mayhem popularized by shows such as
The Untouchables. He spearheaded several years of hearings and open criticism of broadcasting for its failure to curb violence. Beginning in the late 1960s, Congressman Torbert MacDonald and Senator John O. Pastore took up the fight once more, holding new hearings and helping to form the Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior to investigate the link between violent imagery and juvenile crime. When that committee reported its findings in 1972, it concluded that there did exist a causal relationship between TV violence and aggressiveness in children mimicking what they see on TV, and particularly in children predisposed toward violence."
Importantly, the report was only the first shot fired in a decade-long attack on network violence. Augmented by findings of academic researchers such as Dr. George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and Drs. Bradley S. Greenberg and Charles Atkin of Michigan State University, government critics offered statistical evidence that the networks were failing to curb violence and that children were being bombarded weekly by as many as three hundred acts of physical aggression. Although issued in a minority dissenting report in 1977, the frustration of elected officials with national TV was evident in the comments subscribed to by Representatives Barbara Mikulski, Timothy Wirth, and John Murphy:
From time to time the networks promise that they will reduce the level of violence—usually in response to a public outcry or a congressional inquiry. But they rarely do; and when they do, they soon relapse. The industry has never been able by self-regulation to lower the violence quotient. And so we now think that the time has come to take a hard and fundamental look at the basic institutional structure of American television: to find ways of diffusing the control of the networks and to open the structure to alternative sources of programming.
Such criticism from citizens, industry, and government illustrated the impossibility of establishing the harmony between broadcaster and public desired by the pioneers of television. But if decades of protest and critique could yield little diminution in the power of national programmers, structural developments were under way that threatened to do what no regulation or critic had ever accomplished: loosen the grip of monopoly television on the nation.
The challenge came from emerging new electronic technologies. They were the powerful rival over which the networks had minimal influence. While the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, Vincent T. Wasilewski, could argue in 1979 that "technological advances could prove the industry's boon rather than its bane," even by this time developments in program delivery and reception were striking directly at the heart of the structural arrangements that made network video popular.
Although the challenge began to take form in the late 1970s, its most serious ramifications would be felt in the following decade. At exactly the moment American video was realizing its greatest financial achievements and weathering its most intense and broad-based criticism, it was rapidly losing control over its future. And by the beginning of the 1990s network TV was in decline—still profitable but well beyond its prime, weakened, and unable to contain disruptive forces that had subverted the old order and were redefining national television in the United States.
¤ Continue Reading