Television and Public Interest
American broadcasting was inherently contradictory. In a society espousing capitalistic free enterprise, commercial radio and television in the United States were regulated by the government. The few networks that quickly monopolized national radio operated with tacit government approval, enabling them to exploit scarce public resources for private profit. Federal actions actually shaped the monopolistic character of U.S. broadcasting.Until World War I radio had been in the hands of the experimenters and hobbyists.
The patents and related technology necessary to create a viable wireless industry were held by a number of private, often uncooperative individuals and corporations. During the Great War, however, the U.S. Navy spearheaded the rationalization of the radio business. In other countries where it was already a government monopoly, radio had proven vital to military communications. Now the U.S. Navy used wartime laws to assume complete control of existing American radio. It compensated patent holders for their losses, and actually initiated new research intended to improve the technology. This pooling of patents and processes not only modernized American radio, it also brought the nation abreast of radio developments abroad.
With the coming of peace, the Navy proposed to maintain its monopoly controls. When this plan prompted charges that the federal government was becoming the same type of autocracy as that just defeated in imperial Germany, the Navy changed course. As an alternative, it suggested that a private American company be allowed to exercise monopoly control over radio. No matter that antitrust laws would have to be relaxed to create such an arrangement, the military wanted a powerful telecommunications force, a streamlined and vertically integrated corporation that could perfect radio transmission for national defense while competing successfully with European rivals. As Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels explained to a congressional committee in December 1918, "It is my profound conviction, as it is the conviction of every person I have talked with in this country and abroad who has studied the question, that it [radio] must be a monopoly."
The Radio Corporation of America was created in October 1919 to be the communications monopoly envisioned by the military. Private it might have been, but RCA was monitored by the government. By its rules of incorporation, all company officials had to be U.S. citizens. No more than 20 percent of RCA stock could be owned by foreign elements. The U.S. Navy even received a place on the RCA board of directors. Formed as a subsidiary of General Electric, RCA focused initially on international radio. The fact that GE had acquired the powerful Marconi Wireless Telephone Company of America—more commonly known as American Marconi—and melded its patents and personnel into RCA gave the fledgling monopoly a powerful start.
But there were other uses for radio than sending cablegrams and codified military communications. Experimenters and electrical engineers alike had dabbled with radio as a medium of entertainment and information. As early as 1910, inventor Lee de Forest had transmitted a live opera; and in 1916 he operated a primitive radio station, playing recorded music and reporting news events for the enjoyment of those few with receiving equipment.
As a young employee of American Marconi in 1916, David Sarnoff synthesized these informal developments into a business plan. He wrote to his employer proposing to wire the homes of America to receive music via radio. "I have in mind a plan of development which would make radio a 'household utility' in the same sense as the piano or phonograph," he noted in November 1916. "The idea is to bring music into the house by wireless.... The 'Radio Music Box' can be supplied with amplifying tubes and a loudspeaking telephone, all of which can be neatly mounted in one box."
Through the acquisition of American Marconi by GE, Sarnoff came to RCA as commercial manager. But to enter the field of domestic radiotelephony, as he had suggested years earlier, RCA needed additional technology that was already controlled by competitors. To acquire these supplementary patents, RCA in 1921 had to cede much of its common and preferred stock to other electronic giants: Westinghouse (20.6 percent), a major developer of radio patents; American Telephone and Telegraph (10.3 percent), not only "the telephone company," but also, through its long-lines system, the common carrier needed to tie local stations into a national network; and United Fruit (4.1 percent), a major radio user experienced in linking together its Central American banana empire via radio, and holder of several key patents desired by RCA. General Electric (30.1 percent), however, retained the largest block of RCA stock.
With these electronic powerhouses combining their radio technologies under a single control, the new corporation became an industrial giant more impressive than the Navy had originally envisioned. RCA had prepossessing leverage that stifled competition. From the bottom up, RCA controlled radio: from the manufacture of equipment to the technology of transmission and reception. Yet few in government seemed to worry that RCA's operations flaunted the Clayton and Sherman antitrust acts and forged a massive combine that would control even broader aspects of radio telecommunications in the United States.
RCA entered the entertainment business, turning the radio receiver into a consumer device and broadcasting into a national utility. When RCA formed the National Broadcasting Company with its two networks—NBC Red in September 1926 and NBC Blue in January 1927—it brought enormous technical and financial power to programming and station ownership just as commercial radio was becoming a reality. With government blessing NBC quickly dominated the air, offering attractive shows and exploitive contractual arrangements with its affiliated radio stations. RCA would continue to have manufacturing rivals such as Philco and Zenith, and programming competition from CBS. But RCA controlled most patents, employed many of the leading researchers, and from vacuum tubes to Amos 'n' Andy it produced and marketed the total broadcast package.
Importantly, because television was a function of broadcasting and the natural outgrowth of radio, decisions that structured the industry in the 1920s and 1930s necessarily shaped emerging TV. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the creation in 1927 of governmental regulatory agency that was national in scope, the Federal Radio Commission, and its more comprehensive successor in 1934, the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC was another in a series of regulatory agencies created by Congress to oversee critical areas of American economic life. The first such unit, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), was organized in 1887. Others in this mold included the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the United States Tariff Commission, and the Federal Reserve Board. These entities operated as miniature independent governments, narrowly focused and outside the direct influence of Congress, president, or court. In fact, federal commissions and boards were allotted legislative, executive, and judicial powers on matters within their jurisdictions; some referred to them, collectively, as the fourth branch of government.
The FCC was created to regulate interstate and foreign commerce in electrical communication by wire and radio. Wire communication covered writing, signs, signals, pictures, and sounds of all kinds transmitted by aid of wire, cable, or other like connection. Radio communication was defined by the act as transmission by radio of writing, signs, signals, pictures, and sounds of all kinds. In essence, the FCC mandate was to oversee the development of modern "telecommunications," a comprehensive term that emerged about this time to cover radio and wire electrical transmissions."
Like other commissions, the FCC may have exercised legislative, executive, and judicial prerogatives when assessing license applications, but this hardly made the commission a threat to the broadcast industry. Except to revoke or refuse renewal of a broadcaster's license, the FCC could do little to ensure that station owners abided by its rules. In 1952 Congress expanded the FCC's powers by enabling it to issue "cease and desist" orders, and in 1960 the commission was allowed to impose fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 for violations. Still, licenses rarely were retracted or denied renewal; and use of the newer powers has been confined largely to violations of transmission technicalities.
Federal regulation of the airwaves was a new concept in the 1920s and 1930s. There was no precedent to follow in managing broadcasting as it materialized in the United States. Unlike the print medium, where someone with something to say needed only a publisher—or his or her own press if a publisher were not at hand—stations were expensive to own and operate. Further, they were scarce, since there was a finite number of frequencies on the broadcast spectrum.
FCC regulatory power raised questions dear to the hearts of the political left and right. To those concerned with protecting civil liberties from the infringements of the state, the commission represented potential governmental censorship, curtailment of free speech, and undermining of precious constitutional guarantees. To those dedicated to laissez-faire economic practices, government regulation of business constituted a first step toward state control of capitalistic commerce and creation of a centralized, planned economy.
With such inherent limitations, the commission from the outset was torn between regulating loosely enough to allow private enterprise to flourish, but closely enough to guarantee that broadcasters respected, as the Communications Act stipulated, "the public interest, convenience, or necessity." The first half of the charge was obvious: by processing applications and licensing stations; overseeing transmitter construction; enforcing laws prohibiting profane or indecent language; and settling disputes over signal interference, static, and the like, the FCC implemented specifically defined, noncontroversial rules.
On the matter of the public interest, however, the FCC's prerogatives were ambiguous. Although it was mandated to consider if the public interest, convenience, or necessity would be served by a specific action, no clear definition of that interest, convenience, or necessity was forthcoming from Congress. While the clause was usually interpreted to mean that whatever profits the industry profits the public, its ambiguity created the potential for an aggressive FCC to demand broadcast reform—from set manufacturing to program content—in the name of the public weal.
There were factors mitigating against aggressive demands for service to the public. The seven commissioners overseeing U.S. broadcasting were political appointees of the president of the United States, designated to fill seven-year terms—or unfilled portions of those terms when an appointee prematurely left the FCC. They tended to come from radio and television and its ancillary businesses; and they usually returned to the communications industry once their terms lapsed or they retired. This made for a reluctance to regulate and a desire to please potential employers.
Furthermore, FCC commissioners were not politicians. Unlike the president and congressmen, they did not have to placate constituents, raise campaign funds, or run for reelection. Thus, whatever they might propose to do outside a narrow, self-evident area of agreement was closely watched by the White House and Congress. To be effective, the FCC needed not only an internal majority voting for action but also support in the elected government—with anticipated concordance in the federal judiciary.
According to the leading historian of the early FCC, "only for a brief period, 1941-1946, did the Federal Communications Commission take its tasks seriously." In reaching this conclusion, James L. Baughman has traced the FCC from the "ill-led and badly managed" 1930s to "the whorehouse era" of the 1950s when, mired in scandal and criminality, "the Commission lost its virginity, and liked it so much it turned pro." In his assessment, however, there was little hope that the FCC would ever perform as its supporters had hoped, for it was a weak agency, crippled from the start. "Congress and the president could not abide a strong FCC, not when its wards, local and network television, could deliver more votes than the TV editor of an opinion-leading newspaper or magazine. The commission was a small, toothless dog kept on a very short leash.
To another critical student of the FCC, its members have always been "reluctant regulators. But a Senate committee report in 1976 was harsher. It asserted that the FCC has always been plagued by unqualified commissioners, since presidents historically have used FCC appointments as "useful runner-up awards for persons who ricochet into the appointment as a result of a strong yet unsuccessful campaign for another position; appropriate resting berths for those who have labored long and hard in the party vineyards; and a convenient dumping ground for people who have performed unsatisfactorily in other, more important government posts.
Of course, there were exceptions to the party hacks or utility executives and lawyers named to the FCC with neither expertise in American telecommunications nor sensitivity to consumer interests. As appointees of President Harry S. Truman, for example, Wayne Coy and Frieda B. Hennock—the first woman to serve on the commission—challenged network preoccupation with profits by championing the woefully neglected educational potentials of radio and television.
Of the early FCC leaders, James Lawrence Fly and Paul G. Porter stand out for the activist leadership they exerted. Taking the FCC in directions that had always been possible if not probable Fly and Porter enlarged the practical boundaries of FCC jurisdiction.
The most successful of the early regulatory mavericks, Fly became chairman of the FCC in 1939 and headed the commission with a stern demeanor and reluctance to mollycoddle industry leaders. He openly assailed the motives of Sarnoff and Paley and once compared the National Association of Broadcasters, the chief lobbying arm of station owners and network officials, to a dead mackerel: "In the night it shines and it stinks."
For Fly, broadcasting was a "great public instrument" licensed "under mandate to serve the public interest." As he explained it, the relationship between public interest and licensed broadcasters was sacred. "While the duty to operate broadly in the public interest may lack something of definition," he wrote in late 1940, "it is clear beyond peradventure that possession—indeed, trusteeship—of the frequency involves more of duty than of right."
With the pluck of a New Deal trustbuster, Fly asserted that "The right is that claimed by one person, the duty is owed to millions. The essential function of this publicly owned facility cannot be appraised without primary regard for the rights of the listening public."
Unlike most commissioners, Fly was uncomfortable with broadcast monopolies. Directing the FCC toward the regulation of the quantitative aspects of the industry, he moved vigorously against the domination of radio by the two major networks.
During Chairman Fly's tenure the FCC thwarted Sarnoff’s plan to saturate the market with television receivers built to then-existing RCA standards. Fly also ordered sweeping reforms in the coercive contractual relationships between affiliated outlets and the networks that gave the latter the right to force its shows onto local stations. His commission demanded that NBC weaken its stranglehold on broadcasting by selling one of its two radio networks.
Fly met formidable resistance. At CBS Paley used his political friendships and company lawyers to resist an FCC order giving local stations greater freedom in their contractual relationship with the national networks; Paley lost. Sarnoff went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in seeking to vacate the commission order that NBC sell part of its operation; he also failed. As a result, corporate ties with affiliates were made more equitable, and in 1943 NBC Blue was sold. Within two years the divested network became the American Broadcasting Company.
Paul A. Porter, who became FCC chairman in December 1944, was another New Dealer with experience as a lawyer and publicist that included the Department of Agriculture, the War Food Administration, and the Democratic National Committee. He was once the Washington, D.C., counsel for CBS. Porter led where no man had gone before. He took the FCC in the direction of regulating the quality of broadcast programming, drawing inspiration from the ruling by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in the case brought against the FCC by NBC. In the decision upholding the forced divestiture of NBC Blue, Frankfurter wrote that the Communications Act of 1934 "does not restrict the Commission merely to the supervision of traffic" but that "it puts on the Commission the burden of determining the composition of that traffic."
Porter led the FCC to the issuance in 1946 of a landmark report, Public Service Responsibilities of Broadcast Licensees, the controversial "Blue Book." The report resulted from an FCC investigation headed by another New Deal commissioner, Clifford J. Durr, which found widespread abuse of the air, including excessive commercialism and an insufficiency of public service. As its title suggests, the report emphasized the civic responsibility that must be exercised by a licensee. It named four areas in which the FCC would look for a record of responsible accomplishment when assessing license renewal applications: (1) local and network shows carried on a noncommercial basis, (2) local live programs, (3) programs featuring discussion of public issues, and (4) efforts to limit the time devoted to commercials. The commission also ordered that stations annually submit statements and other evidence of their cooperation in providing public service programming.
For regulators such as Fly and Porter, the FCC needed to do more than review license applications and assess broadcast technical standards. To them the commission was a guardian of the public trust, and as such it was to be concerned with maintaining honest competition and quality programming. But such attention could only go so far. To channel American broadcasting toward the service of the public, a public that required more than mass entertainment and escapism, the FCC needed strong chairmen and committed commissioners plus a supportive president, Congress, and court system. When any of these ingredients was deficient—and with few exceptions, such was the case since its inception—the FCC was relegated to chronic ineffectiveness, broken only occasionally by the rhetorical outburst of an idealistic member.
Even if a particular FCC session were successful, there was no guarantee that a later session would not reverse its accomplishments. For example, Chairman Porter left his position shortly after issuance of the "Blue Book," but successive sessions of the commission did not seriously apply public service criteria when evaluating license renewals. For various reasons, including decreased FCC budgets, a postwar economic boom that dampened a regulatory climate born in the Great Depression, and new personnel appointed by Harry S. Truman and then Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commission slipped back to the narrower interests that had occupied most of its first decade. Failing egregiously bad conduct, license ownership practically guaranteed license renewal.
For their part, however, American broadcasters were neither government agents serving the public good nor philanthropists willing to lose money to enlighten the masses. Although pledged to serve the local audience, the typical station owner eagerly affiliated with one or more of the national networks, filled his station for the most part with programs produced in New York or Hollywood, and then—most importantly—invited merchandisers to rent from him the public's air to advertise their products and services. The broadcaster promised the advertiser large audiences—and to get this, he relied excessively on entertainment to attract them. And the larger the audience, the more he charged the advertiser.
Without a doubt such an arrangement brought wonderful diversions to the citizenry, the biggest names in show business, and all free of direct charge to the audience. No doubt, too, such programming was approved by a majority of the population. But the surrender of the U.S. radio and television to mass marketing and mass communication limited program diversity and audience experience, this in an industry severely restricted by a scarcity of stations.
There never was a great public debate about the control of broadcasting by the networks and their affiliates. The audience simply went along with the exciting fare to be heard and then seen on NBC and CBS—and to a lesser degree on the Mutual Broadcasting System and the ABC and DuMont networks. Local programming wilted before the alluring competition of big-name entertainment. When a station or network offered educational programming, it was no match for the glamour and glitz on rival network outlets. In a medium commercially dedicated to serving a national audience, the perspectives of cultural, social, political, and racial minorities seldom appeared in counter distinction to the common fare accepted by most listeners and viewers.
Emergent television was entering an environment in which the battle between public service and mass-taste programming had been already resolved in favor of the latter. That American radio and TV would be dominated by pop culture was determined in the struggle in 1934 surrounding passage of the new Communications Act and the failure of passage of the Wagner-Hatfield amendment to the act.
Educators saw debate over the Communications Act as an opportunity to demand a greater educational purpose for broadcasting. The proposed Wagner-Hatfield amendment, led by Senators Robert F. Wagner of New York and Henry D. Hatfield of West Virginia, would have nullified all existing radio licenses, then reassigned them, with one-quarter reserved for educational, religious, agricultural, labor, cooperative, and similar not-for-profit associations. The amendment would have permitted educational broadcasters to accept advertising to cover operating expenses. With the defeat of the Wagner-Hatfield amendment, the question of educational radio and TV was dispatched to the new FCC for further discussion.
Nothing less than the future of American broadcasting was at stake in this debate over the educational role of telecommunication. Critics were blunt in their dislike of what radio had already become. As early as 1931 The New Republic magazine reported on a leading broadcaster from Great Britain—where an autonomous public agency, the British Broadcasting Corporation, ran national radio without resort to advertiser revenue—who was "astonished that Americans should be willing to turn over their marvelous instrument for communication so completely to the semi-sweet uses of advertisement."
In 1934 theatrical impresario Eddie Dowling described commercial broadcasting as already a cultural disaster, for radio had "sold its front page, sold its editorial page, sold anything and everything without reservation to keep that rich income coming in." Surveys made throughout the early 1930s suggested, as one educator summarized them, that while listeners around the world "all find something of interest in the programs" they hear, "In no country except the United States have the press, educational groups, religious groups, and consumers' organizations expressed so much or such bitter criticism of their national broadcasting systems and programs."
The networks were understandably defensive in arguing against educational stations and defending their own performance in enlightening the public. William S. Paley claimed that Americans were too good for broadcasting as envisioned by educational reformers out to undermine mass culture. "We cannot hand the critical and often restive American audience some brand of bright encyclopedic facts and expect it to listen enthralled as might an astonished European peasant who had grown up without benefit of school or newspaper," he wrote in late 1934. "If in the American audience we have perhaps the highest common denominator of cultural appreciation in the world—thanks to our democratic school system—we also have perhaps the most critical audience, and one of the most independent in establishing its own standards of appreciation and judgment.
The president of NBC, Merlin H. Aylesworth, defended glamorous network diversion, asking, "What kind of radio fare would you present to an audience wishing primarily to be entertained and at the same time informed and therefore enlightened?" With justifiable pride he mentioned NBC accomplishments such as news programs, the airing of lectures by distinguished academicians, and its entertaining of a nation trapped in the despair of the Great Depression. But Aylesworth may have exaggerated NBC's divine function when he claimed that radio "has given a spiritual message to millions in the dark days of economic stress, now happily passing, and a means of worship to hundreds of thousands in remote places who have no opportunity to go to the churches of their persuasion."
The NBC president also stretched his credibility when he suggested that Amos ‘n’ Andy—the serialized comedy based on minstrel-show stereotypes of African-American life—was a praiseworthy model of the educational values inherent in network entertainment. "Who would care to miss a thrilling adventure with Amos 'n' Andy, he wondered, "where life may be lived vicariously, with those great comedians of the American scene pointing out to us our human aspirations, our petty foibles, our frequent mistakes in judgment, and, as well, the live-and-let-live attitude of fairness in human relations, so characteristic of America?'
This is not to say that network radio did not offer important educational shows. Beginning in the first half of the 1930s, public discussion shows such as The University of Chicago Roundtable and America's Town Meeting of the Air were broadcast without sponsors. They endured for decades as sustaining programs. A great dramatic program, The Columbia Workshop, was another sustaining network series, and for many years it employed talented people such as Orson Welles, Bernard Herrmann, Archibald MacLeish, and Norman Corwin to produce imaginative, intelligent radio plays designed for "the theater of the mind." CBS broadcast performances of the Minneapolis Orchestra and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, but NBC went farther by organizing its own NBC Symphony, headed by Arturo Toscanini. CBS even went into American classrooms via The American School of the Air, an educational supplement aired throughout the Great Depression years.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 1930s American radio and television were dominated more firmly than ever by mass tastes and commercial enterprise. The celebrated critic Gilbert Seldes—who at the time was director of programs for CBS-TV—offered a realist's credo, praising television for delivering mundane entertainment in which there was satisfying art only occasionally. "We must accept the two functions as equally legitimate; and more than that," he remarked in late 1940, "we must recognize the brutal practical circumstances that the arts live by daily bread, and only occasionally bring us honeydew and the milk of Paradise."
At the same time, however, David Sarnoff offered a less equivocal assessment of TV. He announced that experiments had proven that video would be effective as an advertising medium. During the first eight months of regular programming, he declared, NBC had worked closely with advertising agencies—"at no cost to the sponsors during this experimental period"—to develop shows with advertising values. This resulted in 148 programs developed in conjunction with 67 advertisers representing 16 major industries. The RCA leader was pleased to conclude that "the audience response to these experimental programs has been excellent." Sarnoff then took time to congratulate those who had nurtured the medium to this point—and to predict its wondrous future:
Thus, the ultimate contribution of television will be its service toward unification of the life of the nation, and, at the same time, the greater development of the life of the individual. We who have labored in the creation of this promising new instrumentality are proud to have this opportunity to aid in the progress of mankind. It is our earnest hope that television will help to strengthen the United States as a nation of free people and high ideals.
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