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Preface

Part I
The Emergence Of American Television: The Formative Years

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

Part II
One Nation Under Network Television: The 1950s

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

Part III
The Years Of Plenty: The 1960s and 1970s

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

Part IV
Toward and Video Order: the 1980s and 1990s

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

 

 

Quantity and Quality on Television

The prominence of filmed shows by the late 1950s exacerbated a problem inherent in American popular culture and broadcasting: how to create and maintain productions of quality while satisfying the hunger of television for products in quantity. It is not coincidental that low-budget motion pictures, the so-called B movies, disappeared when Hollywood studios turned their attention to churning out quick TV films, as many as thirty-nine episodes per season per series.

On filmed anthology series such as Ford Theater and The Loretta Young Show as well as in the surviving live playhouses, formulaic stories overwhelmed originality and flair. In Westerns, crime dramas, spy series, medical dramas, and the like, familiar predicaments with predictable con­sequences were told and retold, while old plot lines were repackaged as "new" shows and mediocrity threatened to overwhelm the medium.

It was difficult to attract and hold quality writers when they found their creativity affected by sponsors, ad agencies, network officials, and ratings. Considerations of "proper" language, the prejudices of the major­ity population, the intellectual parameters presumed acceptable to the mass audience, and a multitude of social and religious taboos drove many talented playwrights to the stage and motion pictures.

It was also difficult for writers to produce satisfying material when the demands on them were so heavy—and the audience usually preferred the formulaic to the inventive. As writers Richard Levinson and William Link described this quandary on 60 Minutes in the early 1980s, TV writers were trapped by the nature of the medium and the culture. The result was mediocre television.

Levinson:It is mediocre because you're programming 18 hours a day, 365 days a year. And the average household has a television set on six or seven hours. Nothing that goes on for six or seven hours a day can avoid being mediocre. A noted playwright will write a play every three or four years. Many television writers write what is analogous to three or four plays a season. And the system forces people against their best intentions to do work that is not their best work. And I think finally, the audience does not always support quality when it is aired.

Link: And then when a really good show goes off the air, again the creative community says, "Why should we come up with something new, some­thing unique? Why should we really go in and try to sell something which might open a new door and might be pioneering, when all the good things—or most of the good things—that go on the air don't make it?

American television was primarily a business. While Robert Sarnoff, the president of NBC, could argue in 1956 that a network was constructed around three major service functions—to the public, to affiliated stations, and to advertisers—it was increasingly obvious that making a profit and satisfying shareholders were the prepossessing foci of industry manage­ment.

The networks filled hundreds of hours with their programming each week, and affiliates supplemented network fare to fill broadcast days lasting as long as twenty-four hours. To discover if their programs, and therefore their commercials, were being watched, measurement statistics from the A. C. Nielsen Company, Arbitron, Pulse, and other research companies became critical objective factors in American TV culture. If its ratings were low, a series was failing its principal goal of drawing large audiences for advertisers. Cancellation from the network schedule was justified as sound business. Even though several million viewers were fans of the series, a program needed enough millions to survive.

Even if a sponsor were willing to continue underwriting a poorly rated series, it would be shifted or canceled by the network on the grounds that it was detracting from the remainder of the network's evening sched­ule. In 1957 this was made aware to the sponsor of an hour-long showcase of live drama, The Kaiser Aluminum Hour. As a representative of Kaiser explained to an FCC committee two years later, the corporation was pleased with the quality audience it was reaching even though it was being beaten decisively in the ratings by The $64,000 Question and The Red Skelton Show on CBS. "However, NBC took the position that it could not afford to continue such a low-rated program in that time period because of its effect on the NBC audience for the balance of the evening. This is the concept of the 'audience flow.' In other words, it was NBC's position that the large shift of audience to CBS occasioned by The $64,000 Question adversely affected the total audience that NBC could deliver for the balance of the evening." Rather than shift to a less visible time period, Kaiser took its $4 million investment in the show and left NBC—soon ending up on ABC as sponsor of the popular Western Maverick.

Emerging from this dynamic was a pattern of massive program mor­tality. The cancellation rate for network shows during the period 1953­56 was 68 percent. By mid-1957 only 23 network series had been on the air for five or more years, and several of these were daytime soap operas. Significantly, of the 763 prime-time network series scheduled between the fall of 1950 and the end of 1964, a total of 660 were canceled, and 42 of the survivors had been on the air for less than four months.

Television programming evidenced the cyclical, trendy qualities more familiar to movies than to radio broadcasting. By the 1960s TV already had lived through the early dominance of comedy-variety shows, followed by the primacy of filmed situation comedies led by I Love Lucy, flowing then to a rage for quiz shows precipitated by The $64, 000 Question, and then to a preponderance of Westerns catalyzed by series such as Gunsmoke and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. There was a simple mechanism at work here: a newly successful program prompted the cre­ation of more and more "duplicate" series having similar attributes; these programs continued to appear until the ratings suggested viewer boredom, or until a new hit show spawned another faddish wave of replication.

Such recombinance was the mark of an industry concerned less with risk-taking than with marketing the proven. As sociologist Todd Gitlin has explained it, the practice may have come to TV early, but it was not new. "Cultural recombinance is not simply a convenient if self-defeating way of concocting shows to exploit established tastes," he wrote. "It is part of the ground rhythm of modem culture.. . . Consumers want novelty but take only so many changes; manufacturers, especially oligopolists, want to deploy their repertory of the tried-and-true in such a way as to generate novelty without risk. The fusion of these pressures is what produces the recombinant style, which collects the old in new packages and hopes for a magical synthesis."

For Oliver Treyz, president of ABC-TV, pleasing average people was what American television was all about. "In trying to satisfy most of the people most of the time," he wrote in 1960, "we are merely clinging to a time-honored show business tradition that projected a P. T. Barnum, a David Belasco, a D. W. Griffith, and a Cecil B. DeMille into preeminence." He concluded on a bizarre note of self-congratulation: "From Shakespeare to Barnum to Belasco to ABC—nothing's changed."

Treyz was less than candid. The record of program failures suggests that more than viewer interest or popular taste was at work in network TV. Like lemmings headed for inevitable disaster, the networks and production studios followed failed shows with more series of the same sort—often produced by the writers, directors, producers, and stars of those programs that had been canceled.

The idea was not to offer a wide range of shows and thereby please most people, it was to make the TV business more efficient and profitable by limiting the variety and increasing the similarity of productions. Network programming places great demands on the film industry, hundreds of hours per month of new programs; the equivalent of hundreds of feature films churned out each season for first-run screening from September to June.

This could be done only by maximizing the use of production facilities and personnel. Sets used on one series could easily be utilized for another, particularly if the two were the same genre of entertainment. Stars could be shuttled from one series to another. The formula of one success could be cloned and moved to a similar program or into another genre. Thus Riverboat was conceived by NBC as Wagon Train in a different historical context; and the success of The Real McCoys in the late 1950s sparked a demand for rural situation comedies such as The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies in the early 1960s.

At Warner Brothers, recombinance was paramount. Writers admitted freely borrowing story lines from John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, Oliver Goldsmith, and other celebrated authors. The formula made famous by the popular private-detective series 77 Sunset Strip—one detective middle-aged and sensible; another detective handsome and younger; and an assistant, still younger, who appealed to teenage viewers—was replicated in many other Warner Brothers series: Hawaiian Eye, Bourbon Street Beat, Surfside 6, The Roaring Twenties. This was efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

There was no scramble to discover new styles and inventive genres. If anything, program diversity diminished. The respected documentary series See It Now, with newsman Edward R. Murrow and producer Fred W. Friendly, was canceled by CBS in 1958, replaced by Do You Trust Your Wife? With ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his three dummies. Live sports were greatly diminished, as were the great dramatic showcases of the Golden Age, all to make way for filmed Westerns, detective programs, and the other series coming from Hollywood. Classical music left network prime time, as did news discussion series, children's fare, and religious shows.

Nothing less than the rationalization of a new industry was occurring in the late 1950s. Standardization of product, reliance on familiar formulas, use of mass production techniques by the film studios and networks: national TV, like national culture, was emerging as an efficient, stream­lined reality that existed to please the majority, a majority that in great part it had helped to create. Programmers were bringing regularity and controllability to their fare. No surprises here, with regularized genres, regularized plots, and regularized characterization. Everything was being brought under control so advertisers could be enticed to spend billions of dollars in a safe and predictable medium.

The rationalization of the television business was most obvious in the glut of Westerns that flooded American TV in the late 1950s. Granted, series such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza were excellently realized and lasted for many years; granted, too, that Westerns had a valid place in American popular culture and that they had appeared in moderation on TV since the late 1940s. But by the fall of 1959 there were twenty-eight Western series on network prime time, almost one-quarter of the evening programming. Westerns were well received, too. At their height, sixty millions viewers each evening watched them. By March 1959, eight of the top ten shows were Westerns.

The reason for the inundation appears to lie less with a gargantuan demand by Americans for that many formulaic programs, and more with industry inexperience with filmed series. As Hubbell Robinson, formerly CBS vice-president for programming, described the relationship between the Western and TV, it was "the easy solution for every programmer who couldn't think of anything else to do."

Clearly, the business of television was affecting American culture. Actor Guy Madison has reported on the rapidity with which The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok was turned out for a cost of $12,000 per episode in the early 1950s. "We couldn't waste any time in TV," Madison revealed. "We made a half-hour show in two and one-half days. That included dialogue, action, and everything. At one point we knocked off seven films in seventeen days." It was this kind of efficiency and cultural standardization that came to network TV once the total commitment to filmed programming was made.

Increasingly these Westerns relied on sex and violence to attract viewers. Handsome leading men, often shown bare-chested in manly endeavors, brought audiences to series such as Cheyenne, while shoot-outs and murder scenes permeated the genre. This formula for mass culture success was well understood by Robert Kintner, the erstwhile head of ABC-TV, who learned from Leonard H. Goldenson and the motion picture distributors who took over that network in 1953. Kintner brought the formula to NBC programming when he became network president in 1958. He immediately met and overcame resistance from idealists clinging to older notions about TV and social responsibilities.

This is revealed in one of the frankest network documents in the public record. Like most American corporations, NBC does not usually make its private records—at least not the confrontational, potentially em­barrassing ones—open for public scrutiny. But in a 74-page letter written July 13, 1961, to NBC's board chairman, Robert W. Sarnoff, the outgoing vice-president for TV programs and talent, David Levy, revealed fascinating details about the inner workings of network management. Seeking to justify himself after being relieved of his programming duties by Kintner, Levy assembled old letters and memos to buttress his defense.

Levy had a long and distinguished career before coming to NBC in 1960. For most of a quarter-century he was a writer/director/producer/ executive with Young & Rubicam advertising agency. As such, he was responsible for the appearance of distinguished series such as Father Knows Best, Our Miss Brooks, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, Wagon Train, and The Twilight Zone.

Levy wrote of his own commitment to "programs of substance and quality in drama, music, special events, and in the area of social documents and wholesome entertainment." But part of the Levy letter explains the way in which Kintner brought a new philosophy to NBC programming. Levy expressed dismay that he and his department had been "confronted with another philosophy which to be perfectly frank was espoused largely by one man. It is more a formula than a philosophy—a point of view that lays heavy stress on programs of mass appeal, programs strenuously and systematically developed to broaden acceptance through exploitation of ,sex and violence." Levy continued:

This counter-philosophy originated and fostered at ABC when Mr. Robert Kintner was President of that network, undeniably has a proven commer­cial record and a powerful appeal to the masses. Mr. Kintner was the great champion at NBC of this latter formula although he took great pains both inside the company and publicly never to permit his name to be associated with this policy. It is my duty to report that Program Board minutes were prepared under his specific instructions to eliminate all comments made by the President urging or supporting sex and violence.... I will venture to prophesy that by 1963, the date to which I am contracted, the short-range hopes of those broadcasters who live by a Kintner formula will have evapo­rated from the TV screens.

The studios and networks filled the nights of the late 1950s with the "adult Westerns," in which characterization (costing less to film) was emphasized over action and chase scenes (being more expensive to pro­duce). Certainly, many became hit programs, and deservedly so. But many also failed, canceled in a season or two —sometimes even less. They were usually replaced by other Westerns, not because there was a certainty that the replacement series was culturally correct for this moment or that it would succeed, but because of complex commitments to advertisers, production companies, distributors, and to a marketing notion that dictated manipulating a buying trend by filling the market with trendy, similar products until that spree abated and a new one was created.

The Westerns glut was also the result of the newness of the alliance between Hollywood and the TV networks. This was an excessive first attempt by the movie industry at last geared up fully to turn out B films for television, and a miscalculation by network programmers who overin­dulged the public taste with Western films now easily available. They had learned the formula: handsome people in violent or potentially violent situations, moral dilemmas easily comprehended and resolved pleasingly, a physical setting that gratified the audience, characterization that invited viewer identification, and memorable mannerisms that carried over from episode to episode.

Inadvertently, however, Hollywood and the networks had allowed regulation to become monotony. When the Western began its decline by 1960, it collapsed rapidly and definitively. No Western series introduced since the late 1960s has earned high ratings.

With the fiscal regeneration of ABC, there existed three formidable national programmers. But there was little difference between them. Call it monopoly, oligopoly, or "triopoly," the fact was that three similarly structured, similarly operated corporations controlled what the United States saw as television each day.

Government did little to curb such power. Investigations by the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the FCC in the late 1950s concluded that the power of the networks was monopolistic. It was clear, for instance, that option-time provisions in network-affiliate contracts extended the influence of the networks far beyond the five VHF stations allowed by the FCC. It was obvious, too, that affiliate obligations to televised network programs stifled not only local and syndicated program­ming but also interfered with free competition. As a House committee reported in 1958, "If network survival depends upon curtailment of com­petition—if networks must be insulated from normal market rivalry—that is a clear admission that competition in television broadcasting cannot be an adequate regulator."

Despite such concentration of power, the FCC took only weak action. Concluding that option time was "reasonably necessary for success­ful network operations and is in the public interest," the Commission in 1960 ordered minimal changes in the practice. The FCC divided the broadcast day into four different time elements, then decreed that no more than two and one-half hours per segment could be time-optioned by the networks. This meant that affiliates needed only to accept ten instead of twelve hours daily from their respective networks. Stations were free, however, to clear network offerings beyond the minimum time requirements.

The irony of the network video monopoly, however, was that most Americans enjoyed TV as it existed. In mass entertainment values, it was the most prolific and successful operation in the world. Occasionally, TV programs and series pleased even the snobbiest of critics. But the fatal flaw in U.S. video was not the mediocrity of its programs; network TV failed the nation because of its fixation on popularity. It paid insufficient atten­tion to the qualities that made Americans interestingly different, and to the potential of the medium to enlighten the society it served. The networks acted as if there was a homogeneous “American audience" instead of a variegated collection of narrowly-focused audiences. The net­works never allowed television to be all it might have been.

The most glaring deficiency in U.S. television was a consistent com­mitment to intellectual programming. Of course, there were outstanding series, such as Omnibus, with its impressive mix of fine dramas and musical productions, and The Voice of Firestone, which blended music from grand opera with musical favorites from Broadway and Hollywood. But many, like Omnibus, were shunted to weekend afternoons in the "cultural ghetto." And classical music programs such as The Voice of Firestone survived in prime time with poor ratings only as long as corporations such as Firestone Tire & Rubber Company paid the bill, and networks such as ABC were willing to lose money for the sake of prestige. In the case of the Firestone musical feature—on network radio beginning in 1928, and a TV staple since 1949—time ran out in 1959. Its half hour on Monday nights was occupied by the first half of Bourbon Street Beat, a formulaic private-eye series from Warner Brothers that lasted one season.

Such developments led informed observers to bitter assessments. In 1957 historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was succinct: "I cannot repress my feelings that, in the main, television has been a bust." The following year a critic in Fortune magazine described TV as filled with "pap" and "mediocrity." He argued that "By and large the 1958-59 season is com­pounded by bathos from Boot Hill, counterfeit celebration via quiz shows, barbarism from the police blotter, insanity from outer space, monstriphilia from Hollywood's celluloid closet." Similarly stinging in his appraisal was Robert M. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, who decried the condition of the medium in 1961:

We have triumphantly invented, perfected, and distributed to the humblest cottage throughout the land one of the greatest technical marvels in history, television, and have used it for what? To bring Coney Island into every home. It is as though movable type had been devoted exclusively since Gutenberg's time to the publication of comic books.

Inherent in such disapproval was recognition of the largest void in U.S. television: its lack of educational purpose, even though station li­censes were committed in theory to public service. When the FCC decided in 1952 to allocate 250 channels—no more than one per market area—for noncommercial telecasting. Educational Television (ETV) was launched with a high purpose. But it had no money.

Its first operations, in 1953, were KURT at the University of Houston and KTHE in Los Angeles, both UHF stations that few people could receive; and in 1954 at WQED in Pittsburgh and KQED in San Francisco, the first VHF educational channels. Although the Ford Foundation and other national and community philanthropies offered funding, by mid-1955 there were only 12 ETV stations on the air—the majority of them on the obscure UHF spectrum.

Essentially a federation of noncommercial stations, by 1961 ETV still consisted of only 52 outlets, compared to 527 commercial stations. To meet programming demands and save on costs, ETV stations rotated their kinescopes and films. Production and distribution were coordinated through the National Educational Television and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan and later in New York City.

Typically, these stations transmitted for only a few hours weekly. Their schedules might consist of cultural programs such as an imported British series, Arts and Artists, hosted in 1956 by Kenneth Clark; The Written Word, in which Dr. Frank Baxter of the University of Southern California traced "the story of the human record from the pictograph to the photograph;" and The Challenge, an interview series hosted by Hugh Downs and produced by WTTW in Chicago.

ETV also gave evidence early of a commitment to uplifting chil­dren's programming. WGBH in Boston created Discovery in 1957 to observe natural phenomena through explorations such as "Webs and Their Weavers" and "The Edge of the Sea." At the same time KECT-TV in St. Louis developed The Finder, which treated topics such as the history of riverboats on the Mississippi River and the story of printing.

This programming was neither compelling nor popular, but it addressed one of the original purposes of broadcasting in the United States, to educate the public. Importantly, it laid the groundwork for the more sophisticated National Educational Television (NET), which was formed in 1963, and its successor in 1969, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Not surprisingly, public educational TV made it easier for the networks to reduce production of documentaries, discussion programs, public-service features, and whatever educational commitment remained in commercial broadcasting.

For all early failures to realize fully its public promise, it would be simplistic to condemn video as trashy or irrelevant. Throughout the 1950s the networks broadcast series and specials that were well crafted, inspiring, exciting, and enlightening. Technological innovations such as color, UHF, and the introduction of videotape in 1956 augured well for the future of the medium.

Another indication of the growth of TV was the emergence of Community Antenna Television (CATV) or cable TV in the early 1950s. Established originally to provide clear video images to those living in areas inaccessible to broadcast TV transmissions, cable slowly brought isolated Americans into the mainstream of the national video culture. Whereas in 1952 there were 70 cable systems servicing 14,000 subscribers (0.1 percent of all TV homes), by 1958 there were still only 525 systems with 450,000 subscribers (1.1 percent of all TV homes).

Cable brought closer to reality, however, the concept of "pay TV" as an alternative to "free" network television. Cable constituted a potential delivery system of diverse programming, a medium by which to transmit special entertainment for which subscribers would pay a direct fee. It was not a new threat. As early as 1949 Zenith television argued that a through a system called Phonevision the family telephone could be a viewer’s doorway to a world of cultural and educational uplift on TV—all for a price.

Although by the end of the 1950s cable remained in a nascent form, the commercial networks seemed terrified by its possibilities. In 1958 CBS purchased a two-page advertisement in TV Guide so its president, Frank Stanton, could warn the public:

Free television as we know it cannot survive alongside pay television. ... If only a small fraction of the 42 million families who now enjoy television free were to agree to pay for what they see, the huge funds thus available would enable proprietors of pay television to pre-empt the best talent and the best television programs for their own subscribers. The rest of us would gradually be forced to ride second-class.

Nevertheless, a majority of Americans enjoyed TV exactly as it existed. In swelling numbers, viewers rated video as their preferred source of both diversion and information. Increasingly, too, they expressed their trust in the messages television delivered. In 1959 a Roper poll indicated that 57 percent of the public felt TV stations were doing a "good to excellent" job. When asked which of the mass media they would most want to save, 42 percent of the respondents selected television; the closest competition came from newspapers, with 32 percent, and radio with 19 percent. In little more than a decade video had wrested from the older media the allegiance of mass America.

The discrepancy between intellectual expectations and popular ac­ceptance was wide. The situation was all the more perplexing because respected people within the industry agreed with its critics. After a decade of TV, Edward R. Murrow concluded in 1958 that Americans must recognize "that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us." The following year his colleague at CBS Eric Sevareid lamented, "The most intimate and powerful medium for human instruction and inspiration science ever devised has failed to claim its own birthright."

To advertising executive John P. Cunningham the problem was that advertisers and broadcasters in their selfish search for increased profits were destroying the appeal of TV with boredom and mediocrity. "We must never forget," he told a convention of advertisers in 1957, "that the airwaves do not belong to the advertisers—nor to the networks—nor to the FCC—nor to the federal government. They belong to the people of the United States." Perhaps Allen B. DuMont expressed this perspective best. "How can 47,000,000 television sets be tuned to this kind of [trivia] five hours and more a day?" he wondered in 1961. "My reaction has been that of the creator of a Frankenstein. Rather than honored, perhaps I should instead be censured. "

As historian James Baughman suggested, the basis of much of this criticism lies in the disappointment of liberal intellectuals with the reality that was commercial television after its first decade. To them, TV was to have been the great enlightener, the means of uplifting and educating and ennobling. Certainly, there was to have been entertainment, but the electronic marvel was to have been the vehicle through which the goodness of American social life was to be improved.

In Baughman's view, the liberal economic prescription had cured the quantitative problems of the Great Depression as, by the end of the 1950s, the United States had become fat and wealthy, an affluent society replete with labor-saving devices, rising life spans, early retirements, and expanded leisure time. Now it was time to focus on the qualitative needs of mass society, to improve the style and intelligence and quality of American civilization.

The condition of TV by 1960, however, spoke to another mentality, one not fully anticipated by the architects of the new popular culture. The fact was that most Americans did not demand the qualitative fullness intended for them. To the mass audience, television was an escapist utility, not a pedagogic device. As a simple way to transcend the complications of daily living, most Americans preferred programming that was trivial or facile or silly.

Liberal dreamers since the birth of the republic apparently had been wrong: satisfied with the triumphs of quantity, the general population seemed unconcerned with the urgency of quality. As sociologist Edward C. Shils wrote in 1957, "Universal education, the alleviation of physical misery, the drift of equality have not brought with them that deepening and enrichment of the mind to which liberals and revolutionaries alike aspired." Instead, "the silliness of television" seems to have satisfied the masses.

The acceptance of an imperfect national TV system, however, did not result necessarily from the conscious plans of either broadcasters or viewers. The attitude of the mass audience toward television was a func­tion of myriad factors, among them the reluctance of the networks to schedule low-rated educational programs at popular hours; the uses to which most Americans put their receivers; the easy attractiveness of much that was on commercial TV; the lack of coordination between national video and the nation's educational system; the lack of any realistic regula­tory system to direct national TV toward social enlightenment; and, above all, the organization of this powerful resource as a private business enter­prise, monopolized by three profit-seeking networks that restricted the program choices available to the mass audience. Americans had become conditioned to radio and then television as relaxing diversions; education was incidental, confined for the most part to slim news programs and occasional documentaries.

 

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