Advertisers and the Rush to Video
In its most popular years, network radio was dominated by a handful of corporate clients who paid millions of dollars annually to deliver commercial messages on nationally transmitted shows. By the late 1940s, for example, Procter & Gamble was spending $20 million per year to advertise on a variety of daytime and evening radio shows. According to Dr. Charles A. Siepmann, in 1948 P&G "bought enough time (19,812 station-hours) on the air to fill the entire annual program schedule of more than three stations." He noted further that almost 36 percent of one network's annual ad revenues came from only six sponsors—and that of the $400 million spent in 1949 for all radio advertising, 18.5 percent was derived from only ten corporations.
In opting to buy time on television, sponsors for the most part were following the suggestion of advertising agencies that seemed convinced video would soon become a major sales medium. As early as July 1948, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, then a vice president at the Young & Rubicam agency—and soon to become vice-president for television at NBC—sounded the charge, announcing, "In my seventeen years of advertising, in all media, and with personal experience and influence in helping to forge the radio pattern in its early days, I can truthfully say that there has been nothing like television in the opportunity to convince, to demonstrate, to sell."
Pat Weaver's excitement was shared by talent agent William Morris, who wrote in June 1949 that "Television has the impact of an atomic bomb. It is increasing the people's intellect in proportion to a bomb's destructive power for blowing them to pieces. And it's a foregone conclusion that national advertisers will go into TV or go out of business."
The U.S. Department of Commerce confirmed such speculation, reporting its certainty in mid-1949 that TV soon would become the nation's leading sales tool. The department emphasized that the effectiveness of "television's combination of moving pictures, sound, and immediacy produces an impact that extends television as an advertising medium into the realm of personal sales solicitation.
Television makes the home the location of the point-of-sales presentation and reduces follow-up personal selling to a minimum." In predicting a glowing future for TV advertising, the Department of Commerce urged agencies to prepare for the boom. Although profitability was not yet high, the report suggested that "this appears to be an opportune time for agencies to engage more strenuously in television activities, to obtain experience, and to create a reputation."
While such endorsements may have been encouraging to potential advertisers, the most persuasive argument was that wherever transmitters were made operational and video was available, listeners were abandoning their radio programs in favor of TV. Television came first and most plentifully to urban centers such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. By 1950 more people viewed TV than listened to the radio. Surveys indicated that once more TV stations were available, radio was finished. As CBS vice president Hubbell Robinson, Jr., had written in 1948, this was a situation analogous to Custer's Last Stand, for "Television is about to do to radio what the Sioux did to Custer. There's going to be a massacre."
When Lever Brothers, General Foods, Ford, American Tobacco, Procter & Gamble, and other major sponsors began buying television time, they were escaping the massacre. By the spring of 1949, as advertisers rushed into video, there were sixty-three sponsored shows on network TV, and advertisers were spending upward of $12 million annually. By late 1950
Variety described this exodus of national sponsors from radio as "the greatest exhibition of 'mass hysteria' in show biz annals."
During the last six months of 1951 expenditures for TV advertising rose 195 percent above figures for the previous year; during the same time radio advertising totals dropped more than 5 percent. A list of the top ten advertisers in 1951, as seen in Table 2.1, illustrates clearly that television was attracting the bankrollers principally responsible for the success of network radio.
Video advertising burgeoned, reaching more than $336 million in 1952 (a jump of 43 percent over the previous year). Relentlessly, the television share of broadcast advertising dollars in major markets rose from 32.7 percent in 1950 to 49.3 percent the following year and to 54.2 percent in 1952. By early 1953 TV in Los Angeles was attracting as much as 63.5 percent of all broadcast advertising billings there. FCC statistics indicated, moreover, that as new stations were made operational, particularly in metropolitan areas served by only one or two outlets, television continued to attract an increasing share of advertising revenues.
|Table 2.1 Top Ten Television Advertisers in 1951
|$12.2||Procter & Gamble|
| $ 7.6||R.J. Reynolds|
|$ 6.8||Colgate-Palmolive Peet|
|$ 6.7||Ford Motor|
|$ 6.4||American Tobacco|
|$ 5.9||Liggett & Meyers|
|$ 4.9||Lever Brothers|
|$ 4.8||P. Lorillard|
|$ 4.1||General Mills|
Such rapid and complete acceptance of video resulted in the nearly complete destruction of its "sister" medium, network radio. Whereas the top radio program had a rating of 32.2 in April 1943—and 26.3 five years later—by April 1953 the leading show had a rating of 8.5, this despite the fact that almost every person in the nation had access to radio. Conversely, the leading television show during the 1952-1953 season had an average rating of 67.3. By December 1955 there was not one evening program among the top ten radio shows. And although there were 46.6 million homes with radio that year, the average primetime radio broadcast was heard in only 786,000 households.
More than simply underwriting the costs of TV programs, advertisers and their agencies were fleshing out U.S. television. Unlike European nations, which developed a few noncommercial national stations that were regulated by the state and financed through taxes or licensing fees imposed on set owners, video in the United States was shaped by private businesses. In a nation that historically distrusted governmental involvement in social life, there was never a doubt of such an outcome.
But there were glaring shortcomings in a national TV system that was based on advertiser support. None was more glaring than the failure of television to become the purposefully educational medium many had anticipated. Hearkening back to the debate over the Wagner-Hatfield amendment to the Communications Act of 1934, idealists who envisioned television as a vital instrument for social enlightenment found little commitment to education in commercial video. They argued, as did General Telford Taylor on ABC radio in February 1951, that to serve the diverse tastes of the pluralistic American audience there must be a system of economic support different from advertiser-based programming for part of the television spectrum.
But Professor Charles A. Siepmann on the same broadcast was convinced already that TV had become "a liability" to the public. "Basically because of its costs of operation," he saw TV developing "as almost exclusively a medium of mass entertainment, with the accent on mass. It will, in other words, compound all of radio's many felonies, eschew the long-term cultural view in the interest of quick returns on sponsors' money, measure quality by the quantity of audience response, sell cultural minorities short, and give art, intelligence, and excellence the silent treatment." Abandoning his frontal attack, Siepmann turned then to cynicism to berate the new medium:
Left to itself, commercial television is likely to turn us all into a race physically distinguished by a hyperthyroid look about the eyes, and fannies flattened by excessive hours in easy chairs. A nation of passive gapers, instead of active intelligences, credulous instead of critical, mass-minded instead of individual, more and more dependent upon outside stimulus, and progressively devoid of inward resources. And we shall continue to see our children graduate prematurely to the immaturity of their elders.
Opposing such learned cynicism, Pat Weaver by mid-1952 remained as hopeful and philosophically engaged as ever about the future of broadcasting. After three years at NBC, he still anticipated wondrous results from the medium—nothing less than "a new era in human history...a most dramatic change in the environment of our country, a change almost wholly for good, in my opinion...witness the problems, attend the conferences, participate in the tragedies, watch the riots, see the misery, thrill to the inspiring deeds." Weaver enthusiastically maintained the liberal perspective in which TV would educate and uplift, and in the process offset destructive narrowness and ignorance. And the future for him, presciently, rested with the children of TV, "a generation of informed youngsters whose great point of difference from us will be that they accept diversity, individuality, differences in belief, custom, language, et cetera, as wholly natural and desirable."
At the base of this social metamorphosis was network broadcasting, corporate telecommunications in the service of the common good. As Weaver explained it:
It is because having the all-family, all-home circulation through a planned radio-television schedule, we can create a new stature in our citizens. The miracles of attending every event of importance, meeting every personality of importance in your world, getting to observe members of every group, racial, national, sectional, cultural, religious; recognizing every city, every country, every river and mountain on sight; having full contact with the explanations of every mystery of physics, mechanics and the sciences; sitting at the feet of the most brilliant teachers, and being exposed to the whole range of diversity of mankind's past, present, and the aspirations for mankind's future—these and many other miracles are not assessed yet. But I believe that we vastly underestimate what will happen.
It was naive to have expected video to develop other than it did. At its core, U.S. television was capitalist enterprise, intent on forming mass audiences to market them to advertisers. Matters such as education and public interest were not of primary importance in network TV. As the distinguished journalist Edward P. Morgan aptly epitomized the performance of commercial TV after its first two decades, "Once upon a time television was supposed to operate in the public interest, but lo and behold, it has captured the public and made it a product—a packaged audience, so to speak, which it sells to advertisers."
Hosting a documentary titled Tomorrow's Television: Get What You Want or Like What You Get on the
NET series PBL (Public Broadcasting Laboratory) on February 16, 1969, Morgan recognized the impact on program diversity that had resulted from the monopolization of American broadcasting shared by the national networks. "With rare exceptions," he remarked, "one station or one network is not really an alternative to the others because they are all engaged in similar exercises trying to corral the biggest share of viewers."
Although such criticism was well earned, it is myopic to suggest that television in the United States displeased most Americans. As with most operations in a less-than-ordered world, the performance of commercial video has ranged from wonderful and enriching to banal and even destructive. It has educated and propagandized its audiences on matters social, political, and economic; but it has gained a following whose loyalty continues to make TV popular. Daily, it has bombarded an already materialistic society with countless advertisements urging the purchase of specific products, needed or not, affordable or not; but it has been a crucial vehicle for creating popular demand within an economy greatly dependent on mass consumption.
Relative to what Americans had experienced before television, the new medium was a phenomenal development in civilized living. The United States by the early 1950s had just emerged from twenty years of social dislocation. The Great Depression had destroyed families, cut short careers, and generally set the nation on a path of austerity and want. World War II may have alleviated the economic plight, but waging a life-and-death struggle against potential totalitarian conquerors exacerbated social dread throughout the early 1940s. And the economic dislocation of the early postwar years offered little assurance that the nation had escaped its malaise.
Against this backdrop, Americans welcomed television as material proof that their time of troubles had ended. Blending the glamour of the movies with the convenience of radio, a new TV in the house signified success, both national and personal. The wartime promises had come true, one could now watch the biggest names in show business right in the front room. As compensation for years of sacrifices, Americans were being entertained with the most amazing machine produced in this most amazing century. By the early 1950s paying several hundred dollars for a new receiver—and the
array of available models ranged from
DuMont, Packard Bell, Hoffman and
Philco, Capehart, Farnsworth, Emerson, Magnavox, and numerous other brands—was an investment in family security and participation in a national cultural community.
A TV commercial for RCA-Victor television captured the satisfaction associated with set ownership. On
The RCA-Victor Show telecast December 21, 1951, the advertisement linked the pride of possessing a receiver with sentiments of a family love on Christmas Eve. While a child slept securely in a bed, a young couple—amid a Christmas tree, toys, and holiday decorations—removed the large ribbon adorning their new RCA-Victor television. Here was reward for surviving decades of deprivation and conflict. With melancholy music in the background, an announcer spoke optimistically of the new medium as a source of personal gratification and as the best hope for a civilization seeking only peace and security:
Christmas Eve. Night of great expectations. Night when children dream of candy canes, and 'lectric trains—of sugar plums, toy drums, and dolls that walk and talk. This is the night when dreams come true. Children's dreams and the dreams of their parents. For on this Christmas Eve into many homes will come a whole new world of entertainment on RCA-Victor television. Super sets like this will bring our nation's finest performers into living rooms in our great cities and many of our smallest country towns. And there's more than entertainment here, for RCA-Victor television will bring to many families opportunity for greater understanding. They will watch great historical events as they take place. They will see people from all parts of this land and others stating their opinions and explaining their ways of life. And perhaps this greater understanding will bring to more and more people the spirit of peace on Earth and good will toward men.
What U.S. television did, it did well, and it pleased most viewers for many years. The case against national TV, however, is more profitably directed against what it did not do—that is, what was not shown. As Edward P. Morgan concluded on the
NET documentary in 1968, the dissatisfying reality of commercial TV "does not mean that it should be junked or seized by the government or run by a committee of do-gooders. Heaven forbid! What is needed is more variety to nourish the increasing numbers of people who find the mass audience diet indigestible."
Television was to be a commercial medium serving a mass audience that expected neither cultural uplift nor inventiveness in its diversion. And diversion was what TV would be overwhelmingly about. For most people this was a medium of escape, a dalliance, a relaxing time-passer. Those seeking cultural refinement, program diversity, or educational lessons were quickly disaffected, for television had no intention of becoming a dedicated instrument of social improvement.
The disparity between what people viewed, and what many felt they should have viewed,
created great consternation. Commissioner Paul A. Walker of the FCC put the blame on broadcasters as well as viewers, noting in February 1952 that "to a large extent the average level of radio and television programs reflects our immature wants and interests as much as it fosters them." Another commissioner, Frieda B. Hennock, was less equivocal when she attacked American educators for the state of broadcasting. "They say that the mentality and tastes of the public are at a pretty low level," she remarked in 1950.
Well, I am not altogether blaming the commercial broadcasters. I blame you educators tonight. They have to make a living. They turn to the lowest common denominator approach, because that is the intellectual level of the public mind and that is the reason for the mediocre product you get on the air. In commercial broadcasting you have to consider the profit motive. When an advertiser uses the air, he is interested in selling his product. He is interested in reaching as many persons as possible, and that is why you have mediocrity.
Nevertheless, leaders of the broadcast industry, whose tastes were generally more refined than those with which they engaged the nation, justified their performance in terms of the socially important service they were providing. There was no reason for William S. Paley to have changed his mind about the salutary effect of broadcasting. Television was simply an extension of broadcast radio, which he described in 1940 as "exerting a stabilizing influence on the physical distribution of the population." By this Paley meant that the "radio and the automobile have almost eliminated involuntary isolation in the United States," and wherever one lived, "the radio will bring you a supply of news and entertainment—the same news and the same entertainment available to you if you lived in Times Square, New York."
Mortimer Loewi, the director of the DuMont network, thought in similarly broad social terms. He argued in 1949 that television would meet its mandatory educational role. "In the final analysis, a race raised on a diet of entertainment will shortly display many of the characteristics of a moron," he suggested. To Loewi, TV was the ultimate communications medium, "the greatest instrument for mass dissemination of information and knowledge since the days of Gutenberg" as well as "the logical, inevitable sequel to all [man's] achievements in radio and motion pictures, in printing, photography, and the fine arts." Thus Loewi could predict that American television would solve that chronic scourge of civilization, "the curse of Babel, the confusion of countless tongues." He continued:
Television will topple the walls of misunderstanding and tolerance—the Tower of Babel of our time. Television will project ideas and ideals across international boundaries and be the greatest frontier jumper of our day. ... This great new medium of television makes its chief appeal to the eye, which discerns truth far more quickly than the ear.
In ceding the airwaves to merchandisers who used them to make a living, Americans guaranteed that the utilitarian potential of radio and television would never be fully realized. With transmission initially limited to the few channels possible on the VHF band, competition was stifled and the potential of the medium to serve many audiences was restricted. Allowing a few similarly structured networks to program for such a richly diverse nation ensured the triumph of formula over invention, simplicity over the profound. As impressive as some network fare would be—and, indeed, much network programming was enormously popular with viewers and well received by critics—national broadcasting would always be driven by the propensity to satisfy mass tastes while disappointing the legitimate expectations of audiences with narrower interests.
Given the history of U.S. broadcasting in the twentieth century and the economic and political philosophy guiding American society, this arrangement was inevitable. The eminent dramatist Norman Corwin well understood what was transpiring. Writing in 1945 about the state of network radio, his appraisal remains applicable to TV and other commercialized media in the United States. Radio "rises no higher and sinks no lower than the society which produces it," Corwin maintained. "I believe people get the kind of radio, or pictures, or theater, or press they deserve. ... The gist of what I am saying is that the radio of this country cannot be considered [apart] from the general culture and modes of the American people." He continued, "Radio today is neither as good as the program executive will have you believe in his statement to the interviewer; nor as bad as the intellectual guest at the dinner table makes it out to be."
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