How quickly it captivated the nation. In little more than a decade television became a necessity of life in the United States. By 1960 more than 87 percent of U.S. households possessed at least one set, and millions of new receivers were being assembled for future purchasers. And Americans watched. They spent more time with TV—a daily average of five hours, nineteen minutes per household—than with any other medium of mass communication.
Television also became very big business. Whereas gross revenues for TV totaled almost $106 million in 1950, a decade later the figure rose more than twelvefold, to almost $1.3 billion. By 1960 there were 559 stations on the air, 96 percent of them affiliated with the three surviving networks. The industry directly employed 40,800 workers, but indirectly countless others depended on it.
Significantly, this beguiling medium of sight and sound also had become a persuasive vehicle for teaching a point of view, a consensus "All-American perspective" that was at once cultural, economic, political, social, and moral. "All television is educational television," wrote Commissioner Nicholas Johnson of the FCC in 1967. "It may not teach the truth. It may preach violence rather than love. It may give more emphasis to the quality of acquisition than to the quality of use. It may produce more mental illness than health. But it teaches. Endlessly."
Detective programs constantly affirmed that crime did not pay. Daytime soap operas reiterated the inevitable triumph of those who endured unjust suffering. Westerns showed the national forefathers bravely conquering their enemies in the name of individualism, property rights, technological superiority, and divine will. Quiz shows confirmed the Horatio Alger myth of material achievement through the personal enterprise of the common citizen. In situation comedies, medical series, lawyer series, children's adventure programs, sports, and the like, television proclaimed moral standards fit for the entire nation.
Even TV news reflected this perspective, displaying and explaining the world ethnocentrically. U.S. social and political values were universal goods toward which the rest of the world strived. American mistakes stemmed from human fallibility, not systemic determinants, although the reverse was true for captive Communist nations. The rest of the world was often dangerous, but there were always good foreigners desiring to bring their societies into harmony with American ideals.
At a time when political and economic power was becoming increasingly centralized, conceded to be handled best by elites and ever-narrowing circles of cognoscenti, broadcasting centralized American culture by disseminating a single cultural viewpoint to the nation. Although people in Maine, Mississippi, and Montana had dissimilar histories and cultural perspectives, TV gave them only the same shows with the same standards. While these viewers shared certain values basic to U.S. citizenship, there was no room in national programming for the qualities that made them different from one another, nothing that exploited regional or historical or individual differences.
This was not new to television. The homogenizing nature of a commercial popular culture had already been demonstrated by other media, such as magazines, phonograph recordings, broadcast radio, and motion pictures. But TV maximized the national cultural experience. Viewers encountered its perspective effortlessly, conveniently, inexpensively, and frequently.
TV programming was not propaganda in the sense that it was manufactured by state bureaucrats intent on shaping the minds of a nation. But it was propagandistic. It took stands. It offered an interpretation—indeed, a popular one—as the truth. And it adhered to the ideological premises of American political and social organization. No Communist or socialist points of view here: this was the mindset of capitalism inherent in the drama and wit being televised. No fascism in this viewpoint, either, for middle-class democratic values always triumphed. No authentic rural representation, no authentic blue-collar ethic, no religious or racial minorities projected either: this culture was middle-class, capitalistic, urban, and white—and it was rapidly molding the streamlined national standard.
In a study of political blacklisting completed in 1956 for the Fund for the Republic, representatives of many of the leading corporate sponsors of TV programs demonstrated clearly that they understood the medium in propagandistic terms. A policy statement at Procter & Gamble declared, "We would never knowingly engage anyone who aids either directly or indirectly the Communist cause." According to the president of Dow Chemical Company, "We would certainly look with disfavor on the appearance on a Dow program of any person so controversial as to place us in a questionable light by association." The head of American Tobacco Company went farther, stating, "We would disapprove of employing an artist whose conduct in any respect, 'political' or otherwise, has made him or is likely to make him distasteful to the public."
Perhaps the frankest statement, however, came from an executive of Westinghouse Electric Corporation, who summarized the relationship between video entertainment and propagation of the All-American perspective. "We buy
Studio One as a package from CBS through our agency, McCann-Erickson," he wrote. "These two businesses, as well as all of us at Westinghouse, have a great stake in our capitalistic society. It is therefore in our own best interests never to engage in any activities that would jeopardize the free-enterprise system."
The supplanting of local orientations by the networks assured the dominance of the official point of view and an erosion of nonconformity. No doubt, earlier developments in transportation, communication, and education played a part in amalgamating and homogenizing American society, but there had never been a medium as persuasive, desirable, and available as television. Except to turn off the TV set, a dissatisfied viewer had no choice but to select from network products and confront constantly the propagation of the popular, from entertainment genres to political philosophies.
Most persuasive in presenting consensus in interpretations were TV commercials. More than sixty-or thirty-second preachments in favor of specific products, commercials propounded an ideology, a declaration of plenty based on middle-class, capitalistic values of affluence and the gratification of material wants. The advent of television occurred in the most economically bountiful period in the history of the United States. After decades scarred by the Great Depression, global warfare, and peacetime dislocation, the nation experienced in the 1950s social and economic expansion manifested in a housing boom, low unemployment, rising salaries, and a consumerist splurge. There were more things to buy, more people had more money, and more wants could be gratified than ever. Television commercials proposed a simple formula: wanting + spending = satisfaction + acceptance.
American TV was punctuated by a barrage of commercials with their acquisitive messages. During a typical week in 1957, for example, the average viewer encountered 420 commercials totaling five hours, eight minutes. Television in the 1950s sold Fords by showing how the automobile met the physical and psychological needs of the family. The chant "A whistle, a wink, and Wildroot will get her every time" assured men of sexual conquest if they used the right brand of hair tonic. From dancing Old Gold packs to cowboys inhaling Marlboros while an orchestra played manly music in the background, cigarette manufacturers blended American myth with song and dance to epitomize the satisfaction inherent in their products.
Viewers encountered and soon became familiar with cartooned national icons such as Speedy Alka-Seltzer; Kellogg's Tony the Tiger; the Cheerios Kid; Bucky Beaver for Ipana toothpaste; and Sharpie the Parrot, who hawked Gillette razors and assorted shaving paraphernalia. There were other inducements to buy. A visual gimmick such as an "invisible shield" demonstrating the protective qualities of Colgate toothpaste with "Gardol" simplified scientific studies about dental hygiene; memorable clichés such as "Which twin has the Toni?" for Toni home permanent; “Why don’t you pick me up and smoke me sometime” for Muriel cigars, “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot,” and "Better things for better living through chemistry" for DuPont products substituted catchy phrases for informed shopping.
Proper grammar was never an impediment to pithy salesmanship, as advertisers freely bent the rules of syntax to proclaim that "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." And then, to tweak critics of its incorrect English, the same advertiser asked, "What do you want, good grammar or good taste?"
Potent, too, were those commercials featuring celebrity endorsements, such as New York Giants pitcher Johnny Antonelli for Dentyne chewing gum, golfer Sam Snead for Lucky Strike cigarettes, rodeo star Bob Mayner for Wheaties breakfast cereal, and NBA star Bob Pettit for Ford.
Even the nation’s politics were affected by TV hucksterism. As early as 1950 candidates for elected office sold their candidacies through TV spots. One was John S. Fine who successfully ran for the governorship of Pennsylvania. And commencing with the presidential campaign of 1952, nominees for the highest office in the country turned to television commercials to sell themselves, in the process employing established advertising agencies to merchandise their candidacies.
From its beginnings, television played a convincing role in its relationship with the American public. As an electronic billboard it was welcomed warmly into the homes and private lives of almost every person in the nation. Although it was a source of constant commercial propaganda, it was embraced by most viewers as a prized possession, hailed as a wonderful wellspring for learning and escape. Americans accepted its one-way communication of material plenty, in the process helping to create what advertising executive Leo Burnett in 1957 called the "commercial culture in this vital country of ours where selling things and services and ideas to each other is part and parcel of our accepted, respected, and dynamic way of life."
The social message was obvious in the abundance sold via television: after great deprivations the United States now possessed a corporate economic system capable of immense production that was responsive to consumer wants. Less obvious was the political concomitant of this TV message: such plenty could come only from the existing capitalist arrangement within its present level of representative democracy and political activism. In a period of Cold War rivalry with socialism and Communism, this was strategic propaganda for those people and enterprises committed to conserving the system.
Increasingly, network TV disseminated the national culture from an industry that was rational and cost-efficient. In its earliest years television retained much of the legacy of its radio background. Comedians from the older medium gravitated to video, as did dramatic actors and production personnel; live programs were the TV network rule; networks carefully watched their programs for offensive words and ideas that might assault the family audience; and major U.S. corporations sponsored programs, often caring more about the public image of the company than stuffing its program with product commercials.
But there was a rival entertainment philosophy that engulfed TV in the late 1950s. Motion-picture exhibition was considerably different from radio. Here the emphasis was on exploitation of audiences. Movies for youngsters needed certain emphases; adult films could be violent and sexy and generate much less criticism than the equivalent on radio. Seeing a movie was an act of volition, the customer consciously deciding to buy a ticket to see a film about which there existed a certain amount of public information. For the exhibitor the challenge was to lure that customer into the theater. The clash of these approaches is best illustrated in a consideration of two separate developments: the failure of NBC daytime programming as conceived by Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, and the refashioning of ABC by United Paramount Theaters under Leonard H. Goldenson.
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