Struggle For An Industry
These are confusing times for network television and for an American public that has had a forty-year romance with "the tube." Through cable TV and satellite dishes, many new channels have appeared, and further advances in delivery promise even greater selection. Whereas once television was synonymous with ABC, CBS, and NBC, plus a few rerun-filled independent stations, there are now dozens of national and regional cable networks, and they are offering a broad variety of programs and formats, including first-run series and feature films. Viewers are even making their own TV shows, using portable home camcorders to turn backyard shenanigans, birthday parties, family vacations, and the like into memorable video fare.
Once the stolid, overweight centerpiece of the family living room, the mighty television set, has been liberated. Transistorized, miniaturized, and now pocket-sized, portable TV can be found at the beach, on the sidewalk, in the backseat, and at the office. The audience, too, has been unshackled. Thanks to prerecorded cassettes and recordings made directly off the air, viewers who used to enjoy shows as they were being televised, now watch at their own convenience. Automatic timers allow for taping at odd hours of the day and night. And the remote-control device has given even greater control to viewers, enabling them to zip from station to station, especially when the advertisements begin, or zap through those hated commercial breaks on off-the-air tapes.
But the video revolution is costing a lot of money. Americans are spending billions of dollars on recorders, camcorders, blank and prerecorded tapes, cable service, pay channels, and pay-per-view programming. Once trumpeted as "The Greatest 'Free' Show on Earth," American television in all its glory is no longer affordable to a sizable part of the citizenry. The egalitarian implications of a medium that was mass and free have been subverted by expensive monthly cable bills and costly electronic paraphernalia. As the television experience is denied increasingly to those with insufficient cash, the United States is fast becoming a nation of TV-haves and TV-have-nots.
It was so simple when once there was only a handful of a station in any market area. Local outlets were recognizable by the network reruns and low-budget commercials they ran for community merchants. Above it all towered ABC-CBS-NBC, the trinity that was national television, beguiling the populace with the miracles and mysteries of early TV.
Although network programs were formulaic, there was security in such simplicity. In this orderly past, prepossessing national concern focused on which of the three networks would out rate the others, and what new programming trends might be coming next: comedies? Westerns? detective stories? anthology dramas? The United States may have been a country of great diversity, but cultural pluralism gained little attention from national programmers. This was mass culture, a search for the largest possible audience at any one time, an appeal to commonalities that bound together, a denial of the differences that individualized. Those with tastes not shared by enough millions had little chance of seeing their preferences on television.
Moreover, this was an industry with a commercial imperative. The networks that created this one nation under television were in business to make money. Programs were meant to be profitable. Those that failed to deliver high ratings and audience shares were dispatched, replaced by others that promised success where there had just been failure. It may have been the public's air waves in theory, but it was the networks' financial bottom line in practice.
By the 1990s, however, American TV has changed. Old media empires are in disarray, while new ones are rising. Audience numbers are tumbling. And companies known for their newspapers, magazines, movies, telephones, and traveler's checks are now operating their own networks. Whereas profanity and nudity had been chronic taboos, television now communicates the entire lexicon of expletives undeleted and bare bodies frolic and sometimes writhe in prime time. After decades of predictable sameness on national TV, there is relative diversity in the narrower focus made possible in this new video order.
In the last decade of this century of electronic marvels, television is in a state of metamorphosis, rearranging itself under the influence of cable and satellite technology and the lure of great profits. And more change is projected for the future, everything from regularized international programming to interactive TV, with its promise of two-way communication for a medium used to dishing it out to an audience used to taking it. But innovation, actual and promised, has bred industry discontent. Fiber-optic wiring installed with home telephone lines is recommended to offset the high cost of cable and to improve picture quality; but many in the broadcast and cable industries are fearful that their early investments might be rendered worthless. The Japanese and the Europeans each have developed high-definition TV with upward of 1,000 lines of resolution (the U.S. standard is 525 lines), guaranteeing crisp, perfect TV imagery; but in the name of economics and patriotism U.S. television interests demand billions of dollars from government to produce an American HDTV alternative.
The business specifics of television are similarly uncertain. While Viacom/Showtime sues its rival Time/Home Box Office for allegedly unfair business practices, Warner Communications couples with Time, Inc., but only after a nasty public challenge by a rival suitor, Paramount Communications. Whereas domestically made receivers by RCA, Zenith, Philco, Emerson, Capehart, Hoffman, Packard-Bell, Sylvania, Admiral, and other U.S. manufacturers satisfied the first television consumers, the modern audience has Japanese- and Korean-made equipment: sets, cassette recorders, and camcorders by Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Sharp, Goldstar, and the like. Even if such hardware bears an RCA or General Electric (GE) name, the items are either foreign-owned or manufactured abroad. Today, only Zenith survives as a TV manufacturer within the United States—although Zenith sets are assembled in Mexico.
This is perplexing enough, but most of the programs on American television are transmitted from studios filled with technical equipment from abroad. Meanwhile, Asians, Europeans, and Australians are buying up the most familiar institutions in American entertainment—from movie studios to record companies—many with linkages to television, while U.S. companies are busy overseas investing heavily in entertaining foreigners.
While corporations battle for the video future, their struggle is over an instrument that has influenced the American public for more than half a century. No matter how it is viewed, television has been a powerful reality in modern life. In terms of technology alone, the ability to transmit and receive pictures and sound is among the greatest human achievements of the century. But to make such an instrument universally available, to fill its multiplicity of channels twenty-four hours a day, to charge no direct cost to the consumer, and to do all this within a generation constitutes one of the outstanding developments in the history of human communication.
What promise television held. This was the ultimate medium, the democratic forum that would uplift and enlighten the masses. Some anticipated that it would forge a more perfect national consensus, spreading over regional, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural differences, creating a common "language" rooted in shared tastes and a popular desire to understand the world. Others saw its implications more broadly, envisioning TV as a force for amalgamating the peoples of the world. In this perspective, television would link the nationalities of the planet into one audience, never disrespectful of historic differences but always stressing the characteristics that linked humankind.
But there were mitigating realities: the prejudices and greed that adversely shaped TV; the politics, both national and global, that stifled its full flowering; monopolistic network practices that placed standardization above diversity. There were other operational shortcomings, some inherent in network broadcasting, others emanating from foibles in those creating, operating, and viewing the medium.
Certainly, American television realized much that it promised. But with endemic weaknesses it has been unable to withstand the challenges of technological innovation and enhanced competition. If there is disarray in the industry, it is due to the way it has operated since its inception. If viewers are deserting "free" TV, it is because they were never fully served by broadcasting. To comprehend the forces clashing in contemporary U.S. video, it is necessary to understand the evolution of TV as it moved from a popular expectation in the 1920s to a global utility in the 1990s.
¤ Continue Reading