Part I The Emergence Of American Television: The Formative Years


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


Program Trends and Accomplishments

Whatever the political stripe of the program, the bottom line in television remained profitability. If anything, the networks had proven their ability to thrive no matter what the political atmosphere. Even when government seemed to be restricting their enormous power, the networks could pros­per. Despite blows against the network monopoly that were the Prime­Time-Access Rule, the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, limitations on network production, and the loss of tobacco revenues, as long as the foundations of the monopoly—the scarcity of channels and the financial strength of multi-station national organization—remained unscathed, ac­tions such as these would create only superficial and momentary adversity.

Indeed, by the late 1970s the national programmers were more profitable than ever. Whereas the networks in 1960 had programmed a total of 434 half-hour segments weekly and almost 493.5 half hours in late 1971, their grip on the broadcast day increased despite rollbacks required by the Prime-Time-Access Rule. By 1976 they offered 540 weekly half hours that were cleared by almost all their affiliates.

Further, throughout the 1970s an average of 57 percent of all receiv­ers in the United States were tuned daily to the prime-time offerings of the three networks. This was essentially the same rate of usage enjoyed by national video since 1959. Even as a new decade approached, the networks remained overwhelmingly popular, for 91 percent of those watching prime-time TV during the seasons 1978-1980 were viewing either ABC, CBS, or NBC."

In monetary accomplishments, the networks were equally impressive. As economist Barry Russell Litman has shown, the three national programmers accounted for 46 percent of all television time sales in the period 1970-76. There may have been as many as 710 commercial stations operating during the decade, but the networks—together with the owned and operated outlets—accounted for 40 percent of the total income of the industry.

That was a prodigious income. In 1976 the networks earned $295.6 million on their combined depreciated stock of tangible capital equip­ment, a rate of return of more than 221 percent. In that year their fifteen owned and operated stations also generated profits: $159 million on a rate base of $41.9 million, a return of more than 379 percent. Combining these figures, the rate of return on investment for the networks in 1976 was 258.8 percent.

American TV by the 1970s was a smoothly running operation. Rivalries among networks continued, sometimes fiercely. But given the similarity of their offerings, the crucial ratings edge usually went to the best scheduler. Each network tried to create attractive programming flows for prime time. Among the possibilities, a network might opt for a run of four half-hour sitcoms capped by a one-hour drama or a night of crime and adventure shows, or one with programs oriented more toward women than men. If the evening began with a popular program or two-60 Minutes on CBS on Sundays, or Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley on ABC on Tuesdays—audiences tended to stick with the fortunate network and bring decent ratings to the programs that followed.

The networks also counterprogrammed, slating blockbuster films, series, or totally different genres of entertainment intentionally scheduled to disrupt the prime-time flow of a rival. In the fall of 1978, for example, NBC offered the police series CHiPs at 8:00 P.M. opposite two half-hour comedies on both CBS and ABC; and opposite Monday Night Football on ABC, CBS usually ran programs with known appeal to women viewers, such as Lou Grant, M *A * S * H, Maude, and One Day at a Time.

As for the content of those series, by the 1970s national TV was heavily influenced by two philosophies: the practices of least objectionable program (LOP), and segmented audience scheduling. LOP was the proce­dure by which a network sought viewers by airing shows less likely to offend viewers than those appearing simultaneously on the rival networks. As NBC program chief Paul Klein explained it, this was best accomplished by avoiding the "tricks" guaranteed to alienate the mass audience. "Thought, that's tune-out, education, tune-out. Melodrama's good, you know, a little tear here and there, a little morality tale, that's good. Positive. That's least objectionable."

A supplement to LOP was segmented audience scheduling. Brought to TV and perfected by ABC, this scheme borrowed greatly from theatrical exhibition techniques as well as target marketing strategies of TV advertising. The idea here was to forget mass, undifferentiated audiences in favor of reaching large demographic groups whose needs and income predisposed them toward a spectrum of particular products. For advertis­ing agencies, target marketing meant targeting commercials at specific audiences—commercials for luxury automobiles on news and finance programs; spots for household cleaners and baby-care products on daytime TV; ads for African-American beauty products, or ads simply starring black actors, on shows known to be popular with black viewers.

As programming philosophy, it meant courting specific audiences with shows crafted to their tastes. In the 1970s, ABC skewed much of its programming toward young people. The result was a flood of youthful situation comedies produced by Garry Marshall—series such as Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and Angie—through which ABC rode the demographics of the baby boom to the leadership of prime-time TV. To offset that success, NBC sought to appeal to the older end of the ABC audience, siphoning off some of the young viewers with more sophisticated shows while appealing to adult viewers who had no interest in the ABC schedule. Although series in the fall of 1978 such as Dick Clark's Live Wednesday and Project UFO did not dent the ABC appeal, Paul Klein defended the NBC calculus as an attempt "to skim the top off the audience scale":

Now, we're not going to succeed even one-third of the time. But if we do 20 or 30 percent of the time, we will have one fantastic year, and we will do a job on ABC, enough to lower their rating points, and pick up the most salable part of their audience. That's what I'm looking to do, targeting the programs to do that, and it's not easy.

Clearly the battle in network TV was internecine, a war of any one network against its two rivals. With general viewership remaining at more than 90 percent, as it had for two decades, fluctuations in audience loyalties were discernible only in the relative ratings of ABC, CBS, and NBC.

Changes in network popularity during the 1970s generally followed the career moves of one industry executive, Fred Silverman. As CBS vice president for programming in the early 1970s, Silverman followed his hunches and maintained that network in first place for five consecutive seasons. Then, as president of ABC entertainment, he led that network in 1976-77 to the leadership of national TV for the first time.

With shows such as Charlie's Angels, The Love Boat, Soap, and the Garry Marshall sitcoms, ABC retained the lead for three seasons—even after Silverman left in early 1978 to accept the presidency of NBC. Here, however, he ran out of luck when his celebrated "golden gut" failed to divine a winning lineup. With financial and ratings disasters such as Supertrain in 1979, NBC soon trailed ABC and CBS by a considerable distance. So misdirected was NBC leadership that during Silverman's first two seasons he failed to land an NBC series in the top thirteen. The highest-rated NBC program in 1981-19­82 was Real People, and it finished twenty-first. In fact, in the five TV seasons between 1978 and 1983, no NBC series ever finished higher than tenth—and that happened only twice.

But these were the machinations of network rivalry, and coming in last among the three networks just meant less profits. No one really lost; everyone made millions in network broadcasting. National television was a rationalized business where standardization made everything more or less the same. The same producers supplied the three networks, the same themes were found in their programs, the same attitudes and procedures shaped their corporate leadership. As Laurence Bergreen has pointed out, "Only in an era when all networks shared the same values could Silverman become the first individual to program in turn for CBS, ABC, and NBC."

No matter the outlet, the success of national programming had always been network ability to discern and exploit, and even precipitate, movements in audience tastes. Whatever their source—changes in the sociopolitical-economic realities of the citizenry, the dynamics of faddist U.S. popular culture, mass marketing breakthroughs, or the attraction of glamour and personality—TV could capitalize on social concerns and make profitable entertainment.

The concern about rising crime rates and a general perception of lawlessness drove national television toward crime series in the 1970s. Police, private eyes, lawyers, and vigilantes who solve crimes returned to prime time with vengeance on their minds. From plodding police procedure on The Streets of San Francisco to sexy investigation by private eyes on Charlie's Angels, TV went to war against crime—amid tropical beauty on Hawaii Five-0, with liberated femininity on Police Woman, via former hippies on The Mod Squad, and with militaristic police efficiency on S. W.A. T.

The respect for tradition inherent in the crime series appeared also in a return to the nuclear family. Often with a nostalgia for things forever lost, Family and Eight Is Enough focused on contemporary home life, and the megahits of the decade—Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, Happy Days, and the two Roots miniseries—filled entertainment with lessons in familial love, respect, and cooperation.

If program content relied heavily on nostalgia and traditional themes, the greatest newness in TV appeared in program structure. The made-for­TV movie and the miniseries came of age in the 1970s. Born of the need for fresh feature films for TV and the desire of the networks to gain a profitable foothold in the motion-picture business, the telefeature first appeared in the mid-1960x. Only sixty such productions, however, were broadcast in that decade. The miniseries did not premiere until 1973.

The principal chronicler of these forms, Alvin H. Marill, has argued that during the 1970s—when the networks offered 1,010 different made­-or-television movies and 35 miniseries—the telefeature was a quality product. According to Marill, "within its restricted time limits and on a quarter of the budget [it became] the equal of what is done for the big screen. On the high end, quality that represents television at its best; at the low end, bread-and-butter fare generally several notches above stan­dard series episodes as contemporary counterparts of the fondly recalled theatrical 'B' movie.

Whether or not "B" movies should be recalled with fondness remains a matter of opinion, but made-for-TV films in the 1970s certainly ranged from "high end" horror in The Night Stalker (January 11, 1972) and historical drama in Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (March 13, 1977) to "low end" triviality in How to Pick Up Girls! (November 3, 1978). Occasionally the form attracted major actors, writers, and directors; more often, production budgets and time requirements mitigated against the quality of the finished products.

The miniseries format may have been anticipated by Walt Disney's three-part Davy Crockett series in the mid-1950s and the protracted serial drama Peyton Place in the 1960s, if not by the daytime soap operas which told long, complicated stories. But the miniseries did not become a common production reality until the mid-1970s.

It was a risky format, committing a network to multiple evenings that could be a ratings disaster if the series did not appeal to viewers. A popular miniseries, however, could generate compelling TV drama and sizable ratings maintained over several days. Among the most successful series of the decade were Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), Holocaust (1977), Centennial (1978), Pearl (1978), and Backstairs at the White House (1979).

No miniseries were more striking, however, than the two Roots productions on ABC: Roots and its sequel Roots: The Next Generations. The storyline concerned an African-American family that started with a young Gambian husband and father, Kunta Kinte, who was captured and then shipped to Colonial America to become a slave. It culminated in the emotional return of author Alex Haley to the West African village from which his progenitor had been kidnapped more than two centuries earlier. The process took two miniseries totaling twenty-six hours distributed over eight nights in January 1977 and six nights in February 1979.

Before it ended, 140 million Americans saw at least part of Roots I and 110 million watched at least a portion of Roots II And the reward for innovation was impressive: the second series averaged a 30.2 rating/45 share; the original averaged a 44.9 rating/66 share, still the highest-rated miniseries in TV history. The first series' final episode, moreover, with a 53.3 rating/76 share, remains the third-highest-rated program in the 1960-89 period, and six of its eight installments were ranked among the top thirty telecasts of the period. Roots also won eight of the thirty-seven Emmy awards for which it was nominated.

But the two Roots productions, like all network miniseries and made-for-TV films, resulted from business calculations, financial gambles that these commodities would attract advertisers because they would attract viewers. The networks even promised their advertisers a minimum audience size; if that viewership failed to materialize, they were committed to make good by providing those advertisers with free commercial time at a later date.

Operating at such a level, there was little room for public service or loss leaders. This was evident in children's programming. Children's TV realized its most influential achievement with the debut in late 1969 of Sesame Street. A creation of the Children's Television Workshop, Sesame Street was a concerted, daily attempt to entertain and instruct preschool young­sters. But it was on public television. There had been significant educational programs on network TV, among them Ding Dong School on NBC in the 1950s and Captain Kangaroo on CBS for three decades. But Sesame Street employed sophisticated video techniques and efficient editing to deliver its lessons with the visual intensity of a powerful TV commercial.

The acclaim and popularity of Sesame Street helped nudge ABC, CBS, and NBC toward upgrading their children's fare. The networks were also pushed by developments within the industry. From the FCC, the surgeon general, Congress, and many public-interest organizations the networks confronted a steady barrage of criticism concerning their children's programming that, for the most part, was now relegated to Saturday mornings. Many assailed the excessive violence in network "kid­vid;" others pointed to the lack of minorities and the stereotypical depic­tion of women. Another point of contention was exploitive commercial­ism in Saturday morning network programming.

The most impressive strategy to address such criticism occurred at CBS, where Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids became the pattern after which the network redesigned Saturday programming. Debuting in the fall of 1972, Fat Albert was the product of TV star Bill Cosby. It was based on his childhood memories of growing up in Philadelphia, and with Cosby in front of and behind the camera, it became a vehicle for educational ideas refined while Cosby was earning a doctoral degree in education at the University of Massachusetts.

By 1974 the Cosby formula of blending entertainment with themes of social responsibility and ethics became CBS philosophy. In a closed-circuit message to network affiliates, CBS-TV's president, Robert Wood—a champion of topical programming—explained that beginning in the fall his children's shows would be more socially responsible ever. Valley of the Dinosaurs, he noted, would place a modern family in prehistoric times, thereby dealing with recognizable people having to live harmoniously with totally different human beings. Shazam would have Captain Marvel helping to resolve youthful problems such as going along with the crowd; suffering the consequences for wrongdoing; respecting others; and making value decisions affecting peers, parents, and the com­munity. Wood explained that other series that fall—The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Comedy Show, The U.S. of Archie, and The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine—also would act responsibly, emphasizing themes of brotherhood, environmental concern, sportsmanship, and the like.

It was a noble gesture. But poor ratings, the resignation of Wood in early 1976, and the importance of Saturday mornings as a network profit center destroyed the effort. According to Sonny Fox, who in 1977 brought similar shows to NBC as its vice president for children's programming, the educational purposes of such diversion eroded considerably after the mid-1970s. "Today's programming shows a total abdication of responsibility and I know why," he stated. "It's strictly a matter of dollars and cents. And unless the networks or the stations believe that they have government pressure, or they'll lose their licenses, it isn't going to improve."


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  ©2009 J. Fred MacDonald