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Television: “One Vast Ubiquitous Library”


ISSUE:  Spring 2000

All across America on the morning of Oct. 14, 1999, the front pages of newspapers blared with headlines about an important development in Washington. The U.S.Senate had rejected the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty designed to prevent the spread of the world’s most awesome weapons.

The stories proclaimed it a critically historic vote. The New York Times said it evoked memories of the Senate’s turndown of the Versailles treaty after World War I, an action that preordained the failure of the newly formed League of Nations and sabotaged collective efforts to stave off another global conflict in the 1930’s. Other papers noted that it was the first time since World War II that the United States had refused to endorse an arms control agreement. The press dispatches unanimously agreed that partisan politics had fueled the debate and played a big part in dooming the treaty, whose defeat was a devastating setback for President Clinton.

Despite these solemn pronouncements, the morning television news programs chose to dwell on another story about the decision of a Boulder, Colo., grand jury to forego handing down any indictments in the JonBenet Ramsey child slaving case. Even though it was mostly a matter of no news making news—the Times placed the story on page 14—the television editors decided that viewers would be more interested in the latest turn in an investigation that had held the nation’s attention for many months. NEC’s Today Show dismissed the Senate vote with a few lines while devoting its opening half-hour to the Ramsey report.

The episode said much about television’s new values and the relentless pursuit of higher audience ratings. It obviously reflected the decline and deterioration in the standards of news programs with their obsession for crime and the sensational. The Ramsey case fit the bill perfectly with its tantalizing elements of a child beauty queen mysteriously slain in her home and the parents among the major suspects. Night after night the television magazine programs and the cable system talk shows dwelled on the murder, endlessly reviewing the details and speculating about the guilt of the mother and father. NEC’s Geraldo Rivera even staged a mock trial which rendered a guilty verdict.

This kind of marathon and maniacal coverage underscored a general dumbing-down of television programming as the medium increasingly and often shamelessly plays to America’s less estimable impulses. But there is a deeper portent. By presenting so much that is inconsequential and commonplace, television is becoming a metaphor for what many see as a more widespread slippage in society’s standards. In this sense, it seems well on its way to fulfilling the prophecy voiced four decades ago by the legendary commentator Edward R.Murrow when he said: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

The more enlightened course was widely predicted when the first primitive pictures were transmitted at the 1939 New York World’s Fair (although the British Broadcasting Corp.had got the initial jump with its limited showing of the coronation parade of King George VI from London’s Hyde Park in 1937). The broadcasting breakthrough was seen as heralding a marvelous new technological age that would propel America down enriching new avenues of education and entertainment. An intoxicating and bountiful new world seemed on the horizon.

By the early 1940’s the National Broadcasting Co., the Columbia Broadcasting System, and the fledgling Dumont network were all telecasting. By the end of the decade there were 50 stations operating across the country and one million sets in use. Two years later the number had reached ten million and by 1960 it had skyrocketed to 50 million.

The medium’s rapid advancement revolutionized life styles everywhere. Here at the flip of a switch was a friendly companion that ushered in the universal pleasures of drama, comedy, and music while also providing a keyhole peep at history in the making. The boob tube, as it later came to be dubbed, might be fuzzy at times and unexciting at others, but its images were captivating and mesmerizing. As such, there was the hope that it might bring us all together in an unparalleled march of progress.

The impact was swift and broad. With its steady diet of escapist fare, television began challenging Hollywood’s film dominance with an array of marquee attractions ranging from the humor of Jack Benny and Milton Berle to the Western shoot-em-ups such as Gunsmoke and Wagon Train. Dragnet and Perry Mason quickly captured the market for law and order. NBC’s 15-minute Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze and his ever-present cigarette was a nightly must, even if serious stories were sometimes subordinated to parades and fashion shows. More significantly, television was moving ahead as a powerful force in the political arena, beginning with its bare-bones presence at the 1948 Democratic and Republican conventions.

Prodded by the respected Murrow, CBS began pioneering in hour-long documentaries that exposed political corruption and the seamier side of American life. The televised Congressional hearings of the bitter 1954 fight between the Army and Wisconsin’s demagogic Sen. Joseph McCarthy over purported Communist infiltration of the military were instrumental in curbing his reckless abuse of power. Six years later the cameras played an even more crucial role when John F.Kennedy and Richard Nixon met in Chicago in the first of a series of televised presidential debates, with Kennedy’s bravura performance setting him on the road to victory in November.

II

Americans began warming to a host of new and distinctive personalities—Dave Garroway, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Jackie Gleason, Imogene Coca, Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, among many. Some of the new stars sparkled in comedy and musical variety programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show, which remained around for 23 years. There also was room for a more serious side. Tapping into the talents of younger playwrights, the networks presented a star-studded line-up of weekly dramas that included Playhouse 90, Studio One, Kraft Television Theater and The U.S.Steel Hour.

In the public affairs arena, NBC’s esteemed Meet the Press came over from radio and a new team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley rode to national prominence as the engaging twosome who helped the country make sense of the 1956 political conventions and elections.The Camel Caravan soon gave way to a more professional type of journalism as the networks began delivering daily half-hour wrap-ups of the world’s top stories. Network newsrooms were rapidly expanded with the addition of proven reporters recruited from leading newspapers and magazines, and by the mid-60’s an avuncular old pro presiding over CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite, was being hailed by Time as the most trusted man in the country.

Moreover, by its presence at transcendent events, television was becoming the great window to the world. Peoples everywhere shared in the grief when two Kennedys and Martin Luther King were assassinated. And they rejoiced in the spectacularly magic moment of man’s flight to the moon, watched by 600 million world-wide. The medium’s power to shape lives was proving to be enormous. The brutal attacks against civil rights workers aroused the nation’s conscience to the need to right ancient wrongs. The bloody scenes of faraway jungle warfare helped persuade Americans that Vietnam was a lost cause. And the explosive testimony of the president’s men during the Watergate investigation began to sway public opinion against Richard Nixon and hastened his departure from the White House.

Television was at the heart of the American experience, an omnipresent monitor of our lives. The successes, however, could not eclipse a darker side of less memorable programming that also was taking hold. Almost from the beginning there were critics who decried a dreary superficiality. The rigging of quiz shows erupted into a national scandal in the mid-50’s. This, along with the crassness and banality that characterized so much of prime time entertainment set off a crescendo of complaints, triggering a fierce denunciation from Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow in 1961. Too much of television had become “a vast wasteland,” said Minow, proceeding to cite an endless “procession of game shows, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons.”

III

Thirty nine years later the wasteland is even vaster as the dark side has grown darker. To be sure, it is a far different landscape today with the declining domination of the networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) and the arrival of hundreds of new cable channels, accompanied by a burst of spinoff imagery from the Internet, home videos, computers, and other virtual realities. All of these changes have given viewers a multitude of new choices, precipitating a battle royal for diminishing shares of the audience pie and a new anything-goes mentality in the executive suite.

The consequence is a steady drift toward coarseness, proving that more does not necessarily translate into better.Rolling Stone headlined its preview of the inaugural 21st-century season “Hot and Horny,” a description that recalled the words of a former CBS official who said he favored shows with “bosoms, broads and fun.” TV critic Tom Shales of The Washington Post roasted network leaders for ratcheting up “the dirty talk and sexual references permitted in prime time programming.” The result, said Shales, is transforming the networks into “dinosaurs shivering as the ice age approaches.”

But nothing quite equals the penchant of the ever-expanding cable and syndication services in pandering to the baser instincts. The most celebrated of this genre have been the notorious Jerry Springer show with its on-air profanity and physical confrontations, and the in-your-face Jenny Jones program whose chief claim to infamy is that one enraged guest gunned down a young homosexual who had expressed an attraction for the killer during a broadcast. Even more extraordinary is the burgeoning fascination with professional wrestling, which dominates the cable ratings. The staged and scripted raunchiness outdraws two other popular cable features, Nascar automobile races and the wacky mud frolicking between tractors and big trucks.

Whether the networks are indeed becoming dinosaurs, they most assuredly have good reason to be worried about their place in the crowded broadcasting bazaar. The trend toward specialization has continued unabated and for the first time cable has captured a larger share of the total audience. There are now channels designed specifically for blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. And on the theory that there can be something for everyone, the smorgasbord also has expanded to include channels for music lovers, animal enthusiasts, history buffs, investors, shoppers, gourmets, gardeners, children, movie fans, legal experts, and news, sports, and weather junkies. This narrowcasting, as it is called, obviously smacks of wretched excess, something duly noted by media writer John Leonard when he suggested that “niche broadcasting is for niche wits.”

There is, however, a more encouraging side. Some of the cable channels, notably Arts and Entertainment, Discovery, and Bravo, are striking out in innovative directions and challenging the Public Broadcasting System’s long-held crown as the king of quality. Cable also is showing a greater willingness to move into bolder and more provocative territory. Home Box Office has tackled the sensitive themes of homosexuality and incest in major productions. HBO also came up with last season’s surprise drama hit in The Sopranos, a much-praised lengthy series on the travails of a New Jersey Mafia family.

Faced with this rapidly changing marketplace, the networks tore up their schedules for the current season and trotted out 26 new prime time weekly comedies and dramas, mostly aimed at yuppie 20-something viewers. The move provoked an immediate gale of controversy. Black and Latino groups protested bitterly that none of the new offerings included minorities in leading roles, charging “ethnic purification” and “a virtual whitewash in programming.” One top black producer attributed the absence of non-whites to an apartheid Hollywood culture that is indifferent to minorities and their problems, explaining: “Most of the people who develop and oversee network shows are white males who live in Malibu, Brentwood, and Bel Air.” In any case, executives got the message and quickly promised to remedy matters with new pledges to multiculturalism. Nonetheless, the dearth of ethnic actors struck many as puzzling in an industry that gave the country several successful black comedy hits and two of nighttime’s brightest stars in Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby. ABC’s Roots, the much-acclaimed 1977 production on the slave heritage, remains the highest ranking mini-series ever shown.

Given this record, the unexpected downgrading of ethnicity probably had more to do with the bottom line than bigotry. Simply put, the tough new economics of television is making it harder for the networks to make money. With the continuing Balkanization of the audience and only NEC making a profit during the 1998—99 season, network leaders concluded that diversity no longer paid because the inclusion of minority performers would not guarantee bigger audiences. To the contrary, they believed that their best hope for stopping the financial hemorrhaging lay in developing more mainstream fare appealing to a general audience overwhelmingly composed of whites.

This explains why ABC’s phenomenally successful and profitable Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has touched off a booming revival of glitzy nighttime quiz shows, prompting a bandwagon rush by rival networks to send in their clones. Rather appropriately, Fox titled its entrant Greed, Such recycling of an old inexpensive idea might be no answer to basic ailments, but as critic Brian Lowry pointed out in The Los Angeles Times, it did provide “the perfect short-term solution in a business that increasingly seems to rely on the quick fix and getting by, where possible, on the cheap.” Actually, the repackaging carousel has a long history, dating back to the early days when Gunsmoke’spopularity started a stampede that eventually resulted in 25 prime time Westerns by 1960.

IV

All of this reinforces the industry’s follow-the-leader proclivity. It has long been a broadcasting rule that what matters is what works. Thus, the copycatting plethora of made-for-TV disaster movies, docudramas, animated shows, biographies, real-life video funnies, and comedies adhering to tried-and-true formulas. When CBS decided to bring back Bryant Gumbel to relaunch its sagging morning show, it immediately signaled that there would be no radical makeover. This was a bow to the belief that early risers prefer what is familiar and comfortable, a bit of conventional wisdom readily accepted by the new executive producer Steve Friedman in his disavowal of any need “to go out there and reinvent the wheel.” Accordingly, the Gumbel production, like NEC’s Today Show and ABC’s Good Morning America, has the customary format of a man and woman as co-hosts, a brief news summary, a black weatherman, and a storefront studio where passers-by can hold up their homemade placards and wave at the camera.

The tendency toward sameness seems unlikely to change, particularly with the explosion in corporate mergers that has consolidated broadcasting’s control under a small band of titans. In fact, the new conglomerates have evoked accelerating fears that the bankruptcy in creativity will become even more pronounced. Last fall’s buyout of CBS by Viacom, establishing the world’s largest media powerhouse, ignited a flurry of attacks against monopolistic deal making. The skeptics denounced the efforts to maximize profits and challenged management arguments that bigger would make for better. As critic Jerry Landay told The Christian Science Monitor: “We’re dealing with the control of the voices of a democratic society that are now in fewer and fewer hands. That raises concern bordering on horror.”

The thirst for greater revenues has had its most profound effect in the news area where a more vacuous brand of show business journalism has weakened the line between substance and style, fact and speculation, real reporting and innocuous drivel. The medium that once espoused the ideals of Edward R.Murrow is now infatuated with the gossip of a Dick Morris. Nothing so underlines the trendy new standards as the parade of political figures posing as news personalities, a development lampooned in a New Yorkercartoon showing a man conversing with a woman at a cocktail party, telling her: “I’m not really a journalist. I just play one on the evening news.” More to the point was the assertion by columnist Frank Rich in The New York Times that “a network news division is just another entertainment profit entry, like theme parks and logo-laden tchotchkes, in a megacorporation.”

V

Thus, the new corporate culture is the principal reason for the slide in priorities. As several witnesses told the Senate Antitrust subcommittee investigating the consolidation wave, many of the new media barons regard serious journalism as a burden. Lawrence Grossman, former president of both NBC News and PBS, expressed concern about “the diminishing importance of news on the organizational charts and balance sheets,” bemoaning the cheapened output resulting from the “the no-holds-barred race for ratings and profits.” The JonBenet Ramsey case may have dramatized the downturn in credibility but it is only one of many examples that abound.:

  • The binge of excessive and hyperbolic coverage of the O. J. Simpson murder case, the Clinton sex scandal and the tragedies involving Princess Diana and John F.Kennedy, Jr., his wife and her sister.
  • The new emphasis on softer, fluffier features and technological gizmos in the daily news programs, concurrent with the downgrading of foreign affairs reporting.
  • The glut of news magazine programs oozing with tabloid-style crime and tear jerker stories plus true confession interviews with celebrities eager to tell all in discussing their lives and loves.
  • The tacky talk shows that have become a haven for pompous blabbermouths and combative ideologues, redolent with instant analysis that frequently turns out to be instant baloney.
  • The debasement of the political process by the preoccupation with winners and losers, who’s up and who’s down, driven by a younger breed of journalists intent on displaying their precocity as know-it-all pundits and prophets.

Many professionals deplore these developments and are saddened that television news has turned away from the best traditions of journalism. Most of the major anchors and correspondents are disturbed by the content deemphasis, and some are making their voices heard. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, speaking in San Antonio, Texas, last November, condemned “the tunnel vision” that drove coverage of the Monica Lewinsky affair, describing the scandal’s prolonged coverage as “a complete waste.” For correspondents like Blitzer, who take pride in their work, it meant that other important matters such as the troubles in Kosovo were given shorter shrift. “I can’t help but feel that if we had focused more broadly on Yugoslavia, the war might have been avoided,” he added.

The pullback on foreign coverage is particularly dismaying. With the arrival of the global age and the growing inter-connectedness of the world economy, events elsewhere obviously can have a greater impact on the United States. And yet, many news bureaus have been closed with overseas staffing largely limited to London, Paris, Moscow and the Middle East. Little attention is paid to international matters beyond the periodic crises that occur in places like Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor. With the Cold War over and the United States the reigning superpower, a smug complacency conveys an attitude that the rest of the world doesn’t much matter anymore. Tragedies such as Africa’s fratricidal warfare, the cholera epidemic in Mozambique, and the famine in the Sudan have been sparsely reported. Some critics point to a compassion fatigue with humanitarian stories, but a more likely explanation is that foreign reporting does not mesh well with the news-as-entertainment predilection. Or, to be more blunt, it does not boost ratings and make money.

This is certainly not to say that there aren’t those who carry the flag for the old standards. CNN remains the class of the all-news cable channels and CNBC has nailed down the franchise for well-informed financial reporting and analysis.The Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS continues to cover the news the old fashioned way, blending straightforward reporting with incisive analysis. PBS’ Frontline has picked up the Murrow legacy with tough, hard-hitting documentaries dealing with important topics. Two C-Span channels have become something of a national treasure with their unfiltered spotlight on government, and more recently, the addition of thoughtful weekend book discussions with prominent writers. And, for all their failings, the networks still are masters at deploying their troops for the occasional blockbuster story.

All of these things suggest television will remain a compelling force in American life. The ongoing revolution in technology promises to keep on enlarging the menu of options for viewers. The surge in Internet usage, the expanding pay-per-view concept, enhanced digital TV formats, and interactive programming assure that there will be no let-up in the bombardment of additional images and information. The proliferation in little pop culture fiefdoms guarantees continuing freedom for alternative, idiosyncratic programming across the spectrum. These leaps into the future mean the networks will go on facing a bumpy ride as they try to co-exist with the new adversaries. With so much fragmentation, the challenge will be to come up with new ideas as well as new offerings. The danger is that television will more and more become a theater of the bizarre and the vulgar, as exemplified by Fox’s shamefully crass February stunt wedding of a couple who had never met one another—a demeaning soap opera that attracted an audience of 31 million.

Long before television began to reshape American culture, E. B. White contended that “it would be the test for the modern world.” Fifty years later the conclusion is inescapable that the test has brought only a partial serving of the public good. Likewise, the undercurrent of nostalgia for the “good old days” represents a fantasy for a past that never really existed. As critic Howard Rosenberg observed in The Los Angeles Times, the notion of a long-ago golden age is mostly mythological nonsense. “They were golden if you liked your TV monolithically white,” he wrote. “They were golden if you liked your TV women spending their days baking cookies and dusting. They were golden if you approved of blacklisting anyone accused of being left leaning or a fellow traveler. They were golden if you liked sponsors having direct control of shows. They were golden if you liked 15-minute newscasts.”

It is best to think of television today as one vast ubiquitous library. The discriminating person can easily find channels and programs to his or her liking, representing the best and worst in taste. Perhaps in a democracy that is the way it should be. Still, it is regrettable that such an influential and mighty medium is not close to achieving its potential for catering to the better side of America.

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