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Forecast in novels and science journals since the late nineteenth century, television came to the USA and other developed nations in the decade and a half following World War II. Major manufacturers of radio receivers, led by Radio Corporation of America (RCA), as well as individual entrepreneurs had labored in the 1930s in the USA, Germany and the UK to perfect a device capable of receiving over the air clear images and sound. US companies had been especially anxious to perfect a receiver that could be mass produced. Military research during World War II had advanced their work.
In the late 1940s, the USA was best positioned to experience a ‘television boom.’ RCA and other companies were oﬀering television sets that, though expensive, were not beyond the means of most consumers. At the same time, RCA established a nationwide network, National Broadcasting Company (NBC), that oﬀered set owners regular programming. Another TV set manufacturer, Du Mont, similarly founded a TV network, as did the radio networks, ABC and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) (Du Mont ceased operations in 1955). The four chains provided programming to individual stations, most of which, because of federal regulations, were not owned by the networks. With TV stations operating in most of the nation’s larger cities, consumers began purchasing sets. A strong economy allowed such consumption. So did the postwar boom in marriages and child-bearing, which left many young adults housebound, thus making television relatively cost-eﬃcient home entertainment. Although high income was a strong predictor of set ownership in the ﬁrst years of the television boom, family size soon became the stronger variable. By the late 1950s just under 90 percent of all US homes had one or more televisions. In time, owning a television became an expectation throughout the world. That said, television spread more slowly in poor countries because of the relatively high costs of receivers, the absence of electrical service and uneven TV production standards.
In contrast to what emerged in many other nations, the so-called ‘American’ system followed the US radio model of privately owned broadcast stations and networks carrying programs or series paid for and sometimes produced by advertisers. Oversight by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was nominal. As the medium’s patron, advertisers held enormous control over programs in television’s ﬁrst dozen years, especially because demand favored them over networks and stations. They normally sponsored entire shows, often including plugs of their wares. In most instances, advertisers sought the largest possible audience. This came to mean relying on a set of program ‘genres,’ most of which owed something to radio and motion pictures. That said, a few sponsors self-consciously cultivated a smaller, elite audience by underwriting musical, dramatic or news programs. Many advertisers and broadcasters initially assumed that the TV viewer was better educated and well to do. Partly because of this misidentiﬁcation of the audience, which also occurred during the early years of radio, many network programs were culturally ambitious. Original dramas, produced in New York, the nation’s theatrical center, appeared every night. Critics later insisted that the USA had experienced a ‘Golden Age of Television.’ However, the fare most identiﬁed with the Golden Age could not, over time, compete for viewer favor with other, less pretentious eﬀorts.
In the late 1950s, US television underwent a series of changes that established industry practice for the remainder of the century. As television spread into smaller communities, demand for dramatic and comedy programs that had followings in the larger cities collapsed. Individual comics like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, whose humor resonated with eastern viewers, were unable to sustain their early success. The larger, more representative audience preferred ﬁlmed programs, including westerns and detective dramas, that were inexpensive imitations of motion pictures. This shift in demand encouraged the movement, already underway, of TV production from New York to California. Television increasingly took on the look of Hollywood as opposed to Broadway. At the same time, a sharp increase in advertiser demand gave the networks and larger stations the upper hand over advertisers in programming decisions. By the mid- 1960s, most television programs had multiple sponsors.
Outside of Latin America and the Caribbean, much of the world actively sought to avoid taking up the US system. Much as they had disdained US motion pictures, political and intellectual elites abhorred what they construed to be the vulgarity of US television. As a result, few broadcasters enjoyed the autonomy of their US counterparts. Communist and many third-world countries tightly controlled television’s development and production. The Soviet Union and other regimes regarded television, like radio, as state instruments. Other countries, notably in Western Europe, followed the corporation model of the British Broadcasting System (BBC). Under the British model, the government created an independent broadcasting authority that relied on receiver fees rather than advertising. In the mid-1980s, about two-thirds of Europe’s television authorities derived their revenues from receiver fees, as did about half of all African and Asian systems. Most of the time, BBC was free of direct government interference. The UK did permit commercial television in creating the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in 1955. But commercial TV in the UK, as in many other nations, was subject to far more regulations than in the USA. In the UK, non-government TV endured an excess proﬁts tax that had the eﬀect of encouraging more elaborate cultural programming that rivaled the self-conscious, educational eﬀorts of BBC. The Japanese Broadcasting System (NHK), in contrast, gave commercial TV far greater freedom. Although former British colonies initially embraced the BBC model, political anxieties caused the leaders of most newly independent countries to take up more direct, state control akin to that of the Soviet Union. Then, too, the relatively high cost of starting television service and the absence of domestic commercial investors partly explained the adoption of the statist model in most poor nations. Some third-world leaders sought to put oﬀ TV’s development indeﬁnitely, only to relent under pressure from urban elites who had encountered television in the West.
Although many if not most nations sought to avoid the US system, few could resist its programming. In the early 1980s, UNESCO reported that most nations, including those with totalitarian or Islamic fundamentalist regimes, oﬀered more entertainment programming than any other type. This tendency created an enormous opportunity for US producers. US-made entertainment series, especially those that emphasized action or broad humor, proved immensely popular. As in the case of motion picture assembly, US television producers had a huge comparative advantage in the emerging global market for programming. The switch of US networks to ﬁlmed series created a substantial inventory of exportable entertainment. The USA possessed unequaled production facilities in southern California, as well as the movie industry’s large reserve of on-camera and production talent. A large domestic audience and advertising demand, as well as the sale of syndication rights as ‘reruns’ to individual US stations (and eventually, cable outlets), meant that successful US programs were proﬁtable before they were distributed overseas. They could thus be oﬀered relatively inexpensively. British television production, with somewhat similar advantages, was a distant second as an exporter of TV programming. Most other nations simply could not produce programming of the same standard and appeal. This was especially true in less developed countries where, Elihu Katz and George Wedell estimated in the mid-1970s, imported series constituted just over half of all programming. Indeed, viewers in some countries, Katz and Wedell noted, frequently could select from diﬀerent US programs aired by competing channels at the same time. One scholar of international communication concluded in 1988, ‘A kind of sameness ﬁlls TV screens just about everywhere.’ Revealingly, a 1999 NATO air strike against a communications center in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, destroyed 123 episodes of three US series.
The Americanization of television throughout much of the world had its critics. One of the ﬁrst, Herbert I. Schiller, regarded the US’s export of programming as part of a conscious attempt by the nation’s political and business elites to extend the USA’s inﬂuence via communication. ‘The ‘‘have-not’’ nations,’ he wrote, ‘stand practically defenseless before a rampaging Western commercialism.’ More likely, Katz and Wedell argue, market forces and the law of comparative advantage, and not sinister calculation, accounted for the US’s impact on television globally.
In its ﬁrst decade and a half, US commercial television presented relatively little news programming, very little of which elicited controversy. News programs lost money and drew few viewers. The networks considered informational programming a way of placating inﬂuential political and cultural leaders as well as of meeting the FCC’s modest public service standard. In receiving TV frequencies or licenses for a ﬁxed term, stations promised to devote a minority of its overall schedule to programs, including news, ‘in the public interest.’ In theory, license renewal hinged on stations meeting this ‘minority interest’ standard. In practice, the FCC very rarely scrutinized individual licensees’ public service schedule. Nonetheless, station managers were not prepared to ignore the agency altogether. Not surprisingly, television news tended to be uncritical of those in power and, as Nancy Bernhard has argued, supportive of America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union.
By the 1960s, US networks and many stations were proﬁting from certain types of informational programs, speciﬁcally early evening newscasts. These were not as popular as some contemporary observers assumed. In the late 1960s, one survey indicated, just over half of all US citizens watched no network evening newscasts during a two-week period. Yet television news did command the attention of many inﬂuential US citizens, who assumed its primacy; TV newscasts also drew increasing advertiser interest. Indeed, nightly newscasts became stations’ largest single source of revenue. In the 1970s, the network evening ‘magazine,’ CBS’s Sixty Minutes, with its mix of exposes and features, started winning viewers For the ﬁrst time, a network news program actually competed against evening entertainment shows in popularity rankings. Imitations on other networks followed. Although none could generate the following of 60 Minutes, because they were less costly than entertainment series, the networks earned more money carrying such programs. All told, the realization that news shows could, in fact, be even more proﬁtable, caused broadcasters to seek more viewers by adopting a less serious news agenda. The line separating news and entertainment blurred.
The ﬁrst great test of US television news came with the US intervention in the Vietnam war. The medium earned at best a low pass. Popular mythology, perpetuated by surviving correspondents (and their critics), insists that TV brought the war’s horrors home every evening to a people glued to their sets. Television reporters, according to this wisdom, criticized the conﬂict itself and thus helped to end US involvement. Subsequent scholarship by Daniel Hallin and others has largely discredited this self-serving history. As already noted, newscast audiences were never as vast as some imagined. Nor did TV news, for a variety of reasons, show much combat footage. Relatively few reports were carried live. And in the initial years of the US build-up, 1964–66, reporters and news anchors (or readers) passively if not enthusiastically relayed the positions of the US military and civilian leadership. After 1966, some TV correspondents did challenge, ever so mildly, the progress of the war. Yet television was hardly, as some later asserted, leading public opinion or the news media generally. Other news organizations, speciﬁcally the hugely inﬂuential New York Times, had already started to express skepticism about the Vietnam commitment. And television news failed, Todd Gitlin has contended, to take the budding anti-war movement seriously.
As the USA withdrew forces from Southeast Asia, network television had to cover an even larger crisis. These involved criminal activities associated with the June 1972 break-in of the Watergate apartment complex in Washington DC, by ﬁgures tied to the reelection campaign of President Richard M. Nixon. The TV networks, especially CBS, covered the Watergate story. Still, they did not do so with nearly the rapidity and thoroughness of some newspapers. Herbert J. Gans’ study of the evening network newscast production in the 1970s stressed the extent to which NBC and CBS depended on the New York Times for their news agenda.
US television remained primarily an entertainment medium, and TV’s staple product began to change. A 1970 FCC regulation restricted the networks’ ownership of entertainment programming. This gave producers more freedom, and some sought to convey the more relaxed cultural climate. To many critics, this shift fostered a second ‘golden age.’ Shows like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in violation of industry practice, dealt with contemporary issues like race relations and the sexual revolution. Dramatic series in the 1980s and 1990s, usually involving law enforcement or medicine, similarly took a more realistic tone.
Despite renewed critical respect for some shows, network television’s hold over the US viewer slipped in the latter decades of the century. In the 1950s and 1960s, most US citizens received their TV service over the air. The ﬁnite size of the radio band limited the number of on-air stations the typical set could receive. And until the late 1970s, the three networks in eﬀect determined what US citizens watched. Most TV stations remained aﬃliated with a network. On a given evening, nine out of every ten televisions were tuned to a network program. In the 1980s, however, the networks began losing some of their audience. Although the presence of more independent stations cut into the networks’ share, the spread of cable proved the far more decisive blow. By subscribing to a cable service, consumers could greatly augment their choices, originally from four to 12 to 30 or more channels. By 1997, the average US cable system provided 47 channels. This much larger array of choices proved too tempting for most consumers. The percentage of homes with cable rose from 7.6 percent in 1970 to 49.4 percent in 1988. By the late 1990s, up to 70 percent of all households had cable. Others had satellite signal receivers that aﬀorded them even more services; such systems were more common elsewhere in the world. The US network audience shrank to about half of the total evening audience.
Cable’s rise had several signiﬁcant eﬀects on the television. Providing many more channels greatly weakened an original justiﬁcation—scarcity of service—for broadcast regulation, as did a larger disillusionment with the eﬃcacy of business oversight. The FCC relaxed most rules regarding public aﬀairs programming and eventually, network ownership of entertainment programs. The growth of all-news cable channels—along with the end of the Cold War— caused the network news divisions to reduce their coverage of more serious political and international news in favor of stories more likely to attract viewers. At the same, competition from cable channels caused the established networks to forsake their traditional observance of US prudishness. Trying to hold viewers, some network program producers took more risks in their handling of sexuality and crude language. Compared with their predecessors, broadcasters worried less about oﬀending some viewers, who could always turn to a cable channel rerunning an innocuous 1960s situation comedy. In planning a racy police drama, NYPD Blue, producer Steven Bochco recalled being told by an ABC oﬃcial in the early 1990s ‘to come up with something that would at least begin to compete with cable.’
Cable channels oﬀered a range of programs and formats. Even so, one of the ironies of cable’s growth was that the most popular cable channels relied excessively on reruns of series originally telecast on the networks. These were accompanied on some channels by professional wrestling and variety shows that targeted young men who delighted in bad taste. Many cable channels practiced ‘narrow-casting,’ that is, they presented programming intended to engage only sports fans (ESPN) or pre-adolescents (MTV). Although the popularity of no one cable channel could compete with any of the networks, combined the cable outlets constituted a regiment of Lilliputians tying down the three Gullivers.
The networks were also wounded by the entry of new rivals in the 1980s and 1990s. None proved more successful than Fox, whose programs usually ignored industry practice and middle class proprieties. ‘We were free from the hereditary constraints at the other networks, the decades of doing things a traditional way,’ a Fox vice president explained in 1997. Along with still more networks, WB and United Paramount Network (UPN), Fox frequently violated another industry rule by playing to subgroups of the national audience, that is, younger or African–American viewers.
Although the advent of more TV channels mainly on cable complicated their routines, advertisers in many ways beneﬁted from the more competitive television. Promoters of products more appealing to a speciﬁc subgroup, like adolescents or women, welcomed the eﬃciencies of cable narrow-casting. At the same time, cable’s growth restored some power to advertisers in their dealings with the networks. Because younger viewers were thought to be more likely to try new brands and services, product makers in the 1990s were prepared to pay more – sometimes signiﬁcantly more—to co-sponsor a TV program with the ‘right’ demographics. That is, they began basing more of their ‘media buys’ on who rather than how many watched a given show. All in all, this represented an unprecedented shift by the networks’ underwriters, most of whom had heretofore prized the size rather than the composition of the audience.
Amid such industry upheaval came dramatic changes in industry proprietorship. After several generations of stable ownership, all three established networks changed hands in the 1980s. Capital Cities, owners of TV stations and newspapers, purchased ABC in 1985 and then sold the network to the Disney entertainment conglomerate in 1995. In 1986, General Electric took over RCA and NBC; investor Laurence Tisch bought CBS. Westinghouse, an electronics company, secured CBS in 1995 only to allow itself to be combined with Viacom, another entertainment concern, in 2000. Meanwhile, individual stations, some of which had been controlled by the same company or family for several generations, were sold and resold through the 1980s and 1990s. Such franchise transfers increased all the more when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which lifted or weakened FCC regulations, including restrictions on the number of stations individual companies could own.
With only with a few exceptions did US television remain the mass medium that it had been in 1960 or 1975. Annual rituals like the National Football League’s Super Bowl commanded huge audiences, as did momentarily popular shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Sur i or. Otherwise, even top-ranked network programs like NBC’s comedy Seinfeld had to settle for a much smaller percentage of the total television audience than had comparably ranked shows a generation earlier. The future oﬀered more of the same. The spread of the Internet into more US homes at the century’s end portended ever more individualized media services.
The Historiography Of Television
The history of television has only begun to command serious scholarship. Until the 1990s, most research on the medium has consisted of highly specialized studies conducted by social scientists testing theories of media inﬂuence. The ﬁrst wave of this research is ably summarized in Leo Bogart’s Age of Television (1972). Historians, except for those tied to programs focusing on the ﬁlm or journalism, have all but avoided the medium, despite its immense popularity and seeming inﬂuence. Their reluctance is understandable. Few are familiar with the constantly ballooning research on media eﬀects. Moreover, evaluating mass culture itself, as opposed to its inﬂuence, has always been a tricky endeavor, much simpler for newspaper columnists than academics. It became all but impossible in the latter decades of the twentieth centuries, as scholars in the humanities and sociology dismissed cultural hierarchies altogether as hopelessly subjective, if not indicators of class and educational attainment. Historians who could pass these obstacles faced more logistical roadblocks. In the USA, corporations have been the major players in the medium’s history, and relatively few have opened their records to scholars. Then, too, the sheer volume of TV programming over the years has all but compelled historians to limit their inquiries to case studies (see, e.g., Balio 1990, Spigel and Curtin 1997). Relying on middle-class sources, Lynn Spigel has sensitively examined how US citizens sought to adapt themselves and their families to television. There have been more ambitious histories, notably by Asa Briggs (1961–95)of the BBC and Erik Barnouw’s more episodic treatment of US broadcasting (1970). Paul Rutherford has written a very competent history of Canadian television (1990, see also Levy 1999).
Meanwhile, many gaps will need to be closed, including far more examinations of ethnicity and gender. Virtually no systematic investigations have been conducted on advertisers’ complex and changing relationships to the medium. Much more research needs to be attempted measuring the relationships between TV news and those in power.
Finally, the tendency of program producers to take up concepts ﬁrst developed overseas needs to be explored. Successful US series had many imitators over the years. Still, the phenomenal success at the end of the twentieth century of ABC’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire and CBS’s Sur i or, both modeled after European programs, demonstrated that even US program producers have occasionally engaged in plagiarism. CBS modeled its long-running Sixty Minutes after a Canadian program. British programs inspired such popular US series as All in the Family and Sanford and Son as well as some far less resilient endeavors.
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