New Kinds of Television

A former newspaperman, magazine writer, editor, and teacher, VANCE PACKARD is the author of a number of controversial books, chief among them THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS, THE STATUS SEEKERS, and THE WASTE MAKERS. In the article which follows he discusses developments in the transmission of television which may lead to a dramatic improvement in the programs offered.

ANYONE who has casually turned on his television set since the beginning of the 1963-964 season might gain the impression that television is in the same old rut, only deeper. A closer examination of the landscape, however, discloses that the world of television is in quite an upheaval. Strange new forms of television are starting to emerge, some of them never anticipated, even by most insiders. New hybrids and seemingly implausible alliances are taking shape. As a consequence, decisive changes appear to be in prospect, with a wider diversity of programming from which to choose and, hopefully, an improvement in what is available to the discerning viewer.

These changes are being facilitated by a number of breakthroughs, both technological and economic. Most Americans are only dimly aware of Community Antenna Television (C.A.T.), yet it may prove to be a major instrument in revolutionizing the television we see. There is the breakthrough that will begin in June, 1964, when seventy additional television channels start lighting up. All television sets sold from that time must be capable of receiving not only the present handful of usable very high frequency channels but also the many ultrahigh frequency signals.

For the first time in memory the Federal Communications Commission, charged with regulating television, contains a reasonably solid majority of commissioners who are impatient with the passive -and often sweetheartrole-- the F.C.C. has played in its relations with commercial broadcasters in the past. The new chairman, E. William Henry, a husky, tall, young Tennessee lawyer, speaks quietly but seems willing to use both persuasion and power on behalf of the public interest. And, finally, there is a breakthrough of sorts in regard to ratings. There were some embarrassing revelations before the Oren Harris Special Subcommittee on Investigations in the House, which looked into the systems used in measuring television audiences.

It now seems probable that viewers in the not-toodistant future will have a choice of at least four kinds of television: commercial TV, cable TV, charge TV, and cultural TV. There will also be a fifth kind - cartridge TV, by means of which special programs on video tape will be bought or rented over the counter and viewed on home sets. And then, of course, there is color TV - ultimately in three dimensions.


What are the causes of the creeping staleness of commercial TV after fifteen years? One evident cause, highlighted by the Harris hearings, is the absolute reliance of the entire commercial TV and radio industry on companies that sell ratings. James T. Aubrey, Jr., president of CBSTV, told the subcommittee that "Ratings are used by all advertising agencies with which we deal. Since our sole financial support comes from payments by advertisers, we can't afford to ignore the tools they use in determining their purchases of programs and time."

The agency spokesmen were less candid about their reliance on ratings. Robert E. L Richardson, one of two investigators who spent eighteen months studying ratings for the Harris committee, told me that the agency men were the least frank of all the people he encountered. He said they professed to use ratings only as a minor guide when, in fact, they commonly "just go out into the market and buy rating points in making national spot purchases from local stations."

One of the few forthright advertising men at the hearings, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, who had proved to be too bold and experimental for comfort when he served as the president of NBC during television's golden era, told the subcommittee that "the pressure of numbers pushes everybody into more populartype shows." Most of the heavy viewers of commercial TV, the subcommittee gathered, are found in the bottom 60 percent of the population in educational and socioeconomic standing. And most of the rating figures are drawn from such a bottom 60 percent, Mr. Weaver indicated.

He told of one of his own disheartening experiences with the rating system. "We got thirty million viewers for the Sadler's Wells Ballet on TV," he related. "That is the Nielsen [rating service] figure, in this case accurate enough, give or take ten or fifteen percent." Mr. Weaver suggested that the fact that thirty million Americans watched a ninetyminute ballet program should have been exciting headline news. Instead, he said, the Variety headline, in effect, was "Godfrey and Lucy Clobber Culture." It seems that Arthur Godfrey and 1 Love Lucy appeared during parts of the same time period and came out with ratings indicating about thirtyeight million listeners.

The subcommittee heard weeks of damning evidence of slipshod use of varying hundreds of meters or diaries to indicate national or regional viewing habits. Moreover, there was also testimony that the pressure of the rating services on their fieldmen to cut corners tended to result in a general underrepresentation of people of aboveaverage intelligence, income, and sophistication. It seems that the fieldmen frequently encountered resistance when they tried to persuade people to permit the installation in a television set of a meter which would record their dialing habits. One fieldman said he had to visit ninety homes before he could find one taker for a meter.

Committee investigators found that some field, men working in apartment areas favored approaching building superintendents, because they were always home. A number of ex-fieldmen conceded that they put meters where they could, regardless of sample specifications. In Oklahoma the committee's investigators discovered that the two set owners chosen by Nielsen fieldmen to represent the tastes 104,000 set owners in eleven counties lived in alum houses side by side in Chickasha. The families in both homes were on relief. Yet, in this area which they purportedly represented there were not only several oilrich communities with large professional populations, but also three colleges, including the University of Oklahoma.


The second noteworthy cause of the creeping staleness of television and the dissatisfaction of discriminating viewers is the chronic intrusion of commercial considerations into the total programming. The typical television family pays for its "free" television fare by sitting through several hundred commercials a week, many depicting draining sinuses or girls worried about bad breath, skin blemishes, irregularity, or clammy girdles.

A stiffer price paid by the public, perhaps, is its acceptance of entertainment molded by many sponsors to suit their particular selling and imagebuilding needs. While a drama is being readied, the sponsor's representative often is at hand with suggestions at every stage of preparation to make sure that no taboos are violated, that no possible offense is given to any conceivable group, and that an upbeat commercial mood is maintained.

These two factors, of straining to prove mass appeal in the rating reports and of bending programming to give top priority to commercial considerations, have led commercial TV to seek the safe, cheerful, popular, and predictable. One television executive predicted that the great future in television programming is in the "oneidea show," such as <i> What's My Line?</i>, which is virtually the same show it was a dozen years ago. He explained that even in formula series, such as <i>Wyatt Earp</i>, the producers soon run out of fresh ideas, but that a oneidea show can go on year after year and make a fortune for its producers.

On the other hand, great, wellplayed drama, which is likely to be charged with provocative and often impudent or rebellious ideas, is widely considered risky to attempt, except perhaps as a loss-leader kind of prestige builder. CBS taped an exciting production of <i>Hedda Gabler</i> in England with Ingrid Bergman and three of England's greatest actors - Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, and Michael Redgrave. Sponsors shunned it in the 19621963 season, purportedly as too "classical" and expensive on a costperthousand-viewers basis. It was put off until the present 19631964 season for want of sponsorship, and then was scheduled for December the last month before CBS would lose its rights to the program - in the hope that sufficient sponsorship money could be found at least to cut losses.

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