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.
More

Fortunately, a good many people in broadcasting and government and among the public as well are wondering how the content of commercial TV can be made more appealing to the highly diverse tastes of all Americans. One view is that the challenge can be met simply by improving the accuracy of the rating systems. The Federal Trade Commission, incidentally, has been threatening to crack down on any false claims made by rating systems. The tools are at hand to provide an instantaneous sampling of a far larger group than has been customary in the past. Both Teleglobe and TelePrompTer have developed systems which, by using leased phone lines, not only can give an instantaneous reading of dial tunings from tens of thousands of homes but can tabulate the educational and socioeconomic characteristics of the act ownersand can even have each set owner indicate, by push button or dial, what he thinks of the show he has just seen. Furthermore, a good model is at hand for assuring foolproof administration of ratings; for many years magazines have permitted a single nonprofit organization, the Audit Bureau of Circulation, to certify their circulation figures.

Many close observers are in agreement, however, that neither broadcasters nor advertising agencies really want to be hampered in their claims by submitting to a single incontrovertible nonprofit rating authority. The rating users want a choice of systems so that in their selling they can cite the system that gives them the biggest numbers. Evidently, the most they will permit is an industrysponsored group to suggest standards and guidelines to the various rating services.

It would be naive, though, to hope that even a perfect rating system would make commercial TV significantly more appealing to the discriminating viewer as long as sponsors continue buying programs on rating points or on a costperthousand basis. An accurate count of sets turned on would probably always show Bat Masterson, even on rerun, out-pulling Leonard Bernstein.

CONTROLLING COMMERCIALS

Another possibility for improving commercial TV's quality is to reduce the blatancy of the commercial intrusion. In the coming decade the advertising industry expects to double its expenditure for advertising, so that the pressure to crowd more and more commercials into available time segments is bound to increase. The advertisers themselves are growing uneasy about the loss of effectiveness of individual commercials crowded into a succession of commercials. Advertisers howl at any suggestion of a tax on commercials, yet a tax may be the only way to curb the overcommercialization of television and radio, unless the broadcasting industry can learn to impose selfrestraint.

Advertisers also are starting to become uneasy about the noise level of commercials. It is now generally concededalthough it was earlier deniedthat the engineers do turn up the sound level for commercials or use such tricks as volume compression to achieve the same effect. Advertising Age now is urging a less insistent, more discreet approach to the public and suggests that the noise level as well as the total volume of advertising may have to be controlled. Also encouraging to viewers is the fact that F.C.C. Chairman Henry has promised that the commission is going to establish and enforce standards for limiting the noise level of commercials. And the publicminded official spokesman for the broadcasters, Governor Leroy Collins, head of the National Association of Broadcasters, has said, "We are anxious to improve the quality and attractiveness of commercials." He has called for "elimination of advertising influence over programming."

The F.C.C. may soon act to reduce overcommercialization on the air in ways apart from control of noise level. It has long had an unwritten policy against overcommercialization but has never defined the term. But now, Chairman Henry told me, "I feel, and a majority of the commission feel, that some policy formulation is necessary and desirable. If we have a policy we should say what it is." F.C.C. policy should deal not only with the amount of time allowed for commercials but also the matter of timing them, so that they fall only at appropriate break points in the program.

Commercial TV is at its best in offering diversion, news, and spectacular special news events. As long as it must depend for revenue entirely upon advertising, it will probably be at its worst at meeting community needs, covering public affairs and cultural affairs, providing imaginative children's programs, and offering great theater.

If this is so, then, in the long run, what are the other kinds of television we may expect to see, and what, if any, hope do they offer in the areas where commercial TV is weakest?

CABLE TV

Cable TV began its growth humbly "in the sticks," to use one operator's phrase, as a means of expanding the horizon of commercial TV. But it has proved to have some most interesting potentialities, that may transform television in unforeseen ways. Today, cable TV is moving into the cities and is in more than a million homes. The television industry suddenly is learning that all sorts of possibilities open up when you think of broadcasting a television signal in conjunction with a network of cables or telephone lines running to the receiving sites. You can define precisely your audience. You can get instant responses back from your audience, whether you are seeking opinions on a particular program, or on political candidates, or on the viewer's willingness to purchase goods you are selling. And you can set up an electronic box office whether your screen is in a theater, a ball park, or a home.

Cable TV began as Community Antenna Television (CAT.). This is a system for helping people who live in valleys or in smaller communities beyond the range of bigcity television signals to enjoy the best of commercial TV. The C.A.T. operator erects a tower on a bill to catch the nearest network signals; and by a system of cables the signals are carried into the homes of, say, a thousand grateful C.AT. subscribers (who pay an average of four dollars a month). The C.A.T. idea has spread so that today there are more than a thousand C.AT. systems in fortyfive states. Pennsylvania alone has nearly two hundred systems. Furthermore, the operators are starting to tie their systems together by microwave links, and a potential network of more than a million set owners already exists.

Thus far the C.A.T. operators do not feel obliged to pay anyone for hitching onto bigcity signals, and they do not even need an F.C.C. license unless they get into microwave relay. One sour broadcasting official told me: "All you need to run a C,A.T. operation is to have one man with a truck and another man to haul the money to the bank." To date, the commercial broadcasters and sponsors have not seriously objected, because C.A.T. does expand their audience.

The potential customers for cable TV, it is now clear, are not confined to outlying areas. Large cities may be even more ideally suited for cable systems. In fact, the prototype of cable TV is the master antenna system present in most large apartment houses and hotels. Link up a few dozen master antennas and you have a network of tens of thousands of set owners available for a closed-circuit system. In New York City a company called Teleguide has hooked up thirtynine of the city's leading hotels in a closedcircuit broadcasting system by employing unused cable ducts. At present, its programming is primarily informational (theatrical news, weather, restaurants, news), and it is planning to expand into apartments and hospitals.

A further dimension of cable TV's potentialities can be seen if a thin, inexpensive, pulse-carrying wire is run into each subscriber's home. Then each viewer can, if he wishes, respond to queries. The C.A.T. entrepreneur most fascinated with this feedback possibility is Irving Kahn, president of TelePrompTer, which has 40,000 C.A.T. subscribers and can link up with 200,000 subscribers in other systems. He thinks he has got hold of "a merchandising revolution," something even better than the discount house, something that can reach into every town in America for instant selling. One of the nation's largest retailers, after inspecting Kahn's little red twobutton "yesno" box, reportedly observed, "You've got a new kind of shopping center."

Kahn's fertile mind envisions many selling uses. He sees the announcer on the TV screen holding up a kitchen gadget and saying, "Mother, if you'd like to own thin for four dollars, just hit the acceptance button and it's yours. You'll be billed later by American Express." Or he imagines Betty Furness demonstrating the wonders of a vacuum cleaner or a new model car and saying, "If you'd like a demonstration at your home tomorrow morning, just push button ---." With his little yeano box, Kahn feels that he can offer marketers a powerful selling medium - television - plus impulse buying at point of purchase, plus credit in the home, plus elimination of middlemen.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to a Seaside Town in Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In