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.
HOW GOOD ARE THE RATINGS?
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 EFFECTS OF COMMERCIALS
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.
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.
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 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.
Kahn and others have not overlooked the boxoffice possibilities of cable TV, and this possible extension of C.A.T. is what makes the commercial broadcasters most uneasy. In his role as an entrepreneur, Kahn has shown heavyweightchampionship fights, via a closed circuit of cable TV, on huge screens in theaters and stadiums; and on three occasions he arranged for simultaneous hookups with C.A.T. systems serving home set owners. In these instances, the home viewers were put on their honor to send in the price of admission, but there are now devices to record charges automatically for special events seen at home. A firm in Newark, in fact, has developed equipment to convert C.A.T. systems to a charge basis at a perinstallation cost of only ten dollars. A great many people are convinced that it is through a cable network of hundreds of thousands of C.A.T. and masterantennalinked homes that a third kind of television, charge TV, will come.
In the beginning, charge TV, also known as tollvision, payTV, tollTV, feevee, or subscription TV, was conceived in terms of putting coins in a slot in order to get a desired program on your television screen, and so the phrase "payTV" was then most precisely descriptive. Today most of the newer subscription systems operate on an electronically recorded chargeit basis, so that "charge TV" seems the most apt label.
In earlier days some form of charge TV was seen as the bright promise for television. It would permit the really discriminating set owners to enjoy the finest in ballet, opera, concerts, and top Broadway plays, as well as sports and firstrun movies, by paying for the privilege, and the enjoyment would not be spoiled by commercial intrusions. As charge TV comes closer to reality, it is clear that neither quality programming nor freedom from commercials can be taken for granted. Hardboiled showbiz types with an eye on the box office rather than idealists, now appear more likely to make the first big breakthrough.
Networks, advertising agencies, and movie exhibitors, with their allies in Congress, have made mighty efforts to strangle any variation of charge TV in its crib, but the F.C.C., after years of delay, authorized two tests and probably will authorize more. The first test, in Hartford, Connecticut (by ZenithKKO General's Phonevision), is an over-theair system without cables. A scrambled picture is broadcast, and subscribers have a decoder that unscrambles the picture and automatically records the tuning. The subscriber is billed monthly. Phonevision has more than 2500 subscribers and reportedly would have many more, except for technical difficulties that at one time included getting subscribers accustomed to using the decoder. To break even, the system will need about 25,000 subscribers.
Phonevision has produced such cultural highlights as the Bolshoi Ballet and prima donna Joan Sutherland accompanied by the London Symphony, but the mainstay of its programming has been current movies still showing in Hartford's neighborhood theaters. One reason that movies are favored is that they can be obtained relatively inexpensively. Most of the experimenters in charge TV are haunted by the fact that they are running a marginal operation. In starting with only a few thousand subscribers, the operators cannot afford to bring Broadway plays or other great cultural events without incurring a great loss. Only when a chargeTV broadcaster signs up more than 100,000 subscribers can the true potential of charge TV for quality programming receive a fair test. Although Phonevision is committed to the overtheair approach, one of its prime backers, RKO General, has made a large hedge it owns nineteen QA.T. systems with cables running into 29,000 homes.
The promoters of the second authorized test of charge TV, Teleglobe, in Denver, are relatively late starters, but they have a bold concept that cuts through most of the costs and complexities hampering the Hartford experiment. The Teleglobe people brashly ask, in effect, “Why worry about scrambling the picture or sending it over expensive coaxial cable? Let's broadcast the picture freely for everyone to see but without sound. The sound can be separated and sent into subscribers' homes over inexpensive telephone wire. The subscriber wishing to receive sound simply pushes a button.” Again, the tuning is recorded at a central office, and the subscriber is billed monthly. Teleglobe contends that its costs are only a fraction of those of other systems and it can start breaking even with 10,000 subscribers.
Its officials believe that broadcasting the video portion freely for all to see will, in fact, serve as a teaser in winning new subscribers. Only prizefights, they believe, offer any problem, since fights can be viewed satisfactorily without sound. A voice accompanying the typical silent program being shown will say, “If you would like to receive the sound accompanying this program, just call ---.” Teleglobe plans to run only one show daily, in prime evening hours. It is simply leasing a two-hour time segment from a regular commercialTV station. It hopes to offer firstrun movies, good plays, and outstanding nightclub acts. In the wings it has a chargeeducationalTV University of the Air program offering college courses for credit.
Another impressive entrant in the chargeTV race is the Home Entertainment Company of America in Los Angeles, which hopes to launch a cabled chargeTV system in Santa Monica, bordering Los Angeles, next year, and if all goes well, extend it into Los Angeles. It will bill monthly instead of using a cola box, and it plans to have the General Telephone Company lay out a vast coaxial cable system blanketing Santa Monica, so that when a homeowner asks to subscribe, wiring costs will be nominal.
Finally, there is the impresario, Irving Kahn of TelePrompTer, with his 40,000 C.A.T. subscribers already in being and with his dream of electronic merchandising, which can work on either cable or charge TV. To convert a C.A.T. home to charge TV for special events, all he needs to do is to install a lowvoltage line beside his existing coaxial system and put his Key TV control box in the home. He has already demonstrated in his closed-circuit showing of heavyweightchampionship fights that he can outbid Gillette, the richest of commercial TV's sports sponsors, for really big events. Kahn is thinking of charge TV only in terms of spectacles. He would offer just one every two weeks, or twentysix spectacles a year. These would include a movie of the month brandnew, of course; four or five of Broadway's very hottest plays, which he would run six months after their Broadway openings, so that their fame would already have spread to Kokomo; and perhaps a half dozen championship sports events.
Many would agree with television editor Richard Doan that most people are willing to pay only if the programs offered on charge TV are "dramatically better" than those available on a noncharge basis. It may develop that charge TV will become as ratingprone as commercial TV. There is an inherent pressure to seek shows that will attract the most listeners. ChargeTV operators have shown considerable interest in the fact that in one survey in Hartford three programs attracted these varying percentages of the system's total membership: PattersonListon fight, 85 percent; <i>What Ever Happened to Baby, Jane?</i> (movie), 66 percent; Bolshoi Ballet, 29 percent.
There is, unhappily, still no assurance that charge TV will not succumb to the temptation to accept a moderate number of commercials as one way to gain revenue and promise reduced costs to the subscriber. It is certain that if charge TV clearly establishes itself, advertisers will try to tap the precisely identifiable new markets it can offer. Teleglobe in Denver has emphatically vowed that it will never carry commercials. At least two other systems are following a waitand-see policy.
The fact that charge TV has started relatively slowly may be no indication of its explosive potentialities. Kahn recalls that in the beginning of commercial TV the number of set owners remained in the five thousand to ten thousand range for several years and then spurted to seven million in about five years. And soon there may be seventy million set owners. Let us assume that a chargeTV operator puts together a system with a mere three million subscribers. Such an audience on commercial TV would be far too small to interest either a national sponsor or network during prune time. But a chargeTV operator with three million subscribers would know from experience that he could attract a large enough primetime audience to make good money, even on Ibsen or Pablo Casals. Whether he would bother with programs for a minority audience is less clear.
The nighttime twin of educational TV, cultural TV, is often lumped erroneously under the unattractive "educational" label simply because its nonprofit stations carry instructions by day and because about 60 percent of the stations in this category are licensed by universities or schools. But the remaining 40 percent are independent nonprofit cultural organizations, licensed by their communities and supported by the public and by philanthropic organizations. Both these and the 60 percent licensed by educational institutions carry a general culturally rich schedule after school hours, but it is the communitylicensed stations that are generally doing the finest job in seeking to enrich as well as entertain.
Relatively indifferent to ratings, these stations see themselves as places where any citizen can come to fulfill an interest not met elsewhere. Such a station is a sort of combined auditorium, library, museum, and offBroadway playhouse dedicated to exciting innovation. Many have had to struggle along on ultrahigh frequencies, but starting next year, when all sets sold will be all-channel receivers, this will be less and less a handicap.
The fountainhead of much of the programming for cultural TV is NET the National Educational Television and Radio Center which considers itself to be a fourth national network. Already it has more than seventy affiliated stations, including outlets in all but three (Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Baltimore) of the nation's twenty-five largest metropolitan areas. It provides ten hours of taped programming a week to its affiliates, which are committed to provide a general cultural service for their communities after school hours. NET concentrates on classic drama, serious music and jazz, public affairs, science, children's programs, and outstanding personalities in the world of culture. It has no production center of its own but draws from independent producers, from the most energetically creative of its affiliates, and from overseas, where it arranges exchanges and co-production.
NET raises its $6 million operating costs partly by fees from affiliates, partly by gifts from corporations that underwrite programs in return for a simple printed credit, and largely from the Ford Foundation. This year NET will present six full symphony concerts by six major orchestras. Among the individual stations, those in Boston, San Francisco, New York Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Denver have been most prolific in originating rich cultural programming. In New York City about 7 percent of the programs listed in the New York Times are for the community-licensed station WNDT, yet in a sample week beginning June 2, I found that about 27 percent of all the programs selected for featuring in the same newspaper were from WNDTs schedule. And in the same week nearly a third of all programs listed as "Especially Worth Watching" in the New York Herald Tribune were from WNDT.
Across the country, cultural TV is now being seen at least once a week by a significant portion of all televisionset owners. In Boston, according to one survey, the community station WGBH reaches about 21 percent of all adults in its viewing area at least once a week. When the station burned down in 1962, more than 50,000 Bostonians contributed more than $1 million to its rebuilding fund. The same study, which covered eight cities, disclosed that the typical listeners of cultural TV tend to be above average in education and in serious reading habits as well as being above average in their participation in the community's civic and cultural life. One critic suggests that this indicates cultural TV is failing, since it does not appear to be lifting cultural levels by bringing a richer fare to the culturally underfed. Another way to look at cultural TV is that it is offering the minority of people who crave serious programming a place on the dial where they can usually find something stimulating. As the nation's educational explosion progresses, we may well see more and more millions of viewers seeking out or being educated up to the fare that cultural TV offers.
A curious, unexpected romance has been developing between commercial TV and cultural-educational TV. One explanation is that commercialTV broadcasters see cultural TV as a badly needed proving ground for developing talent and trying out ideas. Another, less charitable explanation is that commercial TV is encouraging cultural TV in order to undercut the competition it fears most, charge TV. A second uncharitable explanation is that commercial TV hopes that a thriving culturaleducational TV may take some of the heat out of demands that commercial TV program for all Americans and not just provide highly profitable diversion for the masses. But commercial TV does not want cultural TV to become too popular. At least, that is suggested as a reason for some of the financial support it has been giving cultural-educational TV. By such contributions, some suggest, it is seeking leverage to push cultural-educational TV into instructional and esoteric areas and away from anything approaching entertainment, even for sophisticate such as showing nowclassic Charlie Chaplin silent films.
This possible motivation was widely aired when NBC contributed $100,000 to help New York's WNDT through an early financial crisis. A howl went up that NBC was using its resources to push the dynamic new cultural station back into the hands of pedagogues. Jack Gould of the New York <i>Times</i> protested: "Cultural TV is much too important to be left to educational bureaucrats into whose hands much of the medium has fallen….Cultural TV should be a fountainhead of experimentation in all the arts and of bold ideas."
Many others are aware of the threat to cultural TV in being dominated by professional educators. John White, president of NET, contends that, while his kind of television has come a long way "from a procession of gray professors standing in front of gray drapes," his network's output is still in need of more "showmanship flair, style, creativity, originality." A director who moved from making documentaries for commercial TV to snaking them for cultural TV complained that if this new medium withered, it would not be so much for lack of money as from the oppressive effect of having to deal constantly with "content" committees that justify their existence by calling for regular reports.
Money is a problem, however. Most of the culturalTV operators, especially those licensed by communities, lead a Spartan, handtomouth fiscal existence and pay for their programming only a fraction of the price that commercial TV pays for a routine soap opera. Thus, while cultural TV seems the present best hope for quality television, it does not, because of the financial stringencies and the everpresent threat of pedagogical control, offer more than a qualified hope.
Our nation's approach to television clearly needs rethinking. Its potential influence on our lives is too great to be left solely to entrepreneurs and charitable foundations. A group of U.S. senators is sponsoring what seems to be a constructive proposal the creation of a national advisory commission for broadcasting, composed of distinguished citizens. It would report annually on the state of broadcasting. Its proposals would have no legal force, and so could not be denounced as government censorship; but such a citizens' group could have considerable impact in leading the nation toward a higher quality in broadcasting.
The creation of a governmentfinanced national television network is probably a political impossibility. But there are a number of intermediate possibilities that conceivably could win general support. A quasipublic authority might be established that would be dedicated to serving the public imaginatively, either by operating its own network a few hours a day or by preparing occasional shows of extraordinary merit to be broadcast by buying time from the commercial networks. Such an authority might easily be financed by raising the licensing fees charged to television broadcasters for the right to use the public's airways. Today the fee is nominal indeed $100 per station every three years. Many of these stations are worth tens of millions of dollars and enjoy fabulous profits by usual business standards. Some of them net five times their original investment each year. Thus, it would be no hardship to require them to pay a license fee ranging from $1000 to $10,000, based on their size no more than it costs to get a license to run a saloon in some states. A supplemental source of revenue might be a fee of a few dollars paid by the purchaser of each new television set.
The possible routes to a dramatic improvement in the quality of the nation's television fare are numerous. The present explosion of new developments and the ferment in the television field suggest that the time is appropriate for an intelligent assessment of where we can, and should, go.