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.
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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.

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