Flashbacks July 2006

The Vox in the Box

Articles from 1937 to the present—by Vance Packard, Gilbert Seldes, James Fallows, and others—consider the proper role of television in American life.
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In early June, the House of Representatives approved a bill that makes it easier for telecom companies to compete with the cable industry in the video market. The new legislation encourages competition and drives down prices for consumers. But some worry that the bill may end up jeopardizing the Public, Educational, and Governmental television system, which was established to grant citizens practical access to the public airwaves. Up until now, these resources received funding from the cable companies, who had to pay franchise fees to local communities. But the new bill gives telecom companies national—rather than local—franchises, which frees them from any obligation to negotiate the needs of small public access stations.

Since the television's invention, the medium has been faced with countless such dilemmas. And from the outset, writers for The Atlantic have sought to help sort these matters out by considering such questions as how television should serve the community; how commercial interests should be balanced with noncommercial ones; and to what extent politics and government should play a role in regulation. How, in short, do we find the vox populi in the box populi?

Writing in 1937 during the early days of television, Gilbert Seldes attempted to save the new medium from what he identified as "the errors" of the radio and motion picture industries. He warned, for instance, against testing viewers' minimal attention spans. Seldes didn't condemn the commercial interests of television. Indeed, he even had helpful advice for advertisers. He suggested a subtle, psychological strategy of product placement, for example, rather than incessant, gnawing repetition of a product's name and recommending qualities. (After enough of the latter, he believed, the viewer would become indifferent. )

Perhaps because Seldes was writing during an era of strong national identity and solidarity, his article advocated for television programming that would be universally pleasing (like Disney fare) rather than shows tailored for specific audiences. He addressed the possibility of government use of television, but was wary in the face of contemporary world politics: "In Germany," he noted, "the whole business of television has disappeared from the public domain into the secret laboratories of the War Department." He contended that now—during television's "experimental" era—was the time to make suggestions; "Twenty years from now," he wrote, "will be much too late for complaints."

Despite Seldes' prediction, twenty years later television was still the subject of critique and revision. In the same year The Ed Sullivan Show and Alfred Hitchcock Presents premiered—an age of big network control—Leland Hazard, President of WQED, Pittsburgh's public television station, wrote an article called "Educational Television" to promote the advancement of the small, non-commercial stations popping up all over the nation. They didn't have Ed or Alfred at WQED, but they did have Don and Art, who taught "wood and metal working" on "Shop Talk," and (their biggest celebrity) parenting-expert Dr. Benjamin Spock. Hazard, proud of the difference their programming was making in the lives of students who tuned in to learn, was frustrated with the popular paradigm of what television was supposed to be and do:

There is the delusion that all television must be entertaining—as if all I.Q.s from 65 to 165 could be entertained alike...There is the delusion that education is not entertaining—as if the classes of the great teachers have not always been crowded...There is the delusion that every television audience must be large—as if an Arthur Miller play could attract at any one performance as large an audience as a World Series baseball game. This delusion springs from the natural desire of the advertiser. When he talks about his product, he wants the world to listen. Why not? But it does not necessarily follow that there should be no television programs at all unless they attract the masses.

Thanks in part to the emergence of cable (with as many as 71 channels on the dial!), television of the early 1960s was, wrote social critic Vance Packard in "New Kinds of Television: Where Do We Go From Here?" (October 1963), "in quite an upheaval." It was an era, he wrote, of "strange new forms of television," "a wider diversity of programming from which to choose and, hopefully, an improvement in what is available to the discerning viewer." These were the early promises of cable television—an alternative to the big, sanitized, universally appealing mainstream networks. Packard gave commercial television credit for what it did well ("diversion, news, and spectacular special new events"), but he wanted television to serve the kinds of discriminating niche audiences that were beginning to emerge. He argued that mainstream programming was no longer captivating enough for the growing market of savvy consumers. One "cause," he wrote, "of the creeping staleness of television and the dissatisfaction of discriminating viewers is the chronic intrusion of commercial considerations."

In Packard's assessment, "As long as [television] must depend for revenue entirely upon advertising, it will probably be at its worst at meeting community needs, covering public affairs and cultural affairs." He concluded by predicting the eventual emergence of Public, Educational and Government Access TV:

The creation of a government-financed national television network is probably a political impossibility. But there are a number of intermediate possibilities that conceivably could win general support. A quasi-public 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.

Now, four decades letter, the political and ideological debates surrounding television continue to percolate. As part of his 2003 profile of media magnate Rupert Murdoch, James Fallows reported on a congressional hearing about changes in legislation that would allow big media companies to get even bigger by loosening restrictions on mergers and takeovers. The two main characters in this piece were Citizen Murdoch and the Federal Communications Commission, which Fallows described as the governmental organization that awards broadcasters "licenses to make money." As for Rupert Murdoch, he embodied the "[the shift] back to the idea of journalism as principally a business." Fallows recalled a time when this was not always the case, when more altruistic principles were meant to guide television content:

Broadcasters are in the news business but have been treated like a public utility, with public responsibilities. The most famous words ever spoken by an FCC chairman were those of Newton Minow, who told the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961 that television programming amounted to "a vast wasteland." "I am here to uphold and protect the public interest," he said. "Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree."

Ironically, television has now moved so far from the public, educational, and governmental model that advertisements sometimes feature more "public interest" content than the programs themselves. Three months after Fallows' piece appeared, The Atlantic reported in "Primary Sources" that during the 2002 midterm election, "more than half of all local television broadcasts gave no coverage whatsoever to political campaigns." Eighty percent of the programs studied, on the other hand, "included at least one political advertisement."

Finally, in "The Massless Media" (January 2005), William Powers analyzed the splintered and increasingly partisan state of today's media. He wrote:

To sensibilities shaped by the past fifty years, the emerging media landscape seems not just chaotic but baleful. Common sense would suggest that as the vast village green of the broadcast era is chopped up into tiny plots, divisions in the culture will only multiply. If everyone tunes in to a different channel, and discourse happens only among like minds, is there any hope for social and political cohesion?

But instead of sympathizing with the nostalgic viewers gazing longingly back to the journalism-as-public-service days of Edward R. Murrow, Powers gazed back even further, to the days before television, when a multitude of print publications had to fight for their small and specific readerships. He explained that big television networks had initially developed as big bastion organizations rather than as a constellation of smaller entities simply because airspace and broadcasting licenses had been limited and expensive, and that, in the history of the American media, the "mass media" is in fact a new and anomalous concept.

Powers perceived in the current popular distrust of media a regeneration of democracy: "The public," he wrote, "has learned to think about the news the same way a good journalist would—that is, to doubt everything it's told."

Molly Finnegan is an intern for The Atlantic Online.
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