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.

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."

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