The Television Business [Chapter 3].
[Note: Please see the 1996 Preface for an explanation of the unusual pagination.]
Copyright Notice: Copyright © 1972 by Bantam Books, Inc.; Copyright © 1996 by Nicholas Johnson. All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any medium known now or in the future. Provided, however, that permission is hereby granted to distribute this book under the following conditions: (1) that it is distributed in its entirety, including this copyright notice and 1996 Preface, (2) that no charge is exacted, or revenue received, directly or indirectly, by anyone in connection with the transfer, and (3) as a matter of courtesy and information, that the author be informed, simultaneously with the distribution, of any distribution to more than one person or posting for availability on the Internet, Web, or publicly available directory. Any other use requires the prior permission of the author: Nicholas Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org, postal: Box 1876, Iowa City IA 52244-1876, U.S.A.
# p. 32 #
Tell me, don’t you think daytime TV is pretty terrible?
-Richard M. Nixon
The monstrous evil of American advertising and its hold on the mass media shames us as a nation.
-George F. Kennan
The children ranged in age from three to twelve years. They exhibited symptoms typical of anxiety conditions: chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, headache, and vomiting . . . . The pediatricians discovered that the patients were spending an average of three to six hours in front of television screens on weekdays and six to ten hours on Saturdays and Sundays.
The parents were told to stop their children’s television viewing completely. In twelve of the thirty cases in which the instructions were fully followed, the symptoms vanished within two to three weeks.
-Robert L Shayon
“Look what they’ve done to my brain, ma
Look what they’ve done to my brain
Well they picked it like a chicken bone
and I think I’m half insane, ma
Look what they’ve done to my song.”
# p. 33 #
The Television Business [Chapter 3]
Of all the corporate influences in our lives, the corporate control of television is perhaps our nation’s greatest tragedy. When I speak of television I am talking about the television programming that most people watch: the prime-time evening programming of the three major networks. This is not to say that the daytime programming is any better. In general it’s worse. Nor is it to ignore the Public Broadcasting System, the networks’ early evening news, or the occasional hours of excellence. It’s just to say that television, for most Americans, means the networks’ evening series programs. When 60 percent of the people say they get most of their information from television, that’s the information they’re getting.
It is, of course, preposterous to suggest — or even suspect — that television is responsible for everything that’s wrong with America, or that it is the sole cause of any individual problem. We had social problems before we had television. We have made some progress of which we can be proud since the coming of television. But it would be equally shortsighted to ignore the findings in so many task-force reports and academic studies that link television, in greater or lesser degree, to virtually every national crisis.
Parents obviously have something to do with the capacity of their children to reach their potential as human beings — genetically and in their early environment. Television programming is not a child’s only influence. But the fact remains that it is a large one. The average child will have received more hours of instruction from television by the time he enters first grade than the number of hours he will later spend in college classrooms earning a bachelor’s degree. By the
# p. 34 #
Are we supposed to spend our futures grinning and watching TV all the time?
So they came to Jerusalem, and he went into the temple and began driving out those who bought and sold in the temple. He upset the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to use the temple court as a thoroughfare for carrying goods. Then he began to teach them, and said, “Does not Scripture say, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ cave.” The chief priests and the doctors of the law heard of this and sought some means of making away with him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came he went out of the city.
Every time I look into the holy book I wanna tremble. When I read about the part where a carpenter cleared the temple For the buyers and the sellers were no diff’rent fellas than what I profess to be. And it causes me pain to know I’m not the gal (guy) I should be.
Broadcasting stations should not be simply house organs grinding out the tune of big business interests which own them — and there is some evidence that this is a real danger today.
# p. 35 #
time he is a teen-ager, he will have spent 15-20,000 hours with the television set and have been exposed to 250-500,000 commercials. It would seem simple common sense to assume this exposure has its influence; in any event, hard-headed businessmen are willing to bet four billion dollars a year in radio and television advertising budgets on the proposition that it’s having an effect, so they are effectively estopped from arguing the contrary.
We are all vaguely aware that Big Television is allied with Big Business. But you may not be aware of the full reach of that alliance. The most influential broadcasting property — talent, programs, studios, network contracts, and stations — are actually owned by Big Business, lock, stock, and barrel. Each of the three networks is a major industrial conglomerate corporation. The time on the stations is purchased by Big Business — virtually all the available programming and advertising time on seventy-five hundred radio and television stations. The entire enterprise — programs as well as commercials — revolves around the consumer merchandisers who find the medium the most effective way to sell their wares. The top talent — let alone the executives — are paid salaries that place them well up in the ranks of America’s wealthiest businessmen.
There is very little that is programmed any time during the broadcast day that is in dissidence with this overall domination by Big Business. Procter and Gamble’s editorial policy provides that “There will be no material that may give offense, either directly or by inference, to any . . . commercial organization of any sort . . ..” The only exceptions are tokenism: an occasional news item (carefully kept out of prime
# p. 36 #
I am of the opinion that the United States is engaged in a controversial war in Southeast Asia, and that the country has other problems, too. I think people ought at least to think about these things, but I’ve noticed that the radio medium is a tremendous airy goofball, which anesthetizes everyone who listens. I’m curious about the motivation of the people whose 50,000-watt pump pours such crap into the already polluted air.
All of them [the television networks] have third rate news-gathering organizations. We are still basically dependent on the wire services. We have barely dipped our toe into investigative reporting.
In order to best serve the whole community, industry should be the voice of its intellectually and morally most advanced sector.
-Frank N. Stanton and Paul F. Lazarsfeld
When you transmit the human voice into the home, when you can make the home attuned to what is going on in the rest of the world, you have tapped a new source of influence, a new source of pleasure and entertainment and culture that the world thus far has not been able to provide with any other known means of communication.
-David Sarnoff, 1922
What I fear . . . is that by default American television is about to take . . . the road to trivialization . . . all in behalf of fifteen or twenty big sponsors.
# p. 37 #
time — network news is programmed as early as 5:00 P.M. in many sections of the country); or an even far rarer documentary. Even these programs are larded with commercial messages sold for as much as the networks can extract. History — the moon walk, election returns — is also “brought to you by” some commercial sponsor. Whatever the remaining benefits may be of news, documentaries, and live coverage, for those millions of American families whose television watching is limited to prime-time series shows, or soap operas during the day, Procter and Gamble’s policy reigns supreme.
When radio, and then television, started, they were almost universally heralded by those in the industry as possessed of the same potential that today’s “visionaries” see for them. Television was seen as an opportunity to extend the perception of the average American, to open for all the great excitement and education and self-fulfilling potential that can come from exposure to the best that man has to offer.
By now almost everyone, including those in the industry, would concede that television has failed. Not only has it failed to make of us a better race of men, it has actually made us worse than we were before. The former would be indictment enough. The latter is simply intolerable.
This national crisis has come about, in largest measure, because of our willingness to turn over our minds, and the instrument that “programs” them, to the exclusive control of commerce. What we are discovering is that the guys who are motivated to fill our sky with the smoke from their factories, and who urge us to fill our lungs with the smoke from their cigarettes,
# p. 38 #
I think television should be the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, and our Camelot. It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle. Once in a while it does, and you get a quick glimpse of its potential.
-E. B. White, 1967
[Television is] the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandising . . ..
Television is a pimp for big business.
We all understand that the public service aspects of television are somewhat exaggerated despite what they may claim because they have to be in it for the money, for the ads and so forth.
-Richard M. Nixon
When censorship is exercised at the format level no further censorship is required. It is not possible to write anything of burning importance on “Gomer Pyle” or “Green Acres.”
-George Clayton Johnson
# p. 39 #
have no more concern for our minds than they have for our bodies.
If all that one could say about television is that a small group of men are getting rich beyond their wildest dreams of avarice by failing to provide the public service that the law requires from the use of public property, the matter could be dealt with on those terms. Or if it were simply a question of separating a few fools from their money in exchange for products of questionable worth, we might write this off to the hazards of any foray into the marketplace. In fact, however, it’s much more serious.
There are substantial political and economic consequences that flow from the ignorance sustained and encouraged by television. When a friend of mine who is a black disc jockey was told by his first employer that he could not read the news over the station because, “You’re not going to educate the nigras of this community at my expense,” that was censorship with a political consequence. The same consequence flows just as surely today from the decisions of the networks’ programming vice presidents — whether or not that may be their conscious motivation.
But censorship — and its effect upon a democratic republic — is just the most obvious and easily understood of television’s influences on our lives. More pervasive and invidious is the anesthetizing effect and the subtle conditioning of television.