No business institution in our history has ever found itself under such unrelenting and ferocious attack as television. Criticism of the industry, though centered in what is generally called the middle-brow community, nevertheless cuts across all social, economic, political, and intellectual divisions, forming a kind of unprecedented cultural popular front. Yet it would also seem that never have so many said so much to so little avail. Even the great assault triggered by the quiz show scandal of 1959 failed to effect any significant reforms, and today the basic structure of the television industry is still what it was at the beginning, when Milton Berle, the wrestling matches, the roller derby, and some old Cornel Wilde movies were its chief assets. The goal the industry set for itself, to become the most pervasive (and persuasive) medium of mass communications in the history of the world, also remains the same. In fact, it could be argued that the goal has been achieved, putting the industry in a position of unassailable strength, from which it is easy to beat back all forms of criticism.
But whatever the case may be, in the last year most of television’s critics have fallen silent, apparently awed by the failure of their mass attacks. Desultory firing from their lines continues, but it is obvious that, temporarily at least, they are unable to mount a major new offensive. At the moment, their main tactic is to concentrate on propagandizing for educational television, hoping to make it a true alternative to the commercial variety, as FM broadcasting has become for a minority of serious radio listeners. Having succeeded in passing a law requiring that all new TV sets be equipped to receive ultrahigh frequency signals, many of which will be allotted to educational ventures, the crusaders for better television believe that in a decade these separate facilities may become technically equal to those now pre-empted by the forces of commerce. Yet by their own account, even this would not solve the problem, for these very critics also believe that commercial television has the power to warp and corrupt the citizenry, rendering them incapable of response to anything better than the pap they are being currently fed. Nor is this the only difficulty: there is also the question of where the money for programming that is truly competitive with the network product will come from. Even assuming—on the analogy of little magazines—that enough money could be raised by some combination of subsidy and direct consumer support through pay TV, is there anything in the record so far compiled by the educational broadcasters to indicate that they would be able to use good facilities effectively? They so far have demonstrated little beyond a most annoyingly superior attitude toward their viewers, to which the general quality of their programs does not entitle them.
The inability of the critics to answer such questions leads one to suspect that there is something wrong with the premises on which their proposals and wishes have been based. The only way out of the impasse, therefore, is to examine these premises with a view toward arriving at a new and possibly much more fruitful approach.
The first of these premises concerns the nature of television as an economic institution. Because the airwaves are in the hands of entrepreneurs whose overriding consideration is profit, the liberal critics of the industry have tried to represent its sins as no less subject to remedy by legislative and judicial means than any other case of malfeasance by big economic institutions. Now, it is indisputably true that considerations of the market place bear a huge share of the responsibility for television’s intellectual poverty as well as its lack of artistic or even journalistic daring. But the trouble is that these sins are different in kind from, say, rate-gouging by a railroad. In the absence of a genuine consensus about criteria of judgment, on what legitimate basis could a body be set up to rule on the industry’s performance? Even if it were possible to secure public agreement on criteria applying to art, education, or persuasive discourse, how could we be sure that the right people would be there to interpret these criteria? Would the likes of J. Donald Adams do better for us than J. Walter Thompson has done? In any event, television is so new and so revolutionary a medium that it defies the traditional categories. So far as we can tell from its intrinsic technological character and from the kind of appeal it exerts at its best, television is not equipped to satisfy the demands its critics have made of it. Thus, in addition to misinterpreting the nature of television as an economic institution, they have also misinterpreted it as a medium of information and entertainment.
Before going on to examine the inadequacies of the political approach to improving television (stemming from a mistaken conception of the social character of the industry), and the general wrong-headedness of such criticism as we have had of television’s actual performance (stemming from a mistaken conception of the aesthetic character of the medium), it may be useful to speculate on why the crusaders have failed so dismally to formulate the problem in an accurate way. The answer, I think, is that, for a variety of reasons, television has become the focus of a large fund of reformist passion which has been unable to find any other outlet in recent years. As a peculiarly exposed aspect of the free enterprise system, television has drawn the fire of those elements of the liberal community who nostalgically long for the old, obvious, easy-to-attack capitalism. Business, having created a consumer economy which has had the effect of placing the masses under opiates, and having retreated behind a screen of adroit public relations, is nowadays hard to get at, at least in any exciting fashion. Television is easy to get at, and has therefore been burdened with all the sins of the economy in general—while the economic system itself, thanks to the existence of this diversionary target, has ironically been left largely uncriticized.
This effort to pin everything that is wrong with the quality of our society on television is especially evident in the way critics have tried to convert the entire medium into a vast social problem, susceptible to reform through public agitation leading ultimately to legislation. Television has been blamed for juvenile delinquency on the one hand, and the debasement of cultural standards on the other; for failing to create a truly enlightened electorate on the one hand, and for causing the corruption of the citizenry on the other. Actually, however, there is no proof that television presents, even in small, specific ways, threats to the health of the body politic of the type that can be ameliorated by social reform. Take the matter of its effect on children. The best study of this problem is Television in the Lives of Our Children, by Wilbur Schramm, Jack Lyle, and Edwin B. Parker.1 It states:
For some children, under some conditions, some television is harmful. For other children under the same conditions, or for the same children under other conditions, it may be beneficial. For most children, under most conditions, most television is probably neither particularly harmful nor particularly beneficial. [Italics theirs.]
It would be difficult to draw up any very meaningful legislation on the basis of such a finding. Proof of problem being lacking here, as in other areas, the reformer’s chief psychological weapon, a clear-cut, urgent need, is denied to the advocates of political palliatives. Worse, since the only possible answer to such complaints as lack of balanced programming or an overabundance of violence is some form of government control or censorship, the networks are given, without cost or obligation, an enviable position—that of defending the constitutional guarantee of free expression. Here again, problems which are the responsibility of the system of society are pinned on the relatively frail body of television, which not only diverts attention from the main causes, but also serves ironically to buttress the industry’s means of self-defense.
But perhaps the most serious consequence of burdening television with misplaced political passions is that it leaves us without the stimulus to build a criticism which could work toward the establishment of aesthetic, informational, and educational standards uniquely applicable to television. This means a criticism which would be alive to the possibilities of the medium in its own right rather than one that makes do with standards borrowed from other media. As the situation now stands, even those sponsors who wish to do something better than the average are discouraged from attempting programs that would challenge television as television. They are possessed by the certain knowledge that they will be automatically attacked or patronized for working within forms that have no prestige, and just as automatically praised for resting content with something that has achieved cultural cachet elsewhere.
Because its critics have turned to politics in the hope of reforming television, the industry has been balancing for a decade on that corruption-reform-corruption-reform seesaw that has been so familiar a feature of American history. The pattern is clear; once a year the networks head for Washington where, in one hearing room or another, the executives haul out charts that prove conclusively that 98 per cent of their time is spent in programming works of a culturally uplifting nature. Thereupon, a headline-seeking Congressman complains about a show he saw last week in which a cowboy was stomped to death. The TV executives counter with an oration in defense of free speech. And from the sidelines comes a chorus of dark warnings that the networks had better shape up or else.
Or else what? There is no body in the United States capable of regulating television. In past years it was an open secret that some members of the Federal Communications Commission were in cahoots with the owners of a number of local stations, whose licenses they had the power to revoke, or to whom they could refuse licenses for future broadcasting acquisitions. Commissioners and owners engaged in various little rituals, designed to reassure both themselves and the public that the outward semblance of regulation was being maintained. But in truth even if corruption had not been present, it would have been impossible for the FCC to “regulate” broadcasting in any significant way. Like most of the federal regulatory commissions, it is habitually kept on short rations by Congress. Its few monitoring facilities are busy making sure that the signal of one station does not “drift” and thus interfere with another station. Even now, with corruption ended under the chairmanship of Newton Minow, the FCC lacks the resources to indulge in much random sampling of station performance; it confines itself mainly to acting on complaints, of which a fairly high number is required to bring about investigation of a station.
Yet even if the FCC were given an astronomical budget, it would be powerless to do anything about the networks, for the simple reason that the legislation under which it operates (passed in 1927 and revised in 1934) deals only with stations and is silent on network regulation. Unlicensed, the networks operate with no threat of revocation hanging over them. Thus, though the FCC provides a good forum from which Mr. Minow can chide and cajole the networks, he has no real authority over them. And neither he nor his predecessors have been able to obtain such authority from Congress. Which is, of course, why no network has ever been caught trying to bribe a commissioner. It would be a waste of time. All they have to do is be polite when the occasion demands.
Most of their politeness is thus naturally aimed at Congress, which has the power to give the FCC more power, or simply to direct specific legislation against specific abuses of the public’s airwaves. It is when the corruption end of the seesaw dips most deeply that the Congressmen start bouncing up and down on the reform end, and it is then that network, advertising, and sponsor executives jostle one another most rudely in order to get at the hearing-room microphones to cry “mea culpa—and you too.” Following such displays, the industry cheaply assuages both Congressional and public opinion by passing pious codes of good practice, assuring everyone that it is policing itself to a new shade of whiter-white, and even going to the trouble of cutting out the most violent violence and creating new shows for children and new public affairs programs. All these efforts are directed to only one end—the preservation of the present, non-regulated, status quo for the networks. Thus far, they have succeeded, and this season even Time (which for solid, economically determined reasons has been a steady and implacable critic of television) admitted that “the networks have largely removed from the weekly shows the only really objectionable elements they once displayed—miscellaneous sodomists, dope-addicted teen-agers . . . and so on.” Reform having been accomplished, Time was ready to make a separate peace. “For critics of television,” it said, “the time has come to lower the general standard. . . . TV fills too much time to be extraordinarily worthwhile in any but a small part of it, and this will never change.”
This, however, says more about the limitations of reform politics in dealing with the problem of television than it does about the problem itself. Time states blandly that the current TV season reminds it of “a great bowl of mentholated cornflakes . . . but most of the corn is healthy, the humor and situations are pugnaciously wholesome. . . . The new material is pretty fair; and if some of it is just no good, it is at least not bad.”
It is just here that we reach the nub of the inadequacies of the political reformist approach to television. Having concentrated on solving what he sees only as a social problem, the political reformer completely ignores the question of how excellence can be achieved within the special limitations, and through exploiting the special virtues, of the medium. Thanks to public pressure, what were widely regarded as the industry’s most egregious errors of commission have been eliminated, and even some of the sins of omission seem on the way to being rectified. But the quality of a good deal of network television remains the same: it is mostly boring and silly, beneath the attention of a reasonably cultivated citizen, even one who is only in search of good entertainment rather than enlightenment. On this point the political reformer has nothing to say.
More surprisingly, however, the aesthetic reformers have had almost as little to say. Because they have refused to consider realistically what television can do and what it cannot, they have vacillated between asking for the impossible and accepting that which need not be. But in order to define the limits and therefore the possibilities of television, we must first examine the nature of its relation to its audience, the cultural tradition of which it is a part, and then the technical nature of the machine itself.
Nearly every survey indicates that the average viewer is convinced he would like to see more good drama and music, more public affairs and information shows on television. They also indicate that he could do without quite so many Western, crime, and comedy shows. But this profession of cultural aspiration is really only for the benefit of the interviewers. For there is another set of surveys which show that the average man is not taking advantage even of the “serious” programs now being offered.
This contradictory portrait of the viewer appears to lend substance to the flimsy argument of television’s apologists, which is that they are only giving the public what it wants and that the moment the public indicates that it wants something different, the industry will immediately respond. But, of course, those who control television are not at all giving the public what it wants. It wants culture. What they are actually giving it is what it compulsively needs. And what it needs is often in conflict with its cultural aspirations.
Here it might be well to return briefly to Schramm, et al. Children, they say, are not passive victims in their relation to television. “It is children who are most active in this relationship. . . . It is they who use television, rather than television that uses them. . . . A child comes to television seeking to satisfy some need. He finds something there, and uses it.” What is true of the children also seems to be true of adults: this is a visceral medium before which we are all children. In one way or another, both the great bulk of television’s routine programming and the particular types of consumer items that are advertised to support this programming offer ease for certain common anxieties. Chief among these items are male and female cosmetics (to enhance desirability); deodorants, mouth wash, and tooth paste (to insure that love will not be withheld for irrelevant reasons); cleaning preparations for the home (which, as an extension of the self, must also seem desirable, if not exactly lovable); all sorts of patent medicines (to avoid going around feeling lousy on top of everything else); cigarettes and beer (the poor man’s tranquilizers, the best defenses against generalized anxiety). The products which serve basic physical needs—food (as opposed to breakfast cereals), clothing, shelter elements, forms of transportation other than autos (which have such heavy psychic overtones that they are well sold on television)—are rarely mentioned on what are ironically termed the “bread-and-butter” shows. These products are advertised, if at all, on well-publicized specials. Television, in short, is essentially the medium of the marginally affluent, those who want nirvana as much as anyone else but who can afford only such temporary and perhaps silly palliatives as can be purchased for fifty cents at the corner drugstore. The mink coat and Cadillac crowd is more effectively reached through selective media (see any issue of the New Yorker). TV seems to work best on those who can pay “a few pennies more” for the “new improved formula.” And it works best by appealing to their anxieties and offering accessible remedies.
Similar things can be said of program content. Like radio and film before it, television is the heir of a tradition of escapist fantasy (of the idyllic, romantic, and violent varieties) which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, was banished from high culture a hundred years ago and which irrepressibly found its way into popular literature, and thence into the media of electrical transmission. Quite apart from the inherent technical limitations of television, one must recognize that this tradition will shape the future character of the medium more than any number of speeches Newton Minow can hope to deliver. But one must also recognize that the road to improvement is to understand that the tradition itself has value (beyond its demonstrably universal appeal), that a surprising amount of good work is done within it even now, and that better things can be done within it if the will to do them is present.
None of this, of course, is to deny that some of television’s current difficulties are due to the careless melding of the techniques of film to the economic structure and programming pattern of radio. Radio required no settings, its special effects (including crowds) could be created by a single sound-effects man, its actors needed little rehearsal (and only a small, very special, skill) in order to be effective. Even its writers, aided as they were by the imaginations of their listeners, found it possible to grind out an acceptable script a week for a continuing series. All in all, it was an ideal medium for providing a great quantity of mass entertainment cheaply, regularly, reliably. Movies, on the other hand, required time and money to produce well, for the visual realization even of the tritest, most familiar kind of popular entertainment is extremely difficult and expensive. At most, Hollywood working at full capacity could only turn out 500 hours of entertainment a year. A single television network must program at least a hundred hours a week of entertainment, with the cost of getting the product before the consumer infinitely higher than the cost of distributing films. The point is obvious: the average quality of performance on television has to be lower than the average quality of either radio or films. This is the price the consumer must pay for demanding, in effect, feature films on a radio-like schedule. The only solution to this problem would be to limit the hours allowed for broadcasting, or—more feasibly—to flip the tuning dial, which, indeed, the advertising people, trying desperately to use an unselective medium selectively, would like us to do. They try to relate program content to product advertised, and they really do not want the “CBS Reports” crowd listening in on “Stony Burke,” for such confusions of audience do neither program nor product any good. Alas, there is simply no way of preventing people like Marya Mannes from watching something that was not meant for their selective eyes.
To return, however, to the deeper problem—the cultural tradition of which television is the heir—it seems clear that much of the fury against the medium derives from a deep-seated bias against the tradition itself. The notion that objective reality is more interesting, more “useful,” more uplifting, than idle fancy remains powerful in this still puritanical society of ours, with its fear of the dark psychological forces within and its insistence on confusing seriousness with solemnity, lightness with frivolity, and escapism with moral shirking. This complex of attitudes has done much to inhibit the emergence of a body of television criticism that would leave generalized dismissals to professional moralists and concentrate instead on discriminating intelligently between a good episode of “Ben Casey” and a bad one, and on paying attention to where the differences lie. Such a criticism would see, for example, that the trouble with the domestic comedies featured on television is not that they appeal to nostalgia in presenting an idyllic image of a vanished style of life; it is that on the whole they are produced by people who have not been encouraged to develop enough respect for the kind of thing they are doing to do it really well. So too with the fantasy of the Western or detective hero who retains the ability to mold reality to his own liking, or with those other fantasies of violence that appeal to a basic type of impulse which gets little play in our civilization. Those who work in television and those who would like to raise its standards, would do well to ponder the words of the English social critic, Richard Hoggart:
The best light shows live in the same world as genuinely intellectual or deeply imaginative works. The worst light shows belong to the same phony world as gimmicky cultural programs. Their error is not that they are either too coarse or too demanding; it is that they are empty.
Hoggart’s point of view opens the way to a revision of the critical standards that can relevantly be applied to television. To further the task of revision, we can also draw on the following words of the psychologist Rudolf Arnheim:
The senses are useful when their contribution is not overestimated. In the culture we happen to live in, they teach us relatively little. The world of our century is a poor actor: it does show its variegated outside, but its true nature is not immediately apparent either to the eyes or the ears.
Television is obviously a sensory medium. Therefore, if Arnheim is right, it can never be used for truly great teaching, for truly deep artistic expression, for a truly profound analysis of the human condition. Its natural gift is for whatever can be immediately sensed and quickly apprehended—and in small dimensions at that. To quote Fred W. Friendly of CBS, who uses the medium about as well, and as seriously, as anyone has yet managed to do: “What television does best is to transport you, the viewer, to a place, a person. Television is, after all, a small black box which is not suitable for the presentation of the big, panoramic view.”
Here television’s brief, self-admitted foray into the world of art is instructive. This occurred in the early 50’s, on the weekly hour and hour-and-a-half live drama shows. At an FCC hearing about eighteen months ago, spokesman after spokesman came forward to claim that this was television’s finest hour, cruelly ended by the unfeeling commercial interests. “In that time, all unknown to me,” commented Warren Miller, who covered the hearing, “Robert Alan Arthur was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel one night a week from nine to ten; and while my back was turned, Beaumont and Fletcher (Paddy Chayefsky and Tad Mosel) were ushering in a new Elizabethan Age.” The truth, as Miller was implying, is that these plays were merely pretty good little dramas about pretty good little people. Yet they were not small through lack of ambition. They were small because the medium itself—flickering amidst the chronic distractions of the American home, where it cannot force attention as both occasion and architecture do in the theater—can digest nothing larger. The live shows, moreover, were no better as literature, and slightly worse as vehicles for actors and directors (live production presents terrible burdens, greater than necessary limits of movement and scope) than the filmed dramas made in Hollywood which have more recently replaced them. The vision of life embodied in “The Dick Powell Show” or “Premiere” or “Ben Casey” or “Dr. Kildare” or “The Defenders” is just as expansive, just as true, and just as false as the vision expressed in the plays of Chayefsky, Serling, and the rest.
But what about educational television? The answer would seem to be that it must contend with the same technical limitations as the best intentioned commercial broadcasters. Informative as discussion programs sometimes are, they appeal mainly to the ear, and unless the educational broadcasters can give the eye some more pleasing prospect than a speaker’s face to gaze upon, they might as well be doing radio. But the dilemma is that visual stimulation—achieved principally through photographing motion, or keeping the camera moving while it studies a still object, or by editing—is fundamentally at odds with the desire to discuss a subject with real seriousness. And in any case, educational TV in its discussion programs and documentaries has so far merely imitated the techniques of the networks—usually with less professional skill, and in an area where the need for its services is not altogether pressing. I conducted a survey of the news, documentary, and public affairs programming of New York’s three network outlets one week last fall. Between the hours of 6 P.M. and 11 P.M., Sunday to Saturday, these stations had 105 hours of time available to them. The possibility that some of their entertainment programming must have had some slight educational significance (“The Defenders,” for instance, was doing a very serious dramatic examination of the McNaughton rules as the legal definition of insanity) was not admitted. I found that these stations devoted nineteen and three-quarter hours to programs very like those appearing on the city’s educational channel, and most of them were better shows. In other words, the commercial channels were devoting almost 20 per cent of their prime time to educational television, which seems a reasonable proportion to spend on uplift and information. Beyond widening the number of choices available at a given hour to the serious viewer, then, educational television mainly duplicates a service already being performed without noticeably improving the quality of that service. (New Yorkers were not lacking for the glorious opportunity to see Max Lerner or John Ciardi or the ubiquitous Miss Mannes on television before channel 13 was turned over to the educational broadcasts.)
We are thus brought back once again to the need for a serious exploration of the existing possibilities of television. One would like to see the educational stations spend less time discussing the other arts and more time experimenting with the potentialities of their own medium. The fact that educational TV is an economically deprived area means that whatever experiments it can undertake will have to be very modest—though the discovery of inexpensive new production forms is an extremely worthy goal. What is lacking so far is merely an acceptance of the truth about the nature of television and the imagination to push firmly and steadily against the natural barriers of the medium.
As for the commercial broadcasters, they have had the time and the money to do so, but they have not seen fit to use them. In this they resemble Hollywood and radio, neither of which devoted any of the immense profits of the fat years to experimenting with the medium, testing its true dimensions or trying to discover through trial and error what the practical possibilities for new achievement might be. Now neither Hollywood nor radio has the wherewithal to do so, and we will perhaps never know what they might have done if they had only been willing to try.
The television industry has an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of its ancestor forms. All the commercial broadcasters need to do is to devote just a tiny fraction of their profits—as much, say, as they spend on improving their mechanical equipment, or as much as they spend on lobbying in Washington, or on corporate public relations—to the enterprise of experimenting with the medium toward the end of acquiring a practical knowledge of its basic structural strengths and weaknesses. Just offhand, one can think of a number of matters to which attention might be immediately directed. Given the fact that the editing techniques of many commercials are far more sophisticated than those employed on the programs they support, the industry could experiment with the use of such techniques as dramatic tools. There have also been great technical advances in films and cameras, allowing films to be shot using only available light and giving rise to the hope for new, naturalistic dimensions for the documentary. So far, television’s efforts to discover the most effective way of exploiting this new potential have been amateurish and disorganized visually and dramatically. The interesting work the late Ernie Kovacs was doing, blending abstract visual techniques to, of all things, the comedy-variety format, has been scarcely mentioned by the critics, let alone developed further by the networks. Yet his shows were utterly original and uniquely designed to fit the special requirements of television.
The public relations gain that would accrue to the industry from a program investigating these and hundreds of other possibilities for better broadcasting within the established economic and technical setup is as obvious as the gain in excellence that would accrue to broadcasting itself. To quote Friendly again:
We have got to find ideas that are worthy of the tools that have been made available to us. We are in the same position as the government is: we are in danger of having our weaponry get ahead of our ideas. On one of our shows. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer said, “occasionally you find a man who knows two things, and that intersection may be a great event in the history of ideas.” Television is like that man. It is a great technical idea. As soon as that idea intersects with other ideas worthy of it, why, it will be a great event.
Given the present state of misunderstanding about television, this intersection may never occur. On the other hand, there is some hope to be found in the fact that younger people tend to have a cooler and more realistic attitude toward television than their elders. Roughly speaking, nearly everyone born after 1930 seems able to keep his feelings about it within bounds. These people were born into the communications revolution, they grew up with it, and they show little inclination to regard television with moral and political passions that more properly belong to the causes of things than to their symptoms. In time the attitudes of this generation are bound to become the dominant ones, and when they do, it seems likely that the discussion of television will become more fruitful.
To take a still longer view, we need only note that America, too, is in the midst of a revolution of rising expectations. Here it is a cultural revolution, and even allowing for the phoniness of statistics comparing the number of concert-goers to the number of baseball fans, this revolution really seems to be going forward. Eventually it may go far enough to turn the cultural aspirations of the mass audience into genuine needs, and if that ever happens, television will surely respond—business being business. This would not necessarily lead to a renaissance; perhaps one set of fantasies would only be exchanged for another, and perhaps the new set will be less honest or desirable. But some change there is bound to be.
While waiting for it, it is well to remember that forced change is almost always bad, and that in the case of television it would literally require brainwashing on a vast scale to alter the nature of the audience’s relationship to the machine. But this is at least as fanciful a prospect as the notion that the government will, in the foreseeable future, nationalize the airwaves, or even set up an American equivalent to the BBC, to act as a measuring stick for the commercial broadcasters. This will never happen, and those who insist that television is a social problem subject to amelioration on such a basis might just as well give up that fantasy before calling on the great public to abandon theirs. Meanwhile, there is much that can be done within the system if misplaced expectations, snobbery about whole genres of expression, and cultural puritanism are not allowed to continue to block the way.
1 Stanford University Press, 324 pp., $6.00.