The Broadcast Media
Of all the major inventions of the twentieth century, few have had a more profound impact on people's lives than radio and television. By 1933, two-thirds of American homes had at least one radio, twice as many as those with telephones. Forty-five years later, 97 percent of all households had at least one television set. But the numbers cannot convey the contradictory roles that broadcasting has played in American society as it has reshaped the country's politics, economy, and culture.
The broadcast media have allowed Americans to listen to and watch candidates for public office in order to decide for themselves who merits their support. But television has also trivialized politics, overemphasizing appearance and style while too often serving as gatekeeper for the flow of information about the political process. Radio and television have exposed Americans to an unprecedented amount of news and information. But they have also promoted anti-intellectualism and elevated mindless entertainment over the pursuit of knowledge. Broadcasting provides free entertainment in the home, which is often a godsend for the ill, the confined, parents of small children, and those simply exhausted after a day's work. But in exchange, the audience has become a commodity sold to advertisers, who in turn try to persuade everyone, including children, to buy their products. Radio and television, then, have both expanded and narrowed people's horizons. But as we review their enormous impact on American life, we should keep in mind that they are not a sort of hypodermic needle, injecting an unsuspecting culture with alien messages. They are the product of American history, having themselves been shaped by the trends and events of the twentieth century.
When Guglielmo Marconi, the Irish-Italian inventor, came to the United States in 1899 to demonstrate how his wireless telegraph might expedite press coverage of the America's Cup races, the concept of broadcasting had not entered his mind at all. He thought his device, which sent Morse code messages without connecting wires, would be useful for corporate clients who needed a rapid, mobile communications system. His American competitors, however, sought to expand the invention's applications and to use it to transmit music and voice. On Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fessenden, who developed the first sophisticated radio transmitter, the high-frequency alternator, sent out a program of music and speech. Lee de Forest, inventor of the radio tube, attempted to broadcast synthesized music and opera in New York City between 1907 and 1909. By the next decade, amateur operators were broadcasting speech, music, and coded messages in dozens of cities. This activity, interrupted by World War I, resumed in the early 1920s, and the radio boom began. The number of broadcasting stations soared, from 30 in 1922 to 556 in 1923, and by the next year, the number of homes with radios had tripled. This explosion produced chaos in the airwaves, and broadcasters wrestled with how to avoid interference and how to pay for programming.
The solutions to these problems established commercial and regulatory precedents that determined how broadcasting would be managed. Owners of radio stations, seeking to reduce competition and maximize profits, organized stations into networks to broadcast the same show at the same time. And they began experimenting with on-air advertising as a way to finance programming. Radio advertising was, in the 1920s, only one of several proposals for financing radio, and it was controversial. Critics felt that sending ads over the airwaves constituted an invasion of privacy, sabotaging people's ability to keep the marketplace out of the home. So sponsors who wanted to sell their products over radio began with “indirect advertising.” The merits of a product, its price, or where it could be purchased were not mentioned. Instead, singing groups, comedians, or bands assumed the name of the sponsor, giving rise to such radio celebrities as the Cliquot Club Eskimos and the A&P Gypsies. Because corporate sponsorship provided money to increase the quality and variety of programming, companies found they generated goodwill with listeners, and resistance to advertising (although not resentment of it) gradually broke down. During the depression, as advertisers gained more financial clout, direct sales pitches became the norm.
What made radio so attractive to advertisers was the formation of networks: NBC (National Broadcasting Company, 1926), CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System, 1927), and MBS (Mutual Broadcasting System, 1934) offered advertisers instant access to a national audience. Thus, networks and advertisers helped accelerate and consolidate the emergence of a highly profitable national market for products.
Yet advertisers, in the early 1930s, knew almost nothing about this vast audience. Who listened to what, and when? Why might they buy one product over another? And which ads were the most effective? To answer such questions, audience research became an important component of the broadcasting industry. Ever since the mid-1930s, advertisers have relied on ratings of shows and demographic breakdowns of audiences to decide which programs to sponsor. Thus began the analysis and packaging of the public as audiences for sale to advertisers, who exerted increasing influence over the content and form of the shows they supported.
With radio relying on a limited natural resource, the electromagnetic spectrum, various interests pressed for government regulation. The Radio Act of 1912 had initiated the licensing of stations and introduced a crude allocation of wavelengths. The law was revised and expanded in 1927 and revamped again in 1934, when the Federal Communications Commission FCC was established. Fearing that a radio czar would have too much power, Congress established a commission of seven to consider license applications and renewals. Licensees had to demonstrate, every three years, that they were serving the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity.” The FCC periodically investigated charges of monopoly, and though it did not have censorship powers, it issued guidelines on obscenity, fraudulent and excessive advertising, and other controversial issues. To reduce interference and improve the quality of reception, the government allocated most of the spectrum, and certainly its preferred portions, to those with the most powerful and sophisticated transmitting equipment. This approach, begun in 1927, automatically gave preference to business interests and discriminated against the poorer educational stations, whose numbers dropped from ninety-eight in 1927 to forty-three in 1933, and continued to decline.
By the late 1930s, radio was woven into the fabric of American life. Public events, from political rallies to sporting events and vaudeville routines, were now enjoyed by millions in private. And, increasingly, Americans got their news from radio, especially news of the expanding war in Europe. The immediacy and drama of the war news tied people more intimately to unfolding events; it also, apparently, put some on edge. When Orson Welles broadcast his “War of the Worlds” on Halloween, 1938, he had no inkling that the mock terror of the play would resonate with a real terror of invasion among some listeners, prompting them to clog highways as they sought to flee the Martians.
The war also catapulted broadcast journalism into a powerful, and often superior, competitor to the newspaper. Edward R. Murrow, whose wartime broadcasts from London established a new level of eloquence and courage in radio newscasting, brought the war into people's living rooms. So did Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, and Charles Collingwood, among others.
Although experimentation with television broadcasting began in the late 1920s, technical difficulties, corporate competition, and World War II postponed its introduction to the public until 1946. Television constituted a revolutionary change from radio, but its introduction was not as chaotic as that of radio, for an institutional framework already existed. The television boom occurred between 1949, when 940,000 households had a set, and 1953, when the number soared to 20 million.
The rapid integration of television into American life coincided with the explosive rise of a consumer culture after the war. Pent-up demand fueled by the privations of the depression and the war, coupled with prosperity, was exploited by advertisers who turned to television to sell their products. In the early 1950s, many corporations produced and sponsored entire shows, and ads were at least one minute in length. But as programming became more expensive, and advertisers discovered that thirty-second spots were as effective as longer ones, shows were sponsored by several products, increasing dramatically the sheer number of commercials. As the pace and intensity of advertising increased, the images on television became more homogenized, portraying in such programs as "Leave It to Beaver" and "Bonanza" idealized white middle-class families and norms. Advertisers' desires to appeal to the broadest possible audience, coupled with an atmosphere of conformity fueled by McCarthyism, blacklisting, and cold war paranoia, made programmers extremely cautious, and they pandered to the lowest common denominator. Television excluded diversity and elevated consumerism into a national obsession.
Yet the voices of those ignored or betrayed broke through on television in the 1960s, primarily on the nightly news. The often horrifying footage of the civil rights movement, followed by John F. Kennedy's assassination, brought a new primacy to network news, which expanded from fifteen-minute to half-hour broadcasts in 1963. Soon television was bringing the Vietnam War, antiwar demonstrations, and the women's movement into the nation's homes. Television in the 1960s was an agent both of conformity and of rebellion, providing some images that unified America and others that reflected, and sometimes exacerbated, the country's deep racial, class, and gender divisions.
Television has had both a salubrious and a corrupting effect on politics. Congressional investigations from the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 to Watergate in 1973 and the Iran-Contra hearings in 1988 exposed the wrongdoings of government officials. But politicians also learned to be cautious and calculating in their use of television. They emphasized appearances, exploited visual symbols, and stage-managed the news whenever possible. Television journalists, dependent on highly placed sources and government handouts, were not inclined to challenge official versions of reality. Network news executives, increasingly drawn from the ranks of the business community rather than from journalism, believed that the public did not want analyses of complex issues but simply entertainment. The symbiotic relationship between politicians and television journalists led to an emphasis on style over substance in the coverage of presidential campaigns so that, in 1988, the Pledge of Allegiance was a major campaign topic while the nation's huge deficit was virtually ignored.
Because television brings images, as well as sound, into the home, it has been more criticized than radio for squandering its potential to educate and inform. Newton Minow, the FCC chairman in 1961, called television “a vast wasteland.” Others worried about the levels of violence in programming and its effects on children. Spurred by such criticisms, Congress in 1967 established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and, in 1969, the Public Broadcasting System PBS which received some federal money to support noncommercial and educational programs. But PBS must still rely on viewer support and corporate sponsorship to survive. (According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day. In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years of their life watching television.)
Criticism of the medium has intensified, and many of the nation's problems, from widespread illiteracy to political apathy, have been attributed to television. Critics on the right charge that television news is infused with a liberal bias and that programming contains too much sex. Critics on the left counter that news programs serve to legitimize the status quo and marginalize any proposals for far-reaching social change. Cultural critics lament the privatization of American life, with viewers staying home glued to the tube instead of participating in political or social activities. And though television continues to provide viewers with common stories and scenes of events that help construct a sense of national unity, the ideology of television programming, especially the message that limitless consumerism is the most important freedom, has alarming political and cultural implications.
Television has intensified the commodification of people's deeply felt aspirations and fears, and has turned private matters, from reproductive decisions to mourning the loss of loved ones, into public spectacles. And as the networks confront the competition from cable and VCRs that is making inroads in their audiences, their executives resort to conflating nonfiction television with entertainment, producing “infotainment” like tabloid television. Although there is still much debate over whether television contributes to violent behavior, low educational attainment, or political corruption, there seems to be common agreement among most people that the enormous potential of this medium is yet to be realized.
Susan J. Douglas
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