The Rise and Decline of Network TV

By J. Fred MacDonald

Pantheon. 335 pp. $24.95

THE LITERATURE of television: The phrase isn't exactly an oxymoron, but it comes close. As a perusal of J. Fred MacDonald's bibliography makes plain, the central role that television has assumed in American life is hardly reflected by the volume (or quality) of serious writing about it. Even allowing for MacDonald's more striking omissions -- Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media and War and Peace in the Global Village, Michael J. Arlen's The Living-Room War, Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death -- it remains that the literature of the medium is remarkably slender and shallow; television itself may have passed into something approximating middle age, but our efforts to comprehend its history and meaning are still in their infancy.

This is reason enough to welcome One Nation Under Television, even though -- among its other shortcomings -- it gives every appearance of being more a textbook than a history for the general readership. It is a single-volume chronicle of American television from its troubled beginnings through its decades of unchallenged domination to its troubled present and uncertain future; the book's emphasis is, as it should be, on the three commercial networks, and in the course of charting what MacDonald properly sees as their "rise and decline" he touches on just about every high and low moment in their brief but crowded history.

Television, as MacDonald sees it, is "the ultimate American medium, requiring no physical labor, offering wonderful diversion, reaffirming the reliance on technology that Americans had developed in the 20th century, and symbolizing a victory over deprivation that cut across class lines." Coming into its own shortly after war's end, it was "a reward for years of forbearance" and -- though MacDonald does not pursue the point -- it opened the way to a binge of self-gratification through consumption and entertainment that shows no signs of ending. But cultural and social effects aside, the medium in and of itself "is among the greatest human achievements of the century," a "phenomenal development in civilized living" by contrast with the years of depression and war that preceded its acquisition by the populace at large:

"Against this backdrop, Americans welcomed television as material proof that their time of troubles had ended. Blending the glamour of the movies with the convenience of radio, a new TV in the house signified success, both national and personal. The wartime promises had come true, one could now watch the biggest names in show business right in the front room. As compensation for years of sacrifices, Americans were being entertained with the most amazing machine produced in this most amazing century. Paying several hundred dollars for a new Admiral or Philco or other brand of receiver was an investment in family security and participation in a national cultural community."

The television receivers of the early '50s were expensive and their black-and-white pictures were, by today's standards, primitive, yet Americans bought them up so rapidly as to constitute one of the great purchasing binges in history; the number of households with TV sets rose from 3.8 million in 1950 to 43.9 million a mere nine years later. If there was buyer resistance anywhere, its existence is scarcely documented; Americans embraced television even more warmly and in far greater numbers than they had welcomed the automobile a half-century earlier.

They embraced not merely the magic living-room box but also the system of national networks that provided the bulk of the programs it showed. This meant, as is by now cliche', mass-taste programming that was pitched to the lowest common denominator; by the late '50s "standardization of product, reliance on familiar formulas, use of mass production techniques by the film studios and networks: national TV, like national culture, was emerging as an efficient, streamlined reality that existed to please the majority, a majority that in great part it had helped to create."

This last is important. Though network officials then as now have been quick to argue that they give the public what it wants, MacDonald is at pains to note that they shaped its appetite through what they did and did not choose to offer. Yet he is also quick to eschew judgmentalism: "It was naive to have expected video to develop other than it did. At its core, U.S. television was capitalist enterprise, intent on forming mass audiences to sell them to advertisers. Matters such as education and public interest were not of primary importance in network TV."

The problem lies not in the medium but in the people who run it; this is perhaps the dominant theme in television's brief history, though it must be identified by inference in MacDonald's account. From David Sarnoff and William Paley to the various hotshots who now preside over the networks and their competitors, the lords of television have been concerned not with how they can develop the medium's potential but with how they can milk it for large and quick profit. This is why until relatively recently this miraculous new medium has provoked so little genuinely original and innovative programming; television as the networks have run it is "an industry concerned less with risk-taking than with marketing the proven."

Now, though, the hegemony of the networks is over: "Confused, destabilized and uncertain, the industry is engaged in mortal combat, the outcome of which will determine the future of television. In its essential form, it is a corporate war involving the traditional networks, major cable operators, Hollywood producers and global communications interests." How it will be resolved is anybody's guess; MacDonald thinks that "by the next century U.S. video will crystallize somewhere between a minimalist system of network broadcasting/cable narrowcasting, and a maximalist arrangement in which globally organized megacorporations control mass entertainment and information at every stage of commercial exploitation."

That's a mouthful, all right, uttered in the clunky prose that makes One Nation Under Television rather less appetizing than its subject, and its author's understanding of that subject, would suggest. Still, MacDonald has gotten the important information about television into a single volume, and he interprets it without the ideological bias that the medium seems to provoke in so many of its critics. This isn't the definitive history of television, but it will do for now.