America is tired of its television set.
It wants a new one.
The old one is wearing out. It is even wearing out its welcome in the American living room.
A nationwide Washington Post Poll published today shows that a majority of TV viewers -- 53 percent, the highest such figure ever recorded -- say they watch less television now than they did five years ago, that they are frequently disappointed by programs they see -- except for their regular favorites -- and that they are in the most receptive mood they've ever been in when it comes to welcoming alternative forms of television, including pay television.
These findings will send network executives into lathers. They can be counted on to give them the royal pooh-pooh, citing Nielsen ratings that do not show any substantial viewer dropoff, except in daytime hours.
The figures corroborate what is rapidly becoming an irrefutable truism. People are growing increasingly intolerant of proliferating commercials and such similar "clutter" as station and network promos; a recent Advertising Age survey showed people are more offended and annoyed by TV commercials than ever and more irritated by ads on TV than by those in any other medium.
With the regularity of cock-a-doodle doo's in a barnyard, network executives now make speeches warning against new technologies that threaten their profits -- and offer the public something new. The latest of these speeches was made by CBS Inc. President John D. Backe in Los Angeles last month.
Backe called American television a "blessing," which it certainly has been for CBS Inc., and said, "Spokesmen for special interests can hurl all the criticisms they want, can call it chewing gum for the eyes, can damn us from dawn on Monday to dusk on Sunday, but an honest poll of our fellow residents on this planet will find that their vote is for television."
An honest poll has been taken and television doesn't get quite the hip-hip hoorah Backe imagined.
The poll shows more Americans than ever -- even in a time of considerable economic uncertainty -- responding favorably to the idea of paying for television rather than being limited only to the current commercial-potholed networks and stations or the only slightly less commercial "public" system.
Thirty-six percent of those polled agreed with the statement, "I'd rather pay a small amount yearly if I could, to have television without commercials." Those who said yes were then asked how much they would be annually willing to spend. The average figure from these responses was $82 a year.
Guess what the average American cable TV home pays annually for cable service. According to the National Cable Television Association (NCTA): $84.
People were about equally divided on whether television is better now or worse now than it was five years ago, but the dissatisfaction ratio is up considerably from previous surveys. People are tired of TV's monotone, though no less reliant on the medium as their chief source of news and entertainment. They just want more freedom of choice.
Yet for almost every new or enhanced technology and its promise of increased variety, there is a bastion of well-heeled opposition within the television and entertainment industry establishments. For years cable TV's growth was hampered by the broadcast lobby and its virtual lackey, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Enough FCC decisions against cable operators were overturned by courts to permit considerable growth in recent years, however.
The Lengthening Cable
One out of every five American TV homes is now equipped for cable, and its growth rate is projected as about 11 percent per year.
The videocassette machine, which permits recording and playing back material off the air and the viewing of prerecorded old and recent movies, is being challenged in a California court by such profit monsters as MCA Inc. and Walt Disney Enterprises, both claiming the machines will cut into their business. This suit could drag on for years on appeals.
A battle is also being waged against the "superstations" such as WCTG in Atlanta and WGN in Chicago, whose signals are now being bounced off communications satellites and imported by cable systems in faraway American cities, offering viewers there additional programs to choose from. Jack Valenti and his Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) are spearheading the effort to nip this boon in the bud.
The Cult of Imitation
Other refinements in television that permit viewers to bypass the existing fare are proceeding unopposed only if current broadcasting interests have heavily invested in their development. The test marketing of the MCA-Magnavox videodisc system in Atlanta has produced not only a mile-long waiting list of customers but also, according to Videography magazine, a black market for the $695 machine that asks as much as $20,000 each. RCA will introduce its own videodisc player next year, it is forecast, and other firms, like Japan's JVC, plan to introduce their models even sooner.
In opposing such developments as cable and pay cable television, industry spokesmen invariably plead that they will not be able to face such competition and that the new wonders pose economic threats to them. Never is it alleged that the public will suffer, because it only stands to benefit. The public is usually left out of these discussions. Also omitted are such facts as that from 1971 to 1976, according to Department of Commerce figures, network television earnings increased an outlandish 192 percent. Network revenues in 1977 were nearly $2.6 billion.
This industry crying poverty is like Warren Beatty claiming celibacy.
Meanwhile, the TV business is now beset with perhaps its greatest crisis of morale. Those who produce programs for network television, and many of those who work for the networks, find it harder and harder to defend television programming, which seems to exist within an ever constricting spectrum. Nothing is encouraged more than imitation.
The creative community, as it likes to be known, in Hollywood is escalating its protests against the cutthroat network competition that allows little time for the production of shows, little incentive for striking off in new directions and little chance for new ideas to be exposed on the air before they are yanked off for insufficient ratings.
A group called The Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors -- whose members include such top TV producers as Norman Lear, Ed Friendly, Grant Tinker, Lee Rich and Bud Yorkin -- has filed with the FCC a lengthy statement calling for drastic changes in the way the networks do business. The FCC is now looking into the role of the networks in shaping or misshaping what is available to Americans on television.
Among other demands, the Caucus wants the concentration of power in the three networks diminished, production of programs by networks prohibited and a restriction in how much network programming stations in the Top 50 markets can carry. Another Caucus proposal is a sure crowd-pleaser and network-irker: "To reduce reruns to a minimum pattern of at least one original to one repeat in any given series."
The fact that the people who produce television programs share the dissatisfaction with television shown by viewers in the Washington Post poll indicates how severely television has failed to fulfill its promise and how widely desired crucial changes in the present system are. The question is how long the TV establishment will be able to postone the inevitable.
It will do its darndest -- of that we can be sure.
The Washington Post survey was not taken during the month of February which, like November and May, is a "sweep" month when the networks stockpile most of their big attractions so as to build maximum audiences and thereby set their ad rates as high as possible for the next fiscal quarter. If the survey had been taken this month, the complaint that there is not enough good programming on TV might have changed to the complaint that there is too much.
Famine to Surplus
Clearly, viewers are not served by the sweeps bysteria that results in such Sunday night predicaments as the recent one-two-three punch the networks offered viewers: the new movie "Elvis!" on ABC vs. the firstrun film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" on NBC vs. part one of "Gone With the Wind" on CBS.
David L. Wolper, executive producer of "Roots 2," a recent victim of sweeps madness, says of this procedure, "It's damn-the-public -- that's what it is."
Sensing growing viewer disgruntlement over such policies, the three networks are now entertaining a plan that would eliminate the idea of "sweep" months and, in effect, make all 52 weeks of the year sweep weeks. The problem is, Nielsen has indicated to the networks that the bill for this may be as high as $15 million a year. Also, local stations in many markets are dead set against the proposal.
An NBC spokesman said yesterday that NBC president Fred Silverman supports the idea "in principle." CBS has indicated its support, and an ABC spokesman said yesterday that "this is something we've been looking into" but declined to commit the network one way or the other. If this does come about, it will take years.
The Silverman View
To Silverman's great credit, his speech to the National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles last Friday was not the standard network denunciation of new technologies nor a plea that producers knock off their bellyaching about nutty network practices.
Instead he told the SRO crowd, "If we can work together to improve our present national television service, we'll be much better off and you'll have the best of both worlds. First, you'll have three strong networks as the nucleus of your production operation. Second, you'll have unlimited opportunities -- using that as a base -- to expand into new businesses developing out of the new technologies."
For once a network executive was conceding that the "new technologies" are not the Big Bad Wolf. And implicitly at least, Silverman was acknowledging what the Washington Post survey shows; Americans aren't just peeved or annoyed by television, they are getting to the point of being Fed Up.