IN HIS MAGNIFICENT movie "Manhattan," Woody Allen calls television a medium that has "systematically lowered the standards of its audience." Now, with the communications revolution of the '80s staring us in the face, expectations are being raised again. There is the prospect of practically reinventing television and making it what it should have become the first time.
There also is the prospect that the United States Congress, under prossure from the perilously powerful broadcasting lobby, will deliver television into the wrong hands all over again, and into too few of them, entrusting it to the same people who run it now. Television is run now with one eye on profits and the other eye on, naturally, profits. This stalwart little toy simply has to be capable of a higher purpose than that.
What the House and Senate are considering is a rewrite of the Communications Act of 1934 to take into account such burgeoning and salutary technologies as cable TV, satellite transmission, and the overnight "ad hoc" networks that both make possible. There is every likelihood that this alleged overhaul will simply insure that the powers now ruling television will continue to dominate it in the future and that visions of expanded diversity and increased public access to the airwaves have as much foundation in reality as those of sugar plums dancing in the heads of sleeping tots.
Unfortunately for us, the poor trampled old viewers, legislators do not realize broadcasting is an ecological issue. It has as much or more to do with the quality of life than the availability of fuel or the flavor and color of the atmosphere. The airwaves, according to the 1934 Act, belong to the people, not to ABC, CBS, NBC, Time Inc., Metromedia, Westinghouse, Post-Newsweek, or any other titans of revenue. And yet the rewrite sponsored by Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.) advocates deregulating television so that people will have even less say in what comes into their homes and even less chance of involvement in the broadcasting system that is supposed to operate according to their "interest, convenience and necessity."
Cable is going to liberate viewers with its spectacular array of increased channels, the reasoning goes, so it's high time we relieved broadcasters of such government-imposed nuisances as giving equal time to candidates for public office and treating controversial issues according to a doctrine of fairness.
This is precisely the wrong thinking and it will lead us down a road to ruin.In fact, broadcast television should be subject to more regulation, not less, and cable should be allowed to develop by natural evolution so long as some of its channels are kept open for public participation.
Television today serves a severely limited spectrum of tastes and needs. Mainly it grovels before advertisers by shamelessly courting the 1,200 families of questionable intelligence who have Nielsen meters in their homes. These people should be ashamed of themselves; they have made television a national monument to mediocrity. Any network executive who claims otherwise is talking through his hat.
Meanwhile, television has failed to develop with the diversity of other media. For example, there is no Village Voice of television, no New Republic of television, no New Yorker of television nor, for what it's worth, no Playboy or Blueboy of television. There is no Pacifica radio of television. There is no National Review of television. There is no Rolling Stone of television. There is no Ebony of television.
If American magazines were like American television, there would only be one magazine in America: The Reader's Digest.
Or maybe TV Guide.
Cable could provide alternatives for people now ignored by television of who watch what's available with growing dismay and a resignation bordering on self-contempt. If cable is allowed to grow laissez faire and if broadcast television is made more responsible to the mass audience, TV, as we know it, could be the mainstream medium and cable, the minority medium. Then our system of government is supposed to be: majority rule with protection of minority interest.
Network and local TV news virtually and suspiciously never cover this kind of communications issue, so most people don't even know there is a Communications Act of 1934, much less a proposed rewrite of it that could disenfranchise them for good. Now, however, a new subculture of media-wise activists is emerging in this country, and though many of the groups involved in it are wearing the blinders of self-interest, together they may be able to challenge the intimidating clout that broadcasters have over Congress and the White House and just about everybody else but the pope.
Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and dedicated troublemaker for the television industry, sees this subculture as a "coalition"-literally, in fact, since he helped form the Coalition for Public Rights in Broadcasting (CPRB), an umbrella for "dozens" of groups with diverse but specific stakes in the future uses of television. Johnson, who now heads the National Citizens Communications Lobby, says coalition groups range from the United Steelworkers to the American Federation of Teachers to the Friends of the Earth to the National Coalition of American Nuns. Representatives of the Screen Actors Guild, the United Auto Workers and the National Organization for Women are among those sitting on the steering committee. (The CPRB's address is Box 19101, Washington, D.C. 20036.)
"The way broadcasters look at it," says Johnson, "is that there should be no limitation on their opportunity to profit-maximize every minute of every hour of every broadcast day. That is simply unacceptable. Virtually every civilized democratic society has recognized that broadcasting is something heavily invested with social interest; it's like schools and libraries and national parks and forests. And so to make it responsive, some of them have gone so far as to ban anything like the commercial broadcasting system we have here.
"In this country, broadcasting is the society's cerebral cortex. It's replaced the conversation on the village green after Sunday church services or the handbills posted on trees. It's the medium in which we descuss the issues of our society and there must be some kind of provision for public participation and access in that medium."
Commercial television's efforts in this area have been token and minimal-from the CBS News production "Letters to CBS News" to the 30 seconds of tightly controlled air time some local stations give to private citizens to present little peeps of view. Public television only recently has begun allowing independent producers access to that insular and elitist system, and many public TV stations bypass such efforts in favor of shows about chessor cooking or, come next seasons, "disco dancing." "Public" television is a hypocritical contradiction in terms.
According to figures released last week by the FCC, pre-tax profits of the three television networks were down 7.9 percent in 1978 to a measly $373.5 million. Of course, the year before, those profits were $406.1 million, a 37.4 percent increase over 1976. Each network is allowed to own and operate five television stations, and these accounted for per-tax profits to them in 1978 of $186.3 million, up 25 percent from 1977. These fabulous amounts of money are generated by a one-way system that is responsive not so much to the needs and desires ot the American people, bjut to the unchallenged gospel dicated by a Nielsen computer in Dundin, Fla. This computer urns American television.
Instead of investigating new ways for broadcasters to evade their public obligations, Congress should consider additional regulation to make television both more responsive and more representateve. The television industry has proven now that its own self-policing organization, the Mational Association of Broadcasters, is incapable of devising, much less enforcing, rules to deal with the excessive number of commercials and promotional announcements-the clutter that makes television truly unwatchable-and so it is time for the FCC to consider rule-making along these lines.
It also is clear that children's programming is going to remain almost entirely a diet of junk food unless some sort of requirement is imposed on stations to air a certain amount of positive, educational programming weekly, and for once and for all, children must be given special consideration when it comes to advertising, for they are now bombarded during children's viewing hours with unfair and excessive appeals to their sweet teeth and materalistic urges.
Such regulations have nothing to do with the First Amendment of freedom of speech. They are a corm of zoning-much the way cities zone certain neighborhoods for residences or businesses. Hours of the broadcast day could be zoned as well; the precedent has already been establised by the Seven Dirty Words decision of the Supreme Court. It was a ghastly and thick-headed decision, and yet it may make certain substantive broadcast reforms possible, because it supports the idea that children are a specialized audience that should be treated differently than adults.
Meanwhile, cable is the pie of which everyone under the sun wants a piece. Whether there will be enough to go around remains to be seen, but the most crucial aspects of cable are fairly evident. Some cable channels must be kept open for public access, and cable system operation must be kept out of the hands of the same old Hollywood production companies or massive media conglomerates that now control television. Producers like NormanLear and industry spocesmen like Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), are noisily worried that cable systems and superstations won't pay them enough money for their programs. That would just be their tough luck. Far more worrisome is the notion that cable operators will be going to these same old worn-out suppliers for the stuff they deliver to viewers.
We are suffocating on the television system as it now exists; those who think it's jim-dandy simply have been conditioned by years of banality and public desservice to expect nothing finer. There are fantastic possibilities for television in the '80s-and with energy shortages likely to increase, we will probably be more TV-dependent and electronically linked than ever-but it's going to take all the kicking and screaming at our command to keep the revolution from going sour right before our very, and very tired, eyes.
We blew it once; it would be a shameto blow it again.