You watch enough television and you almost get the impression there is no such thing as television. In few dramatic or comedy programs are characters ever seen looking at, discussing or kicking TV. The standard phony sit-com living room rarely even has a TV set in it.
Worse and more serious, TV news does an inadequate job of covering news about TV, and about the whole casserole of commnications issues that are going to reach new peaks in the '80s. The network news departments are getting better when it comes to acknowledging the existence of television, however, and the leader in this regard, ironically or not, is ABC News.
The point was made again this week when the FCC released its long-awaited study on children's television, a report years in preparation and dealing with one of the prickliest topcis in TV today. The inquiry found that broadcasters have "failed" to improve children's programming, and it included among its recommendations:
Encouragement by the FCC of new technological alternatives like cable and pay TV, where greater diversity could yield increased programming for children.
Biding time, until the cable age with "specific, interim minimum children's programming requirements" on commercial stations regulated by the FCC.
Getting Congress to change the founding mechanisms of public televisionn so that more children's programming can be produced there, at the local level as well as the national "Sesame Street" level.
A weighty report, a valuable report, and a potentially explosive report. But NBC News was not impressed. On the day it was released, there was no mention whatever of the report or its findings on the "NBC Nightly News."
CBS gave the study nearly two minutes on "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite," but very late in the broadcast, and concentrating almost entirely on the program-requirements recommendation -- the one that scares broadcsters most.
On ABC's "World News Tonight," in one minute and 15 seconds, reporter John McWethy wrapped it up far more comprehensively and informatively. His report was repeated on yesterday's ABC "Good Morning, America" show and supplemented with pro-and-con analysis by FCC Chairman Charles Ferris and commissioner James Quello.
"Television affects virtually every American," said Jeff Gralnick, executive producer of "World News Tonight," and when a major government agency completes a study like that, its findings ought to be reported. Were we to ignore that report, how would that look to you?"
Gralnick said that didn't mean ABC News only covered the story because it would "look bad" if it didn't, and he said he felt "no pressures" from higher-ups over carrying stories critical of the television establishment. But he did concede that TV doesn't cover TV as much as it should.
"TV might be afraid to some extent," Gralnick said. "Some of what a television news division has to say is discomforting to a television net-work." t
Gralnick didn't want to speculate on why NBC News ignored the story. Paul W. Greenberg, executive producer of the "NBC Nightly News," said when asked, "It was a judgement call. We balanced it against other things and it lost. I think it's an important story and on another day it could very well have made it onto the air."
Greenberg said he agreed that "we should cover ourselves" and that the FCC study was "a serious report done by serious people," but also said the feeling at NBC News -- probably representative of television news in general -- is that "if we can avoid hearings and reports, and have more reporters covering things out in the field, we're better off journalistically." r
Of course, out in the field is where the livelier, jivier TV is. But history can be made and has been made in reports and hearings as well. This remains one of the perpetual blind spots of television news.
ABC News didn't let that stop them in this case and in fact, for a news division that was once a joke, it has definitely been making strides under the horsewhip of president Roone Arledge. True, the network's farcical magazine show "20/20" may still play like Roonie Tunes most of the time, but the nightly newscast is now being taken very seriously by the competition, and it deserves to be.
They're very touchy at ABC News about being accused of lollipop journalism, and they may have grown enough in stature to be embarrassed, finally, by the likes of Geraldo Rivera, though only in the laughing-to-the-bank way that ABC Sports is embarrassed by Howard Cosell. ABC News lacks the class and dignity of CBS and NBC, but then, if ABC's nightly newscast were just an imitation of the other networks, there'd be no point to it.
"The judgement was made here a long time ago that television news programs in general had become kind of flat and gray, and they needn't be," Gralnick said. "I see nothing frightening in the concept of making any broadcast as interesting to look at and listen to as possible and still give people all the news that fits."
Gralnick said the FCC study was a "high-interst story" because of TV's tremendous impact on American life and that "there is a tendency for us to deal with that kind of high interest story more than the other networks do. Some people attack us for putting 'fluff' on the air, but that isn't true."
Taken to an extreme, the less formal ABC approach can produce something as socially unredeeming as Eye-witness News, the har-dee-har, country-western, happy team news invented by an ABC-owned station to the eternal disgrace of the medium. But carefully and conscientiously applied, the ABC techniques can result in a more direct, understandable and videogenic kind of mass communication.
It needs work. And it's getting it.
Network news execs invariably insist they get no pressure from corporate brass to downplay stories potentially damaging to business -- like the FCC task force taking the network to task for the lousy record on children's programming. It remains to be seen whether this hands-off policy will continue as more and more competitive challenges to the network system arise. Both CBS and NBC have done multi-parters on new TV technologies, and Lynn Sherr is now preparing a three-part report for ABC's "World News Tonight" on the burgeoning cable industry.
Obviously we will have to keep an eye on them. Obviously we can hope they will also be keeping an eye on themselves.