As TV writer Tom Shales predicted, The Washington Post's recent survey of Americans' changing attitudes toward television has created a furor in the plush offices of network executives and movie moguls.
Fifty-three percent of the viewers polled by The Post said they watch less television now than they did five years ago, and that with the exception of a few favorites, they are often disappointed by what they are offered.
For the people who program America's television sets -- both the executives of the three major networks and the heads of the dominant production studios -- the Post poll is a colossal vote of no-confidence. Most disturbing of all from the perspective of the TV giants should be that this dissatisfaction is abroad precisely when new entertainment technologies with the ability to offer the consumer greater freedom of choice are becoming widely available.
The networks and the studios have two standard responses to criticism of television as we know it. The first, uttered from on high with a flavor of noblesse oblige, is reminiscent of telephone-company executives' response to criticisms of our "best-in-the-world" telephone system: We are told to hold our tongues because our system is better than all others. The second is a series of stern lectures on the dangers of tinkering with the system: To allow new technologies -- from cable television to videodiscs -- to compete freely with networks and broadcast stations will inevitably bring on the demise of all of the best in television.
That second line was the underpinning of a response to the Post poll that appeared on this page March 8, "Why Such 'Charity' for Cable TV?," by Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
While Valenti gave lip service to making more diverse programming available to consumers through new technologies, he raised the common cry of poverty for the producting community. The role of his member companies, Hollywood's big movie houses, is being overlooked in federal communications policy, he said, and they are being forced to subsidize the growth of cable television through a "loophole" in the nation's copyright law.
Behind that artful rhetoric is a blatant attempt by the nine largest studios to enlist the federal government in guaranteeing their huge profits at the expense of consumers who want a wider range of viewing options. In the case of The People v. Television, the major program producers have weighed in on the side of the floundering networks.
Valenti tells us that the federal government must come to the rescue of major production studios by giving them control over the programming cable television carries, ensuring that the studios will be able to exact a hefty profit. He fails to mention that the cable television copyright formula he now calls a loophole was actually arrived at through negotiations in which he took the lead in 1976. An agreement setting cable's payments was signed by Valenti and myself on April 26, 1976, and ultimately became part of the new Copyright Act, ending years of dispute. The act took effect in 1978, and in its first year of operation generated between $12 million and $14 million in new revenue for program suppliers -- 10 percent of the cable industry's profits.
Now the major studios want more money and want Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to help them get it.The real issue, unfortunately, is lost in the debate. While the argument focuses on how to split the people's purse, consumers' clearly expressed desire for more viewing options is being ignored.
A wide variety of new programming could be provided by broadcast television. Instead, the industry seems more intent on cloning old programs to reach new heights of banality.
New programming options could be provided by Hollywood. Instead, the major studios are focusing on how to help the networks force-feed the public more of the same.
New viewing options are being provided by cable television. Through the nation's largest system of satellite transmission, cable TV systems are bringing millions of American homes over 1,000 hours a month of program alternatives, including:
Two special children's channels;
Three full channels of religious programming;
All-news television channels;
Made-for-cable entertainment specials;
Gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives;
First run, uncut, noncommercial movies;
Independent TV stations from distant cities.
With these alternatives available, and more in planning, it is not surprising that 36 percent of those polled by The Post indicated they would be willing to pay a small sum for better television.
But at every step, broadcasters and the studios have enlisted government support to halt the development of alternative program options. Distant-city television signals, which are a major attraction for cable subscribers in urbanmarkets, have been the prime focus. First, the FCC was prompted to require cable systems to obtain retransmission consent from both broadcasters and the studios; the result, from 1968 to 1972, was a virtually total freeze on new distant-television signals for cable viewers, as broadcasters and program suppliers "turned off the spigot" on cable programming. After that approach failed, th FCC was pushed to protect broadcast television from cable competition by another tack: limiting the number of distant signals cable systems could offer consumers, and requiring the blacking out of up to 50 percent of the programming on those signals.
Now we have come full circle, with broadcasters and program suppliers reviving the old retransmission consent idea in an attempt to balloon the studios' profits and to regain the broadcasters' control over cable TV services.
If government steps in again at the movie barons' behest, it will be handing the future of tclevision back to the control of the men who made the medium what it is today.And the viewing public, whose voice is only beginning to be heard demanding new programming and services, will be deprived of new choices that it is only beginning to know are possible.