The Arts: Beyond Reviews and Revenues
The 1970-1980 decade has been a revolutionary one for American television, a decade in which technology far out- distanced programming. Fantastic advances were made possible, held back only by the inability of the men in control to utilize that technology to the fullest.
Aside from the obvious technical improvements -- portable mini-cameras, instant replay, stop and slow-motion -- broader advances placed an incredible potential at the service of television.
Satellite transmissions opened up world-wide telecasting. Transmission directly to home receivers became a political matter. Fiber optic research made it figuratively possible for millions, perhaps billions, of channels to exist, with everyman his own TV station.
Video cassette machines allowed viewers to record programming even when they were not at home, and play back at their own leisure. Video disc inventions started a whole new era of special programming available for sale. Cable TV made reception possible in areas previously unreachable, and in addition provided unusual two-way services in specified areas. Pay TV brought new movies and special programs to those willing to pay extra for the service.
In the area of special programming, the TV cameras in Vietnam turned warfare into a livingroom "entertainment" and brought home the horrors of war as nothing ever had before. Presidential campaigns were fought basically on TV, with debates, spot commercials, and equal-time appearances on talk shows. Sports events and pseudo sports events were invented especially for TV and Olympic coverage proved to be a mass-market entertainment.
International relations became a prime function of television news -- as in the case of Iran, where normal diplomatic channels were disregarded in favor of network news appearances.
In the area of entertainment, the commercial networks recognized the potential of the mini-series by watching BBC imports on the Public Broadcasting Service. Week-long monumental mini-series such as "Roots" and "Holocaust" were the culmination of that trend, affecting human relationships and international politics as well as sociological patterns.
Series programming swung away from westerns, innocuous family shows, and hillbilly variations to hard-edge topical shows.
In the area of informational programming, it is especially interesting to note that at the start of the decade CBS's "60 Minutes" ranked among the last 10 shows in the ratings; it ended the decade in No. 1 spot among all shows, including lightweight entertainment programs.
A majority of the American people admitted they got most of their news from TV, and Walter Cronkite managed to rank at the top of their lists for a good part of the decade. The major breakthrough in this area was not on the commercial networks but on PBS channels, where the "MacNeil/Lehrer Report" airing after the regular newscasts, focused nightly on one important breaking story with expert discussion of all aspects.
PBS was praised by a new Carnegie Commission report as a "national treasure" as it expanded its coverage to a point where its 283 stations now have the potential to reach 87 percent of the American people.
Perhaps its most innovative moves were taken in the area of live performances -- with "Live from Lincoln Center," "Live from the Met," etc. NBC at the end of the decade planned to follow suit with a new "Live from Studio 8H."
An attempt to establish a family viewing hour from 8-9 p.m. was ended by a court decision, but the "prime-time access" period from 7:30 to 8 -- set aside for non-network fare -- began to be filled with simplistic and sometimes objectionable syndicated programming such as "The Gong Show," and not the locally originated program that had been hoped for.
The FCC simultaneously questioned the concept of advertising on children's programming as it seemed to be heading for official deregulation. There were widespread predictions that both American radio and TV might soon be turned back to the marketplace, leaving channels to be purchased by the highest bidders who would pay a spectrum-usage fee and be free of any public service requirement. Already, many observers are decrying the move. As TV moves into the 1980s, the battle lines are being formed on this issue.
Pressure groups, which sometimes threatened a boycott of sponsors' products, were probably responsible for much of the de-emphasis on violence. So the TV industry which reached around 60 million households or about 95 percent of total US homes in 1970, now is estimated to reach around 75 million homes for a 98 percent coverage at the end of the decade. Cable TV has still not reached the 50 percent in wired homes but estimates are that by the end of the 1980s decade almost all American homes will be wired for two-way cable transmission.
As the use of TV for educationsl purposes grows, with more and more courses being taught through either cable, PBS, or early morning transmission, experts predict that the school of the future may very well be electronic.
Is the American public satisfied with the performance of this entertainment-information-education medium which has already become an integral part of the American environment?
According to a recent Roper Organization poll about which community institutions were doing the best job, TV ranked first with 68 percent approving; second were churches with 67 percent, police with 66 percent, newspapers with 59 percent, and schools with 48 percent.
Lagging far behind was local government with 37 percent.
The 1970s, in the perspective of time, may prove to be the decade TV began to understand what its own potential really was.
And the 1980s may well be the decade in which TV realizes that potential.