Ch 9 Television

This chapter covers the development of television from the earliest visions to the effect of broadband streaming on the markets.

TV on this site

Philo T. Farnsworth directs an early TV production. (University of Utah).

Discussion questions

  1. Politics: Was television more partisan in previous generations?  Why or why not?
  2. Fairness: Should we bring back the Fairness Doctrine, as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. suggests?
  3. Deregulation: How much has deregulation changed the structure of broadcasting?  Some say media consolidation has not been good for democracy.
  4. Social responsibility: Compare Edward R. Murrow’s 1958 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters to John Stewart’s 2010 speech at the “Rally to Restore Sanity.”  How did both approach the idea of the usefulness versus the misuse of television?
  5. Personalized news:  Columnist Jack Ohman says he misses Walter Cronkite and the other news anchors who used to personalize the news for Americans.  Is there a gap? Or have other personalities or even substitutes for personalities stepped in?
  6. CNN Effect?  In the wake of the Tienanmen Square repression of Chinese dissidents on June 4, 1989, some observers believe that even the most oppressive governments cannot operate in secrecy any more.  Mike Chinoy, CNN correspondent in 1989, discusses the CNN effect in this June 1, 2014 article.  Is “CNN effect” the right name for this phenomenon?  How much has the global media-sphere changed since 1989?

People and events

Philo T. Farnsworth, Vladimir Zworkin, David Sarnoff, Newton Minow, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Sean MacBride

Sputnik, vast wasteland, quiz show scandals, Checkers speech, presidential debates, Vietnam coverage, WLBT case,  public broadcasting, restrictions on tobacco advertising, satellite TV,

Documentary videos

  1. The Pioneers of Telelvision. 2012 PBS documentary series. Highly recommended.  Some episodes are on line.
  2. The Cold War, an epic 24-part CNN documentary. Recommended: Episodes 8 (Sputnik) and 22 (in which exposure to popular culture and foreign media raises expectations in the former Soviet states).
  3. Good night and good luck : the Edward R. Murrow television collection — CBS Broadcast International. Includes See it Now, Person to Person, Harvest of Shame and news clips from the McCarthy era.  Highly recommended.
  4. Walter Cronkite: Eyewitness to History — CBS and A&E  documentary
  5. Television: Window to the World / History Channel,  Modern Marvels series, 1997
  6. Dawn of the eye    — CBC Television in co-production with BBC.
  7. Control room – 2004 — A documentary on perception of the United States’s war with Iraq, with an emphasis on Al Jazeera’s coverage.
  8. CNN’s First Day – June 1, 1980.
  9. OutFoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s war on journalism — 2004 — IMDB:  Documentary on bias of  Fox News Channel (FNC); Material includes interviews with former FNC employees and the inter-office memos they provided.
  10. Sputnik Fever — 2007 — Documentary looking back at the USSR’s Sputnik satellite and its effects at the time and over the last 50 years.
  11. Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame documentary, 1960

Merely wires and lights in a box … Murrow’s 1958 speech

A speech by Edward R. Murrow (audio via YouTube)  to the Radio TV News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago, October 15, 1958, is one of the highlights of television history and still resonates today.  (Full text version here) One particular thought is widely quoted:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful. ”

 There are many other interesting ideas in the speech, for instance, the basic nature of the U.S. television news system:

One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles..

Another part of the speech reflects Murrow’s experience dealing with the anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s.

I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is–an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate.

The RTNDA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the speech with a three-day conference, a a web blog,  and with pages of photos and audio from the speech.  It’s important to note that in 1958, Murrow’s speech did not get a warm reception.   Ellen Hunt writes:  “his bosses at CBS … were angry.” They thought they were being attacked by someone they had protected.  And yet these days (2008), Murrow’s speech evokes a much different reaction because so much of what he said is still relevant, she said.

The speech has become something of a touchstone for modern media reform advocates:

  1. John Stewart’s speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity, 2010, is a take-off on the lights in a box speech.  The media is “the country’s 24-hour politico–pundit perpetual panic ‘conflict-inator'”—only amplifies problems and no longer makes a distinction between “hav[ing] animus” and “be[ing] enemies.” Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. … Reasonable compromises [happen] every day” between persons of different beliefs, citing as an example traffic merging at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel connecting New York City and Jersey City, where the traffic has to merge from 12 lanes to two.
  2. Former CBS anchor Dan Rather,  referring to Edward R. Murrow’s 1958 “lights in a box” speech, says in Nov. 2011: “We must untangle the wires from the lights. We must halt the steady decline of broadcast journalism and the endless compromises to the boardroom.”
  3. Steven Barnette, writing in The Guardian, talks about the impact of the speech in this 50th anniversary article.

MORE Television Links

Early years 

  1. Early years of TV in the UK — BBC Witness program
  2. This I Believe with Edward R. Murrow
  3. Nixon Kennedy Debates
  4. Political ads on television.
  5. JFK: One PM Central Standard Time, is a PBS documentary narrated by George Clooney involving the events that transpired in the CBS newsroom the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when JFK was assassinated. Documentary reviewed in USA Today, Nov. 12, 2013.
  6. Confrontation between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, 1970
  7. William F. Buckley debates Gore Vidal, 1968; A fascinating and heated exchange about free speech and the police riot at the Chicago democratic convention.
  8. Newton Minnow and the Vast Wasteland 
  9. Roderick P. Hart and Mary Triece US Presidency and Television  from the Museum of Broadcast Communication’s Encyclopedia of Television
  10. Canadian Broadcasting Corp. interview with Marshall McLuhan
  11. Harold Jackson’s take on 50s TV:  “It’s not just the TV shows — the short-lived Pan Am and The Playboy Club, as well as Emmy-winner Mad Men and newcomer Magic City (Miami, not Birmingham) — there are other signs that more than a few people want to turn the clock back to a time when white men were unchallenged in their supremacy.”
  12. Sid Ceasar helped television get started. New York Times, Feb. 15, 2014.

Television and politics

  1. Al Gore writes in Rolling Stone about the influence of television in political and environmental debates.   “Up to 80 percent of the campaign budgets for candidates in both major political parties is devoted to the purchase of 30-second TV ads. Since the rates charged for these commercials increase each year, the candidates are forced to raise more and more money in each two-year campaign cycle… Largely as a result, the concerns of the wealthiest individuals and corporations routinely trump the concerns of average Americans and small businesses.”
  2. Star Trek’s surprising role in the Civil Rights movement is discussed in a Sept. 7, 2012 article in the Christian Science Monitor.   The Bonanza TV show had a somewhat similar and earlier role, as noted in Chapter 9 of Revolutions in Communication.  Here’s a short clip   from the PBS series on TV history.
  3. Mr. Rogers — A troublemaker in the neighborhood.
  4. Trump has spent a fraction of what Clinton has on ads, NYT Oct 21, 2016

Media reform

  1. Bill Moyers interview John Nichols and Robert McChesney, How Big Money and Big Media Undermine Democracy.  (Nov. 8, 2013)
  2. Changing Channels: The civil rights case that transformed television — Excellent National Archives article on the WLBT case by Kay Mills
  3. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Children and TV Violence,” November 2002.
  4. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the Fairness Doctrine and Fox News
  5. How Fox News outfoxes Americans by Danny Schechter
  6. The Nixon White House invented Fox News, by John Cook.
  7. Fade to Black — As a video revolution sweeps the world, US television news caps its lens, Columbia Journalism Review, Sept/Oct 2011, by Dave Marash.  For the first time in history, mankind is developing a universal language: video.  Good news for the future of television news, right? But when YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter show so much video of real life, why do ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox show us so little?
  8. Apparently what they’d like to show us more of is  programming with adult themes and language, as the networks team up to challenge the famed FCC v Pacifica case.
  9. Many of the country’s biggest media companies, which own dozens of newspapers and TV news operations, are flexing their muscle in Washington in a fight against a government initiative to increase transparency of political spending. ProPublica, April 2o, 2012.
  10. Election 2012 – Fighting for fair play – Bill Moyers interviews Kathleen Hall Jamison.
  11. Cable de-bundling became a hot issue in 2013.  (NPR Aug. 8, 2013)
  12. Comcast acquring Time-Warner cable (LA Times, Feb. 14, 2014).  That’s good news if you think the problem with cable is that the companies are just not big enough, says David Lazarus.  It doesnt have to be bad, says the LA Times.
  13. Everything you need to know about Aereo, the Supreme Court and the future of TV, according to the Washington Post, April 22, 2014.

International networks

  1. American versus European television: Market vs public service models compared. Journal of Communication, 2009.
  2. Thomas Erdbrink, Al-Jazeera TV network draws criticism, praise for coverage of Arab revolutions,   Washington Post, May 15, 2011.
  3. The Sputnik Crisis in the West
  4. The New Sputnik (about nuclear power and Fukushima)
  5. International Standards – Friendship Among Equals  
  6. Not exactly a bellwether of hope for peace and friendship through communication, this Egyptian TV program seems to bring out the worst in its guests.

Breaking the old television model

  1. The future of television – Washington Post, April 26, 2016. “The Internet-based video revolution powers ahead, without the need for government intervention. “
  2. Apple’s  pushes TV toward Internet delivery  “The struggle to unplug TV viewing from its traditional business model just got more interesting — and messier.” April 2010.
  3. Netflix chair Reed Hastings is objecting to proposals for “tiered service” delivery through broadband. The proposals amount to a cap on the amount of content that can be delivered.  May, 2012.
  4. Anti-trust investigations into the cable industry’s attempts to block online video access have started.  Philadelphia Inquirer, June 2012.
  5. MSNBC partnership ends July 12, 2012.  The 1995 partnership between NBC television and Microsoft was based on Bill Gates’ idea that “content is king” and that the internet would essentially be a new vehicle for television.  Instead, the internet / web morphed into a new media form while TV stayed more or less the same.
  6. Disruption creates opportunity in the media business, says GigaOM owner. USA Today, April 24, 2013.
  7. TED talks – Chris Anderson, head honcho at TED, has responded to Nick Hanauer’s claimsthat his TED talk was censored. TED, Anderson says, tries “to steer clear of talks that are bound to descend into the same dismal partisan head-butting people” and that Hanauer “framed the issue in a way that was explicitly partisan.” The upshot is that he’s letting viewers decide for themselves. Watch the video here. May 17, 2012  But note that most TED talks avoid politics as if the subjects themselves were a problem, and not an arena of  discourse where irrational actors have driven away the rational ones.
  8. We need to talk about TED, Benjamin Bratton, The Guardian, Jan. 15, 2016.  “…If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation. Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think.”
  9. End of the line for cable TV — A new era of à la carte television arrived in earnest this week — seemingly all at once and more quickly than many industry executives and television fans had expected. And with it, the virtual monopoly that cable, satellite and telecommunications companies have had over TV programming is dissipating. NY Times, Oct. 16, 2014.   Also:  CBS launches a stand-alone streaming service, Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2014. Also: “Cord cutters on the rise,” Circa, Oct. 15, 2014.
  10. The Media Revolution that Isnt being Televised, Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2015.
  11. Why is it so hard to get local TV on internet? Why does cable have a blanket statutory license to capture local signals?  – EFF, July, 2016
  12. End of the weatherman on TV – Boston Globe, Aug 12, 2015

Controversies over TV News   

  1. Is Fox News bad for Republicans?  Washington Post, May 27, 2015.
  2. To Donald Trump, the media is the lowest form of life – New York Times, Aug 2016