BACK TO THE HERD
Like the Internet, television’s one of those things you already know at least something about. Unless you were raised by hippies or wolves, you probably grew up with television. Indeed, for the last two or three decades we’ve been so preoccupied with the debate about whether television is a good parent or a bad parent that we’ve stopped asking whether television should be a parent at all.
For better or worse, television plays an important part in our lives. In its early days it took over the roles previously played by other media. Unlike radio, it had pictures. Unlike movies, you could watch it at home. Unlike magazines, it was immediately up-to-date. And unlike those last two, it was free (after you bought the set, of course).
The medium has changed significantly over the years. It started with just three channels, but now thanks to cable (and other multichannel services such as home satellite dishes) subscribers have access to hundreds of choices. By offering so many options, television has in some ways become its own biggest competitor.
Because the “idiot box” plays such a large role in American culture, the medium’s development and operation have a lot to teach us about who we are as a society.
Setting the Standard
Unlike radio, television signals are complicated things. Audio transmission is a matter of sending a sound vibration from one point to another, a fairly natural task for radio waves to perform. Video, on the other hand, needs images to be broken into parts, encoded into waves, transmitted and then decoded for display on the receiving end.
And therein, as they say, lies the rub. Competing companies came up with different ways to code and decode images. As the systems were all mutually incompatible, early TV developers envisioned a nightmare world in which broadcasters had to send out a host of different signals just to make sure everybody’s sets could pick them up.
To avoid such an obvious waste of resources, the FCC set up the National Television System Committee in 1940. A year later the committee issued a single standard for black-and white TV signals, a compromise between a system already in use by RCA and proposals from rivals Philco and DuMont.
Then the battle over color TV started. The first color system adopted by the NTSC was a “color wheel” device developed by CBS. However, the new standard suffered from some serious drawbacks, not the least of which was that it wasn’t compatible with the older black and white standard (meaning that new color broadcasts couldn’t be watched on older TV sets). The system was swiftly scrapped in favor of a new standard developed by RCA.
All this squabbling over standards took too long and not long enough. The fight hampered the growth of television as a mass medium, making it take as much as a decade longer than it probably should have. On the other hand, the system finally adopted by the NTSC in the United States (as well as in most of North and South America, Japan and a handful of other countries) was inferior – at least in terms of picture quality – to the PAL and SECAM systems adopted by most of the rest of the world just a year or two after the NTSC standard was officially carved in stone.
The Quiz Show Scandal
Charles Van Doren had it all. He was the latest academic success in a long line of writers and teachers. He had a comfortable position teaching at his alma mater, Columbia University. And best of all, he had an incredible winning streak on a TV quiz show called Twenty One. His amazing ability to answer even the most difficult questions netted him nearly $129,000 (more than a million bucks today).
Oh, and one other thing: he had all the answers to all the questions. In advance.
The show’s producers noticed that people watched in much greater numbers when a contestant was on a winning streak. So they made sure such streaks occurred, fixing the game by providing one of the two competitors with the answers. Van Doren’s telegenic appearance and scholarly demeanor made him the perfect quiz show celebrity, which contributed in no small part to the help he got and the ratings the show drew.
Not as happy about the turn of events was Herb Stempel, the guy who’d been riding the Twenty One rigged answer gravy train before being replaced by Van Doren. He spilled the beans to anyone who would listen. At first he was dismissed as a sore loser. But as more and more information came to light about fixing not just on Twenty One but on several other shows as well, the public started to pay attention.
The resulting scandal had three immediate effects. First, the law stepped in. Prosecutors failed to make court cases against the shows, at least in part because the law didn’t specifically prohibit the production of rigged quiz shows. After holding widely-publicized hearings (at which both Stempel and Van Doren testified), Congress passed a law prohibiting airing of games “with intent to deceive the audience.”
Second, TV show financing structures changed radically. In the early days of television, shows were typically paid for by a single sponsor. Rather than interrupt the program with commercial breaks, the sponsor’s products were worked directly into the show. On Twenty One, the host would pause between rounds to mention Geritol, the company paying the bills. But by the mid 1950s, production costs had grown enough to make it hard for just one company to pay the whole price.
The quiz show scandal was the final nail in the coffin of single-sponsor financing. In its place networks sold ad spots, dividing costs up among several companies and reducing the pressure on everyone involved.
And just as the War of the Worlds broadcast had done with radio a couple of decades earlier, the scandal shook public faith in the medium. Many viewers felt duped by the rigged games, and trust in television never fully recovered.
Here’s a quote you don’t hear much anymore: “This concludes our broadcast day.” In the 21st century, most broadcast stations and cable channels run programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even in the middle of the night on Sunday.
Just a couple of decades ago, however, many TV stations went off the air, typically wrapping up their broadcasts sometime around midnight in the central time zone. Sign off procedure varied from station to station, but the last few minutes every day typically included a quick news summary, promotional video showcasing station employees and other behind-the-scenes images, a quick prayer and a patriotic music video of the Star Spangled Banner. A minute or so of a test pattern (bars of color and an annoying tone). Then the signal switched off, leaving nothing but static.
Even HBO used to shut down at the end of the day. However, cablecasters were more likely to share their channels rather than shut down entirely. Nickelodeon’s target audience members tend to go to bed by 7:00 or 8:00. Rather than show kiddie cartoons to adult insomniacs, the channel’s spot on the cable box was typically taken over by another half-day-only channel at night. Eventually MTV (Nickelodeon’s parent company) established Nick at Nite specifically to fill the gap. Though they’re owned by the same company, share a space and part of a name, they’re considered two different channels for purposes such as ratings calculations.
Critics debate whether the death of the sign-off was a good or bad thing. Additional programming time is generally a good thing. But what’s worse: dead air or the relentless parade of infomercials that occupy the airwaves in the wee hours of the morning?
In its earliest incarnation, “cable television” provided nothing but signals from over-the-air broadcast stations. The trick was that they supplied them to people who couldn’t receive them otherwise. If you lived too far away from a city with a TV station or if a mountain or a few blocks of tall buildings stood between your home and the transmitter, you couldn’t receive the signal on your own. But if you wanted to watch TV bad enough, you could climb up to the top of that signal-blocking mountain, set up an antenna and run a cable back down to your house.
Then of course your neighbor sees that you have a working TV set, so he starts coming over and bringing his family every night. After awhile you get tired of this, so you politely ask him to buy his own set and offer to hook your cable up to his house as well. That’s fine if it’s just you and the guy next door, but when the whole town starts asking to be hooked up, you start seeing this as a moneymaking operation. So everyone who connects to your cable has to pay you a monthly “subscription fee,” and you become the local head end.
That’s Community Antenna TV, and it’s the first important step toward cable television as we know it today. Of course the next step was to provide content beyond over-the-air stations, such as superstations from distant cities and eventually premium services and other cable-only channels.
Inventor of Soaps
Irna Phillips invented the soap opera. Seldom if ever has one individual had such a large role in the creation of an entire programming category. Starting on radio and then moving to television, she pioneered the first programs aimed directly at housewives, a huge, untapped market at the time.
Phillips developed her first “serial drama” – Painted Dreams – for radio station WGN in Chicago. Like much of her early work, the shows were designed to run for 15 minutes and featured mostly female characters. Her stories tended to progress slowly (so audience members wouldn’t miss anything if their babies started crying in another room), and she came up with the idea to end episodes with a “cliffhanger” so people would tune in again for the next installment.
She created 19 different shows for radio and television, including As the World Turns and Days of Our Lives. One of her most famous creations – The Guiding Light – began on radio in 1937, moved to television in 1952 and ran continuously until 2009, making it the longest-running drama in broadcast history. In her heyday, Phillips wrote more than two million words worth of scripts per year. She acted out her scenes – playing all the parts herself – while an assistant wrote everything down.
Phillips was strongly attached to her work, learning early on to retain all the ownership rights to the shows she created. Her shows tackled controversial issues such as abortion and the emerging roles of women in the workplace. When CBS network censors refused to allow her to include an interracial romance in the serial version of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, she quit the show.
President of the “Tiffany Network”
Early on, William S. Paley had a vision of broadcasting’s future. At the ripe old age of 26 he assumed control of a small network of 16 radio stations. In less than a year the family made enough money to buy majority control of the network, the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Paley’s scheme for making money with his new network was brilliantly simple: stop charging affiliates for programming. The less the shows cost, the more stations would carry it. And the more stations that carried CBS’s shows, the more people tuned in. And the bigger the audience, the more the network could charge for advertising.
The second part of the Paley plan was to improve program quality in order to draw more listeners. The jewel in the new CBS crown was its news division, its reputation for excellence in news coverage backed by Paley’s personal friendship with legendary reporter Edward R. Murrow.
The network continued its emphasis on advertising and quality programming when it made the move to television in the late 1940s. During the postwar economic boom CBS matched and then surpassed NBC, the broadcasting rival that dominated radio for decades.
That isn’t to say that everything CBS ever came up with was completely crap-free. In 1959 Paley stepped down as company president, though he retained control as chairman of the board. The network maintained the quality of its news division, despite occasional bumps in the relationship between management and journalists. But some of the programs on the entertainment side were a bit more “low brow” than previous offerings. Though shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island weren’t exactly high water marks in American cultural history, they were a big part of CBS’s dominance of the ratings in the 1960s. Indeed, between 1955 and 1976 the network consistently led the competition for viewers.
Uncut Movies from Outer Space
The Home Box Office network started up with a gamble: founders Charles Dolan and Time Life bet that people would be willing to pay for television – particularly movies and sporting events – shown uncut and commercial-free. The network’s programming and innovative early use of satellite transmission made it an immense commercial success and model for many standard practices in cable and broadcast television.
The network began life as a CATV operation in Manhattan, where tall buildings made it difficult to receive TV signals. However, the service quickly expanded to include uncensored movies and New York area sporting events.
HBO expanded to other markets as well, and on September 30, 1975, it became the first TV channel to deliver a continuous signal via satellite, beginning with the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” boxing bout.
The use of a satellite was an important innovation. The broadcast networks sent their signals to their affiliates via a huge, expensive series of dedicated lines and microwave transmission towers. Satellites aren’t exactly cheap, but they cost a lot less than a set of wires and towers spanning the entire nation. By using satellites, HBO was able to send its programming all across the country without spending an impossible amount of money.
In the early 1980s the network expanded its offerings to include original programming such as the popular kids’ show Fraggle Rock. In recent years HBO has become well known for original shows such as Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City and True Blood.
TV History “Twofer”
Most folks on the “key players” list are there for one particular area of accomplishment. Ted Turner, on the other hand, was largely responsible for not one but two major advances in cable television.
In 1969 he took funds from his family’s highly successful advertising business, sold a few radio stations and blew the money on a total boondoggle: a UHF TV station in Atlanta. U’s were considered bad investments, as they were harder to access and generally not as popular as VHF stations.
Seven years later Turner’s cut-rate station had a couple of banner moments. It had been broadcasting Atlanta Braves baseball games for three years, and in 1976 Turner managed to actually buy the team. But more than that, the FCC cleared the way for the station to start using satellites to send its broadcasts out to local cable systems across the country. This made the station (later re-call-signed WTBS for Turner Broadcasting System) the first “super station.”
The move drastically increased the number of viewers watching WTBS’s programming. It also helped build a bigger fan base for the Braves. At this point Turner could have just built a Scrooge McDuck money pool in his basement and gone swimming for the rest of his life.
Instead, he used a chunk of his funds to start history-making moment number two: the Cable News Network. CNN was the world’s first all-day-every-day news source, and it permanently changed the way news is covered. It also spawned spin-off networks, some more successful (Headline News) than others (CNN/SI, a sports network that never quite seemed to escape the shadow of ESPN).
That wasn’t exactly the end of Turner’s story, either. He started other cable channels (TNT and the Cartoon Network), bought the MGM/UA movie studio, and eventually merged Turner Entertainment with Time Warner.
Oprah Winfrey is the producer and star of the most successful program in syndicated television history. She turned what started as a small “chat” show into a multimedia empire, which made her one of the richest people in the business.
After a rough start in broadcast journalism, Winfrey’s career began to take off when she took a job as host of AM Chicago, a low-rated morning talk show. In less than two years the show went from last to first place in the ratings, was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and (best of all) was picked up by King World for national syndication. Her personal style and Oscar-nominated performance in The Color Purple helped her swiftly develop a strong national following.
She encouraged guests on her show – celebrities and “real people” – to open up and share their personal experiences, good and bad. She was also famous for “gimmicks” such as “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” in which she would give away products (some as valuable as cars and vacations) to all the members of the studio audience. And her “Oprah’s Book Club” episodes were legendary in the publishing industry for their ability to transform a book into an instant best seller.
She was also famous for tackling serious social issues. In the early days of her show she told audience members about her history as a victim of sexual abuse, a theme she’s returned to many times in the various media she produces.
In addition to her talk show, Winfrey is also the creator of O, The Oprah Magazine, OWN (The Oprah Winfrey Network), Oprah.com and Oprah Radio.
Winfrey is also well-known for her philanthropy. Oprah’s Angel Network provides millions of dollars in aid to nonprofit organizations across the nation and around the world. She also uses her media influence to draw public attention to problems and controversies.
Her influence and her income have led many critics to describe her as one of the most important people in media history.
Television vs. McCarthy
In the wake of the Second World War, two superpowers emerged: the United States and the Soviet Union. In short order a Cold War erupted between the two, during which no shots were directly fired but great distrust reigned abroad and at home.
Taking advantage of the “red scare,” Senator Joseph McCarthy led a crusade to blacklist Communists, making it impossible for many people with leftist leanings to find work, especially in the media.
By 1954, however, a backlash began to develop against the blacklist. On March 9, Edward R. Murrow, a journalist popular with audiences from his legendary radio coverage of World War Two, used his television news show – See It Now – to criticize McCarthy’s tactics. A week later he did another show focusing on McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee’s attacks on a woman who worked as a clerk for the Army. McCarthy appeared on See It Now on April 6 to argue with Murrow, but the senator’s wild accusations and bullying demeanor cost him a lot of public support.
Unfortunately for McCarthy, he’d recently picked a fight with a much larger foe than Murrow: the United States Army. Claiming the Pentagon was full of Communist spies, he called for Congressional hearings to investigate. Sensing that the senator had finally bitten off more than he could chew, the broadcast networks heavily covered the hearings. ABC carried the proceedings “gavel to gavel” (the first time a major network ever preempted days of normal programming in order to televise the government in action), while CBS and NBC devoted significant news time to showing the highlights.
The highlight that showed McCarthy at his “best” was a tense argument between the senator and Army lawyer Joseph N. Welch. When McCarthy (in violation of a pre-hearing agreement) accused one of the young lawyers in Welch’s firm of being a Communist, Welch let him have it: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” The exchange made McCarthy look like the bully he was, and a national audience saw the whole thing.
Though McCarthyism continued on for awhile after that, the “red scare” would never again hold as much control over the country as it had before McCarthy made enemies of the Army and the television networks.
TV’s Two Fathers
In the summer of 1921, Philo Farnsworth invented television. He was 15 years old at the time.
As we’ll see when we get to the how-it-works section, broadcasting a picture is tricky business. Several attempts had already failed completely or proven so cumbersome that they weren’t much better than total failures. An actual, working solution occurred to Farnsworth because he was a farm boy. Breaking an image down into lines was based on the back-and-forth motion farmers used to plow a field.
Of course a kid from rural Idaho wasn’t the only person in the world trying to come up with a way to make television work. While Farnsworth struggled for years on his own, inventor Vladimir Zworykin was being paid by Westinghouse (one of the largest electronics companies in the world at the time) to develop a marketable TV system. The two men came up with similar ideas at more or less the same time.
Later Westinghouse sued Farnsworth, claiming that their employee Zworykin invented the system first. Farnsworth was able to beat the huge corporation in court at least in part because his old high school science teacher testified – supported by a drawing he’d done – that Farnsworth’s idea predated Zworykin’s work.
Just as breaking a picture down into a signal wasn’t the easiest trick in the book, recording TV transmissions also proved tricky. Thus in the early days of television everything was done live, resulting in all kinds of on-air “bloopers.” The only way these broadcasts were saved was by pointing a movie camera at a screen and filming it.
The first videotape machines were cumbersome beasts, playing tape that was two inches wide. The huge tape was necessary to get all the complex picture information stored. Technical improvements shrunk the recording heads down a bit, and technicians came up with the idea of recording the signal sideways on the tape in order to bring the size down still further.
In the mid-1970s Sony came out with Betamax and JVC countered with VHS, the first commercially-successful videocassette systems for home use. VHS eventually won the “format war,” spreading to homes across the country and beginning a massive change in the television industry.
Home video allowed audiences to “time shift,” moving shows from when they were broadcast to when folks actually wanted to watch them. And if none of the broadcast or cable channels was showing anything worth watching, consumers could take a trip to the local video store and rent or buy a movie or other program of their choice. Thus viewers were liberated at least in part from the control of the networks.
NTSC – The Old Standard
Radio’s inventors had it easy. Sounds are vibrations in the air, so it wasn’t too terribly difficult to turn them into electric vibrations for broadcast. Images were a whole other story. You can’t exactly wad up a picture and cram it into a wire.
The method that worked the best was to split the image up into lines. This allowed the picture information for each individual line to be sent as a single broadcast, with “kick” signals at the end of each line to tell the cathode ray guns inside TV picture tubes when to move to the next spot and start the next line. Then at the end of one screen’s worth of picture, another kick told the television to go back to the start and begin creating the next image.
As a concept, this works great. But problems can arise in the details. How many lines should one picture be made of? And how many pictures per second should the signal include? Small changes in the answers to such questions can make a big difference in the quality of the TV picture.
Further, a signal designed with one system in mind can’t be viewed on a television set up for a different system. In the “nerd stage,” every manufacturer had its own mutually incompatible system. In order to avoid the consumer nightmare of buying a TV set that would only receive broadcasts from the manufacturer, the United States adopted the NTSC standard, which had 525 lines and 30 frames per second. Thus any U.S. television set can pick up any U.S. television signal. However, an NTSC set can’t “unscramble” a signal intended for a PAL or SECAM receiver.
HDTV – The New Standard
At this point in our nation’s history, a lot of broadcast television still uses the NTSC standard that’s been around since the 1940s (though transmission switched from analog to digital in 2009). But the conversion has begun to a newer system with better image quality: High Definition Television.
HDTV has more lines of resolution than the old NTSC standard (1080, more than double the old system’s 525). It also has longer lines, resulting in a wider aspect ratio (16:9 as opposed to the boxy 4:3 of NTSC pictures). The new system still sticks close to the old frame rate, which makes it easier to convert movies from film to video.
The new standard is slowly making its way into the various distribution channels established by the older system. The first over-the-air HD broadcasts in the United States began in 1996, and now most stations transmit in both the old and the new standards. Cable and DBS systems compete with one another based on how many HD channels they have (and how much they charge for them). And on disc, Blu-ray is to HD what DVDs were to NTSC.
Question: how do you get more than 1400 feet of videotape onto a single disc? Answer: compression.
VHS tapes had a lot of disadvantages. They were clunky, taking up a lot of storage space. They had a tendency to get tangled, broken or otherwise ruined. Even the ones that didn’t break eventually started to lose picture quality. They didn’t do a lot of fancy disc tricks such as jumping instantly to a precise point in the middle of a movie. But in their favor, they recorded every bit of the program’s picture.
The vast amount of information required to show an entire movie-length program fits on a single DVD-sized disc only if the images are “simplified” by compression routines. For example, if a movie ends with an all-black screen with “The End” in small type in the middle, a VHS tape has hundreds of lines of nothing but black. But a DVD breaks this down into digital instructions roughly the computer equivalent of “this screen is black except for the words in the middle.”
For simple images – especially high-contrast pictures or shots with distracting elements such as rapid action – the difference isn’t noticeable. But the next time you’re watching a DVD of a movie with a foggy scene, pay attention to what you’re seeing. Often the compression will cause jagged “pixel-ish” patterns in what should be a smooth bit of fog.
For the most part, however, compression is a small price to pay for the advantages discs offer over older technology.
Ever wonder why satellite dishes (at least the ones designed to pick up TV signals) all point south? Easy answer: that’s where the satellites are.
Communication satellites have to be placed in geosynchronous orbit, which means that they go around the Earth at the same rate the planet turns, always staying “parked” above the same spot on the ground below. The only place a satellite with a circular orbit will always remain geosynchronous is directly above the equator, which of course is south of all locations in the Northern Hemisphere. That’s why dishes point south.
Satellite transmissions start from a single location called an uplink. These spots can be anywhere the uplinking dish has an unobstructed shot at the satellite. CNN’s signal starts from Atlanta. ESPN originates in Bristol, Connecticut. And so on.
The signal hits the satellite, where a device called a transponder re-sends it back down to Earth. Anyone with a dish aimed in the general direction of the satellite can pick up the signal (though of course cablecasters scramble their signals so you can’t just buy a dish and get cable for free). Direct Broadcast Satellite subscribers get their programming directly from outer space, while cable systems downlink satellite signals at their head ends and then re-send them to subscribers via cables.
What kind of programming you can expect from a TV channel depends to a large extent on what kind of channel it is.
Over-the-air TV broadcasters are divided into two categories: Very High Frequency and Ultra High Frequency stations. Technically the difference between the two isn’t great. But for decades TV receiver construction caused a huge rift between VHF and UHF stations. Sets were designed to tune in VHF broadcasts (channels two through 13) with ease, going right to them with the click of a dial. Tuning in a UHF, on the other hand, required a different dial that required careful adjustment to get a static-free picture. Because watching a U required a delicate hunting expedition, people tended to watch the Vs.
As a result, the limited number of VHF channels tended to go to broadcasters with a lot of money (i.e. network affiliates). The UHF bands became the domain of PBS stations, religious broadcasters and stations that specialized in syndicated reruns and other relatively cheap programs. This system remained in place until cable became popular in the 1980s. On a cable box, every channel is as easy to tune in as any other.
Speaking of cable: multichannel distribution systems (cable and Direct Broadcast Satellite) tend to package their programming in tiers. All subscribers get a “basic cable” tier that typically includes local broadcast channels and a handful of popular cable channels such as CNN and ESPN. For an additional fee, subscribers can get a second (or even a third) tier that typically includes high band (so called for their locations higher up on the channel listings) stations designed to appeal to narrower interests.
And of course multichannel systems generally offer premium packages such as HBO and Showtime. Because these channels are only available to subscribers who pay extra for them, they’re able to show movies and other programming with no commercial interruptions and no “edited for television” cuts.
Some critics have suggested (to Congress and elsewhere) that cable companies should supply channels “a la carte,” allowing consumers to pay for and receive only the channels they actually want. However, the cable industry argues that this practice would actually drive up subscription costs by dividing the market for individual channels.
Networks and show producers tend to try to lure viewers based on show types, which tend to provide the product standardization and differentiation audiences need.
For many years the most popular show type was the sitcom (short for “situation comedy”). Designed to run in half-hour time slots, these shows typically started with a basic premise (Cuban bandleader with ditzy wife, conservative parents sharing a house with their liberal daughter and son-in-law, a group of friends facing challenges living in New York, and so on) and let the characters’ situations generate the humor. Many of these shows are domestic comedies, centering on members of families (traditional or otherwise).
In the 1950s and 60s, variety shows (combinations of comedy and musical acts) dominated network prime time schedules. Eventually these gave way to other show types. However, sketch comedies such as Saturday Night Live preserve at least some aspects of the old variety programs.
Hour-long dramas are generally divided into two categories. Chapter shows are popular with producers because they’re easier to syndicate. Indeed, the original Star Trek was an initial three-season failure. But because it was divided into chapters – recurring characters in complete stories told from beginning to end in a single episode – it was attractive to stations looking to air reruns that didn’t necessarily have to be shown in order.
On the other hand, episodes in a serial program have to be watched in order. If you tried to watch a season of 24 (in which the story takes place in “real time” with every episode covering one hour of the characters’ day), you’d be completely lost if you started in the middle somewhere. Great for drawing a network broadcast audience, but not so hot in syndication.
In the early 2000’s – for the first time ever – sitcoms began to slip out of the top ten ratings list. In their place arose reality shows. This new breed of program was popular with audiences, because apparently people really want to know just how many bugs a person will eat to win a prize or how mean a judge can be to someone who can’t sing. They were also immensely popular with show producers, because they didn’t require writers or actors. Lower costs meant lower risks and higher profits.
Birth, Life and Death
Like everything in the universe, TV shows have a life cycle. For shows with scripts and actors, life tends to begin with a pilot. Producers shoot a sample episode they can show to networks to help them find a spot in a broadcast or cablecast. And if a show is “picked up,” the pilot is often the first episode audiences see. With luck, it impresses viewers as much as it impressed network executives.
If not, it dies a quick death. But if it draws enough viewers to keep it alive for at least 13 episodes, a couple of things happen. First, the network has to order more episodes (13 is the usual initial order for a new show). And second, producers and writers need to start thinking about keeping the story going by introducing new characters, plot complications or other elaborations on the original theme.
Critics disagree on exactly how long a show can reasonably be expected to keep its characters and story lines fresh. Some say three or four seasons, while others argue that six or even seven seasons aren’t completely out of the question. And of course it varies from show to show based on the strength of the premise and the talent of the writers. But sooner or later every show begins to decline in quality.
Some shows die when they fall out of favor with audiences. When people stop watching, advertisers stop paying for ads, and that’s almost certain death. But some shows that still attract viewers die anyway. Sometimes death results from actors who demand more money than producers are willing to pay. But on occasion even a popular show with happy actors ends its run because someone (usually the producer) simply feels that the show has gone as far as it’s going to and that additional seasons would be unacceptably worse.
First-run and Syndication
Several times so far I’ve mentioned the word “syndication,” so we need to pin down exactly what that means.
Back when NBC, CBS and ABC dominated the television industry, shows started their lives as first-run network programs. These worked then pretty much as they do now: the network broadcasts new episodes and possibly re-runs them during slow periods in the summer.
If a show makes it to 100 episodes, that makes it a candidate for off-network syndication. The show’s owner can sell old episodes to the highest bidder (whether or not the station is affiliated with the network that broadcast the program to begin with). A set of 100 episodes allows the show to be stripped – run at the same time of day five days a week even though it originally ran once a week – without repeating episodes for 20 weeks.
If a show lives for years and years in off-network syndication, it can achieve evergreen status, an informal indication that the show’s been around for a really long time.
Some shows never run on the broadcast networks at all. If they’re created by an independent producer and then shopped to the highest bidder, they’re first run syndication shows. Some of television’s biggest success stories – including The Oprah Winfrey Show – have been first-run syndicated programs.
In the multichannel world, it’s also quite common for shows to run as cable originals. These work like first-run network shows, but they’re produced for cable channels rather than for broadcast networks. And like their broadcast counterparts, they can end up in syndication as well (even original programming for premium channels, though these shows sometimes require some content editing to tame them down for broadcast or basic cable channels).
Most broadcasters and cablecasters depend on ad revenue to stay in business. Thus they have to convince advertisers that potential customers watch their programs. For proof of audience size, the industry turns to ratings reports generated by the A.C. Nielsen Company.
A show’s rating is the percentage of all households in a market watching a particular channel on a particular day at a particular time. For example, if a quarter of all the households in the United States are watching 60 Minutes on Sunday evening at 6:00, then the show’s rating for that day and time is 25.
Ratings are calculated based on households rather than individual viewers, a practice that dates back to the days when homes tended to have only one television and the presumption was that if the TV was on then most family members were watching it. They’re calculated not only for the country as a whole but also for specific markets, which is good for local stations doing business with advertisers who are interested in particular cities rather than the whole nation.
Nielsen also uses HUT (Homes Using Television) to calculate share. This stat measures the percentage of households that are actually watching television at the time rather than the market as a whole. Share is helpful for stations to tell how they stack up against the competition, but ratings are generally more useful for determining and comparing audience sizes.
The company monitors viewing year-round, but during four months of the year (February, May, July and November) Nielsen increases monitoring activities. These months are called sweeps, and advertisers pay close attention to the numbers from sweeps periods. Because broadcasters know their audience sizes during sweeps are particularly important, they tend to schedule programs that will glue viewers to their sets. Ever notice that one of your favorite shows tends to go through slow periods when not much happens and then fast periods with lots of action and attention-grabbing cliffhangers? Often this ebb and flow has a lot to do with the month the episodes originally aired.
Running ads on television is an expensive business. A 15-second spot on a popular network show can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and “big ticket” broadcast such as the Super Bowl can cost millions per ad. With that much money on the table, advertisers like to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth.
Ad value is calculated by the cost per ratings point. So a $100,000 ad on a show with a 20 rating would cost $5000 per point. This calculation makes it easier not only to figure out a show’s “bang for the buck” but also to compare different ad purchases. For example, buying ads on two shows with a rating of 10 but a cheaper price tag of $50,000 each would still be an overall cost of $5000 per rating point.
Like the math involved, actually buying the spots can be tricky as well. If all you want is a handful of ads in a local market, you can buy them as “spot” purchases. The national networks, on the other hand, sell a lot of their ad slots during the upfront, a big meeting that takes place in New York every May. During the upfront, networks announce their upcoming fall schedules and offer advertisers the chance to buy spots based on their best guesses about what ratings are likely to be. Advertisers that don’t buy early can end up stuck with the scraps, spots that don’t deliver as many ratings points.
Once upon a time, television in the United States was the domain of three big networks: NBC, CBS and ABC. Other than a few small PBS and independent stations, that was it. Everybody watching TV had three choices. Thus the networks designed their programs to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.
Cable changed all that. Instead of three channels, now we have hundreds. And while some still try to appeal to general audiences, many cable networks focus on narrowcasting, aiming their programming at specific subgroups. Some strike a compromise between extremes (ESPN appeals to fans of many sports), while some get really specific (Fox Sports Kansas City or The Golf Channel, aimed at narrow demographics).
In a world with only three networks, narrowcasting would be financial suicide. But if consumers have hundreds of channels to choose from, many of those choices can afford to cater to narrow segments of the overall market.
Viewers like narrowcasting because it caters to individual interests rather than assuming that everyone in the world is willing to watch the same thing. The practice also appeals to cablecasters because it opens up tons of new advertising markets.
Pretend that you’re the ad manager for Iguana Treats, a company that specializes in pet food for lizards. Advertising on one of the “big three” (now of course the “big four” with the addition of Fox in the 1980s) isn’t an option, because you’d be paying way more than you can afford to reach millions of people who will never buy your product. But if the Animal Planet network starts a new program called Those Amazing Iguanas, the show could be ideal for you. Many (maybe even most) of the audience members would be potential customers for your product. And because the overall audience isn’t as huge as a broadcast network’s, ad spots on the show are likely to be closer to your price range.
Buying a broadcast station isn’t exactly like buying a used car. For starters, most used cars don’t come with multi-million-dollar price tags. But even companies with the cash to do the deal still find that a wall of regulation stands in the way. Rupert Murdoch, owner of NewsCorp and one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, discovered that he had to become a U.S. citizen before he could legally buy U.S. TV stations.
In the early days of television, the FCC instituted the 7-7-7 rule, so called because it prevented companies from owning more than seven TV stations, seven AM radio stations and seven FM radio stations. Even when the rule later changed to 12-12-12, it still prevented a single company from owning stations that when combined reached more than 25% of the population.
This led to an unusual relationship between the three big networks and the stations that broadcast their programming. Each network owned a handful of stations – called O’n’Os for “owned and operated” – but most of the stations were actually owned by other companies and were merely “affiliates” of the network. Unlike the O’n’Os, affiliates could decline to carry some of the network’s shows.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 swept away the strict number limits on ownership, replacing it with a complex limitation on audience sizes. Now the FCC revisits the question once every four years, altering limits to meet current needs.
And of course no limits have ever been placed on the number of cable channels one company can own. As a result of deregulation and no-regulation-to-begin-with, the “big six” media companies have managed to consolidate ownership of much of the television industry.
Jobs at TV Stations
TV shows come from two sources: TV stations (and their big sisters at the networks) and independent producers. Stations and networks are generally responsible for programs such as news broadcasts, while independent producers create shows such as sitcoms and dramas.
Let’s start with employment opportunities at TV stations.
Live broadcasts require a good-sized staff of people. Obviously the program needs on-air personalities (anchors for news, hosts for chat shows). News broadcasts typically require Electronic News Gathering teams, including reporters, camera operators and sound technicians. However, as media technology becomes easier to use, many stations are going to individual “backpack journalists” who do all the jobs that used to require an entire ENG team.
Behind the scenes, broadcasts are managed by a producer who makes the big decisions about program style, content and budget. A director handles the minute-by-minute supervision when the show is in progress, working with everyone to make sure everything runs smoothly. She gives instruction to camera operators, broadcast engineers and technical directors, who control the devices that make the show work.
Stations also need people who don’t work directly on shows. Advertising pays the bills, so sales representatives are responsible for finding clients and making sure that their ads run properly. Sales reps are usually supervised by an ad manager. Many stations also have separate promotions departments that are responsible for getting viewers to tune in.
Everybody at the station answers to a general manager, also sometimes known as a “station manager.”
Jobs in Video Production
Video production companies run a lot like movie studios, except of course they sell their product to broadcast or cable networks rather than distributing them to theaters.
Like station work, independent shows start with a producer who handles the “big picture” decisions and a director who’s responsible for the show’s creative side. Narrative productions such as sitcoms and dramas require scripts and on-screen talent, so the director works closely with writers and actors to make sure everything works properly. And of course shows also need camera people, lighting people, sound people, art directors, graphic designers, costume people, editors and just about everything else a movie would need.
If a producer is comfortable with the selling-the-product aspect of the job, he’ll meet directly with potential buyers for the show. If not, he might hire a sales staff to help get the show picked up by a network.
Because television is a big-dollar industry, all the standard job hunting advice applies double here. Competition for TV jobs is usually fierce, especially for station jobs that are more likely to provide steady paychecks, insurance and other benefits.
It goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway just so it’s completely clear) that technical positions require technical skills. You might get hired as a camera operator with fairly minimal training (though probably not without at least a little prior experience), but for complex jobs like editing you’ll have to have the education and portfolio to prove that you know what you’re doing.
The only positions that tend to be open to people right out of school are production assistant spots. These are standard “gofer” jobs, but they can be good opportunities to at least get in the door (especially if you aren’t sure exactly what part of the business you want to do and you’d like to get your feet wet before jumping in).
The Vast Wasteland
On May 9, 1961, Newton Minnow stirred a sudden storm in the television industry. Newly appointed chairman of the FCC, Minnow delivered a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he described television as a “vast wasteland.”
Challenging station owners to actually watch their own programs, Newton observed “When television is good … nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.” He said that the average TV broadcast day was made up of “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”
Sound like anything you’ve seen?
Minnow caused a stir with his suggestion that television should consider itself a public service rather than a source of mindless entertainment. Yet more than half a century later, many critics argue that the only significant change from then to now is that the wasteland has become much vaster.
All too often when someone’s trying to get some creepy new regulation imposed on the media, kids are used as the excuse. “It’s bad for the children!” they’ll shout about R-rated movies (that kids shouldn’t be able to get into without their parents) or M-rated video games (which again parents should be able to screen from their kids if they want to). It’s what the logicians call a “straw man” argument.
But in the realm of television programming aimed specifically at kids, the issue takes on a greater importance. As a society we don’t generally insist that TV programs be educational, uplifting or otherwise good for their audiences (for which the casts of most reality shows can be grateful). But what about shows designed specifically for minds that are still in the developing stage?
The history of government regulation isn’t great when it comes to requiring that kids’ shows be good for kids. Several broadcasters caused a stir back in the early 1990s when they tried to meet an FCC mandate for more educational programming for kids by airing reruns of The Flintstones. The commission concluded what was obvious to everyone involved: Fred and Barney weren’t teaching anyone anything about what life was like in “caveman times.”
On the other hand, the “vast wasteland” isn’t completely devoid of shows actually designed to teach kids something. Sesame Street is the most obvious example, but PBS isn’t the only player in the good-for-kids game.
Many questions remain unresolved. Should kids’ shows be more than mere entertainment? What exactly do we mean by “educational”? Is a show automatically bad if it’s designed to help sell merchandise? And who bears responsibility for program quality: the broadcasters, the government, parents, or some combination of the three?
Broadcast television is subject to the heaviest set of government content regulations in the United States. In this sea of federal regulation, additional individual and industry controls seem like “piling on.” Yet just about every major broadcast and cablecast operation has a “standards and practices” department of some kind.
S&P folks develop rules that make sure the law is obeyed (particularly regulations regarding indecent programming) and that programs don’t unduly offend audience members. If nobody complains to the station (or worse, to the station’s advertisers), S&P has a good day.
The department’s duties vary from station to station. Some are responsible primarily for making sure the federal rules are followed. Other stations (particularly those that specialize in programming aimed at minors) set up content restrictions that go beyond what the law requires. Enforcement duties range from reviewing content prior to broadcast (sometimes even in the early development stages) to imposing punishments on employees who violate the codes. In some extreme cases (such as with an on-air personality who specializes in controversial content) a broadcast may be set up with a two-second delay so an S&P employee can hit an emergency switch and cut off the broadcast before something inappropriate or illegal makes it onto the air.
Needless to say, creative people aren’t always best friends with the S&P department. In the early days of The Tonight Show, host Jack Paar walked out in the middle of a broadcast due to a dispute over a joke that today probably wouldn’t raise eyebrows if it got told on Sesame Street. And of course S&P varies from station to station. Indecent content is illegal on FCC-regulated stations, prohibited on many cable channels (such as MTV), but practically mandatory on premium channels such as HBO or Showtime.
For many years, TV ads for any “adult beverage” with more alcohol than beer or wine were few and far between. Unlike cigarettes – which can’t legally be advertised on broadcast television – there’s no law against booze ads. Nor did broadcasters have a general rule against running such ads.
The liquor industry, on the other hand, did have a rule. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States kept a rule in place for decades prohibiting alcohol advertising on television (other than for beer and wine). The DISCUS rule saved the industry money by assuring that none of its members (the major liquor companies) had to compete against each other by buying TV ads. It also served as a safeguard against Federal Trade Commission consideration of restrictions on alcohol advertising.
In 1996 DISCUS repealed the rule, allowing its members to start TV ad campaigns. However, the change in the rule didn’t result in a major upswing in such advertising (except during special occasions such as the holiday season).
Further, the council retained rules requiring alcohol ads to avoid targeting minors or being unduly offensive. Rules block the use of Santa Claus in ads, require avoidance of racism or sexism and prohibit companies from equating their products with “sexual prowess and sexual success.” Well, I admit I haven’t seen Santa in a rum ad recently.
Common Carriers or Electronic Publishers?
Before 1979, courts had trouble telling exactly what cable television was. They had two choices: consider cable a common carrier or consider it an electronic publisher. The distinction wasn’t just something for lawyers to fret over, either. It was a matter of control over what channels subscribers could get and what they couldn’t.
“Common carrier” has a long-established legal definition. Such businesses have a duty to take whoever comes along and pays for their services. The classic example is a railroad, which is expected to sell tickets on a first-come-first-served basis to anyone with the money to pay for a seat.
Publishers, on the other hand, have control over their publications. Newspapers and magazines aren’t required to print anything anyone sends them. Instead, the First Amendment protects their right to pick and choose what gets printed and what doesn’t.
So in FCC vs. Midwest Video, the Supreme Court was asked to decide if cable providers were common carriers who had to take all the networks that asked to be on their services (as long as there were empty slots for them) or electronic publishers with the authority to say “yes” to some networks and “no” to others based on their own preferences.
Though the court had supported some of the FCC’s earlier efforts to regulate cable, here it drew the line. Requiring cable services to carry any kind of programming that came along deprived them of too much control over their own business. Thus the court considered cable more like a magazine and less like a passenger car.
If you’re a smoker (or even if you aren’t), you’re probably well familiar with one of the effects of the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act: those labels on the sides of your smokes reminding you that you’re killing yourself. One of the law’s lesser-known effects, however, was a total ban on cigarette advertising on radio and broadcast television.
In the 1950s and 60s, cigarette ads were common on television. Indeed, back in the pre-ad days of show sponsorship, news anchors would often pause in the middle of reading the news to light up and tell the audience how good the sponsor’s cigarettes tasted. Yet after one last ad for Virginia Slims aired on January 1, 1971, at 11:59 p.m., smoking disappeared from ad breaks for good.
How was the ban Constitutional? Didn’t it violate the tobacco companies’ right to free speech? As an academic matter, yes, it probably did. But the only way to get a law declared unconstitutional is to challenge it in court, and the companies didn’t. As a matter of politics, the act wasn’t anywhere near as bad as what Congress might otherwise have done, measures that could have included stiffer regulations or even an outright ban. Further, the companies saved millions of dollars per year because they no longer had to advertise on television just to keep up with their competitors.
The only legal challenge came from broadcasters, who were understandably upset about the loss of millions of dollars per year in ad revenue. But the court dismissed the suit, observing that TV networks were still free to broadcast as many pro-smoking messages as they wanted. They just couldn’t get money from tobacco companies for doing so.
The Prime Time Access Rule
Over-the-air television broadcasting is a “perfect storm” for government regulation. Before the medium even existed, the history of radio regulation clearly established that the government’s authority over the public airwaves included at least some control of the content of programming from licensed broadcasters. And television is an immensely powerful medium, making it a popular target for regulation.
Thus Congress and the FCC have imposed many rules designed to make television an instrument of public policy. One such regulation was the Prime Time Access Rule. Government officials decided to limit the amount of the evening broadcast schedule (from 6:00 to 10:00 in the Central time zone) that could be dominated by national networks. The rule required that local stations rather than their “parents” in New York control at least one hour out of the four.
Most stations opted to air some kind of local news broadcast from 6:00 to 6:30, which fit well with the rule’s intent. However, the 6:30 to 7:00 slot tended to go not to locally-generated content but to syndicated programming such as game shows and celebrity gossip.
The FCC put the rule in place in 1970, but by 1996 the commission determined that the local/national mix was sufficiently well established that government intervention wasn’t necessary. Though the law no longer requires them to do so, the networks still leave 6 to 7 open for local news and Entertainment Tonight (or Wheel of Fortune or some other non-network program) before beginning their prime time lineups.
The Equal Time Rule
On December 6, 2003, Rev. Al Sharpton hosted Saturday Night Live. But not in the Kansas City market, thanks to a federal broadcast regulation with good intentions but occasionally bizarre effects.
The law – The Equal Time Rule – requires broadcasters to provide airtime to all candidates for office at the lowest rate it charges to any candidate. Television and radio have tremendous power to influence voters, so the government set up the rule to keep broadcasters from supporting their favorite candidates for free while charging her opponents for access to the public airwaves.
The principle is simple and reasonably noble. But implementing it has posed problems. In 1959 a “fringe candidate” for mayor of Chicago demanded free airtime after a local news show did a story about the current mayor greeting a visiting diplomat. Though the FCC had to rule in the fringe candidate’s favor, it then revised the regulation to exclude news coverage.
However, that didn’t completely solve the problem. When Ronald Reagan began running for office – first as California governor and later as President of the United States – broadcasters had to stop running his old movies – most notably Bedtime for Bonzo – for fear of being required to cough up an hour and a half of free airtime for his opponents. Reruns of Law & Order featuring Senator Fred Thompson and movies starring Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have suffered similar disappearances during their stars’ campaigns.
And Al Sharpton, who was an officially qualified candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, on the ballot in Missouri and thus not on the airwaves, at least not until summer reruns.
Must Carry Rules
In the mid-1990s, I had to stop watching The Simpsons. It wasn’t that I wanted to. Though the show’s best episodes were mostly behind it at that point, it was still a regular part of my Sunday evening TV schedule. But I had to give it up, because the Fox Network disappeared from my cable service.
I lived in Lawrence, Kansas, at the time, too far away from the broadcast towers in Kansas City and Topeka to get a sufficiently clear signal without a monster antenna (not really an option for a guy renting half a duplex). So I depended on Sunflower Cable for my television needs. And like many Fox fans on Sunflower, I fell victim to a fight with the FCC’s Must Carry Rule for a battleground.
Back in the days before cable, TV broadcasters had it made. Television was in high demand, and with only a handful of stations in any given market competition was small. So when cable companies started setting up shop, broadcasters were understandably concerned. Now they had to compete against dozens (later hundreds) of other stations rather than just three or four. And worse, if people used the cable box as their primary source of television programming, local stations would lose a lot of viewers unless they could find a way to force their way into spots on the cable service.
Recognizing the importance of local television (and the political might of the National Association of Broadcasters), the FCC adopted rules that required cable companies to include area stations on their services. For me in Lawrence, that meant I got all the KC and Topeka stations as part of Sunflower’s package.
Ah, but then the stations got a little greedy. Cable subscribers paid monthly fees to their providers, but none of that money got passed along to the local stations. So both sides went crying to the federal government. “They’re making money with our programming,” complained the broadcasters. “Yes, but we’re required to carry their stations,” replied the cable companies.
The FCC struck a compromise. Broadcasters could demand payment from cable operators. But if the cable folks didn’t want to pay, they were free to drop the stations from their services. The ball was then in the broadcaster’s court: they could use must-carry rule to force their way onto the cable box, but only if they were willing to give up their right to be paid.
Back in Lawrence, Sunflower Cable and KSHB (the KC Fox affiliate at the time) couldn’t come to terms, and the channel disappeared from the service. Sunflower subscribers were cut off from Fox programming. Fortunately for Simpsons fans in Larrytown, shortly thereafter the KC TV market underwent a shake-up that switched Fox to WDAF, which was still part of the Sunflower service.