The Decline of Network TV
Robert Sarnoff explained it well. Speaking at an NBC affiliates gathering in December 1961, he reiterated the credo of commercial broadcasting, the belief that TV in the United States was what the American people wanted it to be. "It is a mistake to assume that viewing can take place without the consent of the viewers—that a mass audience will just sit there and watch, regardless of what is on the screen," he asserted. "The ultimate decisions on what the public sees can come only from the public itself, as long as it is free to watch or not to watch as it pleases."
Like most self-serving philosophies, Sarnoff s witness before his NBC kindred was only partially true. Certainly, the networks were providing the entertainment fare desired by a large segment of the potential audience—in many cases, a majority of the population. The comedies, action-adventures, dramatics, and feature films that filled the air night and day were popular with most viewers. Granted, TV programs were formulaic and predictable, but they were occasionally excellent, and TV served a civilization conditioned by broadcasting since the 1920s to accept quality with heavy doses of mediocrity.
But there were fatal flaws in U.S. television. At every step broadcasting served interests seeking to amalgamate Americans as a single audience. Audiences were to be as large as possible, shows as popular as possible, and program content was to be as common as necessary to attract viewers. Little on TV appealed to narrow interests. Like so much else in U.S. commerce—from automobiles to shopping malls to franchised hamburger stands—national video offered the same products to everyone everywhere: everything worked, looked, and tasted the same. The United States may have been the most pluralistic civilization on Earth, but network monopolistic practices squeezed the population toward sameness.
In the 1980s, however, the fragile foundation on which U.S. television had been constructed began to disintegrate. Developments that were technological, political, and economic began to undermine network hegemony and liberate the American audience. Much as radio had changed decades earlier from broadcasting (programming for undifferentiated, broad audiences) to narrowcasting (programming for specific, or narrow audiences), TV now began to deliver many more channels and greater choice.
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