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Preface

Part I
The Emergence Of American Television: The Formative Years

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

Part II
One Nation Under Network Television: The 1950s

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

Part III
The Years Of Plenty: The 1960s and 1970s

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

Part IV
Toward and Video Order: the 1980s and 1990s

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

 

 

Political and Fiscal Uncertainties

With the legitimization afforded by such cultural trends, some in conservative politics moved against the bÍte noire of the movement, the "liberal" news media. In many respects this was the revival of an old campaign against the moderate tradition in TV journalism. The latest crusade against perceived press bias was triggered by a CBS Reports documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," aired January 23, 1982. In that ninety-minute broadcast, correspondent Mike Wallace and producer George Crile accused the former head of military operations in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, of purposefully deceiving President Johnson in the mid-1960s by lowering estimates of enemy troop strength to ensure the president's commitment to prosecute the war.

The first important volley in the controversy created by the documentary was fired four months later in TV Guide, when authors Don Kowit and Sally Bedell published a lengthy list of what they considered "inaccuracies, distortions, and violations of journalistic standards" contained in the CBS program. Their conclusion spoke directly to conservative concerns: "Are the network news divisions, with their immense power to influence the public's ideas about politics and recent history, doing enough to keep their own houses in order?...television news' 'safeguards' for fairness and accuracy need tightening, if not wholesale revision."

Motivated by regard for personal vindication rather than conservative ideology, Westmoreland filed a $120 million libel suit against CBS that fall. Nevertheless, the suit drove directly to the heart of right-wing complaints against national TV. During the trial the courtroom was filled with accusations of journalistic misrepresentation, irresponsible editing techniques, and generalized liberal prejudice in video news. Although the suit was dropped by General Westmoreland before a final verdict could be rendered, CBS was forced during the proceedings to admit many shortcomings in its reportorial procedures.

The trial wounded CBS grievously. First, the corporation had to spend millions of dollars defending itself. The trial also hurt the public image of CBS, for to have been taken to court by one of the few military heroes of the Vietnam War did not win many friends for "the Tiffany network." CBS had been rendered vulnerable.

By 1985 the advocacy group Accuracy in Media (AIM) and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina mounted an open campaign against network news operations, and specifically CBS and its news anchorman, Dan Rather. Instead of the familiar moral critique and righteous indignation, the conservatives tried a different approach: Helms and AIM urged wealthy supporters to buy CBS stock and, thereby, a controlling interest in the corporation. Then it would be simply a matter of firing Rather—and others stained with liberal sin.

Recognizing the opportunity to increase his corporate position within the industry—and hoping to exploit the confusion created by the ideological attacks on CBS and Rather—cable broadcast magnate Ted Turner launched his own assault, a hostile bid to take over the network. Relying on junk bonds as capital, Turner offered to purchase a controlling 67 percent of CBS stock at a price nearly double its current selling price. Although CBS leadership felt the Turner bid had little chance of suc≠ceeding, to protect itself from a possible Turner triumph the network was compelled in July 1985 to borrow $954 million to buy back 20 percent of its own stock at an inflated price of $150 per share. Since the latter offer was made with cash and solid securities, it effectively quashed the Turner bid.

It was an expensive battle, in some ways a Pyrrhic victory for CBS. Although the network now controlled its own destiny, it had tripled its debt (which rose to $1 billion) and depleted two-thirds of its equity (which fell from $1.5 billion to $519 million). Added to this was a string of financial losses in ancillary activities: millions of dollars wasted in over-ex≠penditures in the purchase of twelve Ziff-Davis magazines; money lost in the acquisition of Ideal Toy Company; millions more squandered on the abortive fine-arts CBS Cable Network in 1981-1982; the loss of $40 million in the corporation's Theatrical Film Division; and the forced sale of TriStar Pictures when conflicts arose between CBS and its partners in the venture, HBO and Columbia Pictures.

Before the financial hemorrhage ended, CBS endured personnel changes in its highest offices, divestiture of many of its subsidiaries, ration≠alization of its broadcast operations, and fiscal retrenchment. At its News Division alone, CBS in 1987 cut the budget by $30 million and discharged almost 230 employees. Significantly, for the first time in the history of U.S. television, CBS fell to third place among the networks. Moreover, during the November 1988 "TV sweeps"—one of the four months annu≠ally when audience ratings are used to establish local and national advertising rates for the coming quarter—CBS billings actually came in fourth behind NBC, ABC, and the cumulative total for independent stations.

Regardless of financial specifics, the economic decline at CBS was only the most glaring example of the challenges facing network broadcasting in a decade of industry metamorphosis. In 1983 overall profits of the owned and operated stations of the three networks may have increased 30 percent over the previous year, but two years later RCA and its NBC subsidiary were purchased by General Electric for $6.3 billion. In that same year Capital Cities, a small but successful group of TV stations, paid $3.5 billion to buy the ABC network. Add to this other economic crises such as a strike by the Writers Guild against ABC News in 1987; a more devastating Writers Guild strike, lasting twenty-two weeks, against the networks and production studios in 1988; the billions of dollars spent in 1985 by Rupert Murdoch to buy 20th Century-Fox and Metromedia; and the $94 million lost by Murdoch during the first two years of operations at the Fox television network.

Although there were financial peaks and valleys throughout the decade, the long-range vitality of deregulated national video was clouded. Reflecting the fundamental uncertainty of network economics, one prom≠inent TV critic concluded in early 1988 that while "TV has definitely been getting better ... soon, fearfully soon, it may be getting worse."

To counter such foreboding, the president of NBC, Robert Wright, felt it necessary in the middle of the year to reassure the public that the broadcast networks "are in no immediate danger of collapse." A few months earlier the chairman of Capital Cities/ABC also tried to describe the deteriorating situation in positive terms. According to Thomas S. Murphy:

Change has become a central fact of life for the telecommunications industry. All three networks are deeply affected by a significant and permanent erosion of audience. . . . Network television, in short, is now a mature business, one which can no longer simply assume continued growth or expansion. This maturity makes us much like other American businesses, with each company's survival contingent on its ability to increase its market share and control its costs.

 

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