The Last Emperor: William S. Paley 2

Americans who grew up in the postwar era are so accustomed to television as a fixture in their lives that its presence seems almost a dispensation of nature. Virtually everyone’s memory of it is the same. If you had a set in 1955, it had twelve VHF (very high fre¬quency) channels, all except three of which probably broadcast static—unless, by performing calisthenics with your aerial, you could pick up a network station from a distant city, the ghostly twin of a local channel. The picture was black and white, and if you switched on the set very early or very late in the day, you could con¬template an eerie piece of electronic arcana, now nearly forgotten— a test pattern. Ed Sullivan had already been on the air for seven years.
In 1970 your set had an extra dial, for UHF, the ultra-high fre¬quency spectrum (Channels 14 to 83). This was a piece of machin¬ery required by Congress on all televisions made after 1963, and it was somehow awkward to operate: you always seemed to be dialing past your station. On the VHF dial, there was now an “educational” channel: the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) had begun oper¬ating in 1969, the culmination of seventeen years of efforts to establish a national noncommercial network. You mostly watched the commercial networks, though, or an unaffiliated channel that, when it wasn’t showing sports or old movies, showed network re¬runs. The colors (color programming began in 1965) were so oversat¬urated that they seemed radioactive. Ed Sullivan was still on the air.
Today, even the Ed Sullivan impressionists are gone. You watch a sleek cube fed by a cable, and, by keeping your thumb pressed to a remote control, you can skim dozens of channels in a few seconds. One channel plays music videos all day; one broadcasts world news; one has a local talk show (a consequence of mandated “public ac¬cess”); one or more, for a fee, show recent movies, uncensored; one has a psychic you can call for on-the-air advice; one displays jewelry you can shop for by phone. You can watch programs on which pickup trucks with oversized tires are driven across rows of parked cars, and programs on which naked people discuss sex in a manner so unstimulating as to make you turn back to watch the pickup trucks. There is always sport, and most of the local teams’games are available. There are (since the arrival of Fox, in 1986) five “over the air” networks, and one or more “superstations,’’ beamed into the sys¬tem by satellite. There is still, it’s true, nothing to watch, but you can turn to Channel 3 and put a rented movie in your videocassette or DVD player.
Because we tend to think of technological development as anal¬ogous with biological development, we’re likely to assume that changes in our experience of television reflect changes in television technology. It seems like a simple matter of evolution. We had to have black-and-white pictures before we could have color; we had to have twelve VHF channels before we could have seventy UHF channels, and to have national over-the-air networks before we could have cable, pay-per-view channels, and local programming. We lived with broadcasting so that one day we could have narrow¬casting. In fact, the development of American television had almost nothing to do with technology. Network television was no more nat¬ural or inevitable than any of the other empires that locked the cold war world into place. It was no more accidental, either, but (like those other empires) it considered itself extremely vulnerable to accident, and understood eternal vigilance to be the price of its survival.
One of the problems with scholarship on television is that a technological and corporate history of the medium often brings us no closer to understanding television as a cultural phenomenon— though it is a common assumption of mass-culture scholarship that such an approach must. An analysis of the economics of television still gives us no way to choose among the various slants on the medium people generally take: television is escapist, and television is propagandistic; television reflects what people are thinking, and television tells people what to think; television is too commercial, and the commercialism of television is inevitable; television is run by liberal elites, television is a pawn of politicians, and television is the tool of corporate America. There is also the tendency to express surprise at the obvious—for example, television’s generally patriotic and consumerist biases. These are sometimes taken to have a brain¬washing effect: scholars sometimes write as though they had forgot¬ten that no one has ever been forced to watch a television show. It is pointless to blame everything that is wrong with television on capitalism, unless you are prepared to say that America has never produced any commercial culture worth caring about, which is something you would have to be culturally benumbed to believe. Still, where a biographer like Smith, in the interests of keeping her subject vividly before us, asks us to think of what we watched in the network years as largely a function of personality—“the flickering images on CBS represented the soul and sensibility of Bill Paley,” as she puts it—-technological and economic histories of the medium remind us that the style, the quality, the content, and even the color of network television programs were determined by forces much too strong for any personality, even an oversized one like Paley’s, to have resisted.
Television predates the Second World War. NBC started regular broadcasting in 1939, and although America’s entry into the war de¬layed the development of national networks for several years, televi¬sion technology had been quite fully explored by 1945. The return of the troops produced a massive potential audience and, for advertis¬ers, massive consumer demand; and in 1948, when less than half of 1 percent of American households had television sets, national broadcasting made its real debut. Confronted with an industry poised to proliferate wildly and in need of elaborate technical coor¬dination (standardization of signals and receivers, allocation of stations in the broadcast spectrum, and so on), the Federal Com¬munications Commission (FCC) imposed a freeze on the licensing of new television stations in September 1948. The freeze turned out to be a kind of cultural Yalta; it lasted until 1952, by which time 33 percent of American homes had television sets, and NBC and CBS, the companies that had dominated radio broadcasting, and whose affiliates had secured most of the television licenses granted before the freeze, essentially controlled the field—which, along with the less powerful ABC (a company created in 1943 after the government ordered NBC to sell one of its two radio networks), they continued to do for more than thirty years.

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