Consumer's voice -- an urgent need in network TV

Television's nay-sayers may be nay-ing too much! James Duffy, president of the ABC Television Network, spoke at a luncheon of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences the other day. I listened to him charge that "a desire for power, money, and control -- not morality -- has triggered the current attacks against the content of television programming."

During the past few weeks just about every top executive in the three commercial networks has gone on the attack against Moral Majority and the Coalition for Better Television. Even the PTA with its own type of monitoring has come in for attack by network executives who seem to believe that organized criticism is fine . . . unless it becomes effective.

Well, there is no question that there are many decent executives who feel that consumer boycotts of advertisers as well as shows, independent monitoring, and training programs for selective viewing somehow infringe upon the right of broadcasters to present the programs they wish to present to the public to approve or disapprove by turning off the dial. I have pointed out to various network executives that the public is not being given a free choice -- they are being given a choice among the three schedules that network executives have chosen. The television on-off knob is not the ballot box, as they like to say, because the television viewer, unlike the voter, has no chance to select his candidates.

I was a bit disturbed to hear Mr. Duffy attack a critic who accused "a trio of men" who select the programs for the masses. Said Mr. Duffy: "He is saying that one man in each of the commercial networks chooses the programs. This displays profound ignorance of how the television system really works."

How does the system really work? Isn't it true that when the chips are down it is one man at each network, the programming head, who makes the final decision?

And isn't that the bottom line on the whole problem?

The fact is, there is practically no consumer input into network television programming. Decisions are made entirely by network executives in cooperation with national advertisers. Money is the prime consideration. The TV consumer has to wait out there by his TV set while a small unknown group of executives in the 1980s version of a smoke- filled room decides what the choices will be for each coming season.

In the only country that consistently produces television programming as good as that in the United States (or better) -- England -- the British Broadcasting Company allows the television consumer a great deal more input.

I quote from the official 1980 BBC handbook:

"The Board of Governors consider and the Government agrees, that these committees [advisory bodies] have worked well and that they should continue as an integral part of BBC broadcasting in this country. This endorsement of the role of the advisory bodies was seen as a welcome encouragement to all those from many different walks of life, who give voluntarily of their time to advise the BBC. There are, in all, 57 such bodies, described variously as advisory councils, advisory committees and consultive groups. The structure has evolved in reponse to the need for general or expert advice. It enables the BBC to consult expert opinion and obtain representative views on all services which it provides for domestic audiences. Appointments to all the central advisory bodies are now first considered by a committee of the Board. . . . This committee also regularly reviews the work of all these bodies."

Of course, the BBC is an official organ of the government -- but it is supported largely by fees paid by consumers, just as American television is indirectly supported by advertising profits made from consumers. And undoubtedly there are uniquely English concerns involved in all aspects of the BBC advisory system.

But United States television has no such system at all. There are no official advisory councils, advisory committees, consultative groups. The fact is that the three men who head the networks do control all the decisionmaking. Nobody advises them who isn't on their payroll -- or whose payroll they do not realize business profits from.

Isn't time to give the American television viewing public a chance to be heard, an opportunity to take part in counseling the networks as to the programs they want to see? And wouldn't it be a positive, constructive way to respond to small pressure groups that insist they represent the majority?

It would also give some voice to the millions of Americans who are not satisfied with the quality of American television, yet do not subscribe to Moral Majority or Coalition for Better Televisionmethods?

Somebody ought to make a start. It doesn't matter if it begins through one or all of the organizations already involved in broadcasting -- the National Association of Broadcasters, the Television Information Bureau, or even such existing consumer groups as the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, the PTA, Action for Children's Television, or any other group willing and anxious to take an active part in the most important communications medium of the age.

Let us study what the BBC is doing. Maybe soon we will find it profitable to import not only "Masterpiece Theater," but the advisory sys tem that helped produce it.

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