``Commercial television makes so much money doing its worst that it can't afford to do its best,'' says former CBS News president Fred Friendly, on what appears to be the most comprehensive study of television and its effect upon the world ever to appear on television . . . or, perhaps, in any other medium as well. Produced by England's Grenada Television, the organization responsible for ``Brideshead Revisited'' and ``Jewel in the Crown,'' this 13-part series, titled simply ``Television,'' will be shown on PBS in America early next year.
Mr. Friendly, now a communications professor at Columbia University, is one of many international television experts who make candid, perceptive, and often provocative analyses on ``Television.'' The series is making controversial waves in communications circles in Britain, where it is now airing. The average viewer, however, will simply find it fascinating entertainment . . . as I did when I viewed the first few episodes of the series here.
The rest of the 3 million (about $3.1 million) series is still in production, since the plan is to make the series as up to date as television itself. Executive producer Norman Swallow says: ``Our last program will be made as near as possible to the date of transmission, because if you made it this week it would be a dead duck next week. There are so many technological changes taking place every day.''
Across the Atlantic in America, PBS stations WNET in New York and KCET in Los Angeles have already taken an option on the series and are busy trying to line up an American underwriter. The plan is to add an American commentator to introduce the series. Such names as Alistair Cooke, Eric Sevareid, Bill Moyers, and Walter Cronkite have already been suggested.
Included in the historical background are early TV steps like the work of the eccentric Scottish inventor John Logie Baird, sometimes called the ``father of television,'' who created images from a camera built of ``2 million worth of junk.''
In the fourth installment there is a superb montage of videotaped news events that have occurred in America -- the Welch-McCarthy hearings, the John and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the Ruby killing, the funeral of JFK. Fred Friendly, who also serves as a consultant for the series, says that American TV's most memorable moments came with its coverage of the assassinations and the JFK funeral. While making the Grenada series, the producers asked just about everybody they interviewed in 12 countries to indicate their own ``most memorable'' TV moment. What were the answers?
Producer Swallow, in a chat at the plush London offices of Grenada Television (a Manchester company) in Golden Square, talked about some of the leading responses: ``By far the leading item mentioned was the United States moon landing. Way ahead. No. 2 was the Kennedy assassinations. But for most of the world, the moon landing ranks as the top viewing experience.
Some years ago, at the beginning of the so-called cable-TV era, many experts were forecasting that the age of consensus television -- the viewing of the same show by a large majority of TV-set owners -- was finally coming to an end. Has that happened?
``We found no evidence that the old viewing patterns are breaking down,'' Swallow said. ``People still like to watch the same shows that their friends and neighbors are watching.''
Mr. Swallow says his biggest surprise was ``the total cooperation we got from every TV organization in the world which we approached. We had 100 percent cooperation. And none of the 12 countries we asked to visit refused us permission.''
One of the problems of showing the program on public broadcasting is rather ironic -- each segment is around 52 minutes long, which left enough space for commercials. But PBS does not have commercials, so it will have to fill out each hour. That explains the conferences to select an American ``host.''
How about Norman Swallow -- has he come to feel that TV is chewing gum for the mind, as Frank Lloyd Wright said, or does he feel it has been a force for good?
``A bit of both. TV can introduce people to natural history, to serious drama and dance and opera, which they may never have seen before because it's not accessible where they live. In third-world countries like India it can be used as a community information center, giving villagers information on agriculture and population control. But then again, there is the violence on some entertainment programming and the way news is sometimes covered, which can have a horrifying effect. It's very difficult to generalize. TV must of necessity be different things to different nations.
``In the introductory program [which may not be the first aired on American television], we have an Indian, Iqbal Malik, saying that Indian newspapers have many different points of view, but Indian TV, because of its official nature, can have only have the point of view of the party in power. That is also true of Eastern Europe and many countries in Latin America. It varies from country to country.''
Mr. Swallow believes that American TV has been a major positive influence on British TV, especially in the areas of news and current affairs. ``People like Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly have taught us a lot, and we must acknowledge British TV's debt to America. Of course with drama, it's the other way around.
What would Norman Swallow consider success for the series besides a vast nu major positive influence on British TV, especially in the areas of news and current affairs. ``People like Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly have taught us a lot, and we must acknowledge British TV's debt to America. Of course with drama, it's the other way around.
What would Norman Swallow consider success for the series besides a vast number of viewers?
``We feel we are creating a series about the power and influence of television, not merely its history . It is a series which will be invaluable down through the years. Even though television will change, our series will show what was true at this particular time in history. It will be available in cassette form in public libraries, which will have cassette-lending services in the future, if they don't have such a service already. It is our hope that millions of people in the future will buy or borrow the cassettes or videodiscs of this series and have a more gripping and accurate picture of what TV is all about.''
And what can the average viewer get from watching the series? ``I hope that he will begin to look seriously, critically, objectively at television instead of taking it for granted. Too many viewers today just sit back and enjoy or switch off without ever asking themselves is it a good thing or a bad thing, could it be better, is it doing harm, is it affecting the political and social institutions of my country? That kind of thing.''
Based on what I have seen of the finished segments, there's a good chance that ``Television,'' the series, will prove to be the long-overdue beginning of a self-examination process by the institution of television.