Network TV's Rise and Decline

ONE NATION UNDER TELEVISION: THE RISE AND DECLINE OF NETWORK TV. By J. Fred MacDonald, New York: Pantheon Books, 333 pp., $24.95 IN the course of reading ``One Nation Under Television,'' J. Fred MacDonald's new history of network broadcasting, one finds television variously defined.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Mark Fowler, a Reagan appointee and an advocate of ``unregulating'' TV, terms it ``just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures.''

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, regards prime-time TV as ``the most pervasive moral, social, political, and cultural force in this country.''

John Fiske, a video culture theoretician, calls it ``a cultural medium ... a conventional medium - its conventions suit both the audiences with their needs for a familiarity and routinization and the producers, for established conventions not only keep the costs of production down, they minimize the risks in the marketplace.''

On a visionary plane, author E.B. White saw television as ``the test of the modern world,'' possibly ``a saving radiance in the sky,'' but also possibly an ``unbearable disturbance of the modern peace.''

In this useful history, Professor MacDonald, curator of the Chicago Museum of Broadcast Communications and a historian at Northeastern Illinois University, sets himself an almost impossible task. He attempts to track network television - as business enterprise, cultural phenomenon, object of government regulation, transmitter of both information and values, shaper of the modern world - through its seven decades of existence. What's more, he has (despite the book's provocative title) attempted to accomplish this tracking in an evenhanded, value-neutral way.

It is no easy matter to write an evenhanded history of a subject that has engendered as much controversy and passionate rhetoric as network television. Those bitterly disappointed that TV has not proved to be a ``saving radiance in the sky'' will prefer a more biting account of its impact, something on the order of Neil Postman's ``Amusing Ourselves to Death,'' or the cultural criticism of Todd Gitlin's ``Watching Television.''

But accounts that satisfy the ``saving radiance idealists'' frequently fail to depict adequately television as a vast, increasingly global and ever-changing industry seeking to engage and satisfy fickle audiences, whose sole investment in television product is their presence in front of the set.

MacDonald writes about what network TV is and has been without ever forgetting what it might have been.

Although the book's prose is plodding and its graphic design off-putting, it largely succeeds in what MacDonald set out to accomplish. It will prove especially valuable to students, now that network TV has moved into a period of what the author regards as irreversible decline.

MacDonald shows how this decline has resulted from the conditions that made network television such an enormous business success in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. These conditions included a three-network monopoly on the buying, broadcasting, and (in some cases) producing of TV product; government restrictions that worked to entrench the three-headed monopoly; and, most fatally, the network-advertiser collusion that standardized and conventionalized TV programming in the effort to expose the largest possible audience to commercials.

MacDonald relates how the decline came about. In the early '80s, advanced video technology (VCRs, cable systems, satellite dishes) became available just at a time of growing viewer disenchantment with standardized, conventionalized network fare.

The results were dramatic. In 1953, for example, the top 10 network series were watched by 47.7 percent of the viewers; in 1983, they were watched by only 22.1 percent. By the end of 1988, MacDonald tells us, 64 percent of United States households could receive at least 15 channels; 45 percent could receive 30. Moreover, a 1989 survey of viewers who did not subscribe to cable services found that for one-third of them cable was not yet available.

Moreover, narrowcasting, by which cable systems zero in on specific audiences, expanded audience options. It directly challenged the broadcasting by which the networks have long sought - through standardized dramatic and sitcom formulas - to attract homogenous audiences, undifferentiated by special interests.

The arrival of cable has brought intense competition to the TV marketplace. While it offers many more options to television consumers, just how TV product will be paid for is not yet clear. MacDonald quotes network executives who see ``pay per view'' as the next big trend.

Other executives bemoan both eventual cutbacks in network programming and the possible creation of a two-tier television society. In this two-tier society the ``haves'' would use cable services and ``pay per view'' while the ``have-nots,'' the least desirable audience for advertising pitches, would be left with what's available on free, network TV.

MacDonald characterizes the United States in the network years as ``one nation under television.'' What about the future? He speaks of ``one world under [relatively standardized]television.''

``Already there are signs of international cultural homogeneity,'' MacDonald writes.

He also sees the likely emergence of a globalized television industry where ``warlords,'' vertically integrated transnational corporations, determine and control the bulk of future programming much as ABC, CBS, and NBC controlled it in the network days.

According to MacDonald, no American ``warlord'' has yet appeared, although Time-Warner may be positioned to play that role. (It's not yet clear that the US government will allow an American company to organize to be a ``warlord.'') MacDonald identifies potential ``warlords,'' already in place, as the French publishing and TV giant Hachette; corporations owned or controlled by Australian-American Rupert Murdoch; the West German corporation Bartelsmann AG; the Italian Silvio Berlesconi conglomerate; the communications empire of Robert Maxwell in Britain; and possibly that of the Sony Corporation of Japan.

As a whole, ``One Nation Under Television'' may appeal mainly to students of an era fast becoming history. But the book's concluding chapter on ``The New Video Order'' should make fascinating, though perhaps not entirely reassuring, reading for those eager to glimpse the future.

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