The history of radio, and film programming in television are under the spotlight this week. While McChesney (1993) tells a[n annoying] story of fights between the non-profit and the network radio stations and the impact on programs broadcast, Boddy (1990) weaves together stories of squabbles about “early film programming in television” (p.65). First, I focus on McChesney mainly because of my interest in non-profit radio.
That the non-profit broadcasters lost heavily to the commercialized network radio controlled by advertisers is probably the reason the non-profit media still struggles to survive in this country. While the FRC was established in part to grant radio broadcast licenses to stations with operations that would benefit the “public interest”, this organization (the FRC) failed. Instead the FRC time and time again favored radio network broadcasters. From the very beginning non-profit broadcasters were shortchanged, they were not invited to “present their opinions” in hearings supposedly meant decide on license allocations, the “networks were big winners” (McChesney, 1993, p.227). The network’s number of radio stations increased while the non-profits had their broadcast “hours lowered” (p.228). In making their decision, the FRC believed that since the networks worked for commercial gain they would provide programming that is in the public interest. Attempt after attempt at fighting the domination, the non-profits would lose each time. Eventually the non-profits did not survive or coalesced into commercial ventures too.
McChesney’s goal is to show that radio broadcasting in the US did not start out as being commercial nor was its commercial nature embraced by all without resistance. By piecing together the history of the fights, the author shows how the networks and advertisers came to dominate the radio sector and how this impacted the programs aired. The networks also received support from the newspaper industry and the legal community that chose not to side with the non-profits. How could non-profits struggling for finances ever had managed to challenge the status quo? Not a chance. This puzzle of the history that Mchesney (1993) narrates is one about which I had no clue.
The author’s brief reference to college radio stations is useful for my study although the years fall outside of my study’s timeline.
McChesney focuses on fights in the period 1930-1935 in the radio sector. As if taking over the narration and abstracting it to television and films, Boddy (1990) discusses fights over programming in television. In one corner we find New York (television networks) while in the other there is Hollywood and her films. As with the radio tiffs, advertisers were also present in the boxing ring. Boddy (1990) writes that in the early years of television there was a great need for programming. Film studios showed an interest, an interest hampered by the FCC with its “bullying” tactics (p.69). Nonetheless, the author also mentions that some film producers (not the small independent producers) were also reluctant to provide content because of the high cost in a medium that was not yet fully developed. Film producers began producing cheap films resulting in network produced programs being seen to be of a better quality. The author using magazine articles, shows how the critics on each side commented about the formats; film versus live programs, New York versus Hollywood, 30 versus 60 minutes programs. However, what I miss in all of this are the voices of the audience, beyond the simple mention of people being an audience. Were people simple a passive audience?
Our first and second readings of this week are tackling the same theme of the commercial interests’ dominance over American media in the last century. Boddy’s Fifties Television argues that economics and politics have played significant roles constructing the early film programing in television in its early golden years, late 1940s to early 1960s (p. 65). ABC, NBC, CBS, and DuMont dominated this era and fought hard to keep it by convincing the FCC of their ability of self-regulation. However, the self-censorship was not based on public interests rather on the profit, especially that they got from their advertising sponsors (p. 93). Those big TV networks made New York City a TV capital that was not eager to share the popularity and excitement of the new medium with the capital of film, Hollywood. They tried to replace Hollywood films with original taped production of Broadway style filmic content (p. 80).
The communications reform attempts to protect nonprofit broadcasters, fairly redistribute the spectrum frequencies, and fix the communications law in the 1930s, which success remains questionable according to Solomon and McChesney (p. 229), are mirrored nowadays by the struggle of local media outlets and streaming startups against the supremacy of handful media conglomerates and broken laws.
McChesney shows us how corporate-commercial system triumphed over the local and non-profit mass media organizations in the 1940s by writing broadcast communication policies that preserve their interests and shape the American cross-licensing media monopoly for decades (p. 222). Tracing the roots of this practice would lead us to conclude that this monopoly was triggered by, similar to what we saw few weeks ago with the attitude towards the immigrants’ nickelodeons, the intolerance and suspicious against anything foreign that painted the world war one era, like when the U.S. government pushed the Italian Marconi company out of the market to pave the way for the monopoly of American companies such as RCA, GE, AT&T and Westinghouse, then the big three. The implications of this monopoly were illustrated undoubtedly by the Quiz shows scandals and the incompetent FCC. FCC since then has appeared as a weak regulation body that unable to guarantee an equal opportunity platform for everyone and failed hold the big players accountable.
An example of recent effort to preserve this monopoly can be illustrated clearly by Robert Murdoch last call for the big media corporations to unite against Amazon and Netflix. He is obviously not happy with online streaming continues overtaking traditional live and recorded programing and the fact that the broadband penetration has recently surpassed the traditional pay TV subscriptions for the first time in history (according to The Diffusion Group: tdgresearch.com, October 28, 2014). An example of counter trend to this is what some new online and over the air streaming companies, such as the online video distributor FilmOn and Aereo, are doing by asking the FCC to give them cable licenses and consider them multichannel video program distributers (MVPDs), and not just over-the-top (OTT) or online video distributors (OVDs). This would enable them to compete in production and distribution at better position against the big networks. This issue, the redefining the streaming services, is closely linked to the complicated debate regarding the net neutrality and the new FCC’s hybrid proposal that would elevate the broadband providers’ classification from information service providers to common carriers, which give them more power but could carry negative repercussions on the final customers.
Overall, the second piece of this week readings, Ruthless Criticism, leaves me wondering if the profit-driven TV industry has yet changed its practices. Few days ago, Discovery Channel sponsored the NBC News production of the daredevil, Wallenda, attempt to walk on wires between Chicago skyscrapers. This gave us a fresh case of how far and risky some networks are heading in order to get live audience amid shattering programing and fragmented audience time. By the same token, the new movie Nightcrawler overstates this image when starring Jake Gyllenhaal as freelance news camera operator who just looking for any what it bleeds, as leading news story. Broadcasting live events as a way to solve the distracted, ads-annoyed, audiences’ dilemma is obviously supported by the success of some sports tournaments coverage. Many enjoy watching games live and not recorded and it hard then to avoid the ads.
To conclude, this week’s readings flow into my general topic of the movie theater as a public sphere. They are not only help me to revisit the film and TV nostalgia, but also reexamine the hidden economic, cultural, religion and politics dynamics that sometimes collaborate to maintain the status quo and avoid any serious discussion regarding the structure of media ownership and concentration.
In this chapter, Robert McChesney argues that the US broadcasting system was a consequence of business, government, and military elites to suit their self interests with minimal public participation. He shows key historical developments in the US broadcasting system throughout the 1920’s and argues that such developments were completed in certain points during the 1930’s. According to the author, conflicts and movements in the 1920’s established the way in which the broadcasting system operates today and much is due to economic values and constructions of society. However, what happened back in the 1920’s still shape the way our broadcasting system operates today because of the way commercial broadcasters have pressed over broadcast policy. With the conglomerate broadcasting system that we live in today, I think the author has a point when looking at how historical movements attempted to change or shape the system but the power possessed by the commercial broadcasters and their influence on economics and politics helped determine how the system would be for the next couple of decades.
Peter Miskell looks at United Artists’ film distribution overseas and how certain rules and regulations in Brittan made the company distribute British films as well as American films. Although, many local distributors overseas competed with American film companies and United Artists specifically, none could match or rival American films in international sales. He specifically treats American films as brands that spread American culture and ideologies oversees and played a huge role in foreign markets. However, the strategy taken by United Artists was different as it distributed films produced by British producers which appealed more to British audiences and their business strategy turned out to be successful. Bad management and different strategies afterwards hurt the company when deciding to take a different business strategy from the on which helped establish them overseas.
Readings from this week were generally engaging and interesting. I felt that they gave a broader perspective of the US broadcast system and its developments during its early stages from the 1920’s to the 1940’s. Although, none of the articles fall into my area of research, the methodological approaches were interesting to me and the approaches to research the authors took is a good framework to work from.
Histories of industrial practice make me depressed. Media normally starts out with such promise and potential with vibrant periods of non-profit, community-based awesomeness, then very quickly the networks take over and capitalism destroys everything. Such is the narrative of radio, television, and likely the internet. If there is anything to learn from this week’s readings, it is that the FCC historically sucks. I have little hope for net neutrality. As presented in “Fifties Television,” government regulation, or in this case self-regulation, allows for the public to completely be screwed over, and so much potential as a community building medium to be lost in the name of profit. TV networks made huge amounts of money off of the public through advertising and in many cases (not just in television) drove non-profit, public minded entities into the ground.
In McChesney’s “Ruthless Criticism,” the authors demonstrate how the corporate system dominated non-profits by creating broadcast communication policies that benefited their interests and controlled American licensing. The article again illustrates the utter weakness of the FCC. Since their inception, they have been unable to create an equal opportunity platform and have failed to hold violators accountable. Though this article focuses on the history of television broadcast practices, from what I know of current industrial practice, little has changed. These readings illustrate the problematic position of media corporations in the American cultural landscape.
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