Sep 6, 2011

September 6, 2011: Towers of Babel, Narrow- Casting, Mr. Peepers on Drugs.

These trends, in industrial and academic specialization and fragmentation of knowledge, have been further exasperated by the fragmentation of the mediums of communication creating, in effect, modern Towers of Babel.

Previously, there were only three major television and radio networks.  What passed for “news” concerning the unfolding of contemporary events was filtered each weeknight into three separate evening half-hour broadcasts.  Because one could only fit a certain number of “stories” into the twenty-odd allotted minutes, the network newscasts quickly began to resemble each other, each covering the main stories of the day and, because of strict “equal time” provisions imposed by the F.C.C., requiring equal air time for opposing points of view.  Great effort was made to keep commentary out of the evening news.   The result was a rather bland but straightforward presentation of the day’s events.

No matter.  The idiot wrong,  and their “libertarian” fellow-travelers, soon began to give voice to the criticism (originating from the bowels of organizations like the John Birch Society) that the media had a liberal “bias”.   So pervasive did this view become that I can remember that when working for a local pharmacist in the mid sixties that Bob would regularly complain of David Brinkley’s so-called liberalism.  After Brinkley passed it was revealed that he was in fact not a liberal at all, but a libertarian.  For those of us on the left, one could sense in Brinkley’s occasional snide remarks about the workings of social programs that he was no liberal, but for the national audience prodded by the rumblings on the wrong, it was quite otherwise.  So began our national confusion over media and politics.

Then, just in time for the Regan “Revolution”, came cable T.V. and with it not only an explosion in the number of television channels but Ted Turner’s idea of having a 24 hour news broadcast.  At first it was bland enough but as CNN spun off CNN Headline News, and as Rupert Murdock, given citizenship and entry into the American media market, bought out Fox News major corporate moguls, and the ideologues in their pay, began to envision a means by which an alternate reality could be imposed upon the body politic.  And so, broadcast journalism began to morph into a more entertaining but also more vitriolic and ideologically driven enterprise.  The consequences of increasing the number of broadcast channels as well as the number of news outlets is that the industry went from being a broadcast to becoming a “narrow-cast” industry.  That is, the national audience was now broken up into increasingly smaller subsets or fragments.  What followed was that to be successful each broadcast had to be “tailored” to meet the needs of an increasingly narrow and smaller niche of the larger community.  Enter ideology.

The same phenomenon had already been occurring in radio over the previous decade.  Previously F.M. radio was limited by the number of radio receivers that could pick up their broadcasts.  Accordingly, in my youth, F.M. had few broadcast channels and was known primarily for broadcasting classical music and, later, National Public Radio.  Only a few “highbrows” invested in the technology because the content was so limited.  Then sometime in the early 1970's auto manufacturers began to install radios in automobiles that would receive not only A.M. but F.M. broadcasts and, because of the superiority of sound  that F.M. produced, there was an explosion of the number of F.M. stations across the country.   The joke at the time was that previously if a station-owner wanted to compliment his A.M. facility with an F.M. tower he would only need fifty cents and two box tops to get an F.M. license.  Back in the “day”, as it were, A.M. was top dog and F.M. was just an afterthought.  No more.

By the mid 1970's newly emerging F.M. stations began to take over virtually every major market leaving the old A.M. stations with almost nothing.  Why, after all, would one chose to listen to A.M. when the alternative sound was so clearly superior, begging the question: “why was the industry built around A.M. in the first place?  To answer the problem of how one could keep the A.M. end of the operation profitable enough to at least pay it’s bills, the industry fell upon the palliative of “talk” radio.  Soon across the nation major figures began to emerge like Larry King who would fill the airwaves with talk, talk, talk.

By the time Cable T.V. began to emerge as a major new industry the path had already been blazed in the much older radio format.  With the emergence of over 100 new cable programing outlets soon television began to reconfigure itself along the “narrow-casting” model.  Programs appealing to specialized, rather than broad, demographics began to appear.  Children’s networks, music networks, sports channels, talk channels, health and fitness channels, each designed for a special “segment” of the audience determined by income, age, sex, ethnicity.

Let us stand back and draw the contrast.  Previously, for instance, each broadcast morning was given over to first the “Today” show or another network’s version of it, then to children’s programing like “Captain Kangaroo” or some other network’s version of that.  As the day progressed came the noon news, then the afternoon soaps, then the kids programming in time for the return home from school, soon to give way to the nightly news broadcasts.  You could change channels, but you could rarely change content, for the broadcast industry, as any industry, is imitative.  In any case no network wanted to be the first to abandon the “national” audience.  The result was that through the oft-cursed “media” we experienced the equivalent of being almost constantly drawn into a huge “town-hall”.  Our experience was a collective experience.

To put this into perspective one has only to reflect upon a typical Saturday morning.  In those days it was nearly impossible to turn on the television before noon on Saturday and not see a childrens cartoon program.  One simply had no alternatives.  Now you may object, and point out how stultifying this could be.  Perhaps, but there was also another side to the equation.  I remember as I was emerging from advanced adolescence into young manhood that I would come downstairs to sit before the television with my then little brother Stevie who was, at the time, all of about 3 or 4 years of age.  We would turn to our favorite program “Underdog” and sit down and watch it together and, as the program would begin, go through the orations of the opening lines: “...not bird, nor plane, nor even frog...just little-‘ol-me...Underdog”.  This was duly recited the way my young brother then pronounced “Underdog” as “Underdawd”.  We would both end the oration with a big laugh.

Programing was structured to appeal to the largest possible audience.  In this case to the youth it was an action cartoon, to the emerging adult the spectre of Wally Cox (who had already made a reputation on television as “Mr. Peepers”) as a Super Hero was, of course, delicious.  But to a “Boomer” in his emerging prime the idea that our hero would gain his power only by taking a “magic super-energy pill” was simply grand.  Here truly was, as they said at the time, “better living through chemistry”.  What we had here was a concept called “broadcasting” in which the nation daily gathered around the television in hopes of catching a glimpse of it’s own reflection and, perhaps, to occasionally peer out unto the world.

All of this was undone by the re-applications of previous technologies and the introduction of new technologies in the seventies and eighties.  With the re-introduction of F.M. radio and the emergence of Cable Television the broadcast industry began an evolution, or devolution if you will, from a “broadcast” to a “narrow-cast” industry fragmenting the national audience into it’s thousands of constituent parts.  Sitting before the “Tube”, the modern “light of the world, no longer a “community” experience.  Nor, for that matter was tuning in the radio.  Increasingly the broadcast medium no longer brought us together, but began to drive us apart.  The broadcast towers were becoming Towers of Babel. 

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