by Ron Kaufman

-- Source: United States Census Bureau, March 2004

In 2004, television became a $52 billion industry. The networks know this fact. They know how much money is at stake and they know how much power the TV industry possesses. The huge corporations that own networks and stations know exactly how big television has gotten. There should be no doubt about the true agenda of the television industry. Through all the hirings, firings, lawsuits, regulations, market shares and scandals that cloud the landscape, the community of television will continue to share one common goal. There is one overarching ideology in which every member of the television establishment believes. To truly understand television, one must understand television's true (yet hidden) agenda.

The first glimpse into the ideology behind the TV screen came in 1958 when pioneering news anchor Edward R. Murrow gave a keynote speech at the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in Chicago. Murrow's investigative program televised on CBS remains possibly the finest TV journalism in history. In a 30-minute special entitled "A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy" on March 9, 1954 exposed the lies of the Wisconsin Republican and ignited the public's backlash against the Red Scare. Murrow was slowly pushed out of television due to the pressure to provide more "entertaining" news.

In his 1958 speech, Murrow exposed the myriad of forces swirling inside the television industry. "One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles," he said. The continuing struggle between providing profits and upholding a public responsibility makes the TV industry rife with problems.

"Sometimes there is a clash between the public interest and the corporate interest," explained Murrow. "Upon occasion, economics and editorial judgment are in conflict. And there is no law which says that dollars will be defeated by duty."

Murrow continued that he was "frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything . . . Heywood Broun once said, 'No body politic is healthy until it begins to itch.' I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers."

Even though the industry was in its infancy, Murrow sensed the movement toward infotainment and an absence of groundbreaking hard news. Rather than trying to inform the serve the public, television was sinking into a corporate-controlled snafu focused on maximizing profits rather than serving the public. "The Corporate Image," stated Murrow. "I am not precisely sure what this phrase means, but I would imagine that it reflects a desire on the part of the corporations who pay the advertising bills to have the public image, or believe that they are not merely bodies with no souls, panting in pursuit of elusive dollars. They would like us to believe that they can distinguish between the public good and the private or corporate gain."

Murrow, correctly, saw the creeping corporate control of television as the eventual destruction of the medium. Rather than an instrument of intelligence and enlightenment, television was simply a "money-making machine" that does not reflect "the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live."

Unfortunately, Murrow's analysis of television was as true in 1958 as it is in 2004. Countless images have appeared on TV in the intervening 46 years since Murrow spoke, but the medium of television has not changed. In his time, Murrow saw some positive developments in TV-land and some hope for the medium's future as a source of intellectual illumination. Today, television remains in the hands of massive corporations which are beholden to stockholder profits rather than public service.

With profits important and social service secondary, the TV industry is an example of how a supply-side economy produces a product of dubious value. TV is pure entertainment. The images cast forth from television are under the complete control of the sender, not the viewer. Networks decide what is broadcast on what they estimate the public will want, not the other way around. In a supply-side situation, the public's demand is almost immaterial because it is the supplier which creates and determines the extent of the demand. Basically, whatever the TV screen shows is what the people will watch, whether they like it or not.

Consider that one of the top networks, NBC, grossed $6.87 billion in one year (2003). Why would the owner, General Electric, do anything to jeopardize that? For NBC, even more important than large sums of money is the power of reaching 108 million homes with an average audience of 13.3 million people. General Electric and the other corporate owners of television stations purposely direct their networks to carry the evangelical message that TV is good and the corporate owners are benevolent. NBC News will never produce a story critical of General Electric, no matter what the circumstances. American TV networks make billions of dollars and each one would betray the spirit of profitable TV by challenging the status quo. Television will always protect the current state of affairs and no slurs will ever be hurled upon the ideologies of greed, materialism or consumerism.

"You don't get rewarded in commercial broadcasting for trying to tell the truth about the institutions of power in this country," said veteran TV journalist Bill Moyers in December 2004. "I think my peers in commercial television are talented and devoted journalists, but they've chosen to work in a corporate mainstream that trims their talent to fit the corporate nature of American life. And you do not get rewarded for telling the hard truths about America in a profit-seeking environment."

As an example, in January 2003, Fox Entertainment, NBC Universal, Telemundo Communications and Viacom sued the U.S. Federal Communications Commission seeking an end to any ownership restrictions of television or radio stations. These huge companies are making yet another strong move to consolidate power, money and viewership throughout the media universe. Fox and friends are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether the FCC can place any restrictions on their ownership desires. Not surprisingly, this story has never been reported on television. In fact, no reports about the television industry are ever investigated by TV news.

The system encompassing the television mediaopoly will never be questioned from inside the medium. Television news programs will never accept blame for mistakes or admit to editorial bias. Watching TV is purely an auditory and visual activity that preys upon the primal impulses of man (and woman). The viewer does not think or analyze or contradict what the TV transmits. The television viewer can only accept what is said and shown on the screen as the truth. Television can be manipulative in the sense that no one will ever question what TV will not show. The television reality is one in which the business of television doesn't even exist.

"Broadcasting's sole revenue source comes from advertising. And that creates additional challenges for our members, particularly in a world of cable, satellite, DVDs, and the Internet," stated Edward O. Fritts, President of the National Association of Broadcasters in October 2003.

"Local broadcasters are unique, in that stations have struck a public-private partnership with government. The deal is majestic in its simplicity. In exchange for frequencies licensed by the government, local stations provide programming that specifically serves the community. That might include local news programming, public interest and public affairs programming, and public service announcements," said Fritts whose Congressional lobbying organization represents some of the largest media conglomerates in the United States.

"Relentless competition and audience fragmentation has forced broadcasters to become more nimble and more creative. It has also required some consolidation of resources."

In the view of Fritts and large media corporations, consolidation is part of the natural evolution of marketing their products. "Deregulatory relief granted over the last 20 years has resulted in more program options for consumers, and better public service, too," said Fritts.

Basically, media corporations promote the viewpoint that advertising competition makes them more responsive to the public's needs in addition to providing a cornucopia of channel alternatives. The truth of this statement depends on one's definition of "public interest." What they call "deregulatory relief" is actually a re-regulation of FCC rules which protects and fosters their own interests.

As the number of television channels proliferates out of the analog into the digital spectrum, television merchandisers will promote this enhanced diversity of viewing options. Channel surfing at the slightest notion of boredom heightens the experience of television. All TV channels are on the same household set and are controlled by the same remote. Television is a monolithic in both its form and function.

At the end of his 1958 speech, Murrow made a hopeful statement: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful." Television, however, has not been used for the altruistic undertakings of which Murrow spoke.

"Television remains a surrogate instrument, it is not the real thing but rather an impression of reality," wrote CBS News Director William Small in 1970. "Seeing it on television is not living it."

So what impression is television trying to promote? First television must tirelessly defend the status quo. Television will never challenge the viewer's mind or present controversial issues. The corporate owners of TV networks will never be questioned or embarrassed. TV will never ask hard questions of its owners or its audience.

What is the hidden agenda of television? Well, it is no different from an amoeba or any other basic life form. Television's ultimate goal is self-preservation. All of television is focused on maintaining and consolidating profits and power. To this end, viewers of TV must adhere to a strict regimen of obedience and habit. TV watchers must continue to watch TV.

Television is about television. It's only real goal is to keep you watching.




© 2004 by Ron Kaufman @