In television, everything has changed: the screen in the home is bigger and flatter, the styles of programming, the choice of delivery systems, and the business of television itself is different from what it was a half-century ago.
While I work hard to keep up with technology and embrace the ever-quickening pace of change, I am concerned about what has happened to the television business we loved and what's yet to come. I'm concerned as a television producer, writer and director. Moreover, I'm concerned as a parent...and an American citizen. Trust me—my concern is real.
I have concern that the television business as we know it—no matter how profitable for some—is at risk for all. At risk because we have abandoned precepts that balanced entertainment and responsibility; because we have confused fiction with truth; because we have redefined the word "reality."
I'm more than concerned; I’m distressed and disheartened. And most of all, I'm disappointed in what's become of television and radio, press and journalism. And I can't believe what it's done and is doing to the nation.
Is there any reason we should be surprised by the shouting matches we see at a televised "town hall meeting" after a generation has grown up on beat-downs that are passed off as "television talk shows"? Where's the difference? The public now sees such yelling as completely acceptable behavior—commonplace.
Is there any reason we should be surprised by the threats of violence—and actual violent attacks—against members of Congress and other political leaders after the verbal fights that are encouraged on weekly "reality" shows in the name of entertainment and for the sake of ratings?
Are we too naive to think this sort of content doesn't influence behavior? I’m convinced that it does. And deep down we have to know it.
Is there any reason we should be surprised that the country is so polarized when, on TV competition series, you either win or you lose? But if you lose on one of those shows, you're not through. You get the chance to badmouth the winner, guaranteeing that your video will go viral and you may get picked for another show.
For months, through the presidential primaries and caucuses, we’ve been in a downward spiral of "political-speak" where opinions on health care, contraception, and the economy pass for fact. Sadly, it won’t end with the political conventions. Expect the volume to rise as the arguments become louder, angrier and too often based on misstatements, half-truths or lies.
It was Mark Twain who wrote, "A lie can travel halfway around the world in the time that the truth is putting its boots on." Through hate radio’s microphones and television’s skewed newscasts, this perspective is more true today than ever.
We had the means to educate, entertain and inform an American citizenry; to move the country forward. For years the networks and local stations did that. Washington safeguarded the process through strict license renewal procedures aimed at assuring that stations were held accountable to the communities they served.
Coming up in this business as a rock DJ at WHUC, in Hudson, New York, I knew the "rules." We broke for news on the hour and the half-hour.. The result, across the country: if you listened to radio, even "top 40" radio, you heard the news.
In local television, we had to canvass viewers with community ascertainment surveys to base our public affairs record and create programming that would address the needs and concerns of a diverse city. That was at WBZ-TV in Boston and every television station across the country. The result: television shows that mattered locally.
The issues were the central focus, not boisterous personalities who considered themselves above the news...or worse yet, as important as the news itself.
But that has all changed. If the public owns the airwaves, as the Communications Act of 1934 maintains, show me how the public is better served today, without expectation of news or programming about community issues on most stations.
Of course, we can't reset the clock. But with everything that's changed in the last 25 years, is the principle of free speech better honored today given all the hate speech that's carried daily on America's radio and TV? Are the media more responsive to the cities and towns they reach when the concept of local ownership is a thing of the past? Is prime time television really better than it used to be?
Traditionally, there's something unique, brave and wonderful about our voice. Not just the sound and the volume, but what we have to say to the world. Yet those of us in the news and entertainment business—the story-tellers of the American experience—are not the gate-keepers of the media. Congress, the FCC, political parties, lobbyists, sponsors and special interest groups are. And, in turn, through legislation, too many of the monolithic broadcast and cable giants have become virtually uncontrolled, and maybe, by now, uncontrollable. And along the way the press is less like the heralded fifth estate of old and more like a slum landlord, posting eviction notices on the time-honored basics of unbiased reporting and intelligent debate.
We—all of us—let this happen through both action and inaction, through trusting others and through promises that were never kept.
No matter where you stand on political lightning rods like the old Fairness Doctrine, media consolidation, and Internet neutrality, can we agree that, as producers, writers, directors, reporters, actors and artists (and as viewers and listeners) we have all lost something precious? Can we agree that we miss it?
I believe we create less worthwhile content in a 500-channel television universe than we did on four channels. And, though we are no less creative, we have fewer creative opportunities. As a result, American culture is really on the line. We are exporting the worst imaginable images to the rest of the world through television, and we've compromised the meaning of "responsible broadcasting" at home. We've shown how easy it is to trade civility, honesty and respect for 15-minutes-of-fame.
Back to "reality TV." We all have guilty pleasures and watch a few shows. But even a little Internet research, or a glance at TV Guide reveals that we have been shown more than 700 reality shows in recent years. Multiplied by 8, 13, 26, or 100 episodes, and you'll get the true picture of television these days.
And what's real about most "reality TV"? Very, very little. The shows are manipulated, assisted, time-shifted, pre-arranged and re-arranged, and still they're called "unscripted." We're told there's no acting. Nothing could be further from the truth. The impact is profound and probably permanent. By now, too many viewers, let alone network executives, have grown up on this unreal "reality."
Is there an alternative? No. We are left with a marketplace where bookstores are quickly disappearing and publishing is in a tailspin; an America where public education, public television and public radio broadcasts are de-valued and de-funded; and where the network financial bottom line can't seem to buck the trend.
Last year was the anniversary of a seminal speech about television. Vital Speeches of the Day considers it one of the 25 speeches that changed the world. Number 22 in fact. It was delivered May 9, 1961 before the National Association of Broadcasters. The speaker—then-FCC Chairman Newton Minow. Though he has since clarified his comments, they bear repeating today in the original context as reported. Chairman Minow stated:
When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you—and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.
But that "vast wasteland" of 1961 included Bonanza, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, The DuPont Show of the Week, Ed Sullivan Show, Jack Benny, Alcoa Premiere, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dick Powell, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Red Skelton, The Steve Allen Show, Naked City, Perry Como, David Brinkley's Journal, Armstrong Circle Theatre, The Untouchables, Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, CBS Reports, 77 Sunset Strip, The Bell Telephone Hour, Rawhide, Route 66, and Twilight Zone. That was the schedule that Newton Minow criticized.
It looks pretty good from 50 years out!
For the most part, those remarkable shows, and many classics that followed, fiction and non-fiction alike, have given way to a schedule that we should be ashamed of. It has transformed our industry, our businesses, our culture and our lives. And while there is good work done by good people, too much of TV today depicts the worst in us. And the truth of the matter is—it’s not true.
Is it possible to bring the noise level down on today's TV programming so we can hear the heartbeat of the American spirit? Truth be told, there are dynamic portrayals of the American spirit in some observational documentary series. And a handful of television or cable networks continue to provide time on their schedules for programming that is truly excellent.
But generally speaking, many programmers set the bar they are trying to reach so low, we trip over it when we, as creators of content, go in to pitch anything meaningful. The American spirit is hardly visible through a cloud that obscures better content. That cloud is reality TV.
Newton Minow was right, but in the wrong century.