Chapter 5: Television

Posted: February 18, 2011 in Chapter 5: Television

Controlling Content: TV Grows Up

  • Early television’s black-and-white tubes were so primitive that to create the proper contrast under studio lights, actors had to wear green face makeup and purple lipstick.
  • To illustrate the corporate sponsor’s power over newscasts in the days when single corporations sponsored entire programs, consider this: During the Camel News Caravan programs, news anchor John Cameron Swayze smoked while delivering the news, and a pack of Camel cigarettes and a Camel ashtray were always in sight. Another stipulation was that no person on the program, including the news anchors, could be shown at any time smoking a cigar. The only exception was Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, who was a famous cigar smoker. No Smoking signs were also forbidden. As other news programs were established, it was considered undignified not to smoke while delivering television news. Anchors sometimes took the ultracasual/suave approach, sitting on the front of the news desk (instead of behind it) with a cigarette in one hand and the news copy in another. Sometimes the anchors would also pace back and forth as they read the news.
  • VIDEO: Examples with “camel breaks”
  • Even early television broadcasters seemed to be in awe of television’s power to collapse space and time. For example, the first episode of CBS’s See It Now in November 1951 featured a first-time-ever split screen of live shots of the Brooklyn Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge, with broadcaster Edward R. Murrow expressing his amazement at television technology that could unite the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was also thought that television could effectively replace teachers, especially during the teaching shortage of the 1960s.
  • VIDEO: See it Now

The Quiz-Show Scandals Diminish the Promise of TV

In the 1950s several popular TV shows were discovered to have fixed the outcome; the producers told the contestants the answers. The shows were canceled and the United States Congress passed an amendment preventing networks from fixing game shows.

  • FCC head Newton Minow’s famous “vast wasteland” speech in 1961 about the state of television programming had an impact on the public consciousness and is still often quoted. The question of a broadcaster’s role as a public utility with public responsibilities still underlies many debates about broadcasting regulations today. By 1967, and in part because of Minow’s speech, Congress approved funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Minow came out with a book in 1995 titled Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, and the First Amendment.
  • Listen to the speech
  • Discussion — does his speech describe TV today? What do you think about the “vast wasteland” of TV today — does it just entertain, or does it share ideas?
  • Here’s a prescient quote from Robert Pinsky, the U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000 that we can just as easily apply to reality programming:

Television’s great moments have had to do with presence, immediacy, and unpredictability: Oswald wincing at Ruby’s bullet; Carlton Fisk dancing his home run onto the right side of the Fenway foul pole; Joseph Welch shaming Joseph McCarthy; Richard Nixon and Charles Van Doren sweating; athletes in agonies and ecstasies of struggle; funerals; congressional hearings; men on the moon or in a white Bronco; political conventions in the days before they were scripted and rehearsed. . . . The quiz show, no matter how banal the form, no matter what scandals taint its history, cannot die because—like sports programming— it offers predictable unpredictability.

—Robert Pinsky, “Creating the ‘Real’ in Bright Yellow and Blue,”

  • The cable quiz show Win Ben Stein’s Money re-created the booths that appeared on quiz shows during the 1950s. The show was the first nonsyndicated quiz show to resurface on a network since the scandals. Win Ben Stein’s Money debuted in 1997 on Comedy Central; game shows returned to the broadcast networks in summer 1999 with ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Both shows were produced by Valleycrest Productions.

VIDEO: One of most popular 50s game shows, 64-thousand (beginning-4:10)

VIDEO: Win Ben Stein’s Money

VIDEO: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

VIDEO: Minute to Win It

Discussion — Which game show would you like to be on, and why? Why are game shows so pleasing to watch? What do they contribute to society? What do they say about our culture?

TV Information: Our Daily News Culture

  • Dan Rather’s career is an interesting illustration of how television news has evolved since the 1960s. He was an impressive news reporter, quickly accelerated through CBS’s ranks as one of the network’s young stars, and became one of television journalism’s more colorful characters. He was the first to get the scoop on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination; he expertly handled the pressure of that event with a good deal of diligence and clarity and moved on to cover the Nixon White House.

VIDEO: Rather on JFK

  • Soon Rather landed a coveted spot on 60 Minutes, where the focus was investigative journalism. In 1981, Rather was chosen over Roger Mudd to become anchor for CBS Evening News, and he was one of the first to garner an enormous salary—$2.2 million a year for ten years—that would be typical of network news anchors to follow. Even as television news depended more and more on stars, Rather, who was paid to be one, never did attract the highest ratings of the three network news broadcasts.
  • One of Rather’s most controversial moments was when he stormed off the set of CBS Evening News in 1987 after he learned the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament might delay his 6:30 PM broadcast. When the match did finish, Rather could not be found, and CBS was dark for six minutes. A year later, in a live interview with Rather on CBS Evening News, presidential candidate George H. W. Bush, who was being questioned about his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, strategically deflected Rather’s inquiries on ethics and responsibility b yraising the issue of Rather’s six-minute absence. ‘
  • Most recently, Rather apologized to CBS viewers for CBS’s failure to authenticate documents in its investigation of George W. Bush’s service record with the Texas National Guard, and he retired in 2005.

VIDEO: Showdown with George H W Bush (beginning to minute 7)

Intro to Sitcoms

VIDEO: Friends (beginning through minute 5)

TV Entertainment: Our Comic Culture

  • In 2003, NBC spent $9 million on each episode of the tenth season of Friends, with each of the six stars earning more than $1 million per episode. In contrast, an hour-long episode of West Wing cost the network between $5 million and $7 million.
  • The Los Angeles Entertainment Industry Development Corporation (EIDC), which has a stake in keeping TV production in the Hollywood/Los Angeles area, reported in 2005 the following about Hollywood-based TV production:
  • Full-season shows on broadcast networks typically produce twenty-two episodes per season, provided they are not canceled during their production run. Midseason replacements typically shoot twelve episodes per season and begin airing in the winter. The exception is the reality genre, which produces anywhere from six to twenty-two episodes per season.
  • Of the 134 scripted and reality episodic series on the prime-time broadcast schedule, at least 96 (72 percent) are being shot and produced in the Los Angeles area.
  • While the broadcast networks begin their new season in the fall, the more than sixty cable networks operate on a different schedule. Returning series air new episodes at various times throughout the year, with about 80 percent of new original series making their debut during the summer.
  • At least thirty-one (43 percent) of the seventy-two prime-time episodic programs on the cable networks EIDC surveyed are being shot and produced in Los Angeles.

Situation Comedy

  • Today, TV’s successful comedies—The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, My Name Is Earl, and 30 Rock, for example—tend to be shot with a single camera, like film; there is no studio audience or canned laughter, and there is no common, shared environment, such as a living room, a couch, or set of stairs in the background leading up to an unseen second floor.
  • VIDEO: The Office

Domestic Comedy

  • A number of people in the television industry saw Home Improvement’s final episode in 1999 as the end of an era. Domestic comedies, which tend to celebrate family and appeal to a broad audience, are no longer attractive to television executives looking for younger and more affluent audiences.
  • Consequently, situation comedies that feature upscale, single twenty-somethings living in urban apartment dwellings have become the dominant television genre. One domestic comedy, Everybody Loves Raymond, faced enormous resistance from network executives when they were presented with the show’s premise. Creator and producer Phil Rosenthal said that executives were looking for something “hipper, edgier, and not so family.” ABC Entertainment chairman Stu Bloomberg agrees that the domestic comedies that will survive will not succeed without “an unusual point of view.”

VIDEO: Home Improvement

VIDEO: Modern Family Trailor

Reality Television
• Average cost for a reality program: $700,000

VIDEO: Reality TV, Dancing with the Stars

Other Enduring Trends and Reality TV

  • Paul Farhi of the Washington Post has summarized the long-term downside of reality programming:

On one hand, reality shows can be a network’s dream. They can be churned out
quickly, and cost about half as much to produce—about $600,000 per hour—as
the typical new drama or sitcom, according to various network estimates. Reality
shows don’t require new sets, or stars who hold out for salaries of $1 million
an episode. . . . And when they connect, programs like Project Runway and
American Idol tend to be popular with the audience advertisers desire most:
young women.

Pros for Reality TV:

  • Quick profit for Reality shows
  • Networks lose money on first run of dramas and sitcoms
  • Cons for Reality TV:

  • Reality shows burn out more quickly
  • Popular reality shows aren’t very popular in repeats, which are critical to the long-term financial success of a TV series
  • Popular sitcom or drama tends to have a following for years after its original network run and can churn out profits for the rerun and syndication markets for decades.

About working for a reality television series:

  • Reality television show writers are generally treated poorly by the networks and by television production companies. In part, it’s because the television industry refuses to admit that there are actually writers on reality television shows. The networks tried to promote the idea that these shows were unscripted and completely spontaneous, with no writers involved.
  • When that argument failed, the networks maintained that writing for reality shows, which included plotting story lines, editing interviews, and in many cases creating dialogue, is still not really writing. To maintain this idea, reality show writers are called “story editors,” “story producers,” and “post producers.” With barely any legitimacy, reality television writers have consequently been unable to become unionized, and without unionization, they are paid shockingly low wages ($800 a week on some shows) and have to endure egregious working conditions, including 90- to 120-hour workweeks with no overtime, meal breaks, or holidays, time-card falsification, and other labor abuses. The networks, in love with cheap programming, will do everything they can to keep it as cheap as possible. As of 2005, class-action lawsuits were underway, which in part will expose just how scripted, edited, and crafted reality television actually is.
  • For manufacturers, reality television has been wonderfully successful in terms of selling their products. Scripts are often written to feature anything from a sponsoring toothpaste to automobiles, and manufacturers are reporting huge increases in sales. The Apprentice and American Idol all featured Crest’s vanilla mint toothpaste, AT&T’s text-messaging phones, and Illuminations’ candle sconce in 2005, and sales rose dramatically on all these products. Pontiac dealers got 1,000 orders in just 41 minutes the day after the Pontiac Solstice Roadster played a featured role on The Apprentice.
  • NMAEntertainment is one of the most prominent brand-integration companies, and brokers about fifteen to twenty new reality show concepts a week.
  • While reality television shows are known for being cheap to produce, some can cost as much as $1 million an episode. The CW’s America’s Next Top Model cost about $800,000 a show in 2004, while The Apprentice runs just below $2 million an episode. Part of this cost goes toward the show’s “star,” Donald Trump, who gets an extravagant sum for his appearances.
  • Reality TV is not just a U.S. phenomenon, and American viewers turning on the television in many European countries will recognize familiar programming (Joe Millionaire, Temptation Island, etc.). As a matter of fact, many reality TV shows originated in Europe (such as Big Brother, American Idol, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), reversing a long-standing trend of American entertainment exports. The Dutch-based entertainment group Endemol, for example, brought Big Brother and Fear Factor to the United States.

Reality Examples:
VIDEO: Temptation Island

VIDEO: American Idol

VIDEO: Jersey Shore

VIDEO: Joe Schmo  

Discussion — At your table, talk about what reality shows you have watched, and answer the following questions for each:

  • If television is storytelling, what story are they telling?
  • What is the appeal?
  • Would you ever re-watch your favorite shows?
  • If you landed here from outer space and saw reality television, what would you think of the culture you found?

Prime-Time Production

  • There are about 5,600 members who write for television, and according to the Writers Guild of America, the increasing hours devoted to reality shows have significantly reduced jobs.
  • The networks have long been considered a “gravy train” in the world of comedy writing.
  • The average pay starts in the low $100,000 bracket. Successful writers working in the industry for about five years can make up to $500,000. At the executive producer level, the income can exceed $1 million a year.

Measuring Television Viewing

  • In 2000, Nielsen Media Research released an extensive report on American TV habits. Here are some of its findings:
  • American households typically had televisions on almost eight hours a day.
  • Americans watch on average over four hours of television a day.
  • American children between the ages of two and seventeen spend an average of almost twenty hours a week watching television.
  • Watching television occupies a majority of leisure time for U.S. residents.
  • Nationally, there are 5,000 television households in which electronic meters (called People Meters) are attached to every TV set, VCR, cable converter box, satellite dish or other video equipment in the home. The meters continually record all set tuning. In addition we ask each member of the household to let us know when they are watching by pressing a preassigned button on the People Meter, which is also present. By matching this button activity to the demographic information (age/gender) we collect at the time the meters are installed, we can match the set tuning—what is being watched—with who is watching.
  • All these data are transmitted to Nielsen Media Research’s computers where they are processed and released to our customers each day.
  • In addition to this national service, we have a slightly different metering system in fifty-five local markets. In each of those markets Nielsen Media Research gathers just the set-tuning information each day from more than 20,000 additional homes. We then process the data and release what we call “household ratings” daily. In this case we can report what channel or program is being watched, but we don’t have the “who” part of the picture. To gather that local demographic information, we periodically (at least four times per year) ask another group of people to participate in our diary surveys. For these estimates, we contact approximately 1 million homes each year and ask them to keep track of television viewing for one week, recording their TV viewing activity in a diary. This is done for all 210 television markets in the United States in November, February, May, and July and is generally referred to as the “sweeps.”
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