TELEVISION’S ROLE IN PUBLIC AFFAIRS (Displayed September 2008–February 2009)
Dawn of Television
The earliest television signals seen in Washington were crude 30-line pictures transmitted by C. Francis Jenkins from a transmitter near Silver Spring around 1930. He used a largely mechanical system of his own design. After 1935 television development focused on all-electronic systems that provided steadily better pictures—similar to today’s by 1941 when commercial operation began. After a hiatus during the war, television expanded slowly until 1948–the first network “season”–when stations began to air across the country. Coast-to-coast live television service became possible in 1951 by which time a quarter of all homes had a receiver.
Building Television News
Early network and station newscasts were brief (15 minutes was typical), used a static set, and looked something like movie theater newsreels, then still popular. Network evening news expanded to a half hour format only in September 1963. Just two months later, television held the nation together for four days of coverage after President Kennedy’s assassination. Half the nation’s homes tuned to the nightly evening newscasts. The arrival of video tape in 1956 and communication satellites in the next decade greatly extended the capability and reach of television journalists.
We Take You Now To . . .
Television journalism soon demonstrated its ability to take American viewers to far corners of the world. Technology steadily improved, driven by the transistor in the 1950s and the integrated circuit in the 1960s. As computers became more capable yet cheaper, they saw application throughout the television world. Cameras grew smaller, lighter, and eventually portable, while modes of recording became lighter and faster. By the 1970s, communication satellites greatly speeded the flow of news around the world.
Golden Age of Documentaries
Embarrassed by a rigged prime-time quiz show scandal in the late 1950s, the three television networks sought to mollify regulators and please viewers by presenting regularly-scheduled documentaries. In the 1960s, CBS Reports, NBC’s Project 20 and other series offered one-hour programs almost weekly covering a wide variety of topics. Documentaries have largely disappeared from broadcast television because of low ratings as well as competition from cable channels and public television.
Knowing who is watching television (as well as what they are watching, and when) is a matter of more than mere curiosity—it is of vital concern to advertisers. Because of receiver cost, television began as a service in wealthy homes, expanding by the early 1950s into more widespread watching as set prices dropped. Building on radio’s research methods, television ratings were dominated by the Nielsen’s meter system from the beginning. “People Meters” by the 1990s allowed advertisers to know more about who was watching. At the same time, cable, video recorders and the Internet made audience research far more complex.
Politics on the Tube
Television seems made for politics—and vice-versa. From a tentative start in the late 1940s, television’s role in both political advertising and news coverage of primaries, nominations, and general campaigns has expanded so that today it is the single most important—and often most expensive—factor in campaigns for office. Most of us participate in the political process through television. The medium provides our window on elections, from campaign ads, candidate speeches and debates, to watching voting results on sometimes very late election nights.
Television in the Public Interest
Into the late 1970s, broadcast networks and stations had the television audience virtually to themselves. The arrival of the first video cassette recorders in 1975—which allowed viewers to time-shift their watching—and the 1976 decision by HBO and Ted Turner to use domestic satellites to distribute programming—in essence, to create new national networks—began to change that cozy scene. By 1980, new satellite-distributed cable networks were appearing almost monthly, hugely diversifying what TV viewers could watch. Niche news and sports networks—and one devoted to weather—further weakened legacy network program appeal to viewers. The arrival of the public Internet after 1995 further spread the audience across countless news sources.
RADIO’S ROLE IN PUBLIC AFFAIRS (Displayed during 2007)
Radio’s Rise: the 1920s
Regular radio broadcasting began on a handful of stations in 1920–21. By late 1922 there were more than 500 stations on the air, including several here in Washington. Everything had to be created—transmitters and studio equipment, how stations would operate, and the programming they would provide. How to pay expenses was the big question and brought forth many suggestions. Advertising emerged as the accepted means of support by 1926–27, just as Congress created a Federal Radio Commission to license and regulate stations. NBC and then CBS began national networks. Receivers advanced from cumbersome battery-powered devices requiring headphones to plug-in sets with loudspeakers. Programs became units of a half-hour or hour, and soon included comedy, drama, music, and talks. There were few newscasts but many talks and speeches by politicians and other public figures. By 1929 more than a third of all households owned at least one receiver.
Creating Radio News in the 1930s
Radio continued to expand during the Depression. While 45 percent of all homes owned a radio in 1930, 80 percent did by 1939. Once people owned a receiver, listening was free. Stations and the new national networks provided an expanding choice of entertainment programs—and the first regular newscasts. Floyd Gibbons and then Lowell Thomas provided nightly news on NBC beginning in 1930. Special news events—such as elections or disasters—all were covered by radio. Stations in larger markets offered their own occasional news broadcasts. Radio’s growing role as a news medium frightened newspaper publishers, who tried to limit broadcasting’s role in 1933–35 through control of the news agencies on which most stations relied. NBC and CBS began to develop their own news departments.
Radio Goes to War
American radio journalism developed fully during World War II. From Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from London during the 1940 Blitz to the first announcement of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, radio was the first and prime means of informing the home front of the changing battle scene. Listeners turned to radio for breaking wartime news and the amount of news on the air climbed to an all-time high as networks and stations added programs and commentary.
Radio After Television
Radio continued to dominate broadcasting and listener time until 1948 when network television service to the Northeast and Middle West began. By 1951 service reached across the country. Very quickly the national radio networks declined in the face of television competition. By 1955 radio offered little more than news and feature services along with music. Commentary and most other public affairs programs soon disappeared. Only those stations in the biggest cities could retain an active news service—and in the 1960s a few stations began all-news formats. The development of National Public Radio after 1970 helped to keep radio public affairs programming alive for its growing audience.
Broadcaster curiosity—and then advertiser demands—drove research about who was tuning in, what they were listening to, and when they listened. Radio’s audience was poorly understood for the first decade or so, in part because of crude research methods. Commercial research focused on determining which programs were most popular and the first ratings appeared in 1930. Later in the decade, academics began to study radio listening as an important social phenomenon. From the late 1930s to 1950 “Hooperatings” were the Nielsens of their day and determined network programs’ success or failure.
Politics on the Air
Radio was made for politicians. While earlier presidents had used radio, Franklin Roosevelt was the first who was a natural on the air. His “fireside chats” in the 1930s helped inform and reassure a worried America during the Depression. Perhaps only former broadcaster Ronald Reagan, president a half century later, used the medium with as much effect. But radio also appealed to political and social rabble. Senator Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin were two effective radio speakers with strong views in the 1930s. Radio became progressively more important with each national election through 1948.
Radio in the Public Interest
As it became clear that radio would last and grow, the medium began to collect critics. Everybody had their own idea of how radio could best serve, as the Radio Act of 1927 required, “the public interest, convenience or necessity.” Talks, debates, even documentaries were fairly common, though rarely supported by advertisers due to their small audiences. Only under competitive pressure from television after 1950 did radio revert to playing music with only occasional newscasts. Industry consolidation after 1996 turned radio away from such localism to a menu of music, advertising or talk shows, usually conservative.