Literature Review: Tube Of Plenty
Tube Of Plenty, The Evolution of American Television
by Erik Barnouw
“Historians saw in the trend a peril to American democracy. And it was one in which television and its progeny had a dangerous complicity.” (p 543)
Much has happened since Guglielmo Marconi set sail for the United States in 1899, precipitating the “wireless mania” that ultimately gave rise to television as we know it. This epic journey saw boundless ambition meet American corporate determinism. It saw dreams realized and hopes shattered. It brought about suicide and it portrayed murder. It battled communism and it inhibited freedom. It elected presidents, and ensured their downfall. It told stories and it revealed lies. For, as Erik Barnouw reminds us in his masterly account of the evolution of television in America, the journey was about far more than the innovative use of a vacuum tube—it was about the birth of modern-day America. But what of the plenty?
Barnouw divides his account into six stages, giving a detailed and near encyclopaedic account of American broadcast media’s evolution. In Forbears, the dreams of those who imagined a world with television are recounted, with French artist Albert Robida making surprisingly accurate predictions about the portrayal of wars in the living room. We learn of the discovery of radio, and the assent Congress gave in 1918 to an oligopoly of corporate stakeholders who founded Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
In Toddler, we learn of the development of the new technology, as wireless mania develops. Radio sets become the must-have possession of all households. The airwaves are commercialized, as then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover allows “ether advertising.” The National Broadcasting Company was founded as a subsidiary of RCA to populate the radio waves.
And then, television. With the formation of RCA came the early realization that television may soon be possible. Barnouw engages the reader as he describes the earliest programs to populate both mediums as the technology was put in place. The boom in American media was well underway.
Plastic Years sees the effervescent consumption of televisions ensue, where through the late 40’s and early 50’s, the nation heralds its new plaything. Entertainment forms the primary focus for the emerging audience. The Hollywood studios, initially up in arms at the perceived threat to movie theaters, began to work with the emerging television networks. The race was on: Barnouw’s account is no longer confined to the slow development of the new invention and corporate struggles to bring it to market. Rather, with the growth of television, we learn of the rich changes in American culture that followed as the lens was turned on society. The growing audience created a new collective consciousness; as America’s attention shifted to the small screen, the then three major networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, found themselves at the center of a new cultural dominance. And with this, television quickly became a major part of the establishment, with its funding entirely derived from commercial interests. And all this facilitated the exponential growth of a new phenomenon—consumerism.
Thus, in Prime, we see how, from the 1950’s onwards, television became core not just to the culture of the United States, but also to the key developments, debates and controversies. For example, the witch-hunt against ‘communists’ started by Sen. Joseph McCarthy found a particular focus in television, where key personalities were forced off air for their perceived dangerous influence. This trend tended to gravitate against brave and independent journalism, the networks favoring a safe, established line.
Yet despite these problems, the growth of network television gave rise to certain key individuals who resisted the cautious, pandering trend. For example, CBS’s Edward R. Murrow used his position as host for current affairs show See It Now to levy an attack on the rise of McCarthyism in America, illustrating the inconsistencies and ruinous effect it was having on society. Many, including Barnouw, attributed McCarthy’s demise to Murrow’s courageous attack.
But journalism such as this was, throughout the 50’s and 60’s, was not favored by the key decision-makers in America’s corporate media. See It Now lost its primetime slot after CBS executives realized the far more lucrative potential of shows like The $64,000 Question. American telefilms boomed, and soon the television entertainment industry became a major export. To Barnouw, the mid-1950’s became the new missionary expedition, where (at page 233) it “seemed to serve as an advance herald of empire.” Americans and their allies abroad had assumed these exports, be they telefilms, radio transmitters, consumer goods or military bases, would facilitate global peace. But not the Russians.
In an intelligent twist of events, Russia’s then leader, Nikita Khruschev, negotiated an interview with CBS, which both paved the way for a new kind of televised journalism, where it was not the stars of Hollywood, but the old men of Moscow and Washington who took the limelight, and facilitated the Russo-American dialog that brought the beginnings of the Cold War into the full-focus of the American television audience.
At this stage Barnouw questions America’s new love affair with television, revealing the networks' complicity in the censorship and government propaganda that resulted. But the challenge in controlling television output soon became virtually impossible as innovation allowed for live coverage, and again it was the President of the United States who became the star of this new show, as John F. Kennedy played host to the first live press conferences. Yet, as JFK was the first president to truly embrace the new media, live coverage took a sharp and tragic turn as he became the first ever person to be murdered live on television, sparking a similarly novel period of four-day, non-stop coverage. The nation was gripped, and the innovation that had seen the rise of arguably the first populist president then saw him abruptly put to rest.
In Elder, Barnouw continues to chart the rise and rise of commercial television, dealing with developments such as the Vietnam War, the growth of cable television, and the invention of the laser. His historical account across these sections, while leaving great chunks out simply as a result of the space constraints inherent in his ambitious goal of condensing the development of television into a single volume, manages to maintain a subtle blend of narrative and fact. His commentary is neutral, and he gives balanced weight to the opinions of the stakeholders he features in his account, while telling the stories of those involved.
Yet in Progeny, which draws the book to a close, he makes some solid conclusions about the undesirable side-effects that result from the development of a commercial broadcast media. Of particular significance is the effect that Barnouw perceives this to have on news coverage. His book is peppered with examples of the networks tip-toeing around their sponsors, usually at the expense of balanced reportage. The earliest example of this is the Camel News Caravan on NBC, where as a result of the sponsorship of Camel Tobacco, only Winston Churchill was allowed to smoke in any of the reports (due his exceptional iconic status), and cancer coverage was forbidden. The visual requirements of a new televised news service also meant great restrictions in content, for there was simply not the infrastructure to obtain film coverage of events taking place across the world. Rather than summarize them vocally, they were omitted.
This problem diminished as more portable means of recording video were devised, but the commercial unpopularity of news coverage was still a problem in the sixties. CBS Reports, which President of CBS Fred Friendly had once promised to keep on air, was threatened by his successor, James Aubrey, who reportedly said in a board meeting: “You can see, Mr. Chairman, how much bigger our profits could have been this year if it had not been for the drain of news,” (at page 346).
In the midst of the Vietnam War discussion, Barnouw cites Canadian journalist Neil Compton, who after comparing US television coverage to Canadian, observed both that the “great networks” seem to express a “massive political consensus,” and that “they are commercial to a degree which even an outsider used to television finds overwhelming,” (at page 381). To Compton, these two phenomena were “not, of course, unrelated,” and he concludes that anyone relying on US network coverage of the Vietnam War “would have been far less well informed than his Canadian counterpart,” despite US coverage being more frequent.
In his most eloquent epilogue (at page 524), Barnouw attributes the failure of television news to its “eruption” amid an aesthetic medium where “havoc was more photogenic, and quickly perceived.” And through this havoc, the words needed to “clarify causes” and illustrate the “historical context” of events had been suppressed on television. A 23 minute news bulletin simply did not have time for elaboration, especially in the foreign context. What’s more, from the start of the Reagan presidency, “the White House became determined to shape this segment to the fullest possible extent.”
In his conclusion Barnouw points the finger at the excessive commerce of the American broadcast media—not only had advertising stood in the way of the development of a truthful and objective news media, but it had become a necessary mouthpiece for those seeking political office, obscuring open debate with financial pandering. Before giving his assent for an unregulated, commercial broadcast media in the 1920’s, Hoover had spoken of the distasteful nature of excessive commercialization, adding he hoped there would never be the “sandwiching” of Presidential addresses with adverts for pharmaceutical patents on television. Self-regulation was, to him, the answer. In a sorry twist of fate, when Hoover died, a dedication to his life aired on CBS was followed by a cigarette commercial and a political campaign ad. Not only had Presidential coverage become sandwiched, but it was no longer possible to reach the office that Hoover had once occupied without engaging in the sandwiching!
Barnouw finishes his book by asking if it is possible for the television industry, which has had a dangerous complicity in the perilous trend seen in American democracy, to help the nation face the dilemmas of a new millennium. It seems that, at the end of the long journey that charts the evolution of television, Barnouw has lost faith in its capacity for democratic good. This bleak outlook forces the reader to reconsider the book’s title, Tube of Plenty, which at first seems a simple reference to the rich content the television-tube has facilitated. But is Barnouw instead making oxymoronic reference to the tube’s vacuum, where there is no plenty, but in fact nothing at all?