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The TV Problem

The television industry is predicated on deceit; whether it be scripted, unscripted (aka reality) or news, it’s always been that way. But before we jump into the fray, let’s address the elephant in the room. There is no such thing as reality television: there are scripted shows and non-scripted shows. Make no mistake, the non-scripted shows are not reality, so I beg you, can we stop referring to the bevy of Kardashian’s and their ilk as “reality”?

Believe it or not, television is still a relatively new medium. Prior to the Internet explosion, it was the new kid on the block for over 80 years. Now while it may seem like a mature medium, I wouldn’t sound the death knell just yet. I would consider television to be in its teenage years. And to rely on television as the only source of your information is akin to giving your teenager the keys to your $200,000 Maserati GranTurismo for prom.

In other words, it’s probably not the best idea.

Television has, from the beginning, had a pretty firm grasp of the absurd given its’ relationships with both the government and advertising. According to Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch, once television started showing potential David Sarnoff, then the head of NBC Radio and the Genghis Khan of this new media, effectively put the brakes on the growth by lobbying the government, claiming “Only an experienced and responsible organization such as the Radio Corporation of America (NBC’s parent company) should be granted licenses to broadcast material…”

This ended up delaying the expansion of television for +/- 20 years. Not coincidentally, just long enough to allow the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to develop and build its own television set and plenty of time for Sarnoff to segue from radio to television; thus giving birth to the first Golden Age of Television.

The relationship between media and government is just as strong today. According to the Open Secrets website, TV/Movies/Music (content) and Telecom Services (delivery) spent 153 million dollars on lobbying in 2015, making it the third largest lobbying industry, behind pharmaceuticals and insurance. That shocked me the same way my first prostate exam did…and feels just as uncomfortable.

While the relationship with the government can certainly be called cozy, the relationship between media and advertising is downright co-dependent.

Journalist and critic Walter Lippmann would refer to it as “the TV problem.” He felt that, in addition to being too tightly aligned to the government, television is just a “…enormous conspiracy to deceive the public in order to sell profitable advertising.” He wrote that in 1959.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

Today, six companies (Comcast, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS) control 90% of what we read, watch or listen to. By way of comparison, that’s consolidated from the 50 companies that provided what we read, watched or listened to in 1983. And despite quarterly braying from these six companies about ad dollars disappearing, television advertising is expected to grow from 71 billion dollars to 75 billion in 2016.

In some regards the networks are still operating like it is the Mad Men period. They’re beholden to the archaic “upfront” selling model. This is really just an annual orgy of network executives and the advertising community where the networks parade new shows, scripted and non-scripted alike, in some sort of bizarre PT Barnum beauty contest, sponsored by Johnnie Walker. For the last few years this annual debauchery has seen an abundance of shows that are either tired retreads of old shows or comedic ideas that date back to the Paleozoic era.

Many people are referring to this current era as another Golden Age of Television. Where the broadcast networks scripted fare remains pretty puerile, it’s the cable network shows like USA’s “Mr. Robot”, Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” and Amazon’s “Catastrophe” that prove that creativity is thriving on television, not just on cable television but on the ever-expanding Internet. Ironically, the lion’s share of the cable networks are owned by one of the big six.

However, you wouldn’t recognize this new era if you only watched broadcast network television like ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox; and it just happens a large chunk of America still does. A quick look at any Nielsen data will show that the top broadcast shows have almost three times the viewership as the top cable shows.

When it comes to news, it’s a little more complicated. Broadcast news is meant to carry a little more gravitas because like a lot of other journalistic endeavors, it should serve as a checks and balances instrument for our democracy. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the case. While each one of these six companies has at least one television news program they have been assigned a certain bend; FOX to the right, MSNBC to the left and CNN to the Anderson Cooper. But the reality is that the news, much like life, is much more complicated.

To rely on any one of them as the sole purveyor of germane news is, as my mother (and every mother in the known universe) would say, “placing all your eggs in one basket.” Also, the standard length of a news segment on CBS, NBC and ABC is 2:26, which hardly seems enough time to relate the complexity of most news topics. It makes for great sound bites but not so great for comprehensive news stories.

In what may seem counterintuitive, if you spend time watching your local news you are getting more information but less substance. According to Pew Research, over half of the news segments for local television come in at under thirty seconds.

The bedrock of our democracy is our First Amendment which prohibits the infringement on the freedom of the press. Simple math breaks down that these six companies will stand to make +/- 10 billion dollars in ad revenue this year. We should be scratching our heads and considering to what degree the advertisers spending 75 billion dollars are influencing the creativity or the editorial content of our favorite networks. To believe there is no influence is to still believe in both Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

So, as we find ourselves sliding into home plate in what can only be described as one of the longest, most perplexing and most important election cycles in recent memory, we should be asking ourselves if we have a complete picture of the issues and the candidates; be it The Voice or presidential election you’re voting on.

Walter Lippmann’s “TV problem” still exists; television is still “an enormous conspiracy to deceive the public.” Perhaps more transparent but certainly more pervasive.