Down the Tube
VTR Date: March 3, 1998
Guest: Baker, William
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. William F. Baker
Title: “Down the Tube”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And our program today focuses on a book that its publisher, Basic Books, calls both a “sweeping examination of the history of television, and an important indictment into the mercenary mentality that taints the most influential and powerful medium in the world.”
In Bill Moyers’ foreword to Down the Tube: An Inside Account of the Failure of American Television, he finds the real danger imposed by the medium to be the alienating effect of being inundated, day in and day out, with this flood of tittle-tattle that panders to the lowest common denominator created by a communications industry that regards human beings as nothing more than mere appetites, and America as nothing but an economic machine. Moyers adds, “We should be better than that.”
“William F. Baker and George DeSort, the Tube’s authors,” he writes, “Have communicated here something true, something powerful, something painful, something they believe in. They are lucky that the powers that be don’t usually behead their critics anymore, for this is dangerous stuff. Not easy to hear. All the more reason then we ought to listen.”
And listen we shall today to one of Down the Tube’s gutsy authors, William F. Baker, an experienced commercial broadcaster who served as president of Westinghouse Television and chairman of Group W Satellite Communications, and has for some time now been the president and CEO of WNET, public television’s Channel Thirteen here in New York.
Now, of course, when I sing Thirteen’s praises, the niceties of full disclosure dictate that I indicate I helped acquire and activate the station 37 years ago, and served as its first general manager.
But back now to Down the Tube and its quite disturbing insight that, in its simplest terms, the business of television in this country is the buying and selling of eyeballs. That, and that alone, one fears. So, Dr. Baker, Bill Baker, what’s the answer to the problem, as you set it before us in Down the Tube?
BAKER: Well, I mean, that is, of course, the toughest one of all. And I was talking to a good friend of mine…
By the way, thank you for having me here. And I intentionally chose this as my coming-out event on the book because of my trustworthiness of the forum.
I think Moyers is right. This is a pretty scary kind of a thing for me to get involved with. But I did feel that some of the, that the things that George and I said in this book are important to be said, and this is something that should be in public discussion.
To answer your question specifically, I’ve talked to people a lot smarter than me saying, “What is the solution?” Because all of the people that I know keep coming up to me — and I’ve now been in this television business almost 40 years — and they say, “Why isn’t television better?” And, of course, there are a lot of answers. And that’s what we try to get to in the book. We know why that’s the case, and we know that it was started out, this most powerful of all media, was started out as a commercial enterprise actually by my old company, Westinghouse, to sell radios in department stores. And it remained commercial ever since the very, very beginnings of its radio origins, and television just picked up those radio origins. As a matter of fact, it’s interesting that the very often lines quoted by individuals who are part of the Communications Act of 1934, the act that established broadcasting, regulated broadcasting in this country, refer to the “public’s convenience, interest, and necessity.” That’s why the broadcasting exists. And that was picked up from… This was all run by the Interstate Commerce Commission. They didn’t know what to do with this thing, and they said, “Well, let’s use the same words we’re using for the railroads.” [Laughter] So that’s the terms they used for the railroads: “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Somehow everybody figured that that was broadcasting’s mandate.
Whereas, in places like England and in other places of the world, there was a lot more thought, and a lot more distant thinking that went into the television and radio business, that said, “Hey, this is a public asset, this is something that is of great value for education and culture, and we should be careful whose hands this gets into and how it gets to run.”
The answer is, in this country — and this is almost going to the very, now it’s going, you asked the question that takes me to the last chapter — the question probably is the business is too mature, too powerful to really do much about. To come in and try to regulate a business this powerful and this all-consuming just wouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t happen with the First Amendment, wouldn’t happen in a culture that is this bottom-line, economic-driven. So I think our only hope, as I see it, are a couple things. And they’re not great. One of them we refer to in the book is that in this, at this very moment, the television industry is going through a time in which new frequencies have been allocated to every television station in America. So Channel Thirteen in New York will have another television station to do what is called “digital broadcasting,” and how those bands unfold is kind of what every AM station in America on radio was given an FM. Now it’s every broadcasting television station is given a digital frequency. This would have been a great time to open up the act to look and make some decisions. And as we were writing the book that was our conclusion, was, “Hey, this is a great time for the government to kind of, as they hand out these frequencies, to say, ‘What better uses, what extra demands can we put on all of the broadcasters for giving them those frequencies?'”
Well, they looked at, they thought about that for about 30 seconds, and then the marketplace kind of washed that away. So that never happened. But nevertheless, there’s still an opportunity, as these frequencies are being unleashed — and I say that in the best sense of the word — are going to be ultimately utilized, for the public to start discussing, either through government forums, panels, etcetera, through academic discussions, through the kinds of discussion we’re having here on this program, to say, “What better can be done with television?” That is a bit of a weak-kneed approach, but that’s one of the only tools left to us, and that is public discussion of something that I view as important.
The other is, is a kind of capitalist need. You know, one of my first temptation was to say the government should do more regulation. That’s what we talk about. We really blame, not the people who are running the broadcasting industry, because, after all, I was one of those people for a long time, and I’m never going to blame myself for all the miseries that we have. I have to say that it is, I mean, the individuals running commercial broadcasting stations can’t help but doing what they’re doing. Because ultimately they have only one, one, there’s only one judge of them, and that is the bottom line. And I say to aim for the bottom line is to aim too low in a business this powerful. But that’s the only, you know, that’s the only measure, is “How well are you doing financially?” which usually means, “How big of an audience do you have?” because the size of the audience translates into economics, how much advertising revenue one can generate on a television station.
So I was thinking, well, maybe the capital, as George and I talked about this (George DeSart, the co-author, who did most of the hard caring and labor on this book), one of the things we talked about is, rather than saying, “Let’s regulate, let’s demand that public-service announcements be reinserted in the schedule, or religious programs, or something” which, of course, all disappeared, because in the drive to maximize the bottom line, who needs a religious program, who needs a public-service announcement? The government doesn’t regulate us that way anymore. Well, to put those regulations back in probably in the Nineties and into the next millenium are going to be very difficult. But I was thinking perhaps offer tax incentives, tax credits. Maybe, again, the good old George Washington talks, you know, to have broadcasters help maximize the bottom line by doing good.
The other thing is, is that, the other possibility (and this is a long-winded answer) is colleagues themselves in this industry. Almost everybody I talk to who’s been in the television business for any length of time, when I talk to them about this book, many of them disagree with parts of it, the ones that have read it, or when I talk, the philosophy of the book, most, many of them agree with me. But they say, “You know, Bill, I’d really like to do a better job, but, you know, there’s pressure. We gotta, you know, we gotta make this money. And, you know, the corporate office, the stockholders, etcetera, etcetera.” And I think that if we just maintain pressure from, collegial pressure… I’m the president of the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. That’s the organization, the volunteer organization of professionals that gives out the Emmy Awards in New York. The National Association gives out the National Emmy Awards. And just from one television professional to another, kind of recognizing excellence, may be the only thing that kind of keeps excellence alive, because your employer isn’t likely to recognize excellence if your employer is a commercial employer.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but, Bill, excellence, excellence in producing schlock is not exactly what you mean by excellence.
BAKER: [Laughter] No. I agree. But, you know, we’ve got to start from somewhere. And, you know, at this point, my view is: We’ve got to do the best we can. We are saddled with this system. I am not a revolutionary. I wish I were. But I’m not. I don’t think you can just turn this thing upside-down at this point. We’re too far into it. There are some opportunities. And at every one of those opportunities, the most recent one being only six months or a year ago when these digital channels were handed out, the government had the chance to do the right thing. And they didn’t. So I fault, more than anybody, our regulators in this country, as opposed to the regulators in other countries who have said, “Hey, this thing is important. Let’s do the right thing. Let’s talk about it.”
HEFFNER: Are you unwilling then to subscribe to the notion of more but better regulation?
BAKER: Oh, no, no. I am one of the few people, I think, who is involved in the television business today that would say — and that includes some of my own lawyers in public television, I might add — who would say, “I like regulation. I’m prepared to accept it.” I would like a little bit more because I remember especially the days in the commercial world when, the earlier days of my career in the commercial world, when I sometimes said, “You know, maybe I just won’t go the extra distance of, you know, taking this extra piece of clothing off to get a few extra tenths of a rating point because, you know, there’s a license at stake.” Here, of course, nowadays, you know, nobody really cares about that. They do whatever they have to to get it because there’s no threat of a license-loss.
By the way, you know, you think about this industry, that it’s been around since, well, I mean, formally around since 1934, maybe since 1920, depending on how you want to figure it, 1921. And there really only been one television license that has ever been lost, that I know of. Maybe two. In the whole history of this business with thousands of licenses.
HEFFNER: Yeah. Red Lion and Mississippi.
BAKER: Red Lion and, yeah, two of them. Two licenses.
HEFFNER: But you’re not really willing to give up the ghost on this, are you?
BAKER: Oh, no, no, no. I think though that I am not the one that should say that there should be absolute regulation and what that regulation should be. I think I should call, I mean, I should be one of those voices in the wilderness, in the woods, calling, saying, “Hey, government, what are you around for? You know, people in this country are now accepting regulating of seatbelts to protect us in our automobiles. They’re accepting regulations of smoking in aircraft and in public buildings. Why can’t we take the most powerful force of all, the thing that operates our, I mean, that influences our minds, and do a little regulating for the public good? What the heck is going on?”
HEFFNER: But, you see, that’s what I read when I read Down the Tube. That’s precisely what I read. And I thought, “Son of a gun. This guy has got it right. This guy’s got it right. And how’s he going to survive this attack upon the establishment?”
BAKER: Well, it’s one that the establishment, which is, of course, very powerful, will not, will not accept. And this is a tough country. This is a tough country because it also has some wonderful laws, one of them being the First Amendment. And that First Amendment, and that’s one of the things that everybody in the communications business wraps themselves instantly in when anybody says, “Well, it’s time that we kind of look at this. Why aren’t you really doing a better job?” “Well, wait a minute now. Better job? Well, you know, you don’t want the government telling us what to say.” I would never suggest that the government should tell anybody in the communications world, or anybody, what to say. But I would suggest that the government start saying, “Well, why aren’t you doing programs about religion or public service? Why aren’t you offering public-service announcements?” You know, I think the government should say, “There should be this minimum before we grant you a license.” And in a complex media landscape that doesn’t include broadcasters, it includes cable people as well, it gets more difficult and more complex because the FCC has limited ability. They grant broadcasting licenses, but they don’t grant cable licenses. And what comes out of the television sets is about, you know, the public doesn’t know the difference and can’t really discern, for the most part, the difference.
HEFFNER: But, you know, I’ve been reading a lot of the books that are being written now on this same subject. You are the only guys who have bitten the bullet. Others, our friend Newton Minow, puts his emphasis upon getting some good things on the air. But you’re addressing yourself here not only to the question of getting good things on the air; you’re addressing yourself to the question, as Moyers compliments you, on the nonsense, the degradation that is heaped upon us in terms of the programs that undermine our society, that undermine our polity. Now, don’t back away from…
BAKER: Oh, no, I’m not. But I’m also being a realist. And when George and I completed the book, we said, “Look, the first step has to be public discussion of this matter.” If we call for more regulation, one, everybody is going to look at us as crazy, because what do you mean by that. And I think that’s where public discussion and debate on this subject has to start.
I want to point out a couple other things that I think are very interesting, and where I think we will be attacked, but where I think we stand on firm ground. One is there’s a sense now that the telecommunications industry, because of this plenty of channels, doesn’t need increased regulation, because, oh, there are now hundreds of channels. You know, there used to be only a half a dozen television stations in New York; now you can get a couple hundred TV stations because of cable, satellite, etcetera. Well, the answer is, is that what is really happening are two things. One is that there’s this much money of the GNP that goes into the television industry. It’s quite a bit. It’s a couple hundred billion dollars, something like that. But relative the percentage stays the same. So, as we add channels, what is really happening is that the dollars per channel, the dollars spent on each program, actually wind up on each hour of TV that you watch, actually wind up going down because it’s the same number of dollars spread over X, you know, over more channels. So when people say, “Geez, there’s so many channels, but there’s nothing to watch,” in many respects they’re right.
And the other is, is that you feel like there are many choices because there are so many channels. Well, we point out in our book that there may be a lot of channels, but they’re horizontally and vertically integrated. That there are really a half a dozen or fewer really big owners of these television channels, particularly the cable channels, so that many of them are really owned by one or two or three or so companies. That’s scary. I mean, those really aren’t always necessarily different editorial voice.
HEFFNER: Now, answer the question that occurs to me. I think of Baker going into his next board meeting, which has to be made up of people who benefit from this society’s emphasis upon the free market. What happens?
BAKER: Well, I mean, I think that, you know, I’m certainly not against the free market. You know, I am a product of the free market, and whatever success I’ve had personally has been, in many respects, as a result of the free market.
HEFFNER: But, Bill…
BAKER: But I say that, again, when I say that this… You know, having spent all of these years in this business, that it is just so clear to me that to aim for the bottom line only, which is what this business is now doing, is just to aim too low. It is a sad state of affairs. That I think that even my closest friends, who are some of the greatest capitalistic advocates of this country, would also feel, also feel that, you know, television really can be better. And, yes, there should be some giving a little bit, you know, if we’re going to keep this country great. And again, my only advocacy here is to say, “Let’s at least start the conversation.” Everybody’s even been afraid to go that far. That’s as far as I am prepared to go, say, “Let’s at least start the conversation.”
HEFFNER: What about those who say, “Baker is right. We’ve gone so far that you can’t turn the hands of the clock back. Let’s give Baker and public television the resources to balance out the situation so Down the Tube is really up the public-broadcasting tube.”
BAKER: Yes. When I wrote the book I didn’t want to be an advocate or for this thing to be simply an advocacy for public television. And since you’ve read the book, you know it isn’t. You know that I am not an apologist for public television in this book, although I strongly believe in its value and love it greatly. But I think, as a matter of public policy, and in the one chapter about public television I talk about public television’s weaknesses and strengths, but I certainly talk about our weaknesses, one of them, of course, being its funding. But I think as a matter of public policy, if everybody was somehow taxed, every broadcaster who made money, you know, that ten cents of every profit dollar of the commercial people goes into public television to give us strength so that we can do good work better, I still have even a public-policy concern about that, because I…
BAKER: Well, why? Because I think that we’re only a small piece of the television and broadcasting spectrum, and that I think everybody should be doing better. We shouldn’t be the only good guys; it should be everybody. So, yes, I’d love some money from them. They’re never going to give it to us. But I think, as a matter of public policy, somehow we’ve got to, we, the people, the government, have to say, “We’ve got to raise all these boats. And we can’t have them go down deeper so that we can go up higher.” That would be my concern here.
HEFFNER: But you can’t get away from my asking you again, then: And what do we do? You want dialogue, you want discussion.
BAKER: I want dialogue, I want discussion, I want tax credits to get, you know, to get the ball rolling. Yes, that’s what I want.
HEFFNER: And then what do you see?
BAKER: And then I see, I mean, I see, in a country where people start talking… That’s what happened in England in 1927 when Lord Wreath started talking about how to regulate… But, see, what happened in this country, there was really no dialogue. It just kind of happened. And the dialogue that took place was from people that were self-interested in the media. I’m saying if people outside this medium start talking about it, you know, a blue-ribbon panel of experts, and start getting involved with, you know, with some potential congressional clout, I think there’s an amazing amount that might happen in this country. And I’m one of those people that says, “If I see a hole, I’ll go through it.” And I think that I’m, you know, while I think it’s very, very difficult for there to be change in our system today, the broadcasting system today, because it is so profitable and so powerful, I still believe in the American way, in which I think there’s some hope. And I think there is a chance, if somebody starts talking about it. It’s just that nobody has.
HEFFNER: But the American way did include regulation.
BAKER: Early on it included regulation, and it has basically been emasculated. You know, it is sad, you know, I used to, I remember doing license applications. And people used to take that seriously. Now it’s like filling out a postcard. As a matter of fact, literally it is filling out a postcard. [Laughter] But I’m interested in regulation that goes beyond the commercial license regulation, because there’s satellite, there’s cable, there are all these things. And they all have to be treated now in some kind of unity and harmony. Because you can’t, you can’t develop an unlevel playing field, demand things of broadcasters that others don’t have, because it all comes up into the home in a way that the audience can’t tell the difference.
HEFFNER: Where’s the dialogue going to begin?
BAKER: I think it’s going to begin on television. You know. And I think…
HEFFNER: Public television, obviously.
BAKER: On public television. I think on C-Span, which is really a, you know, a derivative of the commercial cable industry.
I think there’s a chance that the Congress might hear this and think about this. I mean, I think that nobody feels the pain more of our American system, the American broadcasting system, than the people in government. Because I think they know, and very often suffer from it, more than anyone. So, I mean, I think that there’s a chance that this will fall on some fertile ground.
HEFFNER: Bill, why don’t you do it? Why don’t you start with Thirteen?
BAKER: Well, among other things, this is my personal view. Channel Thirteen is an institution that I don’t own. It is an institution that is owned by the people of this community. So for me to give Channel Thirteen an editorial voice, I think, is frankly inappropriate. I don’t think Channel Thirteen should have Bill Baker’s editorial voice. I think one of the things that has made us, made me very proud of the institution that I have been fortunate enough to lead for the last ten years is that it doesn’t really have an editorial voice; it has many voices. So, you know, this program will be on Channel Thirteen. Maybe somebody will listen. But for me to co-opt any of Channel Thirteen’s assets to launch into a discussion, an editorial discussion that is my own personal agenda, albeit high-minded, I hope, I think, is inappropriate.
HEFFNER: It strikes me as so strange. You come, commercially, from a system where they put their emphasis on the requirement that you editorialize.
BAKER: Yeah, right. And public television doesn’t editorialize at all.
HEFFNER: You wish it would?
BAKER: No, I really don’t. I mean, [Laughter] truthfully, we get enough heat from the programs that we broadcast. And then to go on and editorialize… I don’t, you know, I mean, one of the things that 40 years in the television and radio business have taught me is that there are so many points of view. I hate to be one saying mine is the only point of view. And that’s why you sense from me a little bit of, you know, a little bit of holding back here, because I don’t feel that I, that Moses or Jesus or Buddha came down and said, “Bill, you’re a good guy. We’re going to give you the truth.” I remain searching for the truth. But I feel confident that there’s something wrong. And I’m searching to say, as a practitioner, and I think I speak for many practitioners, commercial and public, saying, “There must be another way.” And I think the only way we’re going to find it is find it together.
HEFFNER: Well, Bill, there’s one thing that is absolutely certain, in reading Down the Tube I don’t get any sense of hesitancy or holding back. You’re really hot to trot there.
BAKER: We are. We are. And that’s why we hope that this will become the leader of the dialogue, the leader of the dialogue, yes.
HEFFNER: Well, Bill Baker, my hope is that everyone will read Down the Tube. It’s an extraordinary job. And you have bitten the bullet.
BAKER: I have. By the way, just for the record, if the book makes any money, which it probably won’t, I plan to give whatever it does make to public television, because I believe in it that much.
HEFFNER: Well, you’ve been doing that right along for public television.
BAKER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And everyone owes you a considerable debt.
BAKER: We owe you. You’re the guy that started it.
HEFFNER: Bill Baker, thanks so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.
BAKER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks too — excuse me — to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, see what Baker said, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.