Les Brown

Public Television

VTR Date: May 14, 1981

Guest: Brown, Les


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Les Brown
Title: “Public Television”
VTR: 5/14/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. About the weather, it’s said that everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Not true about the newer electronic media, of course, because everybody does seem to talk about television, and now everybody seems to be doing something about it, too. One such person is Les Brown, former radio-television correspondent of The New York Times, and author of books on the media, who now is editor-in-chief of Channels, a brand new publication that aims, in its editor’s words, “To sort out and interpret the developments in the booming business of telecommunications with a view to the public’s stake in them”.

Les Brown, tanks for joining me on THE OPEN MIND. I was intrigued, looking at the editor’s note in the second issue of Channels, to see you, or to read you, you write, “We used to think of television as an instrument unifying the country, providing common viewing experiences to people of every region and socioeconomic class. Instead, it is at the heat of a bitter and divisive national issue. This is not just another tempest in televisionland, nor is it a mere dispute over tastes that only devoted television viewers need worry about”. And I gather that you feel this is going to be one of the central issues of your new publication.

BROWN: Well, yes. Certainly this issue, the issue that I’m referring to here, this specific issue is that of the Coalition for Better Television – parentheses, (Moral Majority) – and on the other side, the forces that have risen to counter that force, that by Norman Lear, Action for Children’s Television. In that sense, it’s become divisive. On the one side, we have a group of, I suppose, well-meaning people, a large group, an army, really, of people coming out of the Bible Belt who are protesting quite loudly on the other side, and they’re repressive. The purpose is to censor. On the other side, we have forces that may agree with them up to a point, up to the point of wanting to censor. And so we have a division in the society over television. And I suggest that the consequences of that division can be very serious, and maybe even as serious as, and in some ways, as the events in Poland and El Salvador threaten to be.

HEFFNER: Tell me why you say that.

BROWN: We have had, from the beginning – I’ve been covering television for 28 years now – and I, all through that time, have heard the same kinds of complaints from people. Television’s no good, it gets worse every year, it offends them, it insults them, it’s garbage, things like that. We have, I think it’s very interesting the kind of love/hate relationship we have with television in this country. The fact is that people have expressed this, expressed it loudly, and they should because it’s healthy to do that, it’s good in a democratic society to do that. And the networks never listened really, because what these people were saying never really reflected in the statistics that mattered to the networks, which are the Nielson ratings. Even now they don’t. If you saw the latest Nielson report on how much viewing people do, it’s more than six and a half hours a day per typical, per average family. And it just keeps going up. And during the month of February it was over seven hours a day that the average family used television. So the people who do programming and run commercial television say that we really don’t have a problem. People out there are complaining, but our audience, you k now, they’re using us more. So they just never took it seriously. But this has become a serious matter. This coalition of groups, of fundamentalist and right-wing groups – essentially that’s what they are – coming together and saying, “All right, we’re going to put a stop to sex on television”. Primarily sex, because sex bothers the people on the right, violence bothers the people on the left. And what’s interesting is that these two flavorings of television, of programming, are like sides of a coin. When one is down, the other turns up. So when violence was suppressed, sexuality, exploitation of sex became the dominant flavoring of primetime television.

At any rate, they went one step too far, this coalition. There is a, I think, public participation in media is very healthy. It’s very healthy that people get things off their chest, that they complain, and they try to use the mechanisms that are provided by law to participate in this whole process. And there are mechanisms. In this case, I think the Coalition for Better Television went a step too far. They said they were going to boycott the advertisers who were in those programs. And what they’re doing, I believe – in fact, I know – is immoral. And they’re doing it in the name of morality. And the reason it’s immoral – though it’s not illegal, you understand – it’s immoral because they are holding the advertiser accountable, even though the advertiser is no longer the sponsor, no longer the kind of advertiser he used to be back in the fifties when the advertiser says, “Okay, I’m going to put my money on this show. This is a program that I want to be identified with”. The advertiser today buys television time the same way he buys pages in a newspaper or a magazine. Not even quite the same way. He goes to CBS or NBC and gives them a sum of money, says he wants to buy women 18 to 49, he’ll pay $8.50 a thousand or $10 a thousand or whatever the agreed-upon price is, and the computer tells him what shows he’s going to be in. And the truth is, these guys know it. But it’s expedient to hold an advertiser responsible because they know that advertisers want to make friends, not enemies. And so if the advertiser sees he’s going to make a lot of enemies, he tells his ad agency and the network, “Get us the hell off those shows”.

HEFFNER: Les, are you suggesting that if we were back at a time when the advertiser, when the sponsor was more involved in the selection of shows, that such a boycott would be moral because the target would be an accurate target?

BROWN: Well, the advertiser…In a sense. In a sense, the advertiser could be held accountable. In fact, was held accountable, and that was a very scary time. If you recall back in the early fifties during the blacklist when a group of people, also on the right, decided that certain people probably were not loyal enough to this country, based on their judgment, and they produced dossiers on these people and decided that they would be blacklisted, and that anybody who sponsored programs in which these people were involved, be it as performers, writers, directors, or whatever, would find that is products were boycotted.

HEFFNER: Well, then are you suggesting, though, that it’s only the secondary nature of the present threat of a boycott that is disturbing?

BROWN: Well, it’s…

HEFFNER: Suppose these groups went after the network themselves and said, “Boycott this network or that network, or the third network”, going directly to the source of the programming?

BROWN: Yeah. You could do that. And that’s what they’ve done for years, and they’ve never been effective in doing that because there was no real mechanism, I mean, no legal mechanism for doing that. The networks are not licensed by the government; the networks are a program service. They’re an overlay on a communications, on a television system we have. It’s the station that’s licensed by the government, the station who is accountable. The station’s license comes up for renewal every three years. The law says, the FCC regulation says that the station has nondelegable obligation to provide programming. It cannot delegate the obligation to CBS or NBC. In other words, the station is responsible for every program it carries, whether it comes from the network or not.

HEFFNER: How would you want to see those who do take exception to certain television content, to certain media content, how would you want them to act, to act out and speak out in terms of their own feelings?

BROWN: This is a very unpopular thing to say on a commercial television or even a public television station. The system does provide – and people have never learned this, and one reason they’ve never learned this is that television hasn’t told the, for a darned good reason – it’s the licensee of the station that’s accountable. That’s the reason we have stations in the first place. And that station is supposed to serve the best interests of the community that it’s licensed to. Now, it’s a little hard to, sometimes, to judge what the best interests are. But you can tell if there is a significant outcry, forget about pressure from special interest groups. The real outcry, if people say, “Enough already. This is no good. This is not helping my family, my community, my neighborhood. Too much exploitation of sex already, or too much violence, that sort of thing. And when you license comes up for renewal, we’re simply going to have to complain. We’re going to have to say that you are not a responsible public trustee. We have trusted you with our airwaves”.

HEFFNER: So it is the mechanism.

BROWN: That’s the mechanism. It’s been there since 1934. And some people have used it, and used it very successfully, around the country, and they have created very healthy and good reforms. The public has participated in the television process in ways that have not caused the television industry to lose money…Stations that have had their licenses shaped up, and shaped up very nicely, and in fact made more money than they did before.

HEFFNER: Well, now, let me ask whether, in your new magazine, Channels…has just begun really. You’ve had, as of this date, we’re taping the show in the middle of May, 1981…and you’re about to come out with your second issue. Tell me about the rationale for Channels today. Is it the feeling that increasingly Americans are interested in the public policy questions that relate to mass media?

BROWN: I would hope they would be. I think it’s very important that people know about that. Television has always been treated kind of trivially in the press over the years. Some of it’s been sort of derided for the kind of junk that’s on the screen.

HEFFNER: It’s blamed for everything.

BROWN: And it’s blamed for everything. But it’s blamed without any real careful examination of it. And one reason for that is that the press has a real bias against television because it’s a competitor. And the way you deal with a competitor is to put it down and make people feel guilt and shame for watching the thing. So, in one…

HEFFNER: Is that what you did all those years at The Times?

BROWN: No, I didn’t. I certainly didn’t. Certainly I worked very hard at not being an agent of that. I tried not to deal in that kind of…Oh, in some cases I dealt in things that you might say were trivial: the ratings race, for example. But then, the ratings race is how television works. And to even, and that too, what I call television one, that is the television of CBS, NBC, and ABC, and PBS. It runs on ratings. It’s very important to know what ratings are, because ratings are, because ratings determine what you will be seeing. It tells you an awful lot about the society anyway. Whatever is popular on television tells us a lot about the kind of society we are.

HEFFNER: Well, I merely wanted to get back to that question, no belabor it, of whether indeed the press, because it is printed medium, has been as hostile, and Lord knows it has been, to the electronic media because of the competitiveness between the two of them. You seem to feel that has been the case.

BROWN: Oh, yeah. I not only feel it, I’m quite sure that that’s the case.

HEFFNER: Okay. You say that with a knowing smile.

BROWN: Well, I’ve covered it for a long time. And I remember back in the fifties when the press was alarmed by what was happening. When I say, “The press”, I mean the publishers; the newspapers were alarmed by what was happening. Newspapers were going under; television was growing in popularity, and it was taking up people’s time, taking away advertising from the papers, taking away very good talent from the papers, and beating the newspapers at news stories because it could get on first.

HEFFNER: And as a consequence they did what?

BROWN: One reaction was to, initially, was to deride it, just put it down. And, you know, that was easy to do. God knows there’s an awful lot of junk on television; there always has been. Another, after that, when they found they couldn’t beat it, it was still growing, was simply to exploit the celebrity aspects of it, to get involved in the gossip of it. “What is Jack Paar really like?”

HEFFNER: You mean to trivialize it?

BROWN: Trivialize it, yeah. And that’s one way to deal with it. But the point I’m trying to make is that we…television is a very big and important social, political, and cultural force in this country. And thinking people know that it is. But I don’t think that it’s ever been examined carefully and systematically, and certainly the policy questions have not been examined, and by a serious-minded, by thoughtful people. And there are important policy questions, as you well know. Especially now, when we’re getting what I call television II, Roman numeral II. We have just passed from those thirty-odd years of television I, of three commercial networks and PBS, and a handful of independent stations, into an era now, an age of a whole new television, a whole new kind of television, and a whole new public perception of television. People will be using television much differently in the future than they had been in the past. We’re not talking just about the explosion of technology, but a more important development, which I think is what the revolution is all about, and that was the development of people paying for what they wanted to see on television. An extraordinary development. When people buy cable, subscribe to cable so that they can get HBO or Showtime or the Movie Channel, one of those channels that they have to pay additionally for so they can have movies delivered to their homes, that’s quite a monumental change in the way people use television.

HEFFNER: What do you think that’s…Going back to that quotation that I offered from our editorial in the second issue of Channels: “We used to think of television as an instrument unifying the country, providing common viewing experiences to people of every region and socioeconomic class”. Aside from the divisiveness of the fight over television now, “Is there too much sex; is there too much violence; should you do something about it; what is it that you should do”, aside from that, do you see this new development, the television Roman numeral II, as putting an end to that mission or early television?

BROWN: Yeah, sure, because modern cable systems are being built with 52 channels, some with 120 channels. That is certainly going to fragment the audience. Those channels will be programmed vertically in the way, in the manner of radio. All news, all soap opera, all women’s interest programs, all, each channel will have some sports; each channel will have some specialty; and the programming on that channel will conform. And that means that people are going to be going off in a lot of different directions. They’re not going to be all on the main streets anymore. We used to have three main streets on television, and just a couple of side streets. The main streets will still be there, perhaps, depending on how far down the line we’re talking. But in the more immediate future of 1983, 1984, there’ll be a lot of action on the side streets. An awful lot of the audience will go off to these other specialized channels.

HEFFNER: As a historian of the medium, what do you think the impact of that will be, not in terms of dollars and cents for those who control the media today, but what do you think the impact will be upon the way we think as a people?

BROWN: Well, I’m not sure that it’s…I don’t know whether it’s going to be good or bad. I think there are going to be fewer experiences that we’ll all have in common. There’ll be, the audience will become so fragmented in television that I suspect, I suppose when there is an attempt on the life of a president or a pope, most of the bigger channels will carry those reports and people will go to those and we will have those experiences in common as a nation. But I don’t think we’ll have the same kind of popular culture we’ve had, for example. I think that the people will be more stratified culturally. The people who like cultural programming will be accommodated because of the different, the change in the economic structure of the system. When a channel can provide cultural programming every night or all day to five million people, assuming it has an audience of five million people paying ten dollars a month, gives you revenues of fifty million dollars a month. You can do quite a lot of programming for fifty million dollars a month. Whereas, in the present system of television, if you had a, programming prime time that reached an audience of twenty million people – think of it: twenty million people can fill a theater on Broadway for fifty years, SRO every single performance for fifty years – a program that reaches twenty million people is a flop in commercial television. All that changes with this new…

HEFFNER: All right. Now, you say that that has been a traditional complaint about television. I think you state it as a fact. I don’t think there’s something pejorative about what you say. For many people, though, it has been. Now think of those bums in television who put off a program because it had twenty million, and they consider that a flop. But given the nationalization influence of television – and put it that way, rather than as so frequently said, the degrading influence of television, think of it that way – won’t we have a polarization, a cultural polarization of this country contributed to by the fact that there will be these cultural channels and then those channels for the great unwashed, and won’t we find ourselves not having he same experiences?

BROWN: We won’t have the same experiences. We won’t, certainly, as we have in the past. However, I wonder if we won’t have a polarizing experience now, and I wonder if that won’t be undone. Consider that one-third of the people do two-thirds of the viewing of television.

HEFFNER: Uh hmm.

BROWN: That’s a very important statistic, not generally realized. The heavy viewers of television will still be watching free television, I’m quite sure. The more moderate users of television and the people who don’t use television very often probably will watch more than they did before because there’ll be so much more choice. But I think now we have the division of people who like television, love television, watch it, and those other people who think those who like it and watch it are cretins, and they are above that, whether they watch it or not. We have a lot of closet viewers in the United States…


BROWN: …among the intellectuals, as you very well know. But there are, you know, we went through convulsive changes in the last thirty years, a lot of them because of television. But the way the media are changing now, the electric media, I think we’re going to see an acceleration of change. You know, television has become part of everything it touches. It becomes part of politics. You can’t speak of politics now without thinking of television. It’s become part of diplomacy. It’s become part of, or an enemy of, education. It certainly has become part of sports. It’s become part of fashion, and the whole advertising industry depends on television, or virtually the whole advertising industry. All those things now are going to change again because of the way, because of the direction television is going. And there’s so many really important questions that are being raised by these changes, and these aren’t the changes that are coming far off in the future; these are things that are already here, they’re already happening. For example, two-way cable tied to a computer, which has been experimented with in Columbus, Ohio, and quickly became the state of the art. Now every major city says, “We must have two-way cable with a computer”.

HEFFNER: Whether it’s used or not?

BROWN: Well, it probably will be used. Whether it will make money or not is still a question that…I suspect it probably will, because there are a lot of things you can do with it. However, when you have that situation, you have a computer then that’s checking out your house every six seconds, and you have a very big and serious privacy question, because that computer knows, if you buy the burglary/fire alarm service that goes with that kind of thing, it’s a very mice service to have, and with that comes a medical alert system so that if you feel you may be having a heart attack or something and you’re in the bathroom and you hit a button, the button sends a signal through your television set to the head end, the transmission center, and the computer then says, “Oh, oh, Dick Heffner is in trouble”, and they send an ambulance.

HEFFNER: Don’t personalize it that way, please! (Laughter)

BROWN: I’m sorry. (Laughter) I don’t wish you anything.

But at any rate, you know, how that kind of system works. Or when you leave the house you turn off that system. Therefore, the computer knows when you leave and when you come, and it knows your comings and goings. It keeps a record of those things.

HEFFNER: And if I’m a robber, I’m going to patch in, I guess, to find out when they’re not there.

BROWN: Well, somehow it seems to me that’s nobody’s business. That’s almost the least of it. You buy merchandise through television, through this kind of system, two-way. The computer keeps a record of what you buy. You can buy television programs this way. And if you like dirty movies, and you buy the dirty movie, for example, the record is kept. It’s in the computer. So the computer is going to gather an awful lot of information on us. And you know, we’ll do banking through television too, in this system.

HEFFNER: It’s a funny combination of consequences. On the one hand there will be emphasis upon privacy and individualism unheard of before in the sense that you and I aren’t going to be watching the same thing. The likelihood is that we’re not because there are so many options that we’ll have. On the other hand, as you suggest, what we do do is going to be available to some central information bank or to some particularistic bank that presumably can be touched. So that, I gather, Channels wants to deal with these sociological problems, these political problems, the larger picture of what the impact of what’s happening in broadcasting will do.

BROWN: Yeah. I don’t want to make it, or I hope you don’t make it sound like it’s so deadly serious, that it’s not an enjoyable magazine to read. Of course we’re interested in those issues. We’re interested in television in society, television in relation to people. Not in the gossip of television, but what do we learn about ourselves from television. One of the questions, for example, since we’re talking about these problems that are developing, is that we’re going to have a division in society of the information-rich and the information–poor, because as you start paying for television or for things that television can provide, it doesn’t mean you pay for all television, but there are lots of things you will be able to get from television. For example, information. Textual information. You can tap into computer banks, into information banks of every kind. And one group of people, the wealthier people, are going to be able to buy that information; and the poorer people are not. And so that’s going to create a division.

HEFFNER: That’s what I meant about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

BROWN: Yeah. That’s an issue, and you know, we’re also interested in the kinds of things that are happening in the television of television I, or the television that is…

HEFFNER: Viewing time stuff?

BROWN: Well, the stuff that is more immediate in our experience. For example, what are the implications of, in the first issue, the piece we did on 60 Minutes…

HEFFNER: Talk about 60 Minutes, Les. I’ve just gotten the word that our 30 minutes are over.

BROWN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But I suspect that what you’ve demonstrated is that we’ve got to come back and go through some of those issues. And in the meantime, everyone will read Channels.

BROWN: I hope so.

HEFFNER: Thanks very much for joining me today, Les Brown.

BROWN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.