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Television Basics – Episode 1: An Overview

November 5, 2010

There's A Metaphor In There Somewhere...

I have been threatening to do this for a good long while. The time has come. It’s time to take a good, long look at the face of television, and I want to take you on that trip, so I hope you’re ready because this journey of a million shows begins with this single step.

Television. It is a mirror of our society. It is a window into our hopes and dreams, or in some cases, our “reality.” It gives us stories of all sorts. It gives us the news. It gives us comedy, drama, the full range of human emotion, from uncontrollable laughter to unstoppable sobbing. Why is it so difficult, especially for people who claim to make this medium their business, to get a handle on it?

We have to begin with some very common concepts.

A Few of the Logos from some of the Zillion Companies seeking your Telettention.

Let’s define. What is it television is designed to do? First, last and always, television is an advertising delivery service. Let’s go over that point

once more and in bold caps:


What does that mean? It means that the most crucial reason for television to exist is to present COMMERCIALS.

And what does *that *mean? It means that all of that other stuff, the sporting events, the sitcoms, talk shows, games, documentaries, films, dramas and everything else you can think of, the stuff you THINK you’re watching television for, is all SECONDARY.

So, if you happen to love a program, connect with its characters, enjoy the writing, and follow the storylines from season to season, great! But that doesn’t matter to television, because it is a business designed to coerce you into buying goods and services.

Spinning that around, Television (or more accurately each network and channel that is available on Television) wants to attract sponsors that will pay big money to advertise these products. So, TV does have some concern about the programming it offers because if it doesn’t attract an audience, sponsors will not want to advertise. End of story.

Now, in years past, any show that made it to a network time slot automatically got thirteen weeks: thirteen episodes with which to either capture their audience or receive their pink slip: cancelation. But now, programs are constantly being replaced in just a handful of episodes based on the ratings. But those days of yore had different rules because only a small number of producers were creating programs. Nowadays, there are content providers everywhere, and with that finite pie of a prime time schedule, only the biggest ratings grabbers need apply.

Why a show is canceled is often a difficult one to answer. But the quickest reply is: it didn’t find its audience. Of course, that always begs the question: just what audience were you going for with this? Often, that follow-up doesn’t get asked, because the show is already gone. But there have been many programming decisions that the broadcast networks have made that are mysteries even our complete list of little screen investigators and detectives couldn’t sleuth out. Reversing it, sometimes a show that seems to have all the pieces to the puzzle in place (save the Nielsen points) will get canned, and we’re left wondering why that network couldn’t be bothered to promote the program or give it time to grow.

What else? Television can often be more about the technology rather than the content. The idea is that television manufacturers want you to continue to purchase new TVs. They began with Black and White sets that were tiny framed pictures in large wooden cabinets. They expanded the size of the screen. Then, they added color. Eventually, they perfected the tint/color corrections. Then a television with a remote control which let you change channels and even raise and lower the sound without getting out of your easy chair. Then the TV tubes went away, making way for solid state. Cable soon took over, with better quality picture. Next came stereo sound, just in time for the Music Video era. Follow that up with projection screen and large screen television to create a movie theater system in your own home. Then analog went away and now everyone has to have a converter box to view TV. At about that same time, high definition went mass market. Now, we have 3DTV. You have to keep buying televisions to take advantage of the new tech!

So, really what Television is doing is getting you to purchase more and more new tech, and the fundamental reason for it is to get you to be able to view advertisements. That’s the bottom line here, from the humble beginnings of Felix the Cat to where we are now. Commercials are King.

I would also suggest that this is the reason why Television (or most prominently USA Television) fails so spectacularly when it comes to giving us either programs that truly reflect our society or policing itself when it comes to covering news about the medium. Consider this: if your main objective is to encourage sponsors to pay money to advertise with you, will you be as free to show everything you want to show, or present as many differing and varied concepts as you might have otherwise done? Of course not. You are working for the people who pay your bills, and those people want to project a specific image for their business.

So, television has an obvious problem. It can’t really be a “window” to our world, because it needs to be a place that is flexible for its sponsors, and is “safe” for them to present their commercials. This means that ultimately there is a bit of untruth to everything you see on television, as the medium works to create an environment for audiences to appreciate the sponsors bringing them the broadcast. Perhaps the most true elements are news events that are happening live: things like the Lunar Landing, The collapse of the Berlin Wall or the 9/11 attacks. But anything else will always be skewed, even if only slightly, by Television’s need to cater to advertisers.

Of course, pay channels also exist: channels to which viewers subscribe that do not rely on commercials to provide the bulk of their income. But don’t be fooled. Even these channels have advertisers of a sort (mostly the film studios that release the motion pictures that provide the bulk of the programming for them) and do need to hold to standards that satisfy those corporations.

And finally there is the Federal Communications Commission, or the FCC, that is there to police broadcast media. If there is anything that is considered impermissible on your television, the FCC will be there to fine those responsible: just another added layer of security and/or fear. Content is screened and if deemed too offensive, will be excised.

Combine all of the above and you have the recipe for the groundwork that everyone working in the TV industry must negotiate.

Your first assignment is to think about television as an advertising delivery service, and how both the medium itself and any shows in particular have demonstrated this. Give some examples of times when you felt that a program veered away from a topic or a concept because it was too dangerous for a sponsor. List off any famous “censorship” issues you think were especially memorable, unfair or outrageous. Or note any programs you felt may have been removed for their content in one way or another. For extra credit, suggest where you think this is headed next: either the tech side of TV or the sponsorship side, and point out reasons for your hypothesis.

Next time, we’ll cover some Television History.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 9:50 pm

    Ron Popeil, father of modern Television.

  2. November 5, 2010 9:51 pm

    Loooove this post, so excited about this series.

    Off the top of my head: ABC’s axing the Callie/Hahn storyline on Grey’s. They claimed ‘viewers weren’t responding’ despite the fact that they nixed Hahn’s character before the season even started airing; those eps were in the can and done and no one had seen them yet and ABC was already backing away from the lesbian storyline because it was, evidently, too hot for their advertisers. (As you can tell, I’m a tad enraged about this.)

  3. November 5, 2010 9:59 pm

    s.e., I always thought they were backing away from Brooke Smith (the actress playing Hahn) more than the lesbian storyline. I don’t think audiences warmed to her – thanks, lookism – and it’s amazing how much comfort advertisers feel with the attractive daughter of one of the biggest directors on the planet playing a lesbian.

  4. November 6, 2010 12:18 pm

    It can’t really be a “window” to our world, because it needs to be a place that is flexible for its sponsors, and is “safe” for them to present their commercials.

    Good point. And also why HBO and Showtime (i.e. subscription television) got a foothold into television programming because they could now tackle the niche of “realness”, but now it seems they’re trying to maintain that reputation and it’s causing the cycle to repeat itself, because in the end, while not trying to sell advertiser products, they are still trying to sell an ideology of themselves.

  5. November 7, 2010 11:03 am

    Hmm, Snarky, could be; it’s definitely true that viewers were not very enamored of Brooke Smith (the show never really gave her a chance, in all fairness), I just thought it was a shitty thing to do to the characters and the actresses.

  6. evmaroon permalink
    November 9, 2010 3:25 am

    While I think television programming and advertising hooked up very quickly, somewhere in the morass that is TV someone cares about content and not just selling advertising. There have been shows like All in the Family that were so fringe that several sponsors walked out, for example, and I hope that with the advent of cable and non-network original programming, we can see more emphasis on telling a good story and less on selling beer and Viagra. But I’m an optimist.

    Great post, penpusher!

  7. Lani permalink
    November 9, 2010 11:07 am

    I’m really excited for this series. Television is a medium I’ve always had a lot of trouble getting into and I know very little about. One of the reasons I love reading this blog is that everyone here writes with a lot of insight and understanding of their topics, and in the case of television, it helps me learn how to approach the medium so hopefully I’ll be able to navigate the TV landscape with more skill. Thanks so much for this!

  8. November 9, 2010 1:44 pm

    I’m really excited for this series. Television is a medium I’ve always had a lot of trouble getting into and I know very little about. One of the reasons I love reading this blog is that everyone here writes with a lot of insight and understanding of their topics, and in the case of television, it helps me learn how to approach the medium so hopefully I’ll be able to navigate the TV landscape with more skill. Thanks so much for this!

    Thank you for saying this, Lani. It’s lovely to hear.

  9. IrishUp permalink
    November 9, 2010 7:17 pm

    When GE first bought NBC, they pushed hard to have David Letterman do read GE commercials, and he didn’t want to do them. I remember him having a cardboard cutout on stage that had two 2bys coming out of it, with a tray on top. David would sit a bare light bulb on the tray, and read the ad copy in the most careless way possible. Also, he got a note from the sensors that he wasn’t to say “bite me” any more. He spent the whole show talking about how he was going to stop saying “bite me”, the last show was the last “bite-me” & etc. Also, “Postcards from Buster” the PBS show, where they had to pull an episode where Buster visits a kid with gay parents was clear govt. censorship.

    @evmaroon – I think that is a great point. What nycpenpusher says is true; TV used the business model radio had already established, so from the POV of the station OWNERS, they knew from the start that what they needed was to get you sitting there to watch ads. But the artistic and social tension you describe has ALSO been there right from the get go, as has the public perception that radio and TV are social goods. St. John the Divine is an Episcopal Cathedral that was started in 1892 as a tribute to the American Way and to be “a house of prayer for all nations” It’s still in construction, but the Communications Bay stained glass window famously has a person watching a TV, right along with all the other representations of significant human communication advances. The thing is, the window was completed in 1926, and TVs weren’t available for public purchase until 1939.*

    Since the airwaves still belong to J.Q. Public, according to the gummint/FCC (at least until the repubs finish the job) I think it’s fair to point out that the stakeholders – owners, advertisers, content creators, and consumers – each have very different ideas and goals w/r/t “What TV is For”, and that I’m not buying that the owners and advertisers SHOULD get the last say on What TV is For.

    As to where this is all going, well I guess that depends on how well we can, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, keep our democracy. Thus far, it’s been pretty glum – my pessimist side keeps thinking that the fascist takeover is here already, we just don’t know it. In which case, say buhbye to net neutrality, and watch our for making it illegal to turn off the TV! In my positive moments, I wonder if Pandora is already out of the box – it may be that there are so many point-sources of info and ‘tainment now, that Centralized Media Control is doomed to lose the tech race. In either event, I look for more Product Placement Productions. Where we used to have content created to showcase a branded actor/entertainer, I look for more content designed to sell whole product lines. Shoot, they been doing this with kids’ content for a decade or more already.

    (*This link has the communications bay window ; if you stop the slide show and enlarge, you will see the TV @ 23,24 on the right, 2/3rds down the window. )

  10. November 14, 2010 2:30 pm

    @redlami yes! Mr. Popeil treated his TV appearances like he was working a booth at the State Fair. That method of selling was brilliant and still works today! I’m ready to buy a Chop-O-Matic right now!

  11. November 14, 2010 2:36 pm

    @ s.e. smith that’s a very good and recent choice of a network/series moving away from material that may have been too dangerous for sponsors.

    I think if you go back to the “Quiz Show Scandals,” you’ll see where the networks were trying to cover themselves and make American viewers feel that the networks were as victimized as the viewing public were because of this. Did the networks know for sure what was going on with those games? It’s impossible to know. I would suspect they did, though, because they were the beneficiaries of those incredibly high ratings. But then, they had to have a fall guy, and those were the producers of those shows: especially Jack Barry and Dan Enright…

    But you’ll notice that eventually, they got back on the air (something you would not have predicted) which really makes me believe that the networks were in on everything because why would you let someone who got cut for cheating back on to create a new game show? I think it was a make-good for taking the blame back then.

  12. November 14, 2010 2:45 pm

    @raymondj I do want to give the “pay tv” channels a different kind of examination, and I plan to do that in a later post. But you raise a crucial point here and that’s that subscription television, or television people are buying through a service gets to play fast and loose with the rules of censorship and FCC regulations. Ultimately, money is driving everything, but it’s more compelling to examine the mechanisms that have been put into place to get that revenue stream to flow. Plenty of material to discuss here!

  13. November 14, 2010 2:58 pm

    @evmaroon No, as I stated, you have to prepare some quality programming if you are going to get viewers. So, yes, people do care about the actual series that air. It’s just that the series are there to get you to watch the commercials, which is not how most viewers think about television assuming that they think in those terms at all!

    I would say that a producer that has a track record will often get a pass from a network, especially if s/he has brought the Nielsens. Norman Lear was clearly one of those. And currently you have James Burrows who is the director of Mike & Molly… which got its full season pickup, and who apparently runs interference with the network suits and the show producers as he assures the nervous nellies in the board room that everything will be alright. Just let us work!

    I also feel that those suits are quick to pull series now because a) if they didn’t assign it, and it’s not doing so well, they want to prove themselves… it’s like real estate: if nobody is buying and selling, there’s no commission, so get out there and move those properties… and b) if someone assures them that a “borderline” show is going to be okay, that nervous energy is going to go someplace, and that’s likely to canceling some other show… and maybe a show that could have and should have remained.

    That is the one detriment to the network schedule: it is a finite pie. Forget that because of the internet, we have all the time we want to view programming. The networks still want you in front of the set from 8pm to 11pm (7-10 Central). And this makes perfect sense as it relates to television being there to advertise stuff, as opposed to presenting the programming that people are looking to see. Before this turns into another post, I’ll end here!

  14. November 14, 2010 3:02 pm

    @Lani thanks very much for reading and contributing, not just here but throughout IFMiB! I hope you find the posts in this series engaging and thought provoking, and I hope you have some insights based on your own experiences! Thanks for the wonderful compliment!

  15. November 14, 2010 3:20 pm

    @IrishUp I do remember the Letterman run-ins with General Electric, generally and that one particularly… My question was why they wanted Letterman to do live reads at all? He wasn’t an Ed McMahon pitchman type. And he wasn’t like a Howard Stern that could really chat about particular products in a way that made them seem conversational. So really the blame here really goes back to GE for not understanding what Letterman was all about.

    I’m not at all familiar with Postcards From Buster… but if it’s a PBS series, which technically doesn’t air commercials (although it clearly does!) does this qualify? When it comes to Public Broadcasting, technically the “sponsors” are the viewers, as they donate money to their local affiliates, usually through those oft unpleasant “membership drives” to sign up folks and raise funds. But more recently, actual commercials have been appearing on PBS to supplement that income and granted, they usually only air at the beginning and the end of programs, it shows that even PBS isn’t quite immune to the need to pitch products. I wonder if PBS pulled the plug on the gay parents storyline because of viewer issues or corporate sponsor ones?

    As to your point about “What TV Is For,” besides our friends over at PBS, if you look at all of the various channels you can receive, It boils down to 6. There are Six Entertainment Conglomerates presenting nearly everything you can see on television. I’m sure you can name them all. If not, there’s Disney, Viacom, Comcast, Fox, Warner, Turner. That’s it! So, if you are a advocate of the fact that John Q. Public is the controller of what airs on television, he really has to hit that remote with an iron fist to change to something different! And no more are there “independent” channels in your local market. They’re all associated with some larger network, which makes them beholden to whatever it is that bigger company has going on… and that’s both sad and a little scary.

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