U.S. MEDIA IN THE 1990s
II. THE BROADCAST MEDIA
By Fredric A. Emmert
SUMMARY: This is the second in a series of three articles exploring the media of the United States in the 1990s. This installment explores basic broadcast media -- radio and television.
NOTE: This article is in the public domain. Credit to the author should appear on the title page of any reprint.
The beginning of regular commercially licensed sound broadcasting in the United States in 1920 ended the print monopoly over the media and opened the doors to the more immediate and pervasive electronic media. Radio quickly grew to become the primary entertainment and information source for Americans throughout the Great Depression and World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the potential of radio to reach the American public, and during his four terms (1933-1945), his radio "fireside chats" informed the nation on progress against the Depression and on developments during World War II. After World War II, television's visual images replaced the audio-only limitation of radio as the predominant entertainment and news vehicle. Rather than succumbing, radio adapted to the new situation by replacing entertainment programs with a format of music interspersed with news and features. In the 1950s, automobile manufacturers began offering car radios as standard accessories, and radio received a big boost as most Americans tuned in their car radios as they drove to and from work.
The expansion and dominance of FM radio, which has better sound quality but a more limited range than traditional AM, represented the major technical change in radio in the 1970s and 1980s. The number of commercial FM stations rose from 2,184 in 1970 to 3,059 in 1979, and by 1979, three-fourths of all automobiles had AM-FM radios. FM gradually dominated the music format, aided by the invention of ever smaller portable radios and inexpensive "Walkman" headsets, while AM has shifted to "talk" and news formats.
Barely in existence 25 years ago, "talk radio," in which celebrities and experts from various fields answer listener "call-in" questions and offer their advice on various topics, has grown spectacularly in recent years, contributing to the comeback of AM radio. The "call-in" format is the fastest-growing in radio, accounting for nearly 1,000 of the more than 10,000 commercial radio stations in the United States. Both FM and AM radio have become increasingly specialized. Music formats, for instance, comprise a variety of specializations -- the top five in 1991 being "country and western," "adult contemporary," "top 40," "religious" and "oldies."
In an era in which TV is clearly the glamour medium, the reach of radio is still awesome. Ninety-nine percent of American households in 1991 had at least one radio; the average is five a household. Every day, radio reaches 80 percent of the U.S. population at one time or another. Radio also packs an economic wallop. Revenues more than doubled from $3.7 billion in 1980 to more than $8.4 billion in 1990.
In 1991, the number of U.S. commercial radio stations had grown to 4,987 AM stations and 4,442 FM stations. Most of these stations are affiliated with one of four national networks: the American Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System, the National Broadcasting Company and the Mutual Broadcasting System. In addition, the number of public radio stations in the U.S. reached 1,460. Most of these stations are run by universities and public authorities for educational purposes and financed by public and/or private funds, subscriptions and some underwriting. In 1991, more than 12 million Americans listened each week to 430 public radio stations affiliated with National Public Radio (NPR), a national, non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.
NPR was incorporated in February 1970, as a result of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which authorized the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The act called on CPB to encourage the growth and development of noncommercial radio. NPR was created to provide leadership in national newsgathering and production and to act as the first permanent nationwide interconnection of noncommercial stations. In 1979, NPR led a dramatic technological advance, setting up the first nationwide, satellite-delivered radio distribution network. Today, the majority of NPR's operating income is from member stations. Gifts and grants from an ever-broadening base of corporate, foundation and individual supporters make up the balance.
The Christian Science Monitor religious organization in Boston, Massachusetts, operates three international short-wave stations, providing listeners news reports and religious programming in 15 languages beamed via satellite.
The next technological development in radio broadcasting appears to be the "smart radio." Thanks to a technology called radio broadcast data system (RBDS), the next generation of portable radios, car stereos and home receivers will be able to perform "smart" tricks, such as becoming paging devices, automatically turning themselves on to warn drivers of upcoming hazards, and identifying tunes being played.
Following the trend of television, cable radio via satellite made its debut in 1990 in Philadelphia under the auspices of the Digital Cable Radio company. Several million subscribers can receive more than 50 different channels over the DCR network.
The National Association of Broadcasters, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the broadcasting industry's largest trade association, representing the majority of America's radio and television stations, including all major networks.
Television has developed since World War II into the most popular medium in the United States, one that has had great influence on the country's electoral process and way of life. Virtually every American household -- 93.1 million of them in 1991 -- has at least one TV set, and 65 percent of TV households own two or more sets. The average American TV household in 1991 could receive 30.5 channels and viewed almost seven hours of TV programming a day. Seven in ten Americans in 1991 reported getting most of their news from TV. Three large privately-owned networks -- NBC, CBS and ABC -- claimed 90 percent of the TV market from the 1950s through the 1970s with free over-the-air broadcasts.
However, the rapid spread of pay cable TV in the 1980s broke the hegemony of the big three. By 1992, more than 60 percent of American households had subscribed to cable TV, and non-network programming controlled more than 30 percent of the total U.S. viewing public. In addition, a fourth major commercial network, the Fox Broadcasting Company, started by Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch in 1986, chipped away at the big three's audience share. By 1989, Fox affiliates reached audiences in 90 percent of the United State and its animated program, "The Simpsons" -- premiered in 1990 -- quickly became one of the top 20 most popular programs on U.S. television. In 1994, Fox increased its coverage to almost all U.S. households by investing hundreds of millions of dollars to attract powerful local affiliates from other networks, particularly CBS.
Fox was challenged by two new national networks inaugurated in January 1995: WB Television Network, owned by Warner Brothers Studios, and the United-Paramount Network (UPN), owned by Viacom Paramount Communications and Chris Craft Industries. Both networks initially will be capable of reaching 80 percent of U.S. households and will air programs one or two nights a week, with a goal of seven nights a week by the year 2000.
In 1991, a total of 1,477 TV stations -- three quarters of them commercial and one-fourth public -- served U.S. viewers. The majority of commercial stations were affiliated to one of the big three networks -- NBC, CBS and ABC. Rocked by the cable challenge and the Fox Network, all three made major staff cutbacks during the 1980s, and two changed ownership: Capital Cities Communications purchased ABC in March 1985, and General Electric Company bought RCA, NBC's parent company, in 1986.
Public television. Each of the more than 335 U.S. public TV stations is independent and serves community needs. However, four regional networks comprising public TV stations in adjacent geographical areas -- Eastern, Central, Southern and Pacific Mountain -- provide programming and other services to their member stations. All public television organizations are linked nationally through three national organizations: Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), created by Congress in 1967 to channel federal government funding to stations and independent producers; Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which was formed in 1969 and which today distributes programming and operates the satellite system linking all public TV stations; and the National Association of Public Television Stations (NAPTS), which helps member public TV stations with research and planning. In addition to these public TV stations, there are a growing number of non-commercial stations run by Christian evangelistic ministries, such as the Christian Broadcasting Network, the PTL Club and Trinity Broadcasting. They are, for the most part, supported by donations from viewers and member churches.
Under the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the CPB provides direct grants to more than 600 public radio and television stations throughout the United States. Through the CPB, U.S. taxpayers provide 19 percent of the funding for public television, which amounted to about $250 million in 1991. The remainder of the budget for public television comes from state and local governments and from contributions by viewers, businesses and private foundations. An estimated 87 million Americans watch programs on public television stations each week. One of the most popular shows is "Sesame Street," a children's program that teaches basic reading and math skills through the use of puppets, cartoons and comedy skits.
Cable television. Cable TV, carried by coaxial and fiber-optic cables, originated in 1948 as a service to individuals in mountainous or geographically remote areas who could not receive over-the-air TV stations. The genesis of cable as it is known today stems from development of the domestic communications satellite, approved by the Federal Communications Commission in January 1973. The new technology offered cable programmers a cost-effective method of national distribution. In December 1975, Home Box Office, an all-movie channel owned by Time, Inc., became the first programmer to distribute its signal via satellite. The next service to use the satellite was a local television station in Atlanta owned by Ted Turner, which became known as the first "superstation" when it bounced its signal off a satellite to reach a nationwide audience.
The same technology allowed Turner in 1980 to found the Cable News Network, CNN, the world's first 24-hour all-news channel. By 1992, CNN had an audience of more than 80 million people in 130 countries in addition to some 250,000 hotels, embassies, stock exchanges, businesses, newspapers and even oil platforms in the North Sea. CNN has 25 foreign and domestic bureaus, more than any other U.S. TV network. Its on-the-spot coverage of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991 boosted its prestige as an around-the-clock international news source relied upon by leaders around the globe. In 1988, American businessman Rene Anselmoof launched the first privately-owned international satellite, Panamsat, which has offered customers lower rates than those of the dominant Intelsat consortium. This development has speeded the growth of CNN and other American cable networks throughout the world.
New viewer services. Beginning in the late 1970s, a growing number of U.S. cable systems have had great success with "narrowcasting" or offering television programming with an entire channel tailored to a narrow section of the audience. One early experiment, the Silent Network, begun in 1979, has given the 28 million deaf people in America a cable network in which all the shows are presented with sign language and captions. In 1988, educational entrepreneur Christopher Whittle began an unprecedented effort to bring news to U.S. public school classrooms via his Channel One cable network, which today reaches 40 percent of American secondary school students -- more than 8 million. Channel One presents ten minutes of news per day to these students, mixed with two minutes of commercial ads. Channel One has won dozens of broadcasting awards, but has drawn some criticism, mainly because of its commercial bent.
Recent digital compression technology and fiber-optic cable have led to a level of "narrowcasting" unimaginable in the 1980s. For instance, in December 1992, Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), the largest U.S. cable network, announced it was investing $2 billion over four years in this new technology to offer 500 channels via fiber-optic cable to its 11 million subscribers.
Mergers. As technology has broken down the barriers between media, and "multi-media" systems have advanced in the early 1990s, companies have sought partnerships with firms in formerly distinct fields. Beginning in 1993, for example, the regional Bell telephone companies have been aggressively pursuing alliances with cable TV companies to gain a share of the burgeoning "multi-media" market. In May 1993, US West invested $2.5 billion in Time Warner's cable operations, the second largest U.S. system.
Later in 1993, Bell Atlantic tried to put together a $44 billion merger with TCI, which would have been the largest business transaction in U.S. history, but it fell through in 1994. A much smaller alliance between Southwestern Bell and Cox Communications also was announced in 1993 but came undone in 1994. In October 1994, Cox announced it would team with cable companies TCI, Comcast Corporation, plus U.S. Sprint, the third-largest American long-distance carrier, to upgrade capacities for wired and wireless telephone services and traditional television services. In a mid-1994 non-phone merger, the Viacom cable TV company successfully merged with Paramount studios, which produces films and other programming. Viacom also paid $7.5 billion to buy control of Blockbuster Video, the largest U.S. video rental chain.
Interactive TV. Advancing digital technology and increasing wiring of U.S. cities with fiber-optic cable that permits massive transmission of digital signals are giving cable TV subscribers a host of new interactive services. By 1991, 5.6 million miles of fiber-optic cable had been run in the U.S. and by 1994, the figure reached 18 million. By the year 2000, as many as 40 million American homes may be linked to fiber-optic networks.
The convergence of the computer -- present in one-third of all U.S. households in 1994 -- with TV via fiber optics is permitting a host of new "interactive" services in which the viewer no longer watches passively. TCI and Time Warner Inc., for instance, have announced plans to offer "movies on demand" in which a viewer can choose between several thousand videos 24 hours a day and pay accordingly. Time Warner has scheduled a test of its system in 1995 with 4,000 households in Orlando, Florida.
Bell Atlantic Corporation won federal approval in January 1995 to test "video on demand" services in 2,000 households in Fairfax, Virginia, over existing telephone lines. This is an important experiment because Congress in 1984 barred telephone companies from selling video programs over their networks. However, a series of federal court decisions has overturned that law on the grounds that it violates the phone companies' free speech rights. Both AT&T and IBM Corporation have announced that they would market "movies on demand" devices.
Another interactive service that has become increasingly popular in the early 1990s is "shop-at-home." Two channels, Home Shopping Network and QVC, grew rapidly during that time by offering their cable TV viewers a wide range of products to be ordered by telephone. One of the largest U.S. department store chains, the R.H. Macy Company, has said it will establish a "shop-at-home" channel.
Advancing technology will permit future viewers to order products simply by pressing a button on their TV remote controls. They will also be able to increasingly customize programs for their individuals tastes, switching, for instance, from a long shot of a baseball game to a close-in picture of a batter, or use controls to call up historical facts about baseball on their screens while watching a game. AT&T announced in January 1995 that it would begin offering to cities in the U.S. Northeast a device called an "Intelligent Agent" to access many news and information services with a remote control, using conventional telephone lines.
International TV. Satellite technology and a growing global economy linked by computers have encouraged U.S. television companies to compete increasingly in international markets, often in alliance with foreign media enterprises. For example, the ABC News Network and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) said in March 1993 that they were joining forces to create one of the world's biggest TV and news-gathering organizations. The agreement covers the sharing of correspondents and production teams, as well as joint planning on major news stories, joint use of facilities, and collaboration on public affairs programming and technology development.
By early 1993, MTV, the leading American rock music TV network, had an audience of 46 million in the United States and 32 other. In May 1993, it signed a contract with a Russian entrepreneur to provide 43 hours of weekly programming on three Russian TV channels with an estimated audience of 90 million. Miami-based MTV Latino, a 24-hour, Spanish-language network featuring music videos, news, celebrity documentaries and concert shows, began airing programs in 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries in September 1993, and plans to add eight more countries in the region.
Several other services to Latin America started in 1993. NBC began the first U.S.-based, 24-hour-a-day Spanish-language cable news service to Latin America (not available to U.S. audiences). In response, Telemundo, the Miami-based Spanish-language network, announced in June 1993 that it was developing a similar 24-hour service in partnership with Reuters and the BBC, with broadcasts via satellite from Miami. Home Box Office (HBO) launched a 24-hour Spanish cable network, "HBO Ole," beaming dubbed and captioned movies to Latin America. A small start-up Spanish-language network, International Television Inc., in March 1993 began satellite transmissions of women-oriented programming from Miami to Latin America.
In late 1992, CNN owner Ted Turner bought Moscow's Channel 6 TV station and transformed it into Russia's first independent network, transmitting initially five hours a day of news, films and cartoons. Turner created a strong reaction, especially in France, with the launch in September 1993 of his 24-hour TNT and Cartoon Network via satellite, with headquarters in London. Some French officials and those from other European Community countries claimed that the new network violates an EC directive that mandates a 50 percent minimum of EC-produced programming on networks in EC countries. Their case has gone to the European Court of Justice.
American media entrepreneurs are also entering the relatively underdeveloped Japanese cable TV market. On January 9, 1995, Time Warner and US West announced they were joining forces with two Japanese companies -- Toshiba and Itoh -- to expand cable systems in Japan.
High-definition television and direct-broadcast satellites. High-definition television (HDTV) promises a revolution in television broadcasting as profound as color TV by offering the clarity of 35-millimeter film on wall-sized, flat screens. The Federal Communications Commission hopes to choose a U.S. standard by mid-1996, based on the recommendation of an HDTV Advisory Board, which is testing experimental systems. On May 24, 1993, the three major electronics groups that had been promoting competing systems agreed to a single standard for digital HDTV. If adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), it would be the world's first digital system, since the only current HDTV standard in operation in Japan is an analog system.
The corporate groups that have become partners in the HDTV "Grand Alliance" include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and General Instrument Corporation; AT&T and Zenith Electronics Corporation; and a consortium of NBC, the David Sarnoff Research Center, and the U.S. subsidiaries of France's Thomson SA and the Netherlands' Philips Electronics NV. Once the FCC approves a transmission standard for HDTV, the companies can begin trying to bring the technology to market.
Another emerging technology, television via direct broadcast satellites (DBS), has been slower to develop in the United States than in Japan and Europe because of the higher percentage of American homes with the competing system, cable TV. However, 1994 saw the start-up of three new DBS systems, which had signed up more than 600,000 customers by May 1995. One of the companies, Primestar, owned jointly by six major cable TV companies and General Electric, utilizes a 36-inch (91 cm) satellite dish that customers rent, and offers 77 channels of programming.
DirecTV, a unit of General Motors Hughes Electronics, launched two high-powered DBS satellites in late 1993 and mid-1994 to deliver up to 175 audio and video channels to 18-inch (46 cm) RCA satellite dishes, which customers buy for about $800. Its basic service of 52 video channels costs about $30, roughly the same as cable operators charge. Another licensed DBS provider, U.S. Satellite Broadcasting, shares transponders on the Hughes DBS-2 satellite. These three companies hope to serve 10 million U.S. households within a decade, mainly those in rural areas that do not have cable.
Self regulation and reregulation. Responding to public complaints and pressure by the U.S. Congress regarding levels of violence on network TV programs, the four major national TV networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox -- agreed in mid-1993 on transmitting "voluntary" parental advisories before designated programs, warning of violence levels that might be inappropriate for children. Similarly, the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) announced on February 1, 1994, an initiative to reduce the level of violence on TV, including parental advisories, a violence rating system, and an industry group to monitor programs.
Similar pressure about rising cable TV rates since cable deregulation in 1987 led Congress in 1992 to pass a bill to reregulate the cable TV industry. The bill limited rates for basic cable service, required cable operators to observe customer-service standards, and made it easier for cable competitors to gain a foothold in the marketplace. Then-President George Bush vetoed the bill, but in October 1992, Congress overrode for the first time a Bush veto, making the cable reregulation bill a U.S. law. FCC-imposed rate reductions since then have tended to lower monthly cable fees but have caused cable companies to complain that the rate limits have impeded expansion of the industry.
The formation of The Associated Press in New York in 1848 and Reuters news agency in Great Britain one year later widened dramatically the scope of news gathering and helped make the news reporter a more visible and influential figure. Today, two of the "Big Five" international news agencies are American: Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), a privately-owned international news service founded in 1958 through the merger of United Press and the International News Service.
With more than 3,000 full-time employees in 146 domestic and 86 foreign bureaus in 1992, AP is the world's largest newsgathering organization. Cooperatively owned by 1,700 U.S. newspapers and more than 6,000 U.S. radio and television stations -- who are also required to contribute their news to it -- AP has more than 8,500 worldwide subscribers and an audience estimated at one billion in 111 countries. AP in 1992 reached 99 percent of total U.S. newspaper circulation.
Outside the United States, AP sells products to subscribers, but those subscribers, who are not members, do not have a say in AP policy. AP is also a 50 percent partner in the AP/Dow Jones news service, distributed only outside the United States.
AP has entered new fields, marketing its satellite distribution technology, and has started high-speed transmission of non-AP news, such as The New York Times News Service. Another important new area for AP has been the marketing of its digital photo transmission service, called "Leaf," which is rapidly becoming the worldwide standard for such transmissions. Because it is a cooperative in which members pay a pro-rated share of the total costs, AP was better able to confront the inflation and economic turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s than its privately-owned rival, UPI.
Since 1961, its last profitable year, UPI has suffered continuous financial losses and in 1992 filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition for the second time. In June 1992, a U.S. bankruptcy court approved the purchase of UPI by the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Company for $3.95 million. Changing times and the ascendancy of television news have whittled away at UPI's client base, which once numbered 4,800 worldwide. In 1992, it supplied news to about 2,500 newspapers and TV and radio stations and had about 450 full-time employees, with another 2,500 stringers (part-time correspondents).
UPI has also faced increasing competition from press services affiliated with major newspapers and available to customers through leased wires. Among the largest of these are the New York Times News Service, the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, Chicago Tribune Press Service, and Dow Jones News Services. In a slightly different category are the 300-plus newspaper syndicates, which provide cartoons, comic strips and columns to subscribers in the U.S. and abroad.
Several U.S. radio syndicates provide commentaries and features to subscribing stations. Two TV news services, one based in the United States and the other with an American partner, are currently geared to international audiences. ABC's WTN service provides international news clips to subscribers worldwide, and NBC is a partner with Reuters and the BBC in a similar TV news service, "Visnews."
USIA relies on a variety of media and methods to accomplish its public diplomacy mission. Its Bureau of Information provides support tools for USIA programs overseas, including a daily compendium of news and official statements, speakers, academic specialists, interactive electronic teleconferencing, publications, and other information. The "Wireless File," USIA's oldest and best-known media tool, which is compiled and transmitted electronically from Washington via USIA's global satellite network, is widely read by overseas media and foreign government officials.
The USIA Educational Exchanges Program, including the well-known Fulbright program, brings experts and students from a variety of fields, including journalism, to the United States for academic programs and orientation visits to American cities and institutions. USIA operates Foreign Press Centers in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles, which provide more than 1,600 U.S.-based foreign journalists with a variety of services to help them report on the American scene. The centers also work closely with overseas posts of the USIA to assure that foreign correspondents visiting the U.S. on assignment receive prompt, efficient and courteous service.
The U.S. Government has been an international broadcaster for half a century, and USIA is mandated to give foreign audiences an accurate picture of the United States and its foreign policy through these broadcasts. On April 30, 1994, President Clinton signed a law that consolidated under a Broadcasting Governing Board within USIA three former USIA broadcasting programs -- the Voice of America (VOA), Television and Film Service (Worldnet), and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti) -- plus Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and a new Radio Free Asia.
The VOA global radio network is the oldest and best-known element of USIA's broadcasting programs. Incorporated into USIA when the agency was founded in 1953, VOA today reaches some 93 million listeners weekly around the globe, mainly via short-wave broadcasts in 47 languages, including English. Its more than 900 hours of programming each week includes 54 hours of satellite feeds, which are rebroadcast by local stations in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.
In 1983, USIA's television and radio services began installing their own television receive-only (TVRO) satellite dishes in U.S. installations overseas, creating WORLDNET. Broadcasts from USIA's Washington studios are coupled with two-way audio for electronic dialogues that allow foreign journalists and experts to conduct live interviews with newsmakers in the United States. WORLDNET reaches approximately 130 countries, delivering live and taped TV programming daily to more than 225 TVRO antennas at U.S. embassies and USIS posts worldwide. In addition, various broadcast and cable systems receive WORLDNET public affairs programs directly via satellite.
Radio Marti broadcasts news, features and other information about events in Cuba and elsewhere to promote the cause of freedom in Cuba. Radio Marti began broadcasting to the people of Cuba in 1983, fulfilling congressional stipulations that it should parallel all VOA standards to ensure objective, accurate and balanced broadcasting. Subsequent legislation allowed TV Marti to begin broadcasting in March 1990. TV Marti programming consists of originally produced news and programs in addition to material acquired from commercial sources.
Since its creation by Congress in 1973, the Board of International Broadcasting (BIB), an independent federal agency overseeing Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), has been the other principal agency involved in international broadcasting. RFE/RL played an especially useful role during the revolutionary events of the late 1980s, when reformers in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, deprived of news by the Communist regimes, relied on RFE/RL broadcasts to find out what was actually taking place in their own countries.
RFE/RL has faced sizable budgetary and personnel cuts since the fall of the Soviet Union, and is in the process of moving its overseas broadcast headquarters from Munich to Prague. RFE/RL Inc. is a private, non-profit corporation. Under the 1994 broadcasting consolidation law signed by President Clinton, RFE/RL will maintain its corporate status, but instead of reporting to the BIB, it will take its direction from a new Broadcasting Board of Governors under USIA auspices.
Radio Free Asia, called for by the same 1994 consolidation law, will have a corporate structure similar to RFE/RL. Its broadcasts to Asian people will aim at giving them a more complete and accurate picture of events in the region. However, Congress has not yet allocated funds for Radio Free Asia.