What are You Worth? Audience for Sale
This article originally appeared in Issue# 35
What is the purpose of radio and television?
When I start my first-year broadcasting students off with this question in our first class period, they have many answers.
"It entertains." "Informs." "Provides companionship." "It makes money." "It makes people happy, sad or sick."
Although these are all true, most fledgling broadcasters — and, I suspect, most viewers — need to understand that they are really side issues.
It takes some perspective to recognize that while radio and television do all these things, broadcasting, as established in the United States, exists primarily to deliver a specific commodity to paying advertisers. That commodity is us — the characteristics, buying power, wants, needs and hopes of each viewer and listener.
It's at this point of recognition that some of my students consider changing their majors. And perhaps they should. Broadcasting is a frightfully serious business.
I'm not sure what Marconi envisioned when he electrified his first vacuum tube. Originally, radio broadcasting was offered as a service in the effort to sell radio sets. But someone along the way finagled a deal to sell air time for a commercial announcement. Henceforth, broadcasting was to be a business of time and messages. Radios In living rooms and, later, automobiles, assured an audience, which assured advertisers, which assured profit. The system worked, from an entrepreneurial point-of-view.
When television came along its future was predetermined. Today's satellite and cable technology is, for the most part, destined to follow the same path.
In radio's early days, a group of visionaries saw something more than profit potential. They coined the term "public trust," recognizing that since broadcasting frequencies were in such limited supply, the air waves should be considered public domain. Broadcasters should be required to serve everyone in their communities, not just specific consumers. The result of that thinking was the Communications Act of 1934, a remarkable document, all but ignored by today's broadcasting industry.
As a career broadcaster myself, I'm forced to temper what I say about the inherent qualities of a commercialized medium. After all, even the world's best noncommercial broadcasting services often leave a great deal to be desired. What Newton Minnow referred to as "the vast wasteland" may apply quite broadly.
Despite all the popular criticisms of commercial broadcasting, three seem to emerge as most pervasive, and worthy of significant study. First, mass media shaped around commercial interests must obviously appeal to the largest possible audience. That's the only way to get top dollar for commercial time. When this is the goal program content must always avoid risk and controversy. The resulting product is banality, lack of Innovation, what many broadcasters refer to as "cookie cutter" programming.
Secondly, commercial media have created new groups of communication have-nots. These are people whom broadcast researchers consider "nonviable demographic groups" — the elderly, very young children, certain minorities. Obviously a commercial enterprise must appeal to consumers. They buy the products which advertisers promote. Programs are designed to attract them. But what about those persons in our society who aren't strong consumers?
A third concern is related to the second: creating a "market" out of those who are not yet knowledgeable consumers, namely children. Broadcasting and the emerging communication technologies could bring a great deal of value to a society interested in improving the learning environment of its children. But when the ultimate goal of children's programming is to sell toys, candy and sugared cereal, it seems clear children are not being served.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for free enterprise. It's the American way. But I doubt that our nation's founders would expect us to apply free enterprise unquestionably, as we often do. There are limits, especially when freedom and human well-being are at stake.
America needs a reorientation in its perception of public media, particularly as new communication processes are developed. Perhaps, one day, we'll be able to tell students the mass media exist to serve people, not sell then.