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Two Decades of Electronic Media

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Television has undergone a sea change in the two decades since Electronic Media appeared on the scene, yet there are many similarities between TV in ’83 and television today. Back then the choices available to viewers were limited to three broadcast networks, perhaps a public station, and an independent station or two. Those fortunate enough to have access to cable received only a handful of channels.
Today, most U.S. households subscribe to either to cable or satellite and have access to hundreds of program choices. Even TV Luddites can usually choose from six broadcast networks in addition to a number of independent signals.
The typical household television set in 1983 measured 19 inches. Zenith, the last major American manufacturer, was pushing its System 3 model, while RCA touted a cable-ready stereo-equipped 45-inch projection set.
Video recorders were considered a luxury item in the early 1980s, but sales accelerated in 1983, when the average VCR price fell below $650. In 1984, only about 12 percent of U.S. households boasted a VCR; today, 86 percent do. The growing popularity of video recorders likewise spurred sales of television sets.
“The VCR and the color TV formed a symbiotic bond in the consumer consciousness,” wrote Todd Thibodeaux, chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry trade group.
The growth of television choices has fragmented audiences to the point that even the top broadcast programs of today seldom reach a 20 rating (percentage of TV households). “Dallas,” the highest-rated series for the 1983-84 season, routinely attracted one in four TV households. By the 1998-99 season, ratings for the most popular program, “ER,” had fallen below the 20 threshold. And prime-time ratings have continued to decline.
The size of cable audiences by comparison is almost laughable. Cable networks routinely celebrate if they break above a 1 rating (percentage of homes within the individual channel’s universe). Still, in aggregate, basic cable draws more viewers during prime-time hours than do the broadcast networks.
With more choices and in spite of the lure of their personal computers, Americans are spending more time in front of their TV sets. The 1983-84 season marked the first time that average daily television viewing time per household exceeded seven hours. Nielsen Media Research projects that number will hit eight hours in the current season.
Rise and Fall of Broadcast Networks
It could be argued that the 1982-83 season began the final hurrah for network television’s dominance of American eyeballs. It was a time when an average of 84 percent of all television viewers were watching ABC, CBS or NBC programming. With only a few established networks, cable struggled to attract viewers and dollars.
ABC, perennial runner-up to CBS in the early 1980s, managed to win the season, thanks to a couple of blockbuster miniseries. “The Winds of War,” an 18-hour saga, gave ABC the victory in the February sweeps, even though CBS countered during the period with a blockbuster of its own. The 21/2-hour final episode of “M*A*S*H” drew an estimated 125 million viewers and still ranks as the highest-rated single program ever on U.S. television-a 60.3 rating (percentage of television households) and a 77 share (percentage of TV sets in use).
Of the top 20 broadcast television programs for the year, only two-CBS’s venerable “60 Minutes” and ABC’s “Monday Night Football”-remain on the air. Both programs have seen their share of change. “MNF” has run through a dozen announcers; “60 Minutes” recently booted legendary executive producer Don Hewitt into retirement.
Several cable programmers capitulated in 1983: CBS folded its CBS Cable network. RCA killed its Entertainment Channel and ABC/Westinghouse gave up on Satellite News Channel, surrendering the nascent cable news battleground to CNN.
Fewer than half of America’s television households-about 35 million total-were wired for cable by the end of 1983. MTV and CNN were relatively new, ESPN had not yet matured into a sports juggernaut and HBO reached only 12 million subscribers. Although direct broadcast satellite would not become a factor for another decade, the naysayers were already predicting cable’s doom. TelevisionWeek columnist Tom Shales, writing in The Washington Post, dubbed cable “The Wire That Failed” in a column published Christmas Day 1983. “It already looms as a dead technology, to be replaced by direct broadcast satellite,” Mr. Shales opined.
Not yet a billionaire in 1983, Ted Turner spent much of that year looking for an ally to help save his struggling empire. CNN was losing money hand over fist, and TBS was a not-so-super station. Mr. Turner dickered with officials at all three broadcast networks before deciding to go it alone.
In a strange twist of fate, Mr. Turner is today squirming to extricate himself from his alliance with AOL Time Warner, deemed by many observers to have been a miserable failure. Expressing disgust with AOL’s poor financial showing and his diminishing role in the company’s operations, Mr. Turner resigned as vice chairman last month and remained undecided whether he would stay on AOL’s board of directors.
“I sat on the bench waiting to get called back into the game, and the call never came,” he told NBC’s Matt Lauer in an interview last month. “I mean, maybe I’m a little too old and burned out to be a starter, but I could at least be a substitute and put a few points up every now and then.”
Fighting On Screen and Off
War, both factual and fictitious, dominated television in 1983, much as talk of war leads many newscasts today. Some of 1983’s biggest news stories sound eerily similar to those of today: a terrorist bombing killed U.S. GIs in Lebanon; American forces staged an invasion on foreign soil, the Caribbean island of Grenada; Soviet warplanes shot down a Korean Air Lines jumbo jet that had strayed off course near Japan.
References to war splattered television screens throughout the year. In addition to being treated to the “M*A*S*H” finale and “The Winds of War,” viewers were mesmerized by ABC’s “The Day After,” a wrenching drama depicting a nuclear attack on the United States. More than 100 million people tuned in. Public television carried a 13-part spectacle “Vietnam: A Television History” to rave reviews.
Terrorism was a hot topic even then. In a statement of uncanny prescience, ABC anchor Peter Jennings suggested that network newscasts should explore better ways to cover what he called “the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.”
Today, as the United States prepares for a possible war with Iraq, news organizations are trying to line up their coverage in hopes they won’t be shut out by government mandate. The 1983 Grenada invasion generated similar concerns, since the Pentagon kept cameras and reporters away from the initial assault.
Bringing Down the Curtain
The 1982-83 television season brought the end of several popular series. CBS closed the doors at “Archie Bunker’s Place” and signed off “WKRP in Cincinnati.” ABC retired “Barney Miller,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy.” NBC shuttered “The Little House on the Prairie,” while “Taxi” ran out of gas.
Other notable passings in 1983 included the deaths of ABC newsman Frank Reynolds, NBC newswoman Jessica Savitch, TV legend Arthur Godfrey and actors Raymond Massey (“Dr. Kildare”) and Michael Conrad (“Hill Street Blues”). It was also the year William Paley retired as chairman of CBS.
Televised sports hit its stride in ’83. NBC, desperate for ratings and revenue, and perhaps fearful of the growing popularity of ESPN, dropped $500 million for Major League Baseball rights, a strange contrast to today’s NBC, at which sports is a virtual afterthought. NBC’s telecast of Super Bowl XVII in late January drew 111 million viewers, breaking the ratings record for a single show. (The record stood for only 29 days before being smashed by “M*A*S*H.”)
Technical Breakthroughs
Dolby Laboratories introduced the concept of Surround Sound to U.S. househol
ds in 1983, and a German company demonstrated a prototype digital television receiver. The National Association of Broadcasters tested a Ku-band satellite system for transmitting broadcast signals. The year also saw the first successful long-distance digital television transmission over fiber-optic cable.
If the VCR made television more convenient, the personal video recorder (PVR) promises to revolutionize the way people watch TV. PVRs allow users to record programs in digital form and store them on a computerlike hard drive. Strangely, PVRs have been slow to gain acceptance, their growth slowed by high cost and opposition from programmers concerned that viewers may zip past advertisements.
And Now the News
One television icon that looks much the same today as it did in 1983 is the nightly network newsroom, set changes notwithstanding. Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw anchored then, as they do today. Only Mr. Rather had the chair to himself for the full year, however. After Mr. Reynolds’ death, ABC canned its triple-anchor format to give Mr. Jennings a solo shot. NBC removed Roger Mudd in favor of Mr. Brokaw. The Public Broadcasting System expanded the popular “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” to a full hour, renaming it a “Newshour.”
NBC, which had launched “NBC News Overnight” with Linda Ellerbee and Bill Schechner in part as a response to the emergence of CNN, pulled the plug on the program. Although popular with critics, the show was a financial boondoggle, leading outgoing NBC News President Reuven Frank to quip that in modern television, “Being the best is not enough.”
Building a Future
Although NBC spent most of the early 1980s in the ratings cellar, it was slowly building toward later success. NBC programs won 33 Emmy Awards in 1983, more than the other two networks combined. Newcomer “Cheers” won for best comedy, and stalwart “Hill Street Blues” won for best dramatic series. Both would subsequently help solidify Thursday evenings as “Must See TV.”
CBS held the lion’s share of the year’s top-rated shows, including “60 Minutes,” “Dallas,” “Alice,” “M*A*S*H” and “Falcon Crest.” ABC boasted “Dynasty” and “Three’s Company.” NBC’s top show at the time was “The A-Team.”
Down in Music City USA, in a trailer behind Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, executives at WSM Inc. were putting the final touches on what would be cable’s biggest launch of the year, a service to be called The Nashville Network.
Thomas Griscom, then president of WSM, boldly predicted TNN’s ultimate success, a prognostication that proved uncanny in its accuracy.
“People in the future are going to look at cable differently,” he told the Associated Press in a 1983 interview. “The new generation is going to be looking at 20 channels like we looked at the three networks. They’re all even. Cable is the transmission system of the future.”