That's the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America

That's the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America

by Charles L. Ponce de Leon


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That's the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America by Charles L. Ponce de Leon

When critics decry the current state of our public discourse, one reliably easy target is television news. It’s too dumbed-down, they say; it’s no longer news but entertainment, celebrity-obsessed and vapid.

The critics may be right. But, as Charles L. Ponce de Leon explains in That’s the Way It Is, TV news has always walked a fine line between hard news and fluff. The familiar story of decline fails to acknowledge real changes in the media and Americans’ news-consuming habits, while also harking back to a golden age that, on closer examination, is revealed to be not so golden after all. Ponce de Leon traces the entire history of televised news, from the household names of the late 1940s and early ’50s, like Eric Sevareid, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Cronkite, through the rise of cable, the political power of Fox News, and the satirical punch of Colbert and Stewart. He shows us an industry forever in transition, where newsmagazines and celebrity profiles vie with political news and serious investigations. The need for ratings success—and the lighter, human interest stories that can help bring it—Ponce de Leon makes clear, has always sat uneasily alongside a real desire to report hard news.

Highlighting the contradictions and paradoxes at the heart of TV news, and telling a story rich in familiar figures and fascinating anecdotes, That’s the Way It Is will be the definitive account of how television has showed us our history as it happens.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226421520
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/27/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Charles L. Ponce de Leon is associate professor of history and American Studies at California State University Long Beach.

Read an Excerpt

That's the Way It Is

A History of Television News in America

By Charles L. Ponce de Leon

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-47245-4



Few technologies have stirred the utopian imagination like television. Virtually from the moment that research produced the first breakthroughs that made it more than a science fiction fantasy, its promoters began gushing about how it would change the world. Perhaps the most effusive was David Sarnoff. Like the hero of a dime novel, Sarnoff had come to America as a nearly penniless immigrant child, and had risen from lowly office boy to the presidency of RCA, a leading manufacturer of radio receivers and the parent company of the nation's biggest radio network, NBC. More than anyone else, it was Sarnoff who had recognized the potential of "wireless" as a form of broadcasting—a way of transmitting from a single source to a geographically dispersed audience. Sarnoff had built NBC into a juggernaut, the network with the largest number of affiliates and the most popular programs. He had also become the industry's loudest cheerleader, touting its contributions to "progress" and the "American Way of Life." Having blessed the world with the miracle of radio, he promised Americans an even more astounding marvel, a device that would bring them sound and pictures over the air, using the same invisible frequencies.

In countless speeches heralding television's imminent arrival, Sarnoff rhapsodized about how it would transform American life and encourage global communication and "international solidarity." "Television will be a mighty window, through which people in all walks of life, rich and poor alike, will be able to see for themselves, not only the small world around us but the larger world of which we are a part," he proclaimed in 1945, as the Second World War was nearing an end and Sarnoff and RCA eagerly anticipated an increase in public demand for the new technology.

Sarnoff predicted that television would become the American people's "principal source of entertainment, education and news," bringing them a wealth of program options. It would increase the public's appreciation for "high culture" and, when supplemented by universal schooling, enable Americans to attain "the highest general cultural level of any people in the history of the world." Among the new medium's "outstanding contributions," he argued, would be "its ability to bring news and sporting events to the listener while they are occurring," and build on the news programs that NBC and the other networks had already developed for radio. He saw no conflicts or potential problems. Action-adventure programs, mysteries, soap operas, situation comedies, and variety shows would coexist harmoniously with high-toned drama, ballet, opera, classical music performances, and news and public affairs programs. And they would all be supported by advertising, making it unnecessary for the United States to move to a system of "government control," as in Europe and the UK. Television in the US would remain "free."

Yet Sarnoff's booster rhetoric overlooked some thorny issues. Radio in the US wasn't really free. It was thoroughly commercialized, and this had a powerful influence on the range of programs available to listeners. To pay for program development, the networks and individual stations "sold" airtime to advertisers. Advertisers, in turn, produced programs—or selected ones created by independent producers—that they hoped would attract listeners. The whole point of "sponsorship" was to reach the public and make them aware of your products, most often through recurrent advertisements. Though owners of radios didn't have to pay an annual fee for the privilege of listening, as did citizens in other countries, they were forced to endure the commercials that accompanied the majority of programs.

This had significant consequences. As the development of radio made clear, some kinds of programs were more popular than others, and advertisers were naturally more interested in sponsoring ones that were likely to attract large numbers of listeners. These were nearly always entertainment programs, especially shows that drew on formulas that had proven successful in other fields—music and variety shows, comedy, and serial fiction. More off-beat and esoteric programs were sometimes able to find sponsors who backed them for the sake of prestige; from 1937 to 1954, for example, General Motors sponsored live performances by NBC's acclaimed "Symphony of the Air." But most cultural, news, and public affairs programs were unsponsored, making them unprofitable for the networks and individual stations. Thus in the bountiful mix envisioned by Sarnoff, certain kinds of broadcasts were more valuable than others. If high culture and news and public affairs programs were to thrive, their presence on network schedules would have to be justified by something other than their contribution to the bottom line.

The most compelling reason was provided by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Established after Congress passed the Federal Communications Act in 1934, the FCC was responsible for overseeing the broadcasting industry and the nation's airwaves, which, at least in theory, belonged to the public. Rather than selling frequencies, which would have violated this principle, the FCC granted individual parties station licenses. These allowed licensees sole possession of a frequency to broadcast to listeners in their community or region. This system allocated a scarce resource—the nation's limited number of frequencies—and made possession of a license a lucrative asset for businessmen eager to exploit broadcasting's commercial potential. Licenses granted by the FCC were temporary, and all licensees were required to go through a periodic renewal process. As part of this process, they had to demonstrate to the FCC that at least some of the programs they aired were in the "public interest." Inspired by a deep suspicion of commercialization, which had spread widely among the public during the early 1900s, the FCC's public-interest requirement was conceived as a countervailing force that would prevent broadcasting from falling entirely under the sway of market forces. Its champions hoped that it might protect programming that did not pay and ensure that the nation's airwaves weren't dominated by the cheap, sensational fare that, reformers feared, would proliferate if broadcasting was unregulated.

In practice, however, the FCC's oversight of broadcasting proved to be relatively lax. More concerned about NBC's enormous market power—it controlled two networks of affiliates, NBC Red and NBC Blue—FCC commissioners in the 1930s were unusually sympathetic to the businessmen who owned individual stations and possessed broadcast licenses and made it quite easy for them to renew their licenses. They were allowed to air a bare minimum of public-affairs programming and fill their schedules with the entertainment programs that appealed to listeners and sponsors alike. By interpreting the public-interest requirement so broadly, the FCC encouraged the commercialization of broadcasting and unwittingly tilted the playing field against any programs—including news and public affairs—that could not compete with the entertainment shows that were coming to dominate the medium.

Nevertheless, news and public-affairs programs were able to find a niche on commercial radio. But until the outbreak of the Second World War, it wasn't a very large or comfortable one, and it was more a result of economic competition than the dictates of the FCC. Occasional news bulletins and regular election returns were broadcast by individual stations and the fledgling networks in the 1920s. They became more frequent in the 1930s, when the networks, chafing at the restrictions placed on them by the newspaper industry, established their own news divisions to supplement the reports they acquired through the newspaper-dominated wire services.

By the mid-1930s, the most impressive radio news division belonged not to Sarnoff's NBC but its main rival, CBS. Owned by William S. Paley, the wealthy son of a cigar magnate, CBS was struggling to keep up with NBC, and Paley came to see news as an area where his young network might be able to gain an advantage. A brilliant, visionary businessman, Paley was fascinated by broadcasting and would soon steer CBS ahead of NBC, in part by luring away its biggest stars. His bold initiative to beef up its news division was equally important, giving CBS an identity that clearly distinguished it from its rivals. Under Paley, CBS would become the "Tiffany network," the home of "quality" as well as crowd-pleasers, a brand that made it irresistible to advertisers.

Paley hired two print journalists, Ed Klauber and Paul White, to run CBS's news unit. Under their watch, the network increased the frequency of its news reports and launched news-and-commentary programs hosted by Lowell Thomas, H. V. Kaltenborn, and Robert Trout. In 1938, with Europe drifting toward war, CBS expanded these programs and began broadcasting its highly praised World News Roundup; its signature feature was live reports from correspondents stationed in London, Paris, Berlin, and other European capitals. These programs were well received and popular with listeners, prompting NBC and the other networks to follow Paley's lead.

The outbreak of war sparked a massive increase in news programming on all the networks. It comprised an astonishing 20 percent of the networks' schedules by 1944. Heightened public interest in news, particularly news about the war, was especially beneficial to CBS, where Klauber and White had built a talented stable of reporters. Led by Edward R. Murrow, they specialized in vivid on-the-spot reporting and developed an appealing style of broadcast journalism, affirming CBS's leadership in news. By the end of the war, surveys conducted by the Office of Radio Research revealed that radio had become the main source of news for large numbers of Americans, and Murrow and other radio journalists were widely respected by the public. And though network news people knew that their audience and airtime would decrease now that the war was over, they were optimistic about the future and not very keen to jump into the new field of television.

This is ironic, since it was television that was uppermost in the minds of network leaders like Sarnoff and Paley. The television industry had been poised for takeoff as early as 1939, when NBC, CBS, and DuMont, a growing network owned by an ambitious television manufacturer, established experimental stations in New York City and began limited broadcasting to the few thousand households that had purchased the first sets for consumer use. After Pearl Harbor, CBS's experimental station even developed a pathbreaking news program that used maps and charts to explain the war's progress to viewers. This experiment came to an abrupt end in 1942, when the enormous shift of public and private resources to military production forced the networks to curtail and eventually shut down their television units, delaying television's launch for several years.

Meanwhile, other events were shaking up the industry. In 1943, in response to an FCC decree, RCA was forced to sell one of its radio networks—NBC Blue—to the industrialist Edward J. Noble. The sale included all the programs and personalities that were contractually bound to the network, and in 1945 it was rechristened the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The birth of ABC created another competitor not just in radio, where the Blue network had a loyal following, but in the burgeoning television industry as well. ABC joined NBC, CBS, and DuMont in their effort to persuade local broadcasters—often owners of radio stations who were moving into the new field of television—to become affiliates.

In 1944, the New York City stations owned by NBC, CBS, and DuMont resumed broadcasting, and NBC and CBS in particular launched aggressive campaigns to sign up affiliates in other cities. ABC and DuMont, hamstrung by financial and legal problems, quickly fell behind as most station owners chose NBC or CBS, largely because of their proven track record in radio. But even for the "big two," building television networks was costly and difficult. Unlike radio programming, which could be fed through ordinary phone lines to affiliates, who then broadcast them over the air in their communities, linking television stations into a network required a more advanced technology, a coaxial cable especially designed for the medium that AT&T, the private, government-regulated telephone monopoly, would have to lay throughout the country. At the end of the war, at the government's and television industry's behest, AT&T began work on this project. By the end of the 1940s, most of the East Coast had been linked, and the connection extended to Chicago and much of the Midwest. But it was slow going, and at the dawn of the 1950s, no more than 30 percent of the nation's population was within reach of network programming. Until a city was linked to the coaxial cable, there was no reason for station owners to sign up with a network; instead, they relied on local talent to produce programs. As a result, the television networks grew more slowly than executives might have wished, and the audience for network programs was restricted by geography until the mid-1950s. An important breakthrough occurred in 1951, when the coaxial cable was extended to the West Coast and made transcontinental broadcasting possible. But until microwave relay stations were built to reach large swaths of rural America, many viewers lacked access to the networks.

Access wasn't the only problem. The first television sets that rolled off the assembly lines were expensive. RCA's basic model, the one that Sarnoff envisioned as its "Model T," cost $385, while top-of-the-line models were more than $2,000. With the average annual salary in the mid-1940s just over $3,000, this was a lot of money, even if consumers were able to buy sets through department-store installment plans. And though the price of TVs would steadily decline, throughout the 1940s the audience for television was restricted by income. Most early adopters were from well-to-do families—or tavern owners who hoped that their investment in television would attract patrons.

Still, the industry expanded dramatically. In 1946, there were approximately 20,000 television sets in the US; by 1948, there were 350,000; and by 1952, there were 15.3 million. Less than 1 percent of American homes had TVs in 1948; a whopping 32 percent did by 1952. The number of stations also multiplied, despite an FCC freeze in the issuing of station licenses from 1948 to 1952. In 1946, there were six stations in only four cities; by 1952, there were 108 stations in sixty-five cities, most of them recipients of licenses issued right before the freeze. When the freeze was lifted and new licenses began to be issued again, there was a mad rush to establish new stations and get on the air. By 1955, almost 500 television stations were operating in the US.

The FCC freeze greatly benefited NBC and CBS. Eighty percent of the markets with TV at the start of the freeze in 1948 had only one or two licensees, and it made sense for them to contract with one or both of the big networks for national programming to supplement locally produced material. Shut out of these markets, ABC and DuMont were forced to secure affiliates in the small number of markets—usually large cities—where stations were more plentiful. By the time the FCC starting issuing licenses again, NBC and CBS had established reputations for popular, high-quality programs, and when new markets were opened, it became easier for them to sign up stations with the most desirable frequencies, usually the lowest "channels" on the dial. Meanwhile, ABC languished for much of the 1950s, with the fewest and poorest affiliates, and the struggling DuMont network ceased operations altogether in 1955.


Excerpted from That's the Way It Is by Charles L. Ponce de Leon. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Chapter One: Beginnings
Chapter Two: The Voice of God
Chapter Three: Public Alternatives
Chapter Four: News You Can Use
Chapter Five: Rebirth
Chapter Six: The New Entertainment
Chapter Seven: Fade to Black

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