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NBC: America’s Network

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 374
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Spanning eight decades from the beginnings of commercial radio to the current era of international consolidation and emerging digital platforms, this pioneering volume illuminates the entire course of American broadcasting by offering the first comprehensive history of a major network. Bringing together wide-ranging original articles by leading scholars and industry insiders, it offers a comprehensive view of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) that brings into focus the development of this key American institution and the ways that it has intersected with, and influenced, the central events of our times. Programs, policy, industry practices and personnel, politics, audiences, marketing, and global influence all come into play. The story the book tells is not just about broadcasting but about a nation's attempt to construct itself as a culture-with all the underlying concerns, divisions, opportunities, and pleasures. Based on unprecedented research in the extensive NBC archives,NBC: America's Networkincludes a timeline of NBC's and broadcasting's development, making it a valuable resource for students and scholars as well as for anyone interested the history of media in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94060-4
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. PART ONE: Broadcasting Begins, 1919-38

    • Introduction to Part One Broadcasting Begins, 1919-38
      (pp. 3-6)

      The late 1910s and early 1920s were a period of immense social and political upheaval in the United States, and indeed across the globe. Immigration, nativism, World War I, the newfound power of women, migration from farms to cities, the growth and problems of urban life, and a growing popular culture challenged nineteenth-century Progressive notions of assimilation and control. Entertainment industries like publishing, advertising, sports, movies, and vaudeville rose up to amuse, inform, cajole, and educate the increasingly polyglot breed of Americans. A new kind of popular culture developed at the grassroots level that many, especially the established elites, feared...

    • 1 NBC and the Network Idea: Defining the “American System”
      (pp. 7-24)

      NBC: the National Broadcasting Company. The name itself, so familiar by now we scarcely give it any thought, lays out the three factors crucial to understanding not only how NBC came to be but also how broadcasting emerged as one of our primary engines of cultural production around the globe.¹ First,national:when RCA announced the formation of its new radio “chain” in 1926, it introduced the first medium that could, through its local stations, connect the scattered and disparate communities of a vast nationsimultaneouslyand address the nation as a whole. Thus radio could become a powerful means...

    • 2 “Always in Friendly Competition”: NBC and CBS in the First Decade of National Broadcasting
      (pp. 25-43)

      On the night of November 11, 1933, the National Broadcasting Company celebrated the opening of its new Radio City facilities in the heart of New York City. Radio City’s shining lights and soaring architecture sharply contrasted network radio’s bright promise with the economic despair gripping the nation. NBC’s stars celebrated the world’s most technologically sophisticated broadcasting facilities in a program beamed around the globe. Invited to the festivities, but not asked to participate, was William Paley, the thirty-two-year-old president of NBC’s rival, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Merlin Aylesworth, NBC’s president, sent Paley a personal note shortly before the event....

    • 3 Programming in the Public Interest: America’s Town Meeting of the Air
      (pp. 44-60)

      America’s Town Meeting of the Air (ATMA)was broadcast on the NBC Blue network from 1935 until 1943, and then on ABC radio from 1943 to 1956. ATMA was the jewel in the crown of NBC’s public service programming, an oft-cited piece of evidence that the network was responsible and civic minded and already effectively carrying out the public service work of a national broadcaster. Radio had provoked fears that democracy might be compromised in a society in which public opinion could be manipulated by broadcast propaganda. Less well remembered is the way it also stimulated new hopes for American...

    • 4 Regulating Class Conflict on the Air: NBC’s Relationship with Business and Organized Labour
      (pp. 61-78)

      For millions of Americans, the Great Depression represented the failure of the nation’s economic and political systems to provide for the general welfare. As a result, working-class Americans participated in a massive wave of militant actions that challenged American capitalism and democracy. In the midst of the rising class conflict, both business and organized labor sought greater access to broadcasting. Radio offered to these competing forces a new means for winning the allegiance of workers and the public. Programming that overtly promoted business or labor ideology, however, posed special problems for the networks, which generally shied away from controversy. Like...

  6. PART TWO: Transitional Decades, 1938-60

    • Introduction to Part Two Transitional Decades, 1938-60
      (pp. 81-84)

      During the war years of the 1940s, radio broadcasting gained more importance in American life than ever before. Yet its very centrality made it a controversial medium in which many conflicts of American society played themselves out. Demagogues like Father Coughlin, the “Radio Priest,” inflamed the debate in the late 1930s, leading to a series of decisions that restricted the scope and depth of political discussion on the airwaves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, far more activist than that of his predecessor Herbert Hoover, instituted a New Deal for radio, investigating its practices and mandating a series of reforms, including the...

    • 5 Breaking Chains: NBC and the FCC Network Inquiry, 1938-43
      (pp. 85-97)

      The potential impact of federal regulation of broadcasting has been hotly debated virtually from the beginning of the radio business. As regularly scheduled commercial networking began in 1926–27, the degree to which network operations might come under government oversight was added to the policy pot. A decade later, the thriving National Broadcasting Company, which operated parallel (but by no means equal) Red and Blue networks, became the chief target of a government inquiry that would dramatically change the radio industry. The 1941 chain broadcasting rules of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (and their affirmation in a landmark decision by...

    • 6 Why Sarnoff Slept: NBC and the Holocaust
      (pp. 98-116)

      World War II had a profound impact on all American broadcast genres, including drama. NBC produced hundreds of dramatic programs about war, freedom, fascism, and democracy between 1938 and 1945. Before Pearl Harbor, the networks discouraged radio dramatists from broadcasting overt political messages, but writers used thinly veiled metaphors calling attention to the fascist threat at home and abroad. After the United States entered the war, dramatic productions became a primary vehicle for addressing the question of why America was fighting. Many radio dramas emphasized the strength of the American army, the skill of its soldiers, and the value of...

    • 7 Employment and Blue Pencils: NBC, Race, and Representation, 1926-55
      (pp. 117-134)

      Throughout its first quarter-century, NBC regularly encountered the complexities of representing race in its program development and broadcasting. After its start in 1926, the network struggled to appease audiences who were offended by the portrayal of black characters or by the language and terms employed in relation to citizens of the African American community. The network’s explicit attempts to address racial issues and to conform to standards of propriety and “good taste” also reflect the ways that American cultural values were understood at various historical junctures.

      In what follows, I will illuminate NBC’s responses to what was widely described as...

    • 8 NBC, J. Walter Thompson, and the Struggle for Control of Television Programming, 1946-58
      (pp. 135-152)

      Television is a profit-maximizing set of entities, an industry whose success is largely measured by its ability to deliver viewers to advertisers. This puts the sponsor at the center of program strategies. Thus we must acknowledge the complex relationship between networks and advertisers, two industries whose differing responsibilities and sometimes conflicting needs produce the programming. Never was that set of determinants more in flux than in the period between 1946 and 1958. Among the many changes within the television industry during this time, none was more dramatic, or had more lasting consequences, than the transition in sponsorship trends. In 1946...

    • 9 Talent Raids and Package Deals: NBC Loses Its Leadership in the 1950s
      (pp. 153-168)

      In 1962, in his bookThe Hungry Eye, journalist Eugene Paul described the new television industry for a curious public. The title of chapter 4, “NBC First, Where It Really Isn’t,” reflected the changed realities of NBC’s industry ranking since its heyday in the first decade of television—but for many observers it was hard to understand this sudden shift. Hadn’t General David Sarnoff and his Radio Corporation of America and NBC network invented TV? Hadn’t NBC been the top radio network for two generations? Hadn’t Milton Berle been the king of television? Didn’t Sarnoff bring color TV to the...

  7. PART THREE: NBC and the Classic Network System, 1960-85

    • Introduction to Part Three NBC and the Classic Network System, 1960-85
      (pp. 171-174)

      By 1960, the three powerful national networks had already begun to advocate a new kind of relationship of sponsors to TV, led by NBC: themagazine concept, developed by NBC chief Pat Weaver after the style of women’s daytime talk shows on radio, which substituted multiple sponsorship for single sponsors and made spot advertising the new order of the day. Seizing on the opportunity presented by the quiz show scandal and investigations in 1958 to 1959, the networks promised that from now on they would play a new, activist role in programming. Gone would be the dependence on corrupt, ratings-driven...

    • 10 NBC News Documentary: “Intelligent Interpretation” in a Cold War Context
      (pp. 175-191)

      During the early 1960s, NBC Television, under president Robert Kintner, seized a leadership role in television news as it dramatically expanded its documentary news programming and launched the genre into prime-time viewing hours. A golden age of documentary ensued that remains to this day a singular moment in U.S. television history. Examining pressing social issues at home and abroad, the programs drew accolades from politicians and social critics and regularly attracted tens of millions of viewers. This remarkable public service was in part motivated by the internal dynamics of the television industry, but it was also a response to public...

    • 11 What Closes on Saturday Night: NBC and Satire
      (pp. 192-208)

      InTelevision: The Business behind the Box, his classic study of the three-network oligarchy at the height of its power, Les Brown (1971) refers to NBC as the most “venturesome” of the networks, with a particular slant toward sophisticated comedy (12). Nowhere are Brown’s comments more evident than in the network’s efforts to bring contemporary topical satire to a mainstream American audience. From the 1950s to the beginning of the 1980s, NBC took risks in the comedy it presented that CBS would either refuse or stifle and that ABC would only feebly imitate.

      Of course, most of these attempts were...

    • 12 The Little Program That Could: The Relationship between NBC and Star Trek
      (pp. 209-223)

      Star Trekin its various incarnations is one of the most successful television franchises ever produced and one of the longest-running. It is also a cultural phenomenon that goes far beyond television. For this the world has NBC to thank. Yet, also thanks to NBC, it nearly did not become so. In an ironic twist of fate, the current (in 2005) franchise owners, Paramount Network Television and UPN, announced in February 2005 that the most recentTrekseries—the fifth,Star Trek: Enterprise—would be canceled that May, after four seasons, because of falling ratings. This could be seen as...

    • 13 Sex as a Weapon: Programming Sexuality in the 1970s
      (pp. 224-239)

      In both popular memory and scholarly accounts, U.S. television in the 1970s is a series of puzzling contradictions. Groundbreaking sitcoms such asAll in the Family(CBS, 1971–83) andM*A*S*H(CBS, 1972–83) took on the social issues of the day, from race relations to the war in Vietnam. As Todd Gitlin and others have argued, CBS in particular turned to “relevance” as a means of attracting an upscale audience and the advertiser dollars that came with it (Gitlin 1985, 207–9; Bodroghkozy 2001, 205). Yet 1970s TV is also remembered as a morass of silly, mindless, exploitative fare,...

    • 14 Saturday Morning Children’s Programs on NBC, 1975-2006: A Case Study of Self-Regulation
      (pp. 240-256)

      In 1975, there were three broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—that between them virtually owned the viewing audience. Even thoughSesame Streeton PBS had started to attract a large portion of the audience segment made up of the youngest children, most children and adults chose between three channels. Those days are over. There are now hundreds of channels and multiple technologies for receiving television signals, resulting in constantly increasing audience segmentation. In addition, viewers are using the television screen for alternate entertainment technologies such as VHS and DVDs, digital video recording (DVR), and video gaming.

      Where three broadcasters...

  8. PART FOUR: NBC in the Digital Age, 1985 to the Present

    • Introduction to Part Four NBC in the Digital Age, 1985 to the Present
      (pp. 259-260)

      The late 1980s ushered in the current period of decentralization, deregulation, audience fragmentation, merger mania, globalization, new programming strategies, and the rise of digital media. The creation of three new over-the-air networks—Fox in 1986, UPN and The WB in 1995—brought attention to minority audiences and led to an emphasis on quality programs led by producer-auteurs on the Big Three nets. Cable television became a mature medium, offering competition and alternatives to the networks. Deregulation continued, and both the Fairness Doctrine and the Fin-Syn and PTAR rules were phased out. A greater concentration of ownership developed, predicated on the...

    • 15 Must-See TV: NBC’s Dominant Decades
      (pp. 261-274)

      Popular coverage of the horse race among U.S. broadcast networks throughout the 1990s and early 2000s advanced a perception of NBC as an invincible champion. The duration of NBC’s late-century success suggested to many a perpetual domination dating back to the dawn of television, but a more historically informed examination reveals that NBC’s supremacy—while long uncontested—did not always exist. Until the late 1980s NBC was often a distant competitor in the network household ratings race, and ABC, a comparative newcomer, surpassed NBC in the 1970s as both networks tried to obtain the ratings title controlled by CBS since...

    • 16 Creating the Twenty-first-Century Television Network: NBC in the Age of Media Conglomerates
      (pp. 275-290)

      The first three decades of network television in the United States were a period of remarkable stability for the television industry. Once the basic structure of the industry had been established, the television seasons rolled past with comforting familiarity. The three networks filled their schedules with daily and weekly series that made it possible to deliver a consistent and relatively predictable number of viewers to advertisers. New series debuted each fall. Some found an audience and survived; most were canceled. And the cycle started all over again. The three networks battled one another for ratings supremacy, because each ratings point...

    • 17 Life without Friends: NBC’s Programming Strategies in an Age of Media Clutter, Media Conglomeration, and TiVo
      (pp. 291-307)

      Sandy Grushow’s statement at the end of the fall 2003 season and Bill Carter’s query at the start of the 2004 fall season surely mirrored the uncertainty felt by NBC executives over their new prime-time lineup after the network lost two of its most profitable shows in May 2004—Friends(which ended its ten-year run) andFrasier(which lasted eleven years)—and sawThe West Wing’s audience drop by 31 percent between 2002 and 2004.¹ER,Will & Grace, andAmerican Dreamshave experienced losses in audience as well. Nevertheless, NBC still raked in $2.9 billion in advertising commitments for the...

    • 18 Network Nation: Writing Broadcasting History as Cultural History
      (pp. 308-322)

      When the editors at Oxford University Press in 1959 commissioned Columbia University professor Erik Barnouw to write a history of broadcasting in the United States, they were building on their recent experience in England. There, the press, with the cooperation of the British Broadcasting Corporation, had persuaded noted historian Asa Briggs to take on a similar task of social historiography. Briggs became the semiofficial chronicler of the nation’s broadcasting system over the first seven decades of its existence, producing five volumes between 1961 and 1995, none less than four hundred pages long—and this despite the fact that British broadcasting...

  9. NBC Time Line
    (pp. 323-330)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 331-342)
  11. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 343-346)
  12. Index
    (pp. 347-362)