Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Measuring Quality Television

Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Measuring Quality Television

Article excerpt

I have read Newton Minow's famous speech, "Television and the Public Interest," (1) and I decided to assess how (or indeed, whether) the United States's broadcasting industry successfully responded to his challenge to improve the "vast wasteland" that was television in 1961. It is easy enough to insert television programming schedules into a computer and tabulate the number of hours dedicated to situation comedies, public affairs, drama, education, news, sports, etc. I could also perform a wide array of more granular content analyses, such as tabulating the number of acts of violence we see during prime-time viewing, or describing the number of beer commercials aired during weekend sports programming, or specifying the percentage of Latinos in desirable professional roles in dramas. Finally, I could discuss the enormous amount of specialized programming now available via terrestrial and satellite multi-channel networks. Empirically, we can learn a lot about how television has changed since 1961.

So I did all this. Along with some trusted colleagues, I spent the past six months in computer and media laboratories (usually wearing a white lab coat) exhaustively measuring and assessing America's television output since 1961. We scanned and coded millions of programming hours of television, including advertisements and public service announcements. My team employed a complex computer algorithm to study this material, factoring in America's broad diversity, yet also accounting for certain common social values. Also, we were able to input 1500 audience personality prototypes to ensure that even idiosyncratic viewers' experiences were not overlooked. Moreover, we particularly focused on certain social ills (violence, low educational attainment, etc.) for which everyone knows the media are responsible. Finally, unlike those other media studies you will no doubt read, my team was able to use live test subjects to account for remote-control channel surfing behavior and late-night semi-conscious viewing habits.

Based on my research, I conclude that American television slowly improved during the 1960s after Minow's speech, eventually crossing from a "vast wasteland" to a "lush rainforest" in late 1972, with the debut of The Waltons; crossing briefly back into the "vast wasteland" during portions of 1983-84 (due mostly to nauseating televised displays of American narcissism during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics). Since 1984, however, television has made a steady climb into the lush, teeming tropics, although data for the surprisingly poor period of 2001-02 (The Bachelor?) has not yet been fully tabulated. So, based on my research, I have cracked the mysteries of American television and firmly established the quality levels that viewers do or do not experience. Further details of my findings will be published in the near future, replete with numerous charts and tables. (2) Until then, you should just trust me because I'm an expert, with solid credentials.

Something tells me that I have not convinced you. If you remain skeptical about my findings, then maybe you will be sympathetic to other concerns I have. When Newton Minow suggested that television was a vast wasteland, that was really a comparison, wasn't it? It was a comparison to something "lush," something teeming with diversity and life--a rainforest springs to mind as the obvious comparison. His comparison could have been with another media form, such as the movies or the book industry, but I think a fair reading of his speech is that it was a comparison to what television could be. The challenge Minow made was for broadcasters to live up to the promise of television. Similar sentiments were expressed in the earlier days of television; (3) we want the "best" out of our new media.

It is, perhaps, a natural human tendency to attempt to ordinally rank things we encounter. In television, we constantly specify the quality of programming. We have numerous award ceremonies covering television quality, such as the Emmys or the Golden Globes. …

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