Book Reviews -- One Nation under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV (2Nd Ed.) by J. Fred MacDonald

By Foust, James C. | Journalism History, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- One Nation under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV (2Nd Ed.) by J. Fred MacDonald


Foust, James C., Journalism History


Television has been a fertile ground for mass communications scholars. Its inception, development, and rise to a dominant position among mass media have been studied from historical, political, economic, social, technical, and psychological perspectives. In One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV, J. Fred MacDonald has attempted to bring all of these perspectives together to tell the story of commercial television's first five decades.

MacDonald, a professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University and curator emeritus of Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communication, is concerned chiefly with the three major networks, noting that they have dominated the medium in the United States. "American television has always meant network television," he contends, thus tying the medium's fortunes directly to those of what he calls the "three-headed monopoly": NBC, CBS and ABC. The DuMont network and latecomer Fox are discussed briefly as well.

MacDonald's thesis is that the invention of television created a tool with the potential to educate and enlighten the masses, but that this potential has been thwarted by the dominance of the networks and their emphasis on popularity of programming rather than quality. Thus, while television was still in its infancy, the networks were able to rationalize the industry by applying mass production techniques to programming, and the result was a parade of formula shows: live varieties, westerns, quiz shows, cop dramas, sitcoms, and prime-time soaps Also to blame, MacDonald contends, is a viewing audience which would rather be entertained than educated and the FCC's do-nothing regulatory policy toward network power.

During the 1980s, however, the networks began to lose their power, the victims of changing public taste, the VCR, and the growth of cable television. …

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