Selected Skirmishes: Boob-Tube Babble-On

Why more TV is better TV


Here is a prejudice held by all the wise in America: The so-called information revolution is just more of the same old same old.

It's a tune sung by Bruce Springsteen ("Fifty-seven channels and nothing's on…") and a refrain penned by such noteworthy television critics as The Washington Post's Tom Shales. What all the inquiring minds want to know is, Just how sick are Americans that they will watch such… junk?

The truth is that our viewing choices have never been better. Take the current war cry of the conventional wisdom bellyachers: the press's fascination with the O.J. Simpson affair. Why not consider this a public spectacle worthy of prime time? A great athlete, blessed with all the successes and comforts modern society can bestow, accused of hacking his beloved to death—this is practically Shakespearean in its thematic appeal.

In fact, the coverage of legal affairs and sensational trials on cable's Court TV is superb. If one elects to tune into Lorena's or the Menendezes' or William Kennedy Smith's, the crime drama is in real time and the analysis of the legalities sublime.

Such networks are available because of one simple economic reason and one simple political reason. The economics of cable networks are distinctly different from those of broadcast networks because there are so many more of the former. The sheer abundance of coaxial cable airspace—a standard 450MHz system can easily pour 64 channels into your television set—makes each channel cheaper. Cable networks can now profitably narrowcast to hit small audiences with specialized shows. Least-common-denominator television has been replaced by niche programming.

That simple fact makes elitist critiques of cable television totally absurd. I may consider 99 percent of the video fare trash. But in a 500-channel environment, that still gives me five worthwhile selections for each time slot—four more than I can watch. TV's old world, dominated by the network three, would bankrupt a producer with an audience share of less than 20. Today, CNN thrives if it gets a 2. Consumer choice is skyrocketing, even as the amount of truly terrible stuff (read: someone else's favorite) explodes too.

In reality, the emergence of the 500-channel cable system will be the solution to bad TV. I certainly could use another dozen C-SPANs or sports channels to choose from. If that means that I have another 25 country music channels on the dial—hey, that's what programmable remotes are for.

Now to the politics. When the elitists claim that PBS is the only television worth watching, they lie: That's not what they watch, unless they are 3 percent of the U.S. population (Nielsen ratings don't lie). They like Discovery and ESPN and HBO just as much as I do, which is why cable ratings are now 10 times that of PBS.

You may note that the cable nets achieved such success without one dollar of federal subsidy. Indeed, cable programmers were targeted by federal regulators who kept them out of U.S. households through the 1960s and 1970s. Only deregulation under Ford and Carter allowed America to be wired for cable. Today, wireline video networks are under no "public interest" obligations—no Fairness Doctrine, no equal-time rule, no right of reply to personal attack. While each of America's (and virtually every other country's) broadcasting stations is under a state-imposed obligation to air balanced coverage of abundant public affairs, when you want unfettered free speech you turn to the unregulated C-SPAN; the hot debate is on the unlicensed CNN's Crossfire; it is ironic in extremis that the wonderful Equal Time on CNBC is seen on a cable network without any "equal time" provision.

The ruckus and intellectual hand-wringing about the televised decline of Western Society properly belongs on an afternoon segment of Geraldo. I take my cable-viewing dial as a magazine rack. The fact that I will only read a handful of the many publications (some of them quite sick and perverted—but let's leave The New York Review of Books out of this discussion) is wholly irrelevant to my choices as a consumer. Yet it is overwhelmingly important to the rights of Americans to enjoy the fruits of democracy, and to consume any informational calories their sweet hearts desire.

Incredibly, cable was suppressed on the premise that "diversity of expression" was a First Amendment value. The political spin was that only regulated broadcasters—protected from the violence of robust market rivalry—could deliver such benefits to the public. Today apologists for regulation actually flip a 180, arguing that diversity on cable is wretched and that Americans need the shared community spirit once so happily delivered by a network triopoly.

There is a bogus sophistication exhibited by the literati who mouth cliches of diversity and free speech while flogging them in fact. It indicates that 5-year-old viewers of Beavis and Butt-head aren't alone in having difficulty pinpointing the divide between reality and fantasy on the TV monitor in the Information Age.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.