Television

How Bureaucrats Tried and Failed to Make TV Suck

The history of all things televisionish has been one of fraught relationships between rising innovators and grasping regulators.

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Television permeates our culture and enters our homes and lives in a way that would certainly horrify the early self-appointed gatekeepers between electronic media and the American public. That's a good thing, because the broad realm of video entertainment that we now call "television" would be a hell of a lot less interesting if innovators hadn't put much of the medium beyond the gatekeepers' grasp.

Relying on early rulings issued by courts baffled by new forms of communication, those gatekeepers insisted that free speech protections didn't apply to moving images and broadcast radio waves. That made it open season for control freak regulators—and all those who inevitably crawl out from under their rocks to manipulate the power of regulation to achieve their own ends. That television is as vibrant, interesting, and multifaceted as it is today is a testament to the artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs who survived decades of attempted garotting with red tape, and have now largely moved beyond the reach of their would-be stranglers.

Jonathan W. Emord, in his 1991 book, Freedom, Technology, and the First Amendment, attributes much of the early hobbling of free speech protections for modern media to the United States Supreme Court's 1915 decision in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio. "[T]he exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit, like other spectacles, not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion," opined the court. That this decision was immediately followed by the First World War's incursions into both civil liberties and economic freedom just compounded the damage done to the liberty of the new media—not just movies, but also radio. Within a few years, broadcasting was a privilege to be conducted only by government license, and under terms set by bureaucrats and their buddies.

Please stand by

And, as always when "a business, pure and simple" comes to be heavily licensed and regulated, those best equipped to navigate the system are the businesses already well established and connected. Wrote Emord:

From 1922 until 1925, through a series of four national radio conferences, select representatives from the government's departments, members of Congress including the principal authors of the Radio Act of 1927, and radio industry leaders effected a tradeoff, a classic press-state symbiosis, which culminated in the most comprehensive system of press licensing America has ever known. The regulatory regime instituted then persists to this day and has recurred on the local level in regulation of the cable industry.

Of course, no regulation goes undefied. From the earliest days, border blaster radio and, to a lesser extent, television stations based in Mexico broadcast music, religion, dubious medical cures, and other content guaranteed to rub regulators the wrong way at power sure to curl their red tape. Famed DJ Robert Weston Smith, better known as "Wolfman Jack," made his name on XERF at 250,000 watts (five times the legal U.S. limit for radio stations).

Within the United States, pirate stations (have we mentioned that Reasoner Jesse Walker wrote Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America?) pumped out content of their choosing, at legal risk, on unlicensed stations. They often, though not always, operated below the federal government's legal minimum for power. As Walker pointed out in 2001 with regard to radio regulations as of that time, "With very few exceptions, the FCC won't even issue licenses to noncommercial stations of less than 100 watts. Class A commercial stations require at least 6,000 watts of power."

Technologically more complex, pirate television stations have been harder to pull off—at least in the United States (they proliferated throughout countries around the Mediterranean in the 1980s)—but have also popped up from time to time in the U.S. Usually short-lived before snuffed out by the powers that be, they also have brought quirky content to audences of little interest to licensed broadcasters—or else audiences the Federal Communications Commission would rather not see served at all.

Which brings us to the modern era of television, in the broader sense. Disfavored content—specifically, pornography—helped drive the explosion of VCRs. In 1980, 60 percent of video sales in the U.S. featured people bumping uglies.

And while the motion picture association made an abortive attempt to ban VCRs, the legal environment had changed since Mutual Film Corporation. Rented or purchased, and whatever they featured, prerecorded videos were and remain largely beyond the reach of regulators.

The legal environment changed for other media, too. Cable television is still essentially licensed by local governments, as Emord noted in 1991, but the content of cable channels is largely beyond the reach of bureaucrats. Cable television "implicate[s] First Amendment interests" the Supreme Court ruled in 1986's City of Los Angeles v. Preferred Communications, marking a significant change in attitude since 1915. At least partially as a result of that freedom, as well as its ability to target niche audiences, cable has enjoyed an explosion of creativity, and of audience devotion in recent years.

Long live the new flesh
Videodrome

Americans being what we are—fascinated by sex, yet governed by people who think we ought not be enjoying it quite so much—it's no surprise that pornography also drove the Internet, and brought "television" to the online world. "Video technology is a place where adult sites have been especially innovative, integrating live video streams into browser windows with early 'jpeg push' video," NPR noted in 2010. Unhappy with off-the-shelf video solutions, adult content providers developed their own high definition delivery systems, pushing the envelope not just content-wise, but also in terms of technology.

And that technology continues to deliver. Networking company Cisco Systems Inc. predicts that video will constitute 79 percent of Internet traffic by 2018, up from 66 percent in 2013. Deliverable from and to anyplace in the world, in a variety of formats catering to myriad tastes, "television" on the Internet is undergoing a revolution of its own.

The regulation documented by Emord, that hobbled and controlled broadcast in its early years, still exists. It's administered by bureaucrats who continue to tout the importance of their interference in your viewing pleasure. But television increasingly evolves beyond their reach.

NEXT: Why is the Obama Administration so contemptuous of the Constitution and the rule of law?

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  1. If they TRIED to make TV suck, they could scarcely have done a better job. I have never paid for satellite or cable – and have no plans for that to change. The advantages of the few channels that might be worth watching are overwhelmed by the legions of channels of pure crap. Nor am I making the “intellectual” argument that television must always be “good for you”. I’ve learned that the quality of a program is no guide to its popularity – and vice versa.

    But here’s the standard against which television should be judged: Was the hour, or two, or four or six you spent watching television today at the expense of something else you could have been doing instead, and if so, which do you judge to be more important and more beneficial to your life? Television is the lazy answer, because all you have to do is flip a couple of switches and for hours you need do nothing else. Other activities may take more effort, but their paybacks may also be greater. Each person must do their own cost-benefit analysis, but in the main, if people would examine their lives, they would find most television is little more than a drug that dulls the mind, deadens the senses and wastes mind and life.

    Huxley was right. Soma is here.

    1. I beg to differ. If you think American TV sucks, I can tell right off you have never seen unfiltered BBC. The stuff that makes it across the Atlantic has been high-graded.

      When Monty Python first made it to these shores, I thought of it as mind-blowingly surreal. Then I was exposed to what it satirizes. Incredible as it sounds a lot of Python is fairly subtle satire of incredibly awful BBC television.

      And the Brits get TAXED to pay for this.

      Now, I’m no huge fan of TV. I don’t watch, and haven’t since they went to season-long story arcs. It was probably a good artistic choice, but I lack the stamina, and very few shows can hold my interest for more than an hour. Those few I end up buying on DVD – and I fast forward through a lot of it.

      (That, BTW, is why I buy them on DVD. The Fast forward tech on BluRay sucks.)

      But 90% of all entertainment is crap, and always has been. We remember the popular culture of eras past so fondly because, mercifully, we don’t actually remember that much of it. We remember Tom Jones (properly The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling), but how much godawful tripe was published alongside it in 1749?

      1. We remember Tom Jones (properly The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling), but how much godawful tripe was published alongside it in 1749?

        Even more recently (well, by a century anyway), dime novels and Mark Twain. Or for the limeys, penny dreadfuls and Charles Dickens (who, IMHO, sucked as an author)

    2. Meh, it’s not healthy to work all your waking hours. 3 or 4 hours a week of TV to relax is hardly Soma.

    3. Television is the lazy answer, because all you have to do is flip a couple of switches and for hours you need do nothing else.

      Let me guess, you think you’re smarter because you read books, yes?

      Reading is no less a lazy activity, such is the fact of entertainment.

      Each person must do their own cost-benefit analysis, but in the main, if people would examine their lives, they would find most television is little more than a drug that dulls the mind, deadens the senses and wastes mind and life.

      Or they’d think you’re a pretentious self-absorbed twat who should fuck off and mind your own business…

      1. Meh. I read. A lot. Watch TV. Select programs. And exercise. A lot.

        Balance people. Balance.

  2. This is off topic, but can someone check my math? Just checked that the proposed budget for 2015 is roughly $ 3.9T, and at roughly 50M taxpayers that actually pay any income tax, that amounts to $78K per taxpayer-that-actually-pays-fed-income-tax per annum. The earner at the 50th percentile barely makes half that much. Obviously there’s corporate income tax as well that pays for some of that budget, but ultimately who’s pockets do those taxes come from? Also this doesn’t include local and state taxes, so it doesn’t even pay for roads.

    1. …”roughly $ 3.9T, and at roughly 50M taxpayers that actually pay any income tax, that amounts to $78K per taxpayer-that-actually-pays-fed-income-tax per annum.”…

      Pretty sure ‘we’ are borrowing far in excess of half the annual budget, so the people paying for that foolishness have yet to be born.

      1. Right, but in the end it doesn’t matter. Eventually it all has to add up, and the rate of Govt expenditures has to be paid for by the income of the people, so to the extent that today’s generation doesn’t pay for it, is the extent to which the future generations will have to pay even more.

        1. Absolutely. But they don’t have a vote, and those that do want free shit.

  3. my co-worker’s mom makes $82 an hour on the laptop . She has been out of work for eight months but last month her check was $12507 just working on the laptop for a few hours. find more info…

    ????? http://www.netjob70.com

  4. my co-worker’s mother makes $71 /hr on the laptop . She has been unemployed for 9 months but last month her payment was $17334 just working on the laptop for a few hours. published here

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  5. My roomate’s aunt makes $71 /hour on the laptop . She has been out of a job for six months but last month her income was $12021 just working on the laptop for a few hours.
    You can try this out. ????? http://www.jobsfish.com

  6. my co-worker’s mother makes $71 /hr on the laptop . She has been unemployed for 9 months but last month her payment was $17334 just working on the laptop for a few hours. published here

    —————-http://shorx.com/onlineatm

  7. Can you have some spare time to sit back in your chair having your laptop with you and making some money online for some interesting online work said Jenny Francis in the party last nightsee more what is for you there to increase your pocket money??.

    http://shorx.com/clickforsurvey

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