The Battlefields of Cable

How cable TV transformed politics—and how politics transformed cable TV


24/7 Politics: Cable Television & the Fragmenting of America From Watergate to Fox News, by Kathryn Cramer Brownell, Princeton University Press, 402 pages, $35

When C-SPAN's cameras came to Congress in 1979, a wave of bloodless guerrilla maneuvers followed. Newt Gingrich, in those days a brash young Georgia congressman, led an insurgent cell of Republicans looking for ways to make the cameras work for them. One of their techniques was to deliver so-called "special order" speeches when the day's business was over, which in addition to airing live on cable could be shared with local channels back home.

"These speeches frequently called out the Democratic opposition directly, daring them to respond," the Purdue historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell writes in 24/7 Politics, a new history of cable news and the regulatory forces that shaped it. "But nobody did," she adds, "because the legislative session had ended and everyone was gone." Not that you could tell that by watching the show, since the camera's eye stayed fixed on the person speaking.

On May 10, 1984, House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D–Mass.) launched a counterinsurgency. As part of the deal that had allowed C-SPAN into the legislature, the channel had agreed to let the House have control of the cameras. And so as Rep. Bob Walker (R–Penn.) was delivering an address accusing Democratic staffers of altering congressional records to distort or conceal events, the camera suddenly started to pan across the floor, showing that what might have seemed like one side of a heated debate was in fact a man speaking to an almost entirely empty room.

Once Walker realized what was happening, he started to huff and puff about it, declaring on live television that this was "one more example of how this body is run, the kind of arrogance of power." One need not admire the congressional leadership of the 1980s to recognize that those shots of the House floor were themselves an act of transparency—the very thing that Walker had theoretically been demanding—and that reacting this way to being caught only made the congressman look sillier.

It would not be the last time one of those camera pans injected a little comedy into Congress. One of the most prolific special-order speakers was Bob Dornan, a Southern California Republican who mixed hard-core right-wing politics with a born ham's penchant for showmanship. (He had been an actor and a talk show host before he went into politics, and his uncle had played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.) One evening in 1987, Dornan stood virtually alone on the House floor denouncing Oliver Stone's film Platoon, which he insisted on calling Spittoon. In the midst of this, he announced that he would be sponsoring a screening of The Hanoi Hilton, a Vietnam movie that he liked much better. "I invite all my colleagues to come," he declared, sweeping his arm as though to gesture to the congressmen watching just as the camera was revealing that none was present.

'We'll Really Screw These Guys'

Dornan is absent from Brownell's book, but O'Neill's clash with Walker gets a detailed retelling. And rightly so: Not merely an entertaining story, the tale illustrates how government and cable co-evolved, each constantly adjusting to the other.

Princeton University Press
(Princeton University Press)

Looking back at the transformation of television from the three-network world of the 1960s to the 500-channel universe of the '90s, it might be tempting to tell the tale as a simple march from a tightly regulated broadcast landscape to a looser, freer one. And indeed, a host of entry barriers crumbled, opening a path to more choice and competition. But which restrictions were removed, which stayed in place, and when a rule moved from one category to the other: That's a much more complicated saga.

When cable's earliest experiments in original programming started to get attention in the 1950s and '60s, the incumbent broadcasters did their best to keep the upstarts constrained. Politicians were generally happy to help them keep a lid on the competition, because the pols had an interest in keeping the press that covered them happy. (Some officials, most infamously Lyndon Johnson, had broadcast investments of their own to look after as well.)

After Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969, the dynamic changed. The new president had an unusual level of resentment for the media, and so he loved the idea of undermining the networks' power. Usually this manifested itself not as an interest in deregulation but as a willingness to use the regulatory state as a weapon: Everything from an antitrust suit to a Fairness Doctrine complaint could be deployed against an insufficiently friendly outlet. But when Tom Whitehead, the head of the new Office of Telecommunications Policy, raised the prospect of allowing more competition in the TV market, Nixon recognized that this too would aggravate his enemies, telling his aide Charles Colson that cable "will really stir them up." (Colson caught on immediately. "We'll really screw these guys," he replied.) Soon Whitehead was working both the hyper-regulatory and the deregulatory sides of the Republican White House's media agenda: a hatchet man who bluntly told TV stations that their licenses were at risk if they were too "biased," but also a policy wonk working to let more broadcasters operate.

Whitehead's biggest deregulatory victory was the Open Skies policy, which allowed more competition in the satellite market. When AT&T and the three big TV networks called for what Brownell calls a "system of regulated monopoly" in orbit, featuring "a few dedicated satellites operated by one or two industries," Whitehead successfully pushed instead for letting pretty much any firm genuinely capable of operating a satellite to launch it. But when he tried to deregulate cable too, his efforts ran aground with the Watergate scandal.

Under President Gerald Ford, several advisers made another attempt to loosen the government's grip on cable, this time without those Nixonian resentments attached. That too went nowhere—allegedly because the idea needed more "research and analysis," but Brownell makes a compelling case that the real issue was Ford's unwillingness to anger the established media during an election year. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan proved friendlier to cable, and each of their administrations removed legal restraints on the industry's activities.

But the cablecasters' biggest boost turned out to be Whitehead's Open Skies policy. It wasn't immediately obvious just how much of a boon for the medium this would be. But as broadcasters gradually realized that they could distribute programs to cable systems via satellite, the programmers' reach and revenue took off—and so did viewers' options.

While the skies were opening, a much messier political process was unfolding on the ground. In most of the country, a cable company wasn't allowed to operate without a franchise agreement with a local government—and most local governments allowed just one cable company on their turf, usually in exchange for various concessions. This fostered a fair amount of corruption on the local level and corporate consolidation on the national level. Here and there, some jurisdictions did allow free entry to the cable market, demonstrating that a better system was possible.

The federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 is usually described as a deregulation bill, and Brownell follows suit. But it did not make a serious attempt to open up those local monopolies to competition; it just set a more stable set of rules for the franchise agreements. It gave the cable industry more room to grow, but its growth was deeply entangled with the government.

In his 1996 book Selling the Air, the sociologist Thomas Streeter suggested that the cable boom came "not so much because regulations were simply eliminated, but because, beginning in the early 1970s, cable's status among the policy community was changed from industry threat to industry component; haltingly, sometimes awkwardly, but nonetheless systematically, those with influence surrounding the [Federal Communications Commission] came to bring cable into the fold." Instead of "a radical change in industry structure toward entrepreneurialism," we got "a series of incremental adjustments within the existing oligopolistic…system of electronic media. Cable has not revolutionized the basic corporate liberal structure of television; it has been integrated within it." Just as C-SPAN and Congress adapted to each other, so did the new industry and the old corporate state.

News Guerrillas

The earliest cable news channels tended to be primitive affairs: an Associated Press wire machine, a camera pointed at it, and not much else. But as video equipment became cheaper and more portable, the late '60s and early '70s saw a wave of countercultural experiments with DIY TV shows, as young reporters with long hair picked up Portapaks and started shooting freewheeling low-budget documentaries.

Their work begat radical visions of a more participatory media future. In his 1971 manifesto Guerrilla Television, Michael Shamberg warned that our "capacity to survive as a species" was threatened unless we redesigned our "overly-centralized, low-variety" television system. With "new video modes like portable videotape, cable television, and videocassettes," he promised, we could "restore a media-ecological balance to TV."

One irony of that era's cable battles is that those visionary hippies found themselves on the same side, more or less, as the Nixon administration. But as Brownell notes, activists of the left and right disliked at least two of the same things about TV: "the economic concentration of a monopolistic network system" and "the bias in newsrooms where white male liberal elites made decisions about public affairs programming." Shamberg himself wrote that Nixon's media-bashing vice president, Spiro Agnew, was "right about broadcast television being a system that minimizes diversity"—though he added that Agnew seemed to want "his viewpoint in place of others, not alongside them."

As cable became more popular, further experiments in public-affairs programming followed, from MTV News to the Christian Broadcasting Network. Various politicians discovered that they could create content directly for cable too. But the two most important developments, each emerging at the end of the Carter years, were C-SPAN and CNN.

C-SPAN was the brainchild of Brian Lamb, who had worked for Whitehead at the Office of Telecommunications Policy, and it was sponsored by the cable industry, which hoped the channel would prove the medium's value. Between its noncommercial ethos, its commitment to shining a light on the government's inner workings, and its Warholian willingness to let a motionless camera run while nothing appeared to be happening, C-SPAN was one of the few national cable channels of the 1980s that resembled those old hippie dreams of what TV could be. But it was also a creature of the milieu it covered, a place where Bob Walkers and Tip O'Neills could jockey for position. If this was guerrilla television, it wasn't the sort the New Left had imagined a decade before. It was a landscape for folks like Gingrich to conduct guerrilla warfare.

CNN founder Ted Turner saw his creation as a guerrilla force too: After beating back ABC's attempt to launch a competing cable news channel, the future Mr. Jane Fonda crowed that his rival had "pulled out like the U.S. did in Vietnam." But while CNN in its scrappy-upstart days had some things in common with C-SPAN—each fostered and thrived in a low-budget environment of experimentation—it was brash, fast-paced, and profit-driven, three things C-SPAN was not. Turner's position in the TV landscape of the 1980s had some similarities to the position Elon Musk occupies in social media today: He felt alienated from the elite while still clearly being a part of it, running an enterprise that wasn't a radical alternative but perhaps qualified as a semi-independent center of power.

As cable adjusted itself to the demands of politics, politicians adjusted themselves to the world of cable. Those adjustments did not all move at the same speed. In the 1988 election, Brownell shows, the Republicans were better at exploiting the new medium; in 1992, the Democrats proved more cable-savvy. The man elected in '92, Bill Clinton, soon developed a symbiotic relationship with an operation that a decade earlier had hardly seemed political at all: MTV.

Brownell's main narrative ends in the '90s. But an afterword flashes forward to a rather different symbiosis between a White House and a green room, with Clinton replaced by Donald Trump and MTV by Fox News.

The Nixon-Hippie Utopia

Brownell is an excellent historian, and her account of cable's evolution from the period right after World War II to the period right after the Cold War is among the best I have read. But I fundamentally disagree with one theme of her book. While she is very aware of the limits of the three-network model that cable displaced, Brownell has some nostalgia for the regulations that required those networks to present programming in "the public interest." Without those rules, she worries, profit-driven broadcasters have "prioritized keeping viewers' attention rather than informing citizens."

I don't have the same fondness for those requirements, which even at their broadest and most benign were still government controls on speech. I also think it overly reductive to claim, as she does, that in the cable age "more Americans became engrossed in watching sports and movies and ignored politics altogether, ultimately affording a more outsized role for extreme voices to shape the political process." Ignoring politics is a longstanding American tradition, whether or not the evening news is competing with a game on ESPN. And civic participation has moved both up and down since the cable boom began, with its direction depending not on how good the HBO lineup was on each Election Day but on the issues and candidates before the voters.

This thread of the book is at its weakest when Brownell discusses the 1996 election. After reporting the cable industry's claims that "diversity on the dial, expanded coverage, and personalized news could come together to inform voters and promote civic engagement," she declares that "the numbers told a different story," since "fewer than 50 percent of voters went to the polls." But 1996 was the most low-stakes presidential race of my lifetime, the sort of contest where even the best-informed Americans might be tempted to stay home. I wouldn't expect it to have a high turnout in any media environment.

I do not say this as a defender of cable news. C-SPAN remains as valuable as ever, but Fox and MSNBC are essentially captive to the two major parties, while CNN seems caught in a perpetual identity crisis: sometimes straining to reclaim its old centrist identity, sometimes just a more milquetoast MSNBC. (And sometimes, not that long ago, your go-to spot for live Trump rallies.) There are good journalists who work in cable, but they are tied to a format that is increasingly unbearable to watch. And while that format has a fan base, it's shrinking: Every major cable news channel's audience dropped drastically after Trump left office, and cable in general has been bleeding viewers for a decade now.

Those viewers have not been flooding back to the legacy media. When the cable audience was growing, that was seen as a sign of fragmentation: People were tuning to niche channels like Fox or CNN instead of watching the network news. Now it's a smaller cable audience that's a sign of fragmentation, as more people consume their news (and everything else) online.

And that leads to my other criticism of the book: Something is missing from the afterword. If you're going to leap from the '90s to the present, you should probably mention that at some point in-between, those avant-garde dreams of the hippie visionaries kind of…came true. It's just that those DIY broadcasts ended up flowering on YouTube and its competitors, not on cable. Yes, these platforms tend to be more centralized than Shamberg's TV guerrillas would have preferred; yes, creators have to contend with ham-fisted algorithmic censorship. But by the standards of 1971, we're living in the hippie utopia.

It may be the nature of every hippie utopia to eventually go through a brown-acid period, and I know it's popular these days to insist that the triumph of DIY video has become an endless bad trip. But personally, I'll take YouTube over cable news anytime.

Any time looser laws or new technologies allow a deluge of previously suppressed expression, there will be a sharp increase in both the sort of speech that the old order thought was too erudite to air and the sort of speech it found too sensationalist. There will be more room for the highbrow and more room for the lowbrow. More room for art and more room for porn. More room for C-SPAN and more room for CNN. And sometimes someone will say something thoughtful on CNN, and sometimes a sleazy camera war will break out on C-SPAN. That is what free speech looks like, and we're better off with it, in all its scuzzy excess.