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Three Blind Mice

 

Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way
Ken Auletta
Random House, 642 pages,
$44

Reviewed by Stacey Cohen

In 1984 it seemed no luxury was beyond anyone working for ABC, NBC, or CBS. "Competition came not from other methods of TV distribution but from the networks themselves, which were located within five blocks of each other along Manhattan's Sixth Avenue," writes Ken Auletta. "It was a competitive but clubby world. There were enough advertising dollars to go around. Profits were assured."

The networks seemed to be living in some sort of fairy tale land. They considered themselves infallible, untouchable. That, according to Auletta, was what led to their eventual downfall.

In any business , it's a good idea to keep an eye on any possible competition. The networks paid attention to only each other. They failed to recognize the possibility that anything or anyone could come along to disrupt them. "...[ T]hey failed to focus on such emerging competitors as cable, independent stations, and the VCR. The pattern was not an unfamiliar one. As the networks paid too little attention when HBO requested access to a satellite, so a decade earlier the American auto companies missed the rising threat from cheaper, smaller, more fuel efficient Japanese imports."

ABC was the first to feel the strain. In 1984 and 1985, the value of its stock dropped significantly. Said Michael P. Mallardi, ABC's chief financial officer: "Our company is worth more dead than alive." ABC executives began to realize they could be ripe for a takeover.

Many large investors considered buying ABC. It was eventually taken over in 1985 by Capital Cities Communications, a relatively small company that managed to get credit from The Chemical Bank. This was the first time a non-communications company took over a major TV network in the USA.

Next came investments in CBS by Larry Tische, chairman and chief executive of Loews Corporation. CBS had begun to slip. Even old stanby shows weren't doing as well as expected. The network needed something to get it out of the red, and that something was Larry Tische. "Tische said he saw CBS as special, more than just an investment," Auletta writes. "CBS was his shining city on a hill. CBS had power, including power to do good. And Larry Tische, nearing the end of a distinguished career as an investor, wanted to do good, wanted a certain kind of respectability, a place in the history books." Larry Tische got his wish. By 1986 CBS stock had stabilized and Tische was noted as a "saviour".

Over at NBC, 1985 was the year the parent company RCA was taken over by GE, Though the merger was financially advantageous for some RCA executives, there was a sense of unease among many of the 8,000 employees. Would the new owners be more concerned with profits and cost-cutting than creating a good series. And since GE had interests in the arms industry and nuclear power, there was "... the danger of self-censorship, of a news department that would, for instance, avoid stories about nuclear power-plant safety."

The unease was fully justified. Auletta traces the progression of cable and the regression of the three networks into 1991. Once the networks were taken over by outsiders, the focus changed from " what will it take to produce a good show," to "how cheaply can we do it?"

The book details how these ownership changes affected the networks. Auletta also traces the progress of cable, the increased popularity of VCRs and trends in the motion picture industry.

"What was happening to network television," Auletta notes "paralleled a shift in the way businesses serviced consumers everywhere. Moviegoers now enjoyed ten choices at their local multiplex theatre. Consumers browsed in a video store with 20,000 rental options." Not to mention that cable "was coming on strong, nourished by improved programming and by its physical expansion into half of all homes, doubling its reach [over] four years."

Cable, it seems, did the most damage to the networks. " Cable did not command the mass audiences of the netwoks. With the exception of sporting events, a cable show rarely achieved a one per cent rating. Nevertheless, with its dozens of choices, cable [cumulatively] took a massive bite...."

It's probable that what Auletta says is true: The networks likely won't die. "Whatever its failings, a mass medium creates a sense of community. Americans grow up believing diversity is good and big business is bad, which is often true. But it is also true that the public has an investment in a common communications system, in the larger public purpose a network can perform when it brings a disparate population together to share an experience." What isn't mentioned is what media critics like Noam Chomsky have been saying for years about the danger that this kind of common bond can have. Namely, a captive audience for the American media's own form of propaganda.

Three Blind Mice is a lengthy but very readable book. It's easy to become wrapped up in Auletta's conversational style. He also aids the reader by providing not just an extensive bibliography and index, but also a full note section that provides a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book with page references and dates . The bonus is the "Cast of Characters", a who's who of network and non-network figures. Aulettta shows how the networks "lost their way" in a manner an average TV viewer can follow.

This article originally appeared in Sources, 29th Edition.

 

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