Three Blind Mice
Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way
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
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,
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