It was while working for TV Guide in 1957 that I learned some multi-tasking, long before the term was invented, that enabled me to do a particularly good job then and later on for my employer. My acquisition was in an unlikely place, Dothan, Alabama, and provided additional insight into the inner-workings of small-town television.
I had been moved to Atlanta from St. Louis in the late winter of that year. Atlanta was a production center where editions of the magazine were produced for Georgia, North and South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. My first day on the job was a bit unusual and involved a breakfast to herald the acquisition of MGM films by WSB, a station whose call letters stood for Welcome South, Brother. Aware that the breakfast was to begin in 10 minutes, I dashed out of my office to find what I thought was a cab parked by the curb. Leaping into the vehicle, I realized the driver was a cop who saw the humor in what had happened. "Where do you want to go?" he asked. "WSB," I answered and we were off.
The cop then drove me to what turned out to be WAGA-TV, the CBS affiliate. Apologizing for confusing the two stations (perhaps I spoke a strange dialect?), he took me to WSB. "What an interesting introduction to what I'm sure is a wonderful city," was my Chamber of Commerce comment made to a curbside Norman Shavin, then radio-tv columnist for the Atlanta Journal. He used the quote in his next day's column.
Having a unique responsibility for coverage areas of many stations, I took an early-on drive through Alabama where I was astonished to find a dirt road in the very heart of Birmingham. To get to the Florida panhandle, I had to go through Dothan where I learned from the promotion manager of the town's only station that the magazine was getting 50 and 60 spots a week in trade for a half-page advertisement. Many were in prime time. Offering proof of performance by showing me station logs, he threw in a comment about "an FCC ruling that any citizen, upon request, must be shown a log."
I never forgot that one realizing I could not only view the accuracy of our programming but, also, the positioning of our trade-out-spots. While stations in markets like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles traded on a dollar-for-dollar basis, it was the Dothans, Topekas, and Chattanoogas where enthusiasm for the magazine often was based upon the answer to a question I was prone to ask station managers and promoters: "Would you rather have a newspaper or a TV Guide in the hands of a viewer seeking program information?" Because TV Guide was pre-eminent in providing program details, the answer to the question went a long way in the magazine's success. All it took was a handshake.
Venturing further south to Panama City, I checked the station's logs and learned things that would have raised the ire of the FCC. In those days, you could not have three commercial spots in a row. A way around the rule was to drop a station promo spot among the paid-for ones and I was surprised such obvious subterfuge was ignored there. The log showed popular shows like "Tennessee Ernie Ford" often were resumed in progress--sometimes missing more than two minutes during which commercials ran.
While it's unlikely Newton Minow was ever aware of the specific guile practiced by the Panama City channel, it is true that the former FCC chairman included the spirit of such shenanigans in his charge that the TV industry was a "vast wasteland." That was on May 9, 1961, four years after my trip to Dothan. Minow had been appointed recently to his position by President John F. Kennedy and his words shook up TV like no one before or since.
The Minow comment got mixed reviews. Many regarded his attack before the National Association of Broadcasters long overdue as criticism of excessive violence and frivolity while others thought it elitist hammering of programs enjoyed by viewers who believed the criticism as private enterprise interference by government. Sound familiar?
Others unhappy with Minow's observations included (not surprisingly) Ayn Rand and Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of "Gilligan's Island." Schwartz, who died last year at 94, offered a retort in the form of Gilligan's ill-fated ship, the S.S. Minnow. The ship was used in pre-program dramatic effect to explain how the seven survivors wound up on the island. Minow never got specific about what constituted "wasteland" but "Gilligan" had come more than close and the FCC chairman took the jab in stride.
Over the years, I've had the good fortune to chat with Minow while working for WTTW, Chicago's public television station. A Chicagoan, he was instrumental in getting the station on the air and in eventually hiring a long-needed professional general manager, Bill McCarter. I also spoke with him shortly before retiring from the Chicago Tribune in 1988. Although Minow's "vast wasteland" speech is his strongest connection to the public, he is responsible for fostering two initiatives that dramatically changed American TV. His All-Channels Received Act of 1961 mandated UHF reception for all television receivers thus creating the number of stations that included PBS throughout the country. He is a past president of the Carnegie Corporation, the original funder of "Sesame Street." Still active at 86 and holder of many honors, Minow is the Walter Annenberg professor emeritus at Northwestern University.
Minow believes his most important contribution was successfully urging Congress to pass legislation making possible communications satellites. It was Minow who told Kennedy: "communications satellites will be much more important than sending man into space, because they will send ideas into space. Ideas last longer than men."
Writing late last year in Politico while taking exception to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United permitting unlimited expenditures of union and corporate money in politics, Minow called attention to a law that has been on the books for more than 75 years. Minow, who continues his law practice, suggests in his article, written with former general counsel of the FCC Henry Geller, that Section 317 of the 1934 Communications Act is the means of discovery and consistent with Justice Louis Brandeis's philosophy that "sunlight is the best disinfectant."
One of Minoe's complaint examples involves Terry Branstad who ran for the Iowa Republican gubernatorial nomination last year. Roughly $370,000 worth of TV commercials accused him of being a "liberal" while purchased by "Iowans for Responsible Government." Not revealed was that the ads were created and paid for by the Democratic Governors Association. In addition, something like $450,000 commercial time was bought by "Concerned Taxpayers of America" who turned out to be the "Ending Spending Fund" underwritten by one donor who sponsored more than $1 million in campaign ads.
According to the authors, "the long-standing FCC regulation requires an announcement to fully and fairly disclose the true identity of the person or persons...or other entity by whom or on whose behalf such payment is made. It provides that when a person or entity acts on behalf of another, and this fact is is known or could be known by the station exercising reasonable diligence, the name of the real sponsor must be announced."
Minow and Geller continue: "Broadcast and cable stations are required to determine the true identity of the sponsoring entity or entities and announce that name. Most important, when viewers and listeners hear an ad that used a front group with a meaningless name--"Americans for a Better Tomorrow"--they should ask the station, with a copy to the FCC, to use reasonable diligence to disclose the real person or entity that put up the money.
"If the station fails to do so, there can be resort to the FCC or, if necessary, the courts.
"The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United permitted unlimited expenditures of union and corporate money in politics. 'But the court did not rule that these expenditures should be secret. It ruled, prompt disclosures of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."
Cornerstone of American television policy, the Communications Act has driven conservatives crazy for 77 years and that must have been the case two years ago with narrow-minded members of the Supreme Court whose search for loopholes and re-interpretations resulted in a terrifying decision whose short-sightedness has resulted in the current election mockery as a handful of Republican sugar daddies determine the Republican Party presidential nominee.
Imagine. The solution to a remarkably outrageous Supreme Court decision that provides increased opportunity to buy elections, has been on the books on 77 years. Thank you, Newton Minow. The transparancy law appears to be the same one--certainly it has symmetrical spirit--as that referenced by that Dothan, Alabama station promotion manager so many years ago.
It's time to write some letters and knock on some doors.
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