Blue Skies and Strange Bedfellows: the Discourse of Cable Television
by Thomas Streeter
(from Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin, eds., The Revolution wasn't Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, Routledge,1997, pp. 221-242).
[T]he stage is being set for a communications revolution . . . audio, video, and fascimile transmissions . . . will provide newspapers, mail service, banking and shopping facilities, data from libraries and other storage centers, school curricula and other forms of information too numerous to specify. In short, every home and office will contain a communications center of a breadth and flexibility to influence every aspect of private and community life.
The preceding passage was published in The Nation, not in the last few years, but in 1970. The wondrous new technology that was supposed to bring about this communications revolution was not the information superhighway, but cable television. The author went on to argue that government should make a "commitment for an electronic highway system to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas."
This chapter looks at what I will call "the discourse of the new technologies," a pattern of talk common in the policy-making arena in the late 1960s and early 1970s and remarkably similar to much of the recent talk about "the information superhighway." This discourse flowed from an odd alliance of groups: 1960s media activists, traditional liberal groups, industry lobbyists, and Republican technocrats all made their contributions. As a result, government television policy was subtly transformed, and beginning in 1970, the FCC reversed its attitude towards cable, turning the industry from a regulatory outcast into a protected element of the media system.
"Discourse," it should be pointed out, is not debate. The talk about cable, this chapter will show, was characterized by a systematic avoidance of central issues and assumptions and by a pattern of unequal power in the discussion and its outcomes; the discourse of the new technologies was shaped not so much by full fledged debate as by a lack of it. By the same token, the argument here is not simply that debate was suppressed by a conspiracy, or that the policy process was captured by an interest group. The discourse of the new technologies was what Foucault might call a discursive practice, that is, a collective habit of talk, action, and interpretation embedded in historical context that establishes and enacts relations of power and resistance. The discourse had a kind of life of its own; it was not only shaped by but also itself shaped economic and social forces.
In particular, the discourse had the specific effect of systematically drawing attention away from political differences and creating a terrain for collective action that simultaneously obscured underlying conflicts. The form of the discourse--its particular mixture of themes, blind spots, and gaps--made possible an odd alliance between the CATV industry, certain professional groups, and some liberal progressive organizations. The discourse thus made possible some major actions in the policy arena, actions that simple self-interest would not warrant. Diverse viewpoints were united around a shared sense of awe and excitement; maybe the new technologies were good, maybe they were bad, but in any case they inspired a sense of urgency, of possibility, and of a need for action, for response.
The goals, interests, and philosophies of the many contributors to the discourse of the new technologies were widely varied, sometimes to the point of being mutually antagonistic. The participants in the alliance did not understand it as such, however, as a compromise between groups with different but overlapping interests; rather, they saw it as a solid consensus, as what one policy activist dubbed "a great and growing body of impartial, expert opinion." The new discursive field thus helped create a sense of expert consensus, of unity and coherence where in fact there was a variety of conflicting motivations, attitudes, and opinions.
Cable began around 1950 as Community Antenna Television (CATV), a service providing improved television signal reception in remote areas. Over the years, CATV helped fill in the gaps in the ragged periphery of a system dominated at the center by the three television networks, which distributed their signals nationwide via coaxial cable and microwave relay to broadcast transmitters in local communities. One of the grand paradoxes of American broadcast regulation is that it rests on the fiction that local broadcasters control the system. Consequently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can only directly regulate local transmitters, not the more powerful network organizations; local broadcasters are thus subject to a great deal of attention and regulatory tinkering. When the tiny but growing CATV industry set off a squabble in the broadcast system's periphery by threatening the profits of small local broadcasters, the broadcasters used their inordinate importance with the FCC to generate a set of regulations that effectively halted CATV's growth. By the mid-1960s, CATV was thus locked out of television's economic mother lode, the top 100 markets. CATV operators conducted a strident campaign to remove the restrictions, but to no avail, largely because they had little support outside their own ranks. The struggle between CATV operators and local broadcasters, for the most part, was seen as a minor affair, of interest only to industry insiders--until the late 1960s, when the climate of opinion began to change.
In what one contemporary writer described as "an ever expanding chorus of expert opinion," a new, hopeful view of cable television echoed throughout the policy arena in the late 1960s and early 1970s, appearing in numerous articles, studies, hearings, and journalistic publications. One important galvanizing force in this development was the Rand Corporation, which began research on "cable television issues" in 1969, with support from, among others, the Ford Foundation. Rand published more than a dozen reports on the topic over the next three years. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation established a Commission on Cable Communications in the spring of 1970, which solicited over fifteen studies and produced a book length report. The fever went beyond the foundations, however. Articles appeared in The New York Times and Saturday Review. The influential British weekly, The Economist became a regular advocate of the new vision. And a major article appeared in The Nation in the Spring of 1970, later to be published in expanded form as a book called The Wired Nation.6 Numerous progressive groups such as the ADA and the ACLU became interested and began making contributions to cable policy proceedings, as well. While there are important differences in many of these texts, they all share a sense of urgency, a sense of activism, and a sense of working against stifling and powerful conservative forces. Cable had captured the imagination, not just of those traditionally concerned with television regulation, but of what seemed to be an entire cross-section of the U.S. policy-making community.
Significantly, however, the sense of "an ever expanding chorus of expert opinion," was not based on any explicit, thoroughly worked-out theory that can be located in a single statement or document. Rather, instances of the discourse were typically invoked in passing, as introductory or concluding passages to otherwise more concrete and specific arguments, policy recommendations, and research reports. For example, in 1968 an Advisory Task Force on CATV and Telecommunications for the city of New York published a report that was, for the most part, relatively brief and pragmatic. It recommended the introduction of state-of-the-art cable systems for each borough of the City, with rates and programming regulated, but not absolutely determined, by guidelines established by the city council. Most of its fifty pages referred to the specific details of the situation in New York. But the report concluded with the following passage:
The promise of cable television remains a glittering one . . . Those who own these electronic circuits will one day be the ones who will bring to the public much of its entertainment and news and information, and will supply the communications link for much of the city's banking, merchandising, and other commercial activities. With a proper master plan these conduits can at the same time be made to serve the City's social, cultural, and educational needs.
It was this kind of passage that filtered most widely into policy debates at large, not the report's data, analyses, and recommendations. The references to "next generation" high-capacity, two-way cable systems, to satellites, to systems that combined voice, computer, and television signals all on the same wire, to the generally "glittering promise" of this new dazzling technology--these were the particulars of the New York City Report that found their way into discussions in the FCC, the Rand corporation, and the elite popular press. The concrete, detailed recommendations of the Report, on the other hand, were in the long run probably less important; they served more to provide an aura of expertise and professional legitimacy than they did to actually influence concrete policy decisions. Paradoxically, therefore, the specific details of the New York Report served largely as window dressing, while its vague speculations had a very concrete impact that went far beyond the borders of New York City. And this pattern was repeated in numerous other studies, books, and reports of the period. The frequent incantation of the themes of the discourse in policy debates created a sense of consensus, a "common sense" of the day, without that sensibility ever being worked out in detail.
The key themes and gaps of the discourse, however, can be reconstructed. In general, it was an example of what James Carey and John Quirk call "the rhetoric of the electrical sublime," a discourse which has resurfaced at regular intervals throughout American history ever since the development of the telegraph, which expresses a quasi-religious faith in the power of new technologies to overcome social and material constraints. In the late 1960s, the theme of technological revolution frequently took the form of a claim that "[n]ew technology is transforming the realm of communication." Almost as frequently, however, it was also suggested that the revolution would embrace, not just the realm of communications technology, but all of society. A report filed with the FCC in 1969, for example, stated that the "mushrooming growth in available information is bringing about a revolution in communications which will produce a profound change in the way society is structured and in the way we live." The idea was that technological progress in the field of telecommunications, particularly the growing use of communications satellites, the increasing involvement of computers in data transmission, and the increasing capacity of broadband coaxial cable transmission techniques were not isolated developments or mere continuations in the technological evolution of communications systems, but were all part of a revolutionary development comparable to that brought about by print, or by the industrial revolution.
The theme of autonomous technology is clearly evident in these passages. For example, the report of the influential Sloan Commission on Cable Communications, published in 1971, opens with this typical passage: "Spreading quietly into every corner of the United States--slowly and unevenly and yet with its own air of inevitability--is a new communications technology." Cable television was something that could have an important impact upon society, and it thus called for a response on the part of society; it was something to which society could respond and act upon, but that was itself outside society, an autonomous entity that had simply appeared on the scene as the result of scientific and technical research. As Raymond Williams has shown, this assumption of autonomous technology is characteristic of much thought about television and society, and constitutes a false abstraction of technologies out of their social and cultural context.
The terminological shift from "CATV" to "cable" that occurred during this period usefully indicates the discursive tendency to abstract complex issues into a simple, autonomous "technology." Before the late 1960s, the term "community antenna television" or CATV was dominant. The industry's trade magazine, for example, was titled CATV. This reflected an understanding of CATV as a service, an alternative method of program delivery. The coaxial cables, signal amplifiers, and other bits of equipment used by the CATV operators were just variations on the technologies used throughout the television industry. CATV was thus generally thought of as simply an alternate route, a slightly different combination of wires and transmitters for delivering television signals. But by 1970 all reference to the kind of service began to be dropped and to be replaced by the name of a piece of hardware. "CATV" became "cable." FCC reports, Congressional hearings and the like were peppered with references to the "new technology" of "cable."
Cable, however, was neither "new" nor best described as a "technology." For one, "cable" had been in existence since the late 1940s under the name of CATV. Furthermore, the practice of distributing television signals by wire grew up along side television itself, and has actually been central to what we call "broadcast" television all along: the lifeblood of American television, the network programs, were distributed on a coaxial cable network owned by AT&T in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time when cable was most consistently interpreted as a "new technology" by the policy community, therefore, it was arguably no more "new" than it had been since the beginning of television in the late 1940s.
The trait most often invoked as justification for the description of cable as "revolutionary" was similar to the arguments made today on behalf of the information superhighway: an increase in maximum channel carrying capacity. It was frequently pointed out that recent developments had expanded the carrying capacity of coaxial cable to twenty and more television channels, substantially more than could be carried over the air (given the existing allocations). Based on this increased capacity, former CBS news president Fred Friendly claimed that the coaxial cable was "a true turnpike, as geometrically enlarged in capacity as a sixty-lane thruway would be over the old unpaved Boston Post Road." Similarly, FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson argued that comparing coaxial cable to a telephone wire was like "comparing Niagara Falls to a garden hose."
The increase in channel capacity obviously did represent a technological development. However, it was arguably only an evolutionary development, not revolutionary. It had been going on throughout the period when people were content with the word "CATV." Why not speak of a cable revolution when the channel capacity more than doubled from 3 to 8 in the 1950s, or from 8 to 12 in the first half of the 1960s? And why focus on the particular piece of hardware called cable, rather than one of the many other, equally necessary kinds of hardware, such as microwave relay? After all, both antennas and cables were necessary to the operation of both "broadcast" and "community antenna" television. Why draw so much attention to the different ways that individual television sets were linked to the broadcasting system--in one case radio waves, in the other, wires--when in both cases, the links to individual television sets were themselves connected to another set of links, the network web? The network system made television what it was, and it was constructed out of a massive, complex framework of coaxial cable and microwave relay that connected both the local wires and the local radio waves into the sources of national program distribution. But this fact was brushed aside, and the shift from radio waves to wires on the local level came to stand for a transformation of the system itself.
The argument tended to be that the system suffered from a clogged bottleneck on the local level, and the high channel capacity of broadband coaxial cable was a means to remove that obstacle. This was a dubious claim. The most telling evidence against the "local bottleneck" argument was the fact that in the late 1960s nearly two thirds of the allocated UHF broadcast frequencies across the country were left unused (a situation that continues to this day). At the time, Richard Posner argued that, since broadcasting over the air costs roughly the same as "cablecasting," the unused UHF airspace suggested that the problem of broadcasting was that the market was thin, not that access was limited. The larger point is, however, not that a technical mistake was made, or that the evidence was not carefully considered. In the overall pattern of events, it becomes clear that careful consideration of such detailed arguments was obviously not the issue; the gaps and contradictions in the scenario of a cable television revolution were easily brushed aside by all the talk about the utopian possibilities for progress through new technology.
This complex set of historical and economic circumstances, however, was thoroughly obscured as CATV was abstracted in discourse into a simple "new technology," something that was outside society. Precisely because of that abstraction, moreover, it became possible to speak of cable, not as an embodiment of social contradictions and dilemmas, but as a solution to them. Cable came to be associated with the utopian vision of a "wired nation." Cable, it was frequently intoned, was the next step toward a "single, unified system of electronic communications." This theme had many variations: it was also described as the "wired city scenario," or associated with talk of "a nationwide integrated telecommunications grid."
The utopian strain in the discourse is evident in frequent suggestions that problems of the present could be transcended with the help of new communications technologies, particularly in so far as they embodied the utopian dream of the wired nation. One of the key themes was a belief that telecommunications "can play a . . . fundamental role in achieving understanding and harmonizing conflict among modern societies dominated by diversity, mobility, and the claims of social justice." The fragmentation and unrest of contemporary society, in other words, could be transcended by means of telecommunication systems. One major report argued for exploring "the constructive possibilities for the use of television to help overcome some of the problems of urban ghetto dwellers. Isolated rural people such as the inhabitants of Indian reservations could benefit from similar undertakings." Prof. Don Le Duc suggested that cable television could satisfy the complaints about the lack of broadcast objectivity and bring an end to the attacks of community groups on broadcast licensees that were occurring at the time. On a broader level, he argued, in a cabled society,
members of the audience would no longer be simply the passive recipients of mass communications messages but would participate actively in their selection and dissemination. . . . Thus, direct feedback could well result in the reversal of the traditional roles of mass communications, making the communicator little more than a common carrier in a communications process controlled by each individual subscriber. In such a humanized atmosphere broad governmental control may no longer be necessary, except perhaps for the type of supervision of rates and service exercised over other private communications carriers.
Cable, in other words, had the potential to rehumanize a dehumanized society, to eliminate the existing bureaucratic restrictions of government regulation common to the industrial world, and to empower the currently powerless public. Thus, on the level of discourse, not only were the historic complexities and dilemmas of the situation sublimated away into the abstraction of technology, but that abstraction in turn came to be represented as the solution to those dilemmas.
At first glance, the enthusiasm for the discourse of the new technologies seemed to spring from a cross-section of the political spectrum. It was not, however, a true cross-section. While on its fringes this group may have bled off in either direction, at its core, it encompassed neither the openly revolutionary parts of the then-active New Left, nor the mainstream of the Republican Party. Rather, it was in some ways a New Deal coalition, made up of professional groups, corporations and their intellectual allies, and progressive political groups seeking ways to foster social change by working "within the system." It is possible to locate five key centers of enthusiasm for the discourse of the new technologies: a collection of progressives interested in fostering more democratic forms of communication, the cable operators themselves, a group of economists concerned with regulatory problems, liberal elites interested in fostering alternatives to the existing commercial television system, and a group of influential policymakers centered around Eugene Rostow interested in centralizing the management of the telecommunications system within a government agency.
A faith in new technology has been a recurring theme on the American left at various points throughout this century. In the 1930s, for example, some of Roosevelt's New Dealers rallied around the Tenessee Valley Authority and other big engineering projects as harbingers of a harmonious, equitable future achieved through science and technology. By the 1960s, however, the association between big science and utopian futures had largely disappeared on the left. Much of the 1960s counterculture was in various ways altogether anti-technological, being formed around what Andrew Ross has called the "technology of folklore," an amalgam of preindustrialist, agrarianist, and related values. But there was a strain that saw in technology neither a utopian harmony nor a demonized uniformity, but the promise of an anarchic excess. One source of this vision was the musical avant garde. Composer John Cage, for example, associated technology, not with impersonality, regularity, efficiency, and uniformity, but with "heterogeneity, randomness, and plenitude." Another source, of course, was Marchall McLuhan, with his mixture of iconoclastic and euphorically utopian treatments of electronic technologies. These trends, combined with notions of grassroots political organizing current among the 1960s counterculture, fed into the alternative video movement, which advocated for and experimented with new, inexpensive, and portable video technologies as a democratic alternative to big, corporate media.
Few, if any of the alternative video activists had any direct influence on the policymaking processes of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But some of the spirit and a few of the ideas (especially "cable access") probably informed the efforts of those who did contribute. Certainly, the progressive spirit of many of those who gave voice to the discourse of the new technologies is evident on close readings of some of the most influential texts of the era. While introductory paragraphs and chapters were often filled with unadulterated examples of the discourse of the new technologies, long passages were often devoted to cautionary warnings about the coming new media. "Cable television offers vast potential for social good," the message seemed to be, "but that potential will be realized only if we act now." These were not mere apologists for special business interests, nor were they blind technology enthusiasts. They were groups, which, for various reasons, wanted to "work within the system" to accomplish democratic social change within the framework of the dominant power structures of society. The new interest in cable television seemed to provide a grand opportunity for such change.
Ralph Lee Smith's The Wired Nation (1972) is the most important example of this pattern. Originally published in the left magazine The Nation, Smith's tract, while full of glowing rhetoric about cable's promise, was also a polemic for certain political goals. Smith warned against economic concentration, cross-ownership, and local monopolies in the cable industry. He foresaw the possibility of mediocre, network-style programming patterns being repeated instead of the diverse and community-oriented programming for which he hoped. He warned against the narrow and purely economic industry interests that were already beginning to define the future structure of cable television. These negative possibilities, however, did not dampen his enthusiasm. Instead, they led to his call for a combination of grass-roots community action and a state-controlled regulatory structure which would limit rates and prohibit cable operators from controlling program content.
Smith's sentiments were shared by other liberal groups such as the Americans for Democratic Action and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which he drew on for support. The arguments of the ADA in favor of Congressional intervention in cable television are illustrative. The ADA saw the cable issue as an opportunity for us "to regain our constitutional heritage of freedoms of communication." The ADA urged immediate action to prevent "special economic interests" from taking control of cable TV: "Our growth, urbanization, and industrialization have now substituted mass circulation, advertising-supported, print and electronic media for the community media of person-to-person speech, assembly, and print. Personal two-way dialogue has been supplanted by one-way 'broadcasting' to mass 'audiences.' Active participation in communications has become passive reception." The ADA, as this passage shows, obviously did not suffer from a naive faith in technology. The cable issue, for the ADA, was an opportunity to pursue non-technological legislative goals, not a chance to celebrate technology as a value in and of itself. And yet, the contribution of the ADA probably had effects quite different from those intended. The ADA's concrete legislative goals--a rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act that would foster a unified, national common carrier broadband network including television--were never given much serious attention. The fact that the ADA had lent its voice to the debate, however, resonated, thus lending weight to the overall momentum of the discourse.
One driving force behind the discourse of the new technologies came from a very different perspective: cable operators used it as a strategy in the small-market television battle with broadcasters, particularly as that struggle was carried out through the FCC. By describing their businesses, not as a mere ancillary community service, but as new technology, the cable operators could gain new leverage against their commercial opposition, the broadcasters. In 1966, one of the earliest attempts to shift the terminology from "CATV" to "cable television" came when some cable operators, eager to establish themselves as program providers, moved to change the name of the National Community Antenna Association to the National Cable Television Association.
But it wasn't until 2 or 3 years later that the industry began to regularly draw on the discourse of the new technologies to promote their designs. A classic example can be found in the 1969 Congressional testimony of Irving B. Kahn, the President of the country's then-largest cable operator and a leading spokesman for CATV (who, within months of this testimony, would be sentenced to prison for bribing city officials during a cable franchise negotiation). Kahn's testimony was for the most part standard salesmanship on behalf of removing the regulatory restrictions on CATV--cable provided a needed service, it did not threaten the broadcasters, cable had been mistreated by the FCC, and so on. All this was accompanied by a wealth of anecdotal evidence and some skillful rhetoric designed to portray cable as a misunderstood underdog. He concluded his prepared remarks, however, with a new twist. "There is one thing," he argued,
that cannot be ignored. And that is the great and growing body of competent, impartial opinion--from scientists, writers and journalists, members of the Government, businessmen, economists, and others--that stresses the great potential of CATV if it is permitted to test its wings in an open, competitive, climate.
From Kahn's perspective, his appeal to expert authority was, perhaps, just one more rhetorical device. But it would not have been an effective one a few years earlier. His reference to a "great and growing body of impartial opinion" only made sense because of the recent talk of new technologies. By the early 1970s, when this particular way of speaking about new technologies would reach a fevered pitch, it was familiar enough to the industry to have earned a label in the trade jargon: the "blue sky scenario."
The invocation of the discourse of new technologies by cable operators, however, is not enough to account for the intensity and pervasiveness that came to characterize talk about the "wired nation" by the early 1970s. The glib, pragmatic style characteristic of business people and the trade press that serves them, moreover, does not lend itself to the abstract flights of social prediction characteristic of the discourse. The blue sky scenario, as it appeared in the trade press, usually seemed to have a slightly sarcastic inflection to it, and in any case seemed more to connote astounding profits than astounding social transformations. Whether "CATV" or "cable," the basic point was to make money. The cable operators, therefore, may have set the ball rolling, but the impulses that really gave the discursive transformation its decisive momentum had to come from somewhere else.
One pattern common to most of the various streams of thought that fed the rise of the discourse of the new technologies was that they interpreted the strains, struggles, and problems of the existing American television system to be the product, not of growing pains, but of fundamental structural flaws. In several different elite circles, television was no longer seen as an infant institution, and its flaws were no longer interpreted as temporary foibles, amenable to correction within the existing overall structure. People in positions of authority and power were beginning to seek solutions to television's failings, not in adjustments to the existing system, but in alternatives to the system itself.
One of these calls for an alternative came from the groups that sponsored the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. While the Carnegie Commission did not address the issue of CATV or invoke the discourse of the new technologies in any direct way, it did help introduce the idea of considering a fundamentally different kind of television, structured in a radically different way and conceived at the national level. "[T]his is a proposal," the Commission argued, "not for small adjustments or patchwork changes, but for a comprehensive system that . . . will become a new and fundamental institution in American culture. . . . different from any now in existence." The important contribution of the Carnegie Commission to the discourse, therefore, was a shift in emphasis from "small adjustments and changes" to the creation of "a comprehensive system" through relatively radical restructuring.
At roughly the same time, another call for alternatives appeared in a very different environment. This was the work of several economists who argued that the existing television structure "unnaturally" restricted economic competition and program diversity. A completely different structure, they went on to say, might eliminate the problem. Probably the earliest comprehensive published example of this argument, titled "A Proposal for Wired City Television" by Harold Barnett and Edward Greenberg, appeared in the winter of 1968, but, as the authors suggest, the argument had been current among members of the RAND corporation, certain FCC commissioners, and others of the policymaking elite for some time before that. The article takes as given the inadequacies of the existing television system such as lack of diversity. The reason for the inadequacy, however, was that,
there are too few television signals being delivered to homes. . . . If more channels were available and the expense for transmitting and network connection of programs were less, and correspondingly more dollars were available for creating programs, then the number of programs and their diversity and range would be greater.
The solution to this channel bottleneck, the article went on to say, was "wired city television," WCTV for short, a system of television signal distribution based on high-capacity wires instead of radio transmission.
In May of 1969, less than 6 months after "A Proposal for Wired City Television" was published, one of its coauthors, Harold Barnett, testified before a House subcommittee. Barnett, after arguing in favor of CATV, said,
Far more exciting than the actual accomplishments of infant CATV is the promise and potential of the wired city and Nation. The promise has significance of the order of magnitude of the Nation's two, already existing wire grids--telephone and electricity--or of the automobile highway grid.
Barnett had tapped into the technological utopianism that was sweeping cable policy at the time. He argued not just for a "wired city"--a relatively specific alternative to local broadcast transmitters--but for a Wired Nation--a vision of and about the future. He elevated his proposal from a relatively concrete and technical argument to a visionary one.
Barnett, however, was just following in the footsteps of others who had testified at the same hearings--most notably, Eugene Rostow--and of many of his colleagues in the policymaking community. The disparate streams of thought fed by the CATV operators, economists like Barnett, and by the liberal groups who had created the Carnegie Commission were all coming together in a complex unity. The repeated incantations of the Wired Nation vision, coupled to vague but grand gestures towards a portentous future, were fusing the mixed bag of interests, visions, and concepts behind cable in such a way as to give the impression of "a rising chorus of expert opinion."
In this context, a series of seminal blue ribbon reports began to surface that crystallized the discourse of the new technologies, giving it a level of legitimacy and respectability rare in broadcast policy debates. One of these was the New York City Report mentioned above. Another, conducted more or less contemporaneously, was the report of the President's Task Force on Communications Policy headed by Eugene Rostow. This report recommended the creation of a new government agency to coordinate telecommunications technologies because of their awe-inspiring strategic and social importance, and saw cable television as an excellent site for exactly the kind of "technological and business developments plus regulatory policy" that the Report advocated for the communications industry overall.
The argument advanced by the Report was essentially identical to Barnett and Greenberg's: the problems of television--lack of diversity, network dominance, lack of socially responsible programming--could be resolved by the high channel capacity of cable television technology, which would overcome the bottleneck supposedly inherent in over-the-air television. The Report went beyond Barnett and Greenberg, however, in a few areas. It vaguely but enthusiastically suggested that cable television, by allowing minorities and disaffected groups an outlet to express themselves and to communicate with the nation, might reduce their feelings of alienation from American society and thus help solve the "problem" of the social unrest that was sweeping American society in 1968, particularly the unrest in black ghettoes. The Report also argued for an enhanced role for the federal government as a coordinator of the introduction of cable as a nationwide medium.
On close inspection, the goals of the Rand Corporation, Irving Kahn, the ADA, and Ralph Lee Smith were all quite distinct from one another. Yet at the time, these differences were often obscured by a sense of unity. As one book of the time put it,
An almost religious faith in cable television has sprung up in the United States. It has been taken up by organizations of blacks, of consumers and of educational broadcasters, by the Rand Corporation, the Ford Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the electronics industry, the Americans for Democratic Action, the government of New York City, and--a tentative convert--the Federal Communications Commission. The faith is religious in that it begins with something that was once despised--a crude makeshift way of bringing television to remote areas--and sees it transformed over the opposition of powerful enemies into the cure for the ills of modern urban American society.
What motivated these diverse groups to respond at all? The cable industry's motivations were obvious, as were those of the electronics industry which stood to benefit from a growing cable industry. But the link between cable and many of the rest of the participants' interests were less obvious. Why was cable a "challenge" for so many rather than another new commercial enterprise? In particular, why did the limitations in the situation generate passion in the progressive groups rather than pessimism?
The answer lies in part in the structure of the discourse itself. One of the most important themes in the discourse was the transcendence of individual needs and differences through a rational process of society-wide linking and coordination, driven by a neutral, autonomous technology. The notion of a transcendant, utopian unification, coupled to the strategic ambiguities about politics and economics discussed above, resulted in a Janus-faced discursive structure, capable of being interpreted in several different ways while at the same time concealing those differences. Each group could "read" the discourse as embodying their own interests, while at the same time ignoring the substantial differences between themselves and the others who gave voice to the same language.
Thus, in spite of major differences in political and economic goals, taken together, the chorus of voices did create the impression of religious faith Maddox was describing. Few individual texts or voices produced the discourse of the new technologies in a pure, unadulterated form; few did not qualify it with their own particular concerns. The discourse, however, provided the ground on which the different groups stood, the frame within which their individual enunciations resonated and had an effect. Each group, in pursuing its own goals, sought strength in associating itself with the growing chorus in favor of change. The discourse thus served as a binding, unifying force.
The way that these various voices and the forces that motivated them merged in the policy arena can not be fully understood in terms of mutual advantage. The interests of participants in the policy process frequently were not served, particularly over the long term. This is particularly true of progressive groups, but many businesses--such as many financial interests who invested in cable in the early 1970s--also lost money through an over-enthusiasm for the discourse. While the discourse by no means eliminated the powers of the various interest groups involved, then, it did have its own specific conditions and effects; the discourse, once set in motion, took on a life of its own. It not only provided a site for the merger of forces through mutual advantage, it fueled that merger, and once in motion, turned around and transformed the forces that had given birth to it. The discourse, in sum, worked to refract the goals of many of those that originally contributed to it, leading to effects quite other than those envisioned.
The transformatory action of the discourse is most evident in the case of the progressive groups. On the one hand, they were not blinded by the discourse in a simple way. The ADA, the ACLU, Fred Friendly, and Ralph Lee Smith, for example, were all quite aware of the narrow-minded commercial interests that were behind the current expansion of cable, of the many factors that could inhibit the hoped for rosy future of the "new technology." To a large degree, it was precisely those factors to which these progressive liberals were reacting. They hoped to fend off these negative possibilities by influencing cable television policy. The irony of the situation, however, was that it was in part their efforts that set loose the very commercial forces they were trying to resist; their enthusiastic participation in the policy proceedings lent a great deal of force to the general sense of an expert, impartial, opinion in favor of cable liberation.
Because of the discourse of the new technologies, the FCC eventually changed its policy towards CATV from one of restriction to one of encouragement. By 1971, the reconceptualization of "CATV" as "cable" had made it increasingly difficult to speak of cable as merely a marginal enterprise that concerned the FCC only in so far as it threatened local broadcasters. The reconceptualization, combined with unrelenting pressure from lobbying cable operators and their financial backers, therefore, made it only a matter of time before new rules were drawn up. The watershed development in the FCC's reversal was the 1972 Third Report and Order, which allowed cable operators access to major markets.
The Third Report and Order alone, as it turned out, was not enough to ensure cable's success. Throughout the rest of the 1970s the FCC and the courts entered a period best called "reregulation," during which they frequently revised, relaxed, rescinded, and otherwise altered the set of regulations governing cable television. The details of the history of cable regulation in the 1970s are complex, and seem to represent a great deal of confusion and vacillation on the part of the FCC. Significantly, however, while the FCC's vacillations in the mid-1960s had had the net effect of retarding cable's growth, the vacillations of the 1970s had the general effect of gradually bringing the regulatory structure into line with the economic needs of growing corporate ventures into cable. The FCC in the 1970s, in sum, finally did come to consider cable's development a reasonable goal of regulation. The logic governing the rule changes of the 1970s was one that classified the growth and expansion of cable as a natural and valuable element of "progress." Cable's dramatic expansion, when it finally did occur, would not have been possible without that logic.
Cable has brought change. The roughly 60% of the audience that subscribes has more channels, and channel surfers can now easily hop between the right-wing social conservatism of the Family Channel and the sexual liberalism of a Dr. Ruth Westheimer--perhaps not the best that has been thought and said in either camp, but at least a range of values much broader than was ever common on the politically timid big three networks. But if the discourse of the new technologies had any meaning at all, it was that the hoped-for changes would mark a dramatic departure from the existing system, and that the changes would be technology-driven; neither of these assertions adequately describes what happened. Cable has not revolutionized the basic corporate structure of television. It has been integrated within it.
The discourse of the new technologies suggested that cable could empower the currently passive audience, and eliminate the "one way" quality of television, principally through public access channels and "two way" or "interactive" cable technologies that allowed the audience to communicate with programmers. Yet the only serious effort to develop two-way cable, Warner-Amex's QUBE, was abandoned in 1984 and the numerous promises of interactive systems in franchise agreements were all dropped in renegotiation. Public access channels have been more successful, but suffer from lack of funding, inadequate equipment, and cable company resistance. Certainly, the dream of a cable system in which "members of the audience would no longer be simply the passive recipients of mass communications messages but would participate actively in their selection and dissemination" is hardly less a fantasy now than it was in 1972.
Whatever new diversity in video content exists, furthermore, is less the product of technology than of the fact that, by the mid-1970s, the library of available commercial film and videotaped programs, including old movies and reruns, had grown dramatically. With the increase in supply came a predictable decrease in price. Filling a schedule with material became a much less expensive proposition than it had been in the early days of television. Hence, the overwhelming bulk of the programming available is programming that has been or would be available elsewhere: almost all of the old and new films that make up so much of cable's programming have already played in theaters, and much of the remaining programming consists of reruns of network television programs. Even the more original cable services, such as CNN or MTV, tend to program for the same mass audiences that the broadcast networks have traditionally sought, and minority tastes are once again underrepresented. The discourse's predictions of abundant, diverse programming for all have not been fully realized.
The industry, finally, has hardly shifted from a condition of closed monopoly to one of wide-open competition. Today, most of the pre-1972 players in the cable industry are gone or absorbed (e.g., Teleprompter) and the key players in recent years bear names familiar from other contexts (Time, Hearst, CBS, Paramount, Warner, Westinghouse). The few new names that did emerge have gradually shed their entrepreneurial roots and have become increasingly corporate in their approach. The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 gave cable operators a legal monopoly on the local level and prohibited cities from regulating content and subscription fees. Concurrently, dominance of the industry by a shrinking number of large corporations has steadily increased for the last twenty years. The industry is now an oligopoly dominated by five, six, or seven conglomerates replacing the previous oligopoly of the three major networks. Perhaps this is an improvement, but it is clearly not the dramatic sort of improvement predicted by the discourse of the new technologies.
Today, we are in the midst of another wave of technological utopianism, this time associated with the so-called "information superhighway." Cable has been redefined as a just another despised old technology, supposedly due for replacement by some mix of desktop computers, digital video, fiber optic cables. Interactivity is again a popular buzzword. George Gilder, a "futurist," recently wrote that, with the help of "interactive" television, "the human spirit--emancipated and thus allowed to reach its rarest talents and aspirations--will continue to amaze the world with heroic surprises." The Clinton Administration's "Information Infrastructure Task Force" enthuses,
The National Information Infrastructure promises to extend the power of the human imagination to new frontiers . . . Through the NII the arts and the humanities will play a vital role in creating a new sense of citizenship and community, in strengthening our schools and offering exciting challenges to our children, and in creating new industries and works of art and scholarship yet unimagined. . . . The NII will bring new opportunities and resources to our nation's disadvantaged youth, allowing them to share their ideas, thoughts and creative energies, and to make new links with other young people throughout the nation. . . . The NII can give all Americans, of all races, ages and locations, their cultural birthright: access to the highest quality thought and art of this and prior generations.
High hopes of interactivity, technological plenitude, and the transcendance of social problems via new technologies once again abound.
Of course, there are plenty of cautionary warnings, and doubts about the direction of developments in the current environment. The cable industry's recent promise of "500 channel" systems is probably more often criticized than lauded. The business press is peppered with worries about thin consumer interest and exorbitant costs. And a loud chorus of computer professionals and enthusiasts associated with organizations like Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, the libertarian Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and Wired magazine, have sounded warnings about privacy, industry concentration, advertising, and the likely limitation of the new technologies to passive entertainment purposes.
But almost identical warnings were sounded during cable's blue sky era, particularly by individuals like Ralph Lee Smith and organizations like the ADA and the ACLU. The problem is not that no one sees difficulties this time around, but that so many approach those difficulties by way of a discourse of inevitable technological progress, technology-driven revolution, and technological transcendance of economic, social, and political constraints.
For example, in an oft-cited essay, EFF co-founder Mitchell Kapor wrote that the "true promise of this technology" will be a,
National Information Infrastructure that promotes grass-roots democracy, diversity of users and manufacturers, true communications among the people, and all the dazzling goodies of home shopping, movies on demand, teleconferencing, and cheap, instant databases.
Video, for example, will "at last become a people's medium" because desktop video will spark "a revolution . . . enabling the creators of video content to produce high-quality professional video for a fraction of the cost just a decade ago." The development of much of this, he argues, is inevitable:
No matter how it's delivered or what it carries, that bandwidth will increase is a given for every channel. Movies, shopping, libraries, e-mail, education - everything you've heard advertised - will sooner rather than later find its digital way down the wires. Everything will come in small bits on large platters. We don't have to choose this - it will happen.
Of course, Kapor is quick to note that,
crucial doubts remain . . . Users may have indirect, or limited control over when, what, why, and from whom they get information and to whom they send it. That's the broadcast model today, and it seems to breed consumerism, passivity, crassness, and mediocrity.
He goes on to propose a "Jeffersonian" policy emphasis on openness of access, distribution, and structure, and cautions against many of the plans being hyped by today's corporations. The technology is coming and its potentials are enormous, the argument goes, so we must act to take advantage of the opportunities now or all will be lost.
Kapor is a thoughtful and interesting contributor to the contemporary debate with proposals that are worth considering seriously. The point is, however, technology doesn't "promise" anything, technological developments do not just "happen" without someone choosing them, and today's technologies are not revolutionary; they are simply part of the same gradual, evolutionary development of technologies that has marked the last several centuries. (Why is desktop video any more "revolutionary" than super eight cameras, videotape, the original reel-to-reel video portapaks, video cassettes, and the numerous other improvements in low-cost visual media of the last forty years?) Kapor, by lending his sincere and authoritative voice to the generally awestruck sense of inevitable technological revolution, may simply be helping to create the conditions for strategic government intervention and industry realignments on behalf of exactly those centralized, advertising-dominated, media systems he cautions us against.
The problems of privacy, equitable access, freedom of expression, of centralization, and so on that are raised in the context of information superhighways are of a part with the larger problems of social justice that face our society as a whole. The economic, social, and political constraints that have limited democracy and freedom in the past are exactly that: economic, social, and political constraints. The constraints were not caused by old technological limits nor can they be eliminated by new technologies; they were caused by relations between people, and can be overcome only by changing relations between people.
At a minimum, the early history of cable provides a cautionary tale about the dangers and blind spots of a discourse of autonomous technology and technological determinism. On the level of public debate, the cable fable is a story of repeated utopian high hopes followed by repeated disappointments. Cable was to be interactive; instead it is just as one-way as its predecessors. Cable was to end television oligopoly; instead it has merely provided an arena for the formation of a new oligopoly. Cable was to cure social ills; instead it at best distracts from those ills. And so on.
On the level of the media industries, however, the pattern was not a roller coaster of high hopes and disappointments, but a process of gradual, if occasionally halting, growth and integration of cable into the American corporate system of electronic media and communications technologies. The back and forth motion between high hopes and disappointments served the industry well; it loosened the regulatory framework at strategic moments, allowing cable to be gradually ratcheted into its place between the usually calcified, tightly joined elements of the corporate industrial system.
It is important to note that the industry which benefited from the policy debate did not simply manipulate the debate towards its own ends; it was not just a case of the public interest being overwhelmed by the power of big business. Cable was brought into the regulatory fold in the early 1970s not simply because an industrial elite demanded it, but because a coalition of groups, some with goals quite at odds with those of corporate management, cajoled the FCC into action through a collective public argument that coalesced around the discourse of the new technologies. The hopes for diversity, democracy, and cultural expression embodied in the discourse of the new technologies may have been naive, but they were rarely cynical; they were largely fueled by genuine social and political concerns.
So the danger today is not only that short-term corporate interests will dominate over the hopes of the visionaries. The danger is also that the visionaries' efforts will ultimately contribute to the reproduction of the limiting social structures that they dream of overthrowing. Clearly, the policy debate of the late 1960s served large corporations much more effectively than it did the social and democratic ambitions that helped generate the debate. If the lessons of the past are not heeded, this time might not be different.
Most of this chapter is derived from Thomas Streeter, "The Cable Fable Revisited: Discourse, Policy, and the Making of Cable Television," Critical Studies in Mass Communication, June 1987, pp. 174-200. Many parts have been reorganized, updated, and expanded, and some parts of the original have been ommitted.
Ralph Lee Smith, "The Wired Nation," Nation, May 18, 1970, p. 582.
Smith, 1970, p. 602.
Don R. Le Duc, Cable Television and the FCC: A Crisis in Media Control, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973, p. 5.
Sloan Foundation, On the Cable: The Television of Abundance, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971, p. vii.
6Smith, 1970, pp. 582-606; Ralph Lee Smith, The Wired Nation--Cable TV: The Electronic Communications Highway, New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
New York City, Mayor's Task Force on Communications Policy, Final Report, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967, pp. v-vi.
James W. Carey and and James J. Quirk, "The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution," American Scholar, Part I: Vol. 39, No. 1, 1970, pp. 219-241; Part II: Vol. 39, No. 2, 1970, pp. 395-424.
President's Task Force on Communications Policy, Final Report, Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968, p. 4.
Electronic Industries Association, The Future of Broadband Communication, F.C.C. Docket 18397, October, 1969, pt. 5, p. 23, quoted in Le Duc, 1973, p. 37.
Sloan Foundation, 1971, p. 1
Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, New York: Schocken, 1977, pp. 10-14.
The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature of 1969 lists eight articles under the subject heading CATV, two with references in their title to "cable," six with references to "CATV." In 1970, there were four articles with titles referring to "CATV," and three with "cable." By 1971, the balance had reversed: only five article titles referred to "CATV," while ten referred to "cable." It wasn't until the late 1970s that Reader's Guide reversed the priority of its subject headings, listing "see cable television" under CATV rather than the other way around. By that time, the vast majority of the articles listed under CATV referred to "cable." The trade journal CATV changed its name to Vue at the end of 1976.
Over the years, AT&T gradually replaced its national coaxial system with microwave relays, and then began to use satellites to distribute programs to affiliates.
Fred Friendly, "Asleep at the Switch of the Wired City," Saturday Review, October 10, 1970, p. 58.
Friendly, 1970, p. 58.
Richard Posner, "The Appropriate Scope of Regulation in the Cable Television Industry," Bell Journal of Economics and Management Science, No. 3, 1972, pp. 102-103.
Smith, 1972, p. 9.
President's Task Force, 1968, Ch. 1, p. 5.
President's Task Force, 1968, Ch. 1, p. 16.
Le Duc, 1973, pp. 14-16.
Andrew Ross, Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits, New York: Verso, 1991, p. 88.
Kathleen Woodward, "Art and Technics: John Cage, Electronics, and World Improvement," in Kathleen Woodward (ed.) The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture, Madison, Wisconsin: Coda Press, 1980, p. 176.
The classic statement of the alternative video ethos is Michael Shamberg, Guerrilla Television, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
Barry Orton, email message to author, October 24, 1994.
Smith, 1972, pp. 90-94.
U.S. House of Representatives, Regulation of Community Antenna Television Systems--1969, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971, p. 388. (Hereinafter cited as U.S., 1969).
U.S., 1969, pp. 383-384, original emphasis.
Patrick R. Parsons, "Defining Cable Television: Structuration and Public Policy," Journal of Communication, Spring 1989, v. 39 n. 2, p. 10-26; p. 23.
Peter W. Bernstein, "The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Irving Kahn," Fortune, July 28, 1980, p. 58.
U.S., 1969, p. 44.
Carnegie Commission for Educational Television, Public TV: A Program for Action, New York: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 75.
Harold Barnett, and Edward Greenberg, "On the Economics of Wired City Television," American Economic Review, Vol. 50 (June 1968), pp. 238-275.
Barnett and Greenberg, pp. 217-218.
U.S., 1969, p. 211.
President's Task Force, 1968, p. 183.
Brenda Maddox, Beyond Babel: New Directions in Communications, Boston: Beacon Press, 1974, p. 145.
Les Brown (ed.), Channels of Communications: The Essential 1985 Field Guide to the Electronic Media, p. 24.
Don R. Le Duc, "Deregulation and the Dream of Diversity." Journal of Communication Vol. 32, No. 4, (Autumn 1982), p. 164-178.
For example, in the mid-1980s Ted Turner, who had been heavily mythologized in the press for his swashbuckling, entrepreneurial approach, sought to vertically integrate his operations by buying the MGM/United Artists library of films; in turn, the high cost of the purchase forced him to sell a large portion of his company's stock to a coalition of fourteen of the nation's largest cable operators, further integrating the industry as a whole while reducing his individual control. Al Delugach, "Turner to Keep Control of Firm with $550-Million Bailout Deal," Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1987, Business Section, Part 4, p. 1.
Title VI of the Amended Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. SS601 (1984).
The six largest MSOs (Tele-Communications Inc., Liberty Media, Time Warner, Viacom, Cablevision Systems, and Comcast) together serve almost half of all cable subscribers and are also heavily involved in programming. TCI, for example, has a stake in Turner and Discovery. Turner, in turn, controls Turner Network, CNN, Headline News, and Superstation TBS. Viacom has substantial interests in MTV, Nickelodeon, VH-1, Showtime, The Movie Channel, and Lifetime. Many of these relations are sealed with corporate interlocks: John D. Malone, for example, doubles as TCI president and Liberty Media chairman and six of the 15 directors of Turner Broadcasting System represent part-owners Time Warner and TCI. And predictably, cable has become increasingly intertwined with media interests in general: Capital Cities/ABC Inc. has dominant interests in ESPN and shares Lifetime with Viacom and Hearst Corp. Kathryn Harris, "Reordering The Cable Universe," Los Angeles Times, Business; Part D; Page 1; Column 3, July 25, 1993.
"What if they're right?" The Economist, February 12, 1994, p. 3.
Committee on Applications and Technology of the Information Infrastructure Task Force, draft report: The Information Infrastructure: Reaching Society's Goals, NIST Special Publication 868, Sept. 7, 1994, p. 196.
Mitchell Kapor, "Where is the Digital Highway Really Heading?: The Case for A Jeffersonian Information Policy," Wired, Vol 1., No. 3, July/August, 1993, pp. 53-59, p. 94.
Kapor, 1993, p. 55.
Kapor, 1993, pp. 53-54.