QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Mr. Wright is Wrong
To gain insight into the mentality of the modern commercial television broadcaster, one need look no further than Robert Wright, president and CEO of NBC. Here -- in one man's mind -- resides the entire deeply distorted value system driving electronic media today.As an employee of General Electric, it's expected that Wright would lobby for every financial benefit possible for his television broadcasting enterprise. There's no surprise in Wright's advocacy for zero spectrum fees and limited regulation on over-the-air broadcasting. What is surprising, perhaps, is the man's blind evangelism on behalf of an industry that has grown so unprincipled over the years that it can longer separate fact from fiction.One wonders whether Wright actually believes his rhetoric or has simply become a cynical pawn for his corporate bosses. Whichever, his delusional comments at a recent gathering of television station managers in Las Vegas reflect the sad state of reality within the broadcasting community.Wright, in the role of industry cheerleader, thought it appropriate to review for station managers "the bedrock of public interest benefits" on which broadcasting is built. These benefits, he said, must be communicated to policy makers and public officials who might question why the broadcasting industry is being allowed to use the public airwaves for free."First," he said, "the broadcast networks provide multiple voices and sources covering national and international events, giving Americans a broad array of broadcast news choices -- broader, more independent and more varied than that available anywhere in the world."Second," he continued, "local broadcast stations -- the affiliates of ABC, CBS and NBC, many Fox affiliates and many independents -- connect people to their communities in a way that no one else has yet to replicate or maybe ever can. Our coverage of local news, sports and local happenings contributes to the sense of community and connects us to our neighbors."Third," Wright said, "broadcasters do this universally. This is a public policy 'good' in a diverse democracy exceeding a quarter of a billion people. Broadcast TV creates an underlying shared experience for this entire nation. We bring big events, be it news, sports or entertainment, to nearly every American regardless of income level, race or geography."And, to add a little icing to the cake, Wright cited the increased amount of educational programming the broadcasters are delivering to children. "What is often lost in the debate is the fact there is more television programming for children -- of all kinds and for all tastes -- available than ever before." Children, Wright promised, will be better served and broadcasters -- including NBC -- "will continue to do their share."As television broadcasting moves into the digital era, Wright argued that it's important that public policy "recognize that a strong -- and expanded -- free broadcast industry is good for America."The dour station managers, now fired up by Wright's enthusiasm, were urged to remind their elected officials how good broadcasting is for the people. "In this age of revolutionary change, our national leaders need to remember -- and if they forget, they need to be reminded by the people in this room -- that the country's broadcasting system is an immensely valuable national asset, offering the best in news, information, entertainment and spectacle."The broadcasters applauded Wright's message. Most, if not all, were convinced that what he said is true. These button-down executives actually believe they provide real diversity in programming, that they are open to a cross section of voices and opinion and that they truly benefit their communities. Without a hint of cynicism, they'll tell you their stations serve the best interests of children.Of course, these beliefs are grounded in a deeper conviction held by these men (yes, most are men) that what is good for business is good for people. Choice, to these executives, is limited to commercial choice. Diversity means a range of differences within the narrow world of consumerism. Multiple voices means those voices that stay within the universe of ideas acceptable to a consumer society. And so what if children's programming brainwashes the little ones into being good consumers? That's what it's all about anyway, right?These proponents of "free broadcasting" actually believe they deserve to use the public's airwaves at no cost because they are providing a public service to the people. They don't acknowledge a downside to their medium. The dumbing down of the culture and its associated ills is not their problem. The relentless cultivation of a consumer society and its value system is a good thing, not a bad one, they argue fiercely. Television is good for people and communities and has successfully carried out it obligation to serve the public interest, they'll tell you with conviction.A visit with station managers brings home the realization that commercial television is being shaped these days by far more than corporate consolidation and media monopolies. It goes to the beliefs and values of the people who create the messages and those that receive them. As long as these values remain intact, the content of television will continue its current course.Robert Wright, the industry cheerleader, only brings the picture into clearer focus.