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Television: Opiate of the People

2 minute read

What is wrong with TV? In an interview last week in the trade monthly Television, TV’s topflight Edward R. Murrow sounded off on the question with the kind of gloves-off candor that the industry resents from outsiders.

“It might be helpful,” said Murrow, “if those who control television and radio would sit still for a bit and attempt to discover what it is they care about. If television and radio are to be used to entertain all of the people all of the time, then we have come perilously close to discovering the real opiate of the people.

“If you sit and talk with executives of big corporations, you find that as individuals they care about a hell of a lot of things that are never reflected in the programs they sponsor. There is often a complete divorcement between the individual and his corporate personality. I’m not saying that his primary job is to educate, but the sponsor cannot escape his responsibility . . . for contributing to the level of taste.”

In hewing to the line of mass appeal, argued Murrow, sponsors and broadcasters are lowering the prestige of TV to the point where the viewer is taking it less seriously—and its commercial credibility has begun to suffer. He added: “Perhaps the answer is that so-called public-service programing has got to get better. It must be done with more imagination, and achieve greater appeal . . . I don’t believe that television has even begun to tap the possibilities that lie in the field of reality.”

One way for TV to build its vitality and prestige, said Murrow, is for the networks and stations to use their neglected right to editorialize. Last week, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, Murrow’s boss, CBS President Frank Stanton, also upheld the right of broadcasters to editorialize, but stressed how thorny a right it is. TV, complained Stanton, lacks the tradition and experience of the press in editorializing; moreover, “it would be most difficult [for networks] to take editorial positions acceptable to all our affiliated stations.” Commentator Murrow had a more succinct explanation for the failure of broadcasters to editorialize. Said he: “They have no guts.”

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