by Joyce Nelson
Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, p. 36
Erik Barnouw's latest book, The Sponsor, is a fascinating and important work which provides a useful introduction to the subject of advertising's role in radio and television. The book is filled with historical detail and anecdotes, the kind of material which comes from work inside the industry. Barnouw is, of course, known for his three-volume History of Broadcasting in the United States, its one-volume spin-off Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, and Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. The book-jacket for The Sponsor informs us that he "directed programs for various advertising agencies before joining CBS as a writer and editor" in 1939. Nevertheless, Barnouw assesses the pervasive influence of advertising with an undisguised and deep concern. As the leading historian of U.S. broadcasting, he is able to fully document the growth and impact of the broadcasting sponsor — the "potentate of our time."
The book is divided into three sections entitled Rise, Domain, and Prospect. The first section traces the rise of the sponsor to his present state of eminence. In the second section, Barnouw examines sponsorship's pervasive impact on TV programming, especially network programming. The last section assesses the repercussions in society which result from sponsor dominance and the implications which such advertising power may have for the future. Of the three sections, I found the first one the most interesting, perhaps because it is here that Barnouw — the historian — is most lively and engaged. He provides a careful and detailed documentation of the events and circumstances which laid the basis for advertising as the business of broadcasting.
In the first section, Barnouw reminds us that the sale of air-time, much less the sale of audiences to sponsors, was clearly not born with broadcasting but emerged from specific events and decisions which can be charted. Before World War I, radio was both a transmitting and a receiving device. It was primarily in the hands of amateur "ham" radio operators and a few professional experimenters. With the onset of war, all amateur operators were ordered off the air and required to seal their equipment in the interests of national security. According to Barnouw, this had lasting repercussions: "Radio became an arcane military activity, on which the public was forbidden to trespass."
But more importantly, the infant electronics industry received lucrative army and navy contracts to develop equipment for the war effort. These contracts made companies like Westinghouse, General Electric, and AT&T into "young giants," controlling almost all of the electronics patents. One other company — United Fruit — had been using wireless since the turn of the century to coordinate activities on its scattered plantations and to direct the traffic of its banana boats. Not surprisingly, after the war these four companies got together to form the Radio Corporation of America, primarily to gain control over international message-sending operations.
Barnouw explains that after the war, radio seemed to be a dormant medium until someone in the industry got the brilliant idea that the general public might be interested in buying radio-receiver sets, if a programming service were provided. The electronics industry envisioned big profits from the sale of equipment — with a programming service acting as the enticement for purchase. This decision to eliminate the transmitting capability from the equipment (in effect, the technical censorship of two-way analogue communication) had widespread implications for both the broadcasting industry and our notions of mass media.
In 1920, radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh (a venture of the four companies who had formed RCA) went on the air as the industry's first enticement for purchasing radio receivers. KDKA offered coverage of the presidential election returns, radio concerts, speeches by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, broadcasts from local churches, a prizefight, and talks on various subjects. Meanwhile, the assembly lines of the industry were turning out receivers to meet the anticipated demand. Two years later, AT&T revealed its plan to open a new kind of radio station, one which Barnouw sees as a significant step in the rise of the sponsor. AT&T's new station, which would eventually become part of a nationwide chain of stations, would be engaged in "toll broadcasting." What AT&T envisioned was a chain of "radio-telephone stations" which they likened to phone booths.
The company had no plans to provide programs of their own but would instead "provide the channels through which anyone with whom it makes a contract can send out their own programs." As Barnouw states, "It was the first proposal for putting air time on a for-sale basis."
AT&T's first toll station, WEAF in New York City, opened on August 16, 1922, and by the end of the first six months of operation, it had won 16 sponsors of programs. The first sponsor (August 28) was the Queensboro Corporation, which paid $50 for a 10-minute period used "to extol suburban living and promote the sale of apartments in a housing complex in Jackson Heights, Long Island." Within three weeks of the broadcast, the company's sales amounted to $127,000 — which they attributed directly to the 10-minute broadcast. They bought four more time spots right away. The rest, as they say, is history.
Barnouw also documents the maneuvers by which "educational" radio stations were dispossessed through allocation of the spectrum and through the gradual and false distinction made by the industry between "public" broadcasting and "real" broadcasting. In a later section, he illustrates the return of "trade-name publicity" through the sponsorship of "culture" on PBS-TV channels.
But Barnouw is most interesting when writing of the early years of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. NET had proven to be virtually the only outlet for antiwar, anti-Administration expressions of the dissident counterculture during the late Sixties. Certainly, the fortress of network prime time had been largely impenetrable. But through programming like "Black Journal," "NET Journal," "The Creative Person," "Inside North Vietnam," NET had allowed the occasional expression of other views. Ironically, these programs coincided with a report by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television which recommended government support of public television, a report issued in 1967. Barnouw writes:
Barnouw is also fascinating when writing of the fate of the independent documentary filmmaker, who has been effectively "squeezed out" of commercial network broadcasting by both the structure and the role of the sponsor. He points out that the TV sponsor has been wary of documentaries at least since 1953 when Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now" series began dealing with McCarthyism. The sponsor was Alcoa. According to Barnouw,
Thus it was that the networks themselves, in 1960, decided to schedule only their own documentary productions made by their own in-house units. But the networks themselves are made up of affiliated stations across the country, affiliates which can preview any controversial program several days before telecast and decide whether or not to carry it. These affiliates are free to invite anyone, including sponsors, to sit in on the closed-circuit previews. Such previews may lead to last-minute sponsor withdrawals, as in the case of the CBS documentary "The Guns of Autumn," written and directed by Irv Drasnin, and scheduled for September 5, 1976.
As this book makes evident time and again, sponsors want their messages to appear in the most favorable environment that programming can provide. In other words, they always go with the demographics and avoid the controversial. As Barnow writes in a footnote:
The Sponsor is full of lively evidence and will surely be a resource for further writing about the broadcast industry. It makes a fine companion piece for such works at Stuart Ewens' Captains of Consciousness, Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and Tony Schwartz's The Responsive Chord — all of which deal with advertising from slightly different vantage points. As far as I can recall, however, Barnouw is the only one of these writers who points out that