Morton Kondracke, the longtime panelist on PBS' The McLaughlin Group (at the time of this writing) and future mainstay of Fox News pundit shows, has a provocative Cold War-era article this week on television's obligation to provide in-depth coverage of the Pentagon. The trigger is the SALT arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, which went through a bruising time in the Senate, and while Kondracke approves of the amount of coverage the networks have given the important topic (including NBC's coverage of a 90-minute live debate from the Kennedy Center), he mourns that "television doesn't devote itself to national-defense coverage consistently." According to most D.C.-based defense experts, television's usual coverage of defense issues is "lousy" - and TV is routinely being scooped by newspapers on the most important defense issues.
CBS does well in their coverage, at least better than the other two, but that's primarily because Cronkite himself has an interest in it. The other national defense correspondents complain that the message they get from their headquarters is a short one: not interested. The reasons for the lack of coverage are varied: fallout from Vietnam, causing some producers to shy away from anything military; complete disinterest by other producers; and a feeling that defense spending isn't "visual" enough, doesn't make for good television. One ABC official complains that the current Defense Secretary, Harold Brown, is too dull, not like Henry Kissinger or Robert McNamara, and that most of the real defense-related news comes from either the State Department or the White House itself. He agrees, though, that the issues are too complex, too abstract and jargon-filled, to be covered properly in a brief television spot.
|Carter and Brezhnev sign the SALT II treaty.|
Over 35 years later, one has to ask the same question: with all of our 24-hour news channels, do we get any better coverage of what's going on? One issue Kondracke doesn't address is the question of media bias in its reporting of the SALT debate, something we would pretty much take for granted today. In these days when the media reports frequently on the media, and we can see detailed breakdowns on the number of hours each news program spends on given topics, I wonder if our news coverage today is not only worse, but more controversial, than it was even then?
The other networks have been forced to respond by juggling their own schedules: ABC is moving the debut of 240-Robert to August 28, and will be starting The Lazarus Syndrome on September 4. They've also made moves with program schedules for series such as Out of the Blue, Nobody's Perfect, Angie and Detective School. I didn't provide links to these series, because I wanted to see first of all how many of them you remember. Hint: there wasn't a big hit in the batch. CBS is doing the same thing, juggling the start dates for four of its sitcoms: The Last Resort, Struck by Lightning, Working Stiffs and The Bad News Bears. Again, not exactly setting the world on fire, are they? The biggest attraction for the new season: the season premiere of Charlie's Angels and the introduction of the newest Angel, Shelley Hack. Remember her?
It's a light sports week, due primarily to the absence of ESPN. Let me explain.
The U.S. Open Tennis Championship kicks off this week, and CBS provides 15-minute nightly recaps after the late local news*. Today, ESPN covers the tournament's morning, afternoon and evening sessions, giving viewers a complete look at the grand slam classic. I'd estimate the increase in coverage from then to now would be about, let's say, 50 to 1 on a weekly basis. That could be conservative, though.
*In Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the CBS affiliate WCCO did not carry the network's late-night programming, the updates were shown on the independent KMSP. For many years, as I mention in next week's piece, Channel 9 was also the home of the CBS Morning News. Very confusing for a kid.
In baseball, the pennant races are down to the last month, and we're treated to two national games: the Red Sox and Royals on NBC's Saturday Game of the Week, and a TBD matchup on ABC's Monday Night Baseball. Today we'd probably have five or six games; a Saturday game (or two) on Fox, a Sunday afternoon game on TBS, a Sunday night game on ESPN, and perhaps two or three additional games during the week. In addition, for those living in a baseball market, you'd have your local games. In Minneapolis there are two Twins games; living here in Texas, where all the Rangers games are on TV, we'd probably see six.
There's one football game on this week, a pre-season clash between the Steelers and Cowboys on NBC Saturday night. For the last week in August, we still wouldn't have much pro football today, since the NFL insists on starting its regular season the Thursday following Labor Day, but we more than make up for it with a deluge of college football. If we were looking at the same week this year, we'd probably have at least six games, perhaps as many as a dozen, between ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, the Big 10 Network, the Pac 12 Network, the Longhorn Network, and various regional broadcasts. Maybe a dozen is selling it too short?
And then there's a special on NBC Sunday afternoon profiling golf's new stars. There's no program description though, which is a pity. I would have liked to have seen who they were predicting for future stardom, and whether or not they were on the mark.
Operation Prime Time, the so-called "occasional network" that existed in the late '70s and early '80s. There were a lot of movies such as this on OPT, including the John Jakes stories (The Bastard, The Rebels, etc.) and programs like Solid Gold and, if I'm not mistaken, Entertainment Tonight. I remember when this started, and there was a lot of discussion about whether or not OPT would coalesce into a legitimate fourth network - a Fox network before its time. It never did, and I'm not sure it was ever intended thus, but it was interesting nonetheless to see original programming on independent television stations*, even if it was just an occasional event. Could anything like this work today? I don't think so; in addition to Fox, there's the CW, MyNetwork, and micro-networks such as MeTV, Antenna, Cozi and the rest, and that doesn't even begin to get into cable.
*Although in the Twin Cities, OPT programs were shown on Channel 5, the ABC affiliate.
In fact - and I just thought of this - if there's any analogy to OPT today, it might be in the area of streaming video. I mean, Amazon, Netflix, they're all producing their own programs, and while it's not the same as a network in that they don't have to program 24/7, they are the closest we're coming to being an occasional network. The only difference is that instead of providing the programming to an independent station, they're providing it directly to you, the viewer. So maybe OPT's legacy lives on, after all.