The Economics of Bad Television

Since getting a television that picks up commercial (non-cable broadcast) programming, I have pondered why it is so bad. It has with few exceptions become the junk mail of broadcasting rivaled only by AM radio.

How did television become so lousy?

It didn’t start yesterday. It likely reached its pinnacle with idiocy of situation comedies about stranded rich fans folks on islands and Appalachian millionaires. But why?

It wasn’t the broadcasters who set this mindlessness in motion; rather it was very likely the economics of commercial viewership.

In the pioneer days of television as David Sarnoff sought to sell RCA color television sets, it made sense to produce “Bonanza” and “The Virginian.”

Most homes, including my family’s, owned a single television that was centrally-located in the living room. This meant the watching of television was mostly a group activity and the channel was selectively chosen for all.

This was television viewing as monopsony: the family as single viewer was the consumer of all programming.

But, by the Sixties as incomes rose and television production costs decreased, Americans became two or three TV set households. Broadcasters learned they were not simply programming for entire family consumption. They could as easily sell advertising on programs that need not attract the whole family.

They could make television for demographic niches inside a household and still have a viable advertising base. In other words, lousy television could proliferate at a profit margin.

Technological breakthrough became the pathway to the breakdown of what had been a monopsony market throughout the Fifties simply by virtue of technological limitations on consumption.

It was not only content but means to receive it that likely made this medium so mindlessly bad.

-Albert Turner Goins, Sr.

Next: The Economics of Bad Commercials.