Three Blind Mice, by Ken Auletta
Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way.
by Ken Auletta.
Random House. 642 pp. $25.00.
What should we make of the decline of perhaps the most pervasive cultural and social—and therefore, in a real sense, political—institution of our time? Broadcast television is surely deserving of that description. It has knit the country together more intimately than railroads or highways; revolutionized, not to say undermined, our political discourse; changed the way we sell our goods and services; permanently altered our perception (image vs. substance, medium vs. message); rendered our social reactions instantaneous, and our memory, in many important ways, nonexistent.
Broadcast TV is also, as Ken Auletta’s remarkable, and remarkably ponderous, book makes clear, a bureaucracy of great size, narrow vision, and stunning banality, with hardly a difference in this respect among CBS, ABC, and NBC. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic portrait is the one Auletta has chosen to paint. The result is a vast, rambling, unfocused work of journalism, full of intricate detail about matters that have not much significance outside the Manhattan skyscrapers where they were nurtured and hatched. The book is twice as fat as it should be. In this too it seems a true portrait from life.
Getting the likeness was undeniably a feat. Auletta is one of our most energetic and resourceful business journalists, with a cool eye for the technical complexities that underlie business reality and economic policy-making. Three Blind Mice shows that he is also a skillful persuader, one who talked the men in power at all three networks into letting him be a fly on the wall for six entire years—at board meetings, budget sessions, production and scheduling thrash-outs, in intimate interviews after important power struggles. Out of all this Auletta has gleaned some unique insights into corporate maneuvering, the economics of network television, and, more vaguely, about the management of the strange business of broadcast TV.
His baseline is 1985, a year when television was under assault from a number of sources: leapfrogging technological advances, like cable and videocassette recorders; an advertising recession; and, something less substantial, a shift in the Zeitgeist that Auletta attributes to the catchall 80’s vice of profit-over-principle. The signal of that shift was the fact that over the course of 1985, all three ailing networks came under the control of new owners. NBC was bought by many-tentacled General Electric; ABC by small and frugal Capital Cities Communications; CBS, after several takeover bids and prolonged maneuvering, fell gradually to magnate Laurence A. Tisch.
In examining the three management styles that attempted to put a new business stamp on the networks, Auletta is most clearly sympathetic with the style of Capital Cities, already in 1985 a small conglomerate that emphasized the values of Main Street rather than Sixth Avenue—but a broadcaster nonetheless. Auletta is much less enamored of the budget-cutting strategies of Tisch, among whose alleged sins are his strong sympathies for Israel, which his detractors have called a possible threat to CBS newsroom integrity (though according to Auletta Tisch’s anger over the treatment of Israel on 60 Minutes never had any in-house consequences).
Whatever the differences among the three new owner-managers, there is plenty of common material here out of which to make an anti-business morality play, and in some ways Auletta would have liked to do so. The offstage hero of his epic is Grant Tinker, the production genius of MTM Enterprises who from 1980 to 1985 led NBC to ratings heights by giving power to creative writers and producers, ignoring the early returns, and adhering to his personal doctrines of quality. But this, says Auletta, was “at odds with the bottom-line managers then coming to dominate corporate America”—as if capitalism’s Athenian period began in the 50’s and ended with the Reagan administration.
Auletta is far too good a journalist, however, simply to have produced a diatribe. The problem with this book lies, as I have already indicated, elsewhere. Auletta’s method—the numbing, New Yorker-style compilation of facts, irrespective of their larger significance—robs the narrative of any compelling focus. Sometimes Auletta scores a hit, as with his detailed story of the ouster of CBS Chairman Tom Wyman by Tisch and the network’s late founder, William Paley. Other times he misses, as with his lengthy reconstruction of producer Aaron Spelling’s dud series, Nightingales. In general, too much is unmemorable, and remains unmemorable.
Auletta’s method ignores the truth that a fly on the wall must find the right walls to be a fly on. He could have spent more time on those in the newsroom. Though he did talk with line producers and other newsroom types, as well as with top news executives and anchormen, the story Auletta assembles is mostly, again, bureaucratic, about battles over budgets and maneuvering for titles. How the networks actually go about their news operations, and what they accomplish, is either taken for granted or has just been left out.
This omission is all the more striking since Auletta deliberately pits the business-only view of broadcast television against the notion, popular in varying degrees at all three networks, that television is in some measure a “public trust,” a place where values higher than mere money prevail. As Auletta summarizes the feeling, “One of the joys of working for a network was the sense that it was more than a way to make a living, it was a calling.” Presumably, the newsroom is where this feeling is at its most intense.
What is the “public trust” that the networks claim to preserve, and how does it differ from the usual pious assertions of any monopoly? Does the quality of network news bear out such a claim? Where is the “public trust” in the vast bulk of TV entertainment? What is, in fact, the future of the networks? In a short sign-off chapter, Auletta noodles briefly with the big picture:
What seems certain is that if the networks are to survive and perhaps thrive, they must be permitted to produce and own and sell more of the product. . . . Standing alone, the networks may die. With additional revenue sources or partners, the good times may return.
Six years of research and 642 pages, for this? Network downsizing should have started here.