When producer Robert Saudek died in 1998, his New York Times obituary called him “the alchemist-in-chief of what is often called the golden age of television.” From 1952 to 1961, the product of Saudek’s alchemy was Omnibus, a weekly that did what public TV now aspires to do, but on commercial network TV. It turned out to be one of the last but finest gasps of the Cooperation Doctrine — the notion that commercial broadcasting could ignore the bottom line and the largest available audience. [More on the Cooperation Doctrine.]
For the December 1999 pledge drives, PBS distributed the first-ever TV retrospective on the famous series, “Omnibus: Television’s Golden Age,” from New River Media. The writers are William M. Jones, professor of political science at Virginia Wesleyan College and author of Omnibus: American Television’s Season in the Sun, from Wesleyan University Press, and Andrew Walworth, executive producer and president of New River Media.
The Depression created a demand for sober, public-service uses of radio. Seizing the moment, NACRE launched the most ambitious experiments in national educational broadcasting that had ever been tried in America.
“If you educators do not hold radio for yourselves,” Judge Ira Robinson told educational broadcasters in June 1930, “it is going to be so fortified by commercial interests that you will never get it.”
The lone pro-education member of the Federal Radio Commission, Robinson had ample grounds for alarm. Since the mid-’20s, dozens of school-operated stations had been driven from the air by a combination of commercial competition, FRC pressures, and their own lack of resources and resourcefulness. In 1930, the mortality rate seemed to be rising; more than 20 educational stations would fall silent by the end of July. During the previous winter, Commissioner Robinson had been involved in a promising initiative that might have brought the federal government to the rescue. But the Advisory Committee on Education by Radio, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, had pulled back from recommending measures that would do much good for beleaguered educational broadcasters.
How did advertising-driven broadcasting establish itself as the dominant user of the airwaves in America? A crucial episode occurred in the 1930s when commercial broadcasters argued successfully that they would put education on the air, and educators should stick to their books. Eugene E. Leach, Ph.D., a professor of history and American studies at Connecticut’s Trinity College, tells the story, originally serialized in Current. Chapters
1. The doctrine of ‘Cooperation’ won early battles of ideas