Are Those Who Ignore History Doomed to Repeat It?

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C. Cable Television

The history of cable television bears some of the trappings of Wu’s usual view of the Cycle. The industry’s early days bore witness to advocates driven by idealistic motives, such as Ralph Lee Smith, Fred Friendly, and the Sloan Foundation (pp 176–77, 181–83). In other ways, however, cable industry was quite different. Two figures in particular receive credit for promoting an industry that challenged the big three television networks.

The first is President Richard Nixon, who supported the key regulatory decisions that made cable possible (pp 177, 184–85). Although Wu does not credit him explicitly, Nixon even pioneered the term “separations policy” (p 184) that would become in name and substance the core of Wu’s policy recommendation. As Wu notes, Nixon’s motives were far from above reproach, given that his desire to promote cable was driven by a desire to retaliate against the broadcast television networks that were causing him so much grief (p 185). Despite this, Nixon remains one of the seminal figures in promoting the cable industry.

The second is Ted Turner, who Wu regards as a mogul cut from the same cloth as Theodore Vail (p 208). Unlike the typical moguls in Wu’s Cycle, who use the corporate clout of a dominant incumbent to force industries to close, Turner was an outsider who pushed the industry toward openness. This proves once again how a close analysis of actual facts can reveal dynamics that are far more interesting than simple parables.

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In short, each of these three episodes deviates from Wu’s vision of the Cycle in important ways. With respect to radio, Sarnoff’s efforts to leverage NBC’s market must be viewed in light of the fierce competition it continued to face from CBS and MBS. Wu’s account of the stillborn early days of broadcast television does not grapple with the role played by the Depression and World War II, and even then he candidly acknowledges that it did not enjoy the usual initial period of openness typically associated with the Cycle. With respect to cable, primary credit for ushering in a new era of openness in the television industry goes to a U.S. President and the type of mogul usually associated with closedness, although one who began his career as an industry outsider. Unfortunately, the bases for these variations in the patterns and the insights from examining the interactions of a more complex set of forces remain unexplored.

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