"An Appetite For Apocalypse"
In September 1963, the evening news shows expanded from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, and the manner in which news was presented to Americans -- with excitement, drama, sensation -- was changed forever.
Many new conditions — still only vaguely definable — led to the current crisis in American culture . . . [a]ll have combined to stimulate a profound intellectual re-examination of the structure of our society, a questioning of its inherited traditions, of duty, of discipline within a community, of moralities, and of each individual’s responsibility to other men and to the law. . . .
Today, however, time speeds; and in the brilliant flourishing of American thought (the dominant intellectual force in the Western world today), ideas, fancies, theories churn from tentative concept to fashionable acceptance almost overnight, faster than society can absorb. . . .
This revolution in critical standards has created, in large areas of American thinking . . . [and a] new babbitry of permissiveness has replaced the old babbitry of conformity; style rather than content fascinates.
The growth of the critical attitude to American life to its present intensity is almost unique in the history of any country’s thinking. . . .
The standards of the new criticism might, in the old days, have been limited to the regional cultural centers of New York and Los Angeles, where they reign. But it was in precisely these two states that was born the greatest of all the new media of American culture, television, which fused all America into one audience. And by 1968 television, the chief prisoner of this new court of high criticism held, in turn, all America captive.
It is perhaps necessary to give a short retrospect on the growth of television and its impact on politics and public affairs. Public-affairs television is a hybrid descendant of many influences — of the old movies, of the newsreel, of the commercial adman’s cultivation of appetites, but, above all, of the tradition of the old radio news with its short, staccato announcements. . . .
[I]f one had to locate the precise date of television’s breakthrough to dominance in American political life, one would have to choose, certainly, the fall of 1963, when, on September 2nd, the half-hour evening news shows were established on the national networks — a date as significant in American history as the Golden Spike that linked the Union Pacific and Central Pacific to give America its first continental railway in 1869.
Television news shows up to the fall of 1963 had been limited to fifteen minutes. The great television nets maintained large domestic new[s] bureaus only in Washington and New York, and filled their quarter-hours with short domestic news clips out of these two centers, or visuals of historic events out of their far-flung overseas centers. But the half-hour news shows were a quantum jump; and as the networks passed to the half-hour news shows, it became artistically and commercially necessary to fill the expanded time with events presented entirely differently from the style of quick announcements. The administrative response to fill the time came in the creation of fresh news bureaus all across America-at-home — in the Midwest, in the South, in the Far West — with all these bureaus required to feed significant nightly pictorial representation of what was happening at home. But the artistic response was a seeking of drama. To hold audiences for half an hour, excitement was needed — excitement in casting of characters, excitement in the streets, excitement in change. The process of building, creating and healing is all too often long, slow, incremental and undramatic; it is when the normal pattern of life snaps, when the web of civilization breaks, that drama is created; and the growth of the half-hour evening news shows depended on an exploration of the snapping points, the artistic or critical or commercial arrangement of such fragments of crisis to draw viewers. By 1968 the networks had learned to draw audiences of 40,000,000 or 50,000,000 to their nightly news dramas; and these news shows had become, for the masses, the mirror of the world.
Excitement is the great unwritten imperative of television, an imperative which cannot be changed by any man or repealed by any law. The nightly news shows must “march.” Of the bravery and integrity of the good men who run television, there can be no question. But one irrevocable cowardice binds all men in television — television dare not be dull. The logic is simple: if a television show is dull, then it loses its audience; if it loses its audience, it loses either sponsorship or executive protection; if it loses these, the producer goes broke or is removed. Whether television feeds on excitement, breeds excitement or provokes excitement is a matter of intricate debate. Whatever the answer is, there can be no doubt that television spreads excitement, and any producer, knowingly or not, recognizes that the law of his survival requires that he speed the spread. Drama and clash, the new and the strange, are what television must find or create to survive. In a critical culture where television is judged by its dramatic quality, where the right of experimentation and protest has become an absolute standard, where great new waves of American citizens are penetrating the political process from which they have been hitherto excluded, one clash whets audience appetite for another, one dramatically successful presentation of violence stimulates a competitive desire to display more.
This appetite for sensation in America of the 1960’s, of which television is only the chief satisfier, is an appetite that feeds on itself; and it runs through every stretch of our culture, until, taken as a whole, it would seem that the culture has an appetite for apocalypse: a pushing of the liberty of self-expression of every man until the instruments of government must respond with repression, or crumble altogether.
Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1968 (pp. 226-230).