Topics in the News
Cable and the Decline of the Big Three
Cable television has been around since the 1940s but until recently was used almost exclusively to bring watchable television reception to communities that were separated from broadcasting antennae by distance or physical barriers such as mountains. In the 1970s individuals in a few communities had cable connections to their homes that allowed them to see movies, sports, and special events on a subscription basis. By the 1980s, however, the availability of commercial telecommunications satellites made it economically feasible for independent stations and special-interest channels to broadcast nationwide. As more material became available to the nation's cable providers, the business grew dramatically, gaining subscribers in urban centers around the country. In 1976 the average American home received seven channels on its television set; by the end of the 1980s the average number of channels had climbed to nearly thirty.
Before the 1980s the "Big Three" networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—were practically television's sole providers of national news and sporting events, major Hollywood releases (which were edited for content), and original dramatic series. But during the decade ten million viewers defected from the networks to watch what was on cable. There were a variety of reasons for the switch: cable channels...
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The Cable News Network
The Cable News Network (CNN) was the first television network to devote its entire programming schedule to reporting the news—in the process the network changed the definition of news itself. Previously, the nightly news broadcasts offered by the three major networks were summaries of the day's events, condensed into a half-hour format that allowed little room for detailed coverage or analysis. Live reporting of events that occurred outside the "news hour" of 6:00-7:00 P.M. was unusual. But CNN's round-the-clock dedication to current events gave the network the ability to cover events as they occurred and the time to follow those events, however long they took to develop.
CNN was the brainchild of Ted Turner, the unconventional entrepreneur who in 1981, when the news network debuted, was known primarily as the owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Turner had also owned Atlanta's independent channel 17 since the early 1970s and was quick to see the possibilities for cable television: in 1976 the SuperStation WTBS (for Turner Broadcasting System) became the first broadcast station to transmit via satellite and thus was one of the cornerstones of cable television. At that time Turner was already considering the possibility of an all-news network, but the conventional wisdom of the television industry...
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Computers: Machines of the Decade
You Say You Want a Revolution.
By the middle 1980s the social revolution envisioned twenty years earlier by the pioneers of the small computer was in full swing. In 1981 some 750,000 personal computers were estimated to be in use in American homes; 39.4 million computers were shipped between 1984 and 1988. In 1984 alone Americans bought $37.6 million worth of computer software for home use, about two-thirds of it in the "entertainment" category—that is, computer games. By the end of 1982, 250 different computer games were available, and some $2 billion worth were sold. In the mid 1980s home computers came in three types. For less than $100, one could buy a game-only computer made by Atari or Sega. It hooked up to the family television set, which acted as the monitor, and the programs came as plug-in cartridges or tape cassettes similar to those used in tape recorders. For less than $500, the home user could buy a computer that purported to serve the serious user—a Timex Sinclair 1000, a Commodore VIC-20, or an Atari 400—but these machines were normally upgraded game computers with simple programs. For $1,000 to $2,000, the more serious home user could buy an Apple II, an IBM Personal Computer, or a Radio Shack TRS-80 with a keyboard, a monitor, and as much as thirty-two kilobytes of RAM (random-access memory). For another $750 or so a printer could be attached, making the computer...
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The Computer Revolution
By the mid 1980s computer technology had transformed American life. The watches people wore, the cars they drove, the mail they received, the games they played, the state of their health, and the way they learned were altered by the computer chip. Schools, workplaces, the health industry, government, and the law were all dramatically affected by the computer. Social engineers began to ponder the question of how to prepare the citizens of the future for lives and careers that would require at least a rudimentary understanding of computing. The notion of literacy, the fundamnetal measure of capability for modern life, was expanded to include "computer literacy": a basic familiarity with computers.
Big business had recognized the importance of the computer from the beginning; but by the 1980s, as equipment and the programs to make it useful became affordable, even small...
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Fox:The Fourth Network
A New Network.
The first four decades of commercial American television were dominated by three huge networks of affiliated stations, known as the "Big Three"—CBS, NBC, and ABC. The Big Three provided virtually all of the programs aired on television stations around the country, particularly between the hours of 8:00 and 11:00 P.M.—"prime time." By the early 1980s, however, it was clear that television was changing in fundamental ways that the executives at the Big Three barely understood, if at all. Cable television was offering alternatives to major-network programming in the form of unedited movies, all-news and all-sports formats, music-video channels, and a variety of other endeavors that were challenging conventional wisdom about how the business of television operated. In 1985 the picture for the Big Three seemed especially bleak: all three networks were purchased by larger companies between March and December of that year.
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MTV and its Influence
MTV, or Music Television, a cable television network that devotes most of its programming time to video clips that accompany popular songs, has had a profound influence on young people, and on popular culture in general, since its first broadcast in 1982. Although originally conceived as a promotional tool for the popular music industry, it quickly assumed a life of its own and was embraced by young America as a source of information on the latest trends in music, fashion, and opinion. As a visual companion to rock 'n' roll, the video clips shown on MTV were frequently juvenile, vulgar, tasteless, and violent—which inevitably delighted teenage viewers and offended their parents. Advertisers and studio executives attempted to capitalize on the network's enormous success, and soon commercials, television series, and feature films were being shot in the style of music videos—with glossy visuals, rapid editing, and a throbbing pop-music soundtrack. Most of the biggest musical stars of the decade got their first public exposure on MTV, a circumstance that has led some critics to charge that the video network was instrumental in elevating style and appearance over talent in the music industry.
Start on Nickelodeon.
MTV was one of the corner-stones of the cable revolution that transformed television during the 1980s. It began...
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Magazines for the Affluent.
After the recession of the early 1980s, most of the decade was marked by increased prosperity and a slowdown in the rate of inflation, leaving many Americans with disposable income to spend on magazines that addressed their interests in topics such as fashion, celebrities, children, health, fitness, lifestyle, travel, and new technologies. In a period when style seemed to count for more than substance, the magazines of the 1980s even imparted a new glamour to subjects such as dieting, gardening, and exercising.
Science and Computer Magazines.
In 1980 two new magazines were launched to capitalize on Americans' interest in new scientific discoveries. Time, Inc., introduced Discovery geared for an educated audience interested in the effects of science on daily life, and the Litton Publishing Group brought out Next: The Magazine of the Future, which purported to forecast breakthroughs in science and technology. By 1983 the advent of relatively inexpensive and user-friendly home computers had spawned several new magazines for computer owners, including Family Computing (Scholastic, Inc.); Microkids: The Magazine for Kids Who Love Computers (Warner Software/Cloverdale); and Enter: The World of Computers and Electronic Games (Children's Television Workshop), for ten-to...
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Newspapers in the 1980s
Trouble and Change.
The traditional view of newspapers—fiercely independent papers run by strong individual personalities with strong local ties and flavors in a competitive local market—continued to be less true in the 1980s. More cities were left with single newspapers, all morning editions, as publishers not facing direct competition in local markets eliminated slowly dying afternoon editions.
The founding of USA Today in 1982 by the Gannett group and its chief executive officer, Allan H. Nueharth, was influential in both newspaper content and design, despite Nueharth's stated intention that the paper was a supplement to, rather than a replacement of, local newspapers. But in an era when more and more people chose to get their news and information from television, USA Today taught lessons different from those intended by Neuharth.
USA Today featured a splashy layout with lots of color; short news articles with little analysis; a heavy emphasis on sports; and weather, business, and entertainment snippets for travelers. By 1986 its daily circulation was 1.17 million copies, though Neuharth claimed 4.8 million daily readers. Although the paper was a circulation success, it proved a money loser well into the 1990s. Still,...
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The Nightly News
Networks under Attack.
The news divisions of the Big Three networks were immediately on the defensive as the 1980s began: in June 1980 maverick communications entrepreneur Ted Turner launched his Cable News Network, a twenty-four-hour news channel that posed the first real challenge ever to the major networks' near monopoly on broadcast journalism. Over the next several years CNN scored a number of successes against its larger rivals, for example suing successfully in 1981 for the right to use White House press pool footage that had previously been the exclusive property of the three networks. CNN used young, nonunion employees and small domestic and foreign bureaus to save costs, and it established agreements with local television stations for the rights to use their footage of breaking stories. All of these factors shook an industry that had become complacent in many ways.
Executives at ABC, deciding that the best defense is a good offense, linked the resources of...
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Bigger, Not Better.
The 1980s was a decade in which publishers' business decisions changed the sorts of works available to readers and markedly altered the format in which those works were presented. The combination of recession and inflation that afflicted the American economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s adversely affected book sales and made publishers easy prey for large conglomerates more concerned with profits than good books. At the same time, independent bookstores, often owned and staffed by book lovers, were giving way to large chain stores that had large advertising budgets and could sell books at lower prices because publishers gave them discounts for buying in large quantities. Even after publishers responded to complaints from independent store owners by offering them discounts as well, the small bookshops had difficulty competing with the chains. The result was a growing standardization of offerings nationwide, with both publishers and bookstores merchandising best-sellers and books by popular authors at the expense of books with acknowledged merit but limited sales potential.
Takeovers and Mergers.
The trend of publishing houses being swallowed up by larger and larger conglomerates picked up speed in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s. By 1992 seven giant conglomerates dominated the publishing industry and...
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Five Radios in Every Home.
Radio continued throughout the 1980s to be the most pervasive medium in America. Ninety-nine percent of American households owned radios in the 1980s (compared to 98 percent who owned televisions), and each household had an average of 5.5 radios. Those figures do not take into account automobile radios, which had become standard equipment in most of the 5.5 million passenger cars sold each year. The American radio audience tended to be younger, better educated, and wealthier than the television audience, though Multimedia Audiences, a sampling of media choices at specified times, indicated that 91.7 percent of Americans were likely to be watching television as compared to 85.3 percent who were listening to the radio.
Radio and television differed significantly in the origin of their programming. The three major national television networks dominated prime-time programming, and though FCC rules stipulated that a certain amount of the broadcast day had to be reserved for locally originated programs, network shows were the meat of the television schedule. Radio programs almost always originated locally. Radio networks provided some feeds and owned a handful of stations, but radio was a medium of independent stations airing local programs. The radio listener had access to more than nine...
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Turner Broadcasting System
Ted Turner, the unconventional Atlanta-based entrepreneur who was also known as "Captain Outrageous" and the "Mouth of the South," became one of the pioneers of the burgeoning cable-television industry in the 1980s. Beginning in the late 1970s he parlayed an independent Atlanta television station and an idea for a twenty-four-hour news channel into the foundation of the multibillíon-dollar Turner Broadcasting System.
Image Pop-UpTed Turner celebrates with a team ball girl after the Braves' 8–7 win over the New York Mets on 11 May 1976.
Turner Advertising was a prosperous billboard business in Savannah, Georgia, that Ted Turner inherited under tragic circumstances when his father committed suicide in 1963. Several months earlier, the senior Turner had made a series of business deals that made Turner Advertising the largest outdoor advertising company in the Southeast and gained the company entry into the lucrative market in Atlanta, the capital of the "New South." The company was in financial upheaval after Ed Turner's death, but his son had remarkable success over the next year. He built a clientele made up mostly of...
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Bochco, Steven J. 1943-
Successful and Respected.
Steven J. Bochco was one of the most successful television producers of the 1980s, the creator of two of the decade's most popular and critically lauded series: the police drama Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. Between them the two won the Emmy award for best television drama seven times over the course of the decade. Both series followed an original approach to nighttime drama: they featured large ensemble casts; alternated between dramatic and comic scenes; followed multiple story lines over several episodes; and addressed mature, sometimes controversial, subject matter.
Bochco got his start in television in the story department of Universal Studios in 1966. His first real success was as story editor for NBC's popular Columbo detective series; two of the teleplays he wrote for Columbo earned him Emmy nominations in 1971 and 1972. Throughout the rest of the decade he developed several series, none of which lasted longer than half a season. Bochco was laid off from Universal twice during his tenure there, and his regular clashes with the studio's management helped to establish his reputation as uncompromising and sometimes difficult. In 1978 he was hired by MTM Enterprises, the production studio responsible for The Mary Tyler...
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Brown, Tina 1953-
A Magazine for the 1980s.
One of the most talked about and controversial magazines of the 1980s was Vanity Fair, which editor in chief Tina Brown turned into a near-perfect representation of the interests and tastes of the "yuppie" (young urban professional) or "me" generation. She successfully exploited their obsession with wealth, status, and celebrity to create a magazine that became notorious for publishing stories about Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and long intellectual think pieces next to starstruck movie-celebrity profiles or pictures such as Roseanne and Tom Arnold mud wrestling. As Brown told an interviewer in 1989, "My kind of editing comes very much from the tradition of the eclectic magazine which mixes culture, arts, business—all those things—with an overriding point of view," and, she added, bringing an irreverent viewpoint to "stuffy subjects" can "really make a lot of waves" (Washington Journalism Review, November 1989).
Born in Great Britain and a 1974 graduate of Oxford University, Brown came to Vanity Fair in 1984 from London, where she had taken over the Tat1er in 1979 and quadrupled its circulation in five years. Her success came to the attention of S. I. Newhouse, head of the Condé Nast magazine empire and co-owner with his...
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Cosby, Bill 1937-
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby became one of the most popular television personalities of the 1980s with the success of The Cosby Show, a situation comedy unprecedented in its portrayal of an affluent African American family. Although The Cosby Show occasionally received criticism for ignoring the issues facing the African American community, the series earned some of the highest ratings on television from its debut in the 1984 season.
Cosby had his first success in show business as a stand-up comic in the 1960s. He received national exposure on NBC's Tonight Show in the summer of 1963 and released the first of a series of popular comedy albums in 1964. While many comics were using the growing freedom of that decade to explore controversial, sometimes risqué material, Cosby was making his reputation with humorous recollections of his childhood. Many Americans wondered about the absence of race as a topic in Cosby's stones. As Cosby's success grew he had to defend his choice of material regularly; as he argued, "A white person listens to my act and he laughs and he thinks, 'Yeah, that's the way I see it too.' Okay. He's white. I'm Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike.…So I figure I'm doing as much...
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Maynard, Robert Clyve 1937-1993
First Black Owner.
When RobertMaynard bought the Oakland Tribune in 1983, he became the first black in the United States to own a major daily newspaper. But Maynard had a career full of firsts, from being the first black national newspaper correspondent to being the first black newspaper editor in chief.
The son of immigrants from Barbados, Maynard grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. Interested in writing from an early age, Maynard frequently cut classes at Boys High School in Brooklyn to hang around the editorial offices of the black weekly newspaper the New York Age. By the age of sixteen he had dropped out of school to work full-time as a reporter for the New York Age. In 1956 he moved to Greenwich Village, where he wrote free-lance articles and met writers such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.
Applying for jobs on white-owned newspapers brought no results, and it was 1961 before he found a job on a mainstream paper. Maynard began as a police and urban-affairs reporter for the York (Pa.) Gazette and Daily. In 1965 Maynard applied for a Niemann Fellowship and won, spending 1966 at Harvard University studying economics, art, and...
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Murdoch, Rupert 1931-
Born in Australia but a citizen of the United States since 1985, Rupert Murdoch has become one of the major players in the global media revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. Murdoch is the son of Australian newspaper publisher Sir Keith Murdoch. After graduating from Worcester College, Oxford University, in 1953, Murdoch worked briefly as an editor for Lord Beaverbrook's sensationalist London tabloid the Daily Express. After his father's death in 1952, Murdoch inherited in 1954 the Australian newspapers the Sunday Mail and The News.
Using experience he gained while working on the Daily Express, Murdoch converted The News into a tabloid emphasizing crime and sex. Circulation soared, and Murdoch instituted similar editorial rationales at newly bought newspapers in Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, and Brisbane. In 1964 he established the Australian, a national daily that won respect as a more traditional...
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Newhouse, S. I. 1927-
The cohead of one of the last great family-owned media conglomerates, S. I. Newhouse Jr. runs with his brother Donald a powerful corporation with major holdings in newspaper, book, and magazine publishing as well as cable television.
The son of the late newspaper publisher S. I. Newhouse Sr., Newhouse oversees the family empire, Advance Publications, with his younger brother Donald. S. I. oversees the magazines and publishing concerns while Donald runs the newspapers. Newhouse's brash manner in dealing with employees and his bottom-line approach to publishing made him one of the most hated bosses in the publishing industry.
After dropping out of Syracuse University, where his father had endowed a journalism school, Newhouse began working for his father in the newspaper business, where he failed miserably. He joined Condé Nast, the magazine-publishing arm of Advance Publications, and found his niche. But it was not until his father's death in 1979 that Newhouse began to branch out and build up the empire. In February 1980 Advance Publications and Newhouse bought the Random House publishing group, adding a plum to the empire that had eluded his father.
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Savitch, Jessica 1943-1983
TELEVISION NEWS ANCHOR
When Jessica Savitch died in 1983 she was one of the most recognized news personalities in America and a frequent anchorwoman for NBC Nightly News. Yet few Americans knew of the personal problems that plagued her until reports and biographies began to appear after her death. Her life was a tragic illustration of the stresses that can accompany celebrity in the competitive television industry.
Savitch was raised in New Jersey, the daughter of a clothing merchant whose untimely death traumatized the girl as a teenager. She began working for a local radio station while a sophomore in high school and majored in communications at Ithaca College in New York. Savitch gained her first television experience on the campus station in the mid 1960s; from the start she showed an affinity for the camera that promised a bright future in the medium. She was also demonstrating a drive to succeed that bordered on unhealthy obsession. A strikingly pretty blonde, Savitch worked as a model and as a disc jockey at a Rochester, New York, pop music station in addition to her studies and her appearances on the campus television broadcasts. Her college years were busy but also lonely: her ambition alienated most of her classmates.
In Front of the...
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Winfrey, Oprah 1954-
TELEVISION STAR AND PRODUCER
Changing the Format.
Oprah Winfrey changed the format of the daytime television talk show in the 1980s, scoring huge ratings success with frank discussions of sensitive, sometimes controversial topics. Her nationally syndicated Oprah Winfrey Show was one of the most popular of the decade, and she earned honors as an actress as well.
Winfrey came from a troubled childhood that included sexual abuse and a pregnancy when she was fourteen. Determined to rise above her unhappy circumstances, she entered beauty pageants in Nashville as a teenager and worked part-time at a local radio station. In 1973 she made the jump to television as a newscaster in Nashville; three years later, at age twenty-two, she was hired by ABC's Baltimore affiliate, WJZTV, to coanchor the station's local news. Her career in Baltimore initially foundered, but she found her niche in 1977 as the cohost...
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People in the News
In September 1980 John R. Anderson, publisher of Runner's World magazine, was accused by the FTC of accepting cash bribes to give favorable mention to running shoes in the annual shoe-rating survey published by the magazine.
The Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach sold 165,000 in the first month after it was published in November 1980; by the end of the year there were 550,000 copies in print and the book was among the bestselling paperbacks of the year.
In April 1983 media consultant John Bowen reported the results of a National Association of Broadcasters survey. According to Bowen, television viewers were increasingly attracted to alternatives such as shows on cable networks because "much of TV's regular fare is seen as repetitious, boring and juvenile."
In January 1987 television talk-show host Phil Donahue became the first Western media representative to visit Chernobyl, site of the disastrous 1986 nuclear-power accident. Donahue visited the Ukrainian town during a ten-day visit to the Soviet Union, during which he gathered material for his syndicated talk show.
On 1 April 1988 Douglas Edwards, the first nightly news anchorman in broadcasting, retired. Edwards had been an anchorman at CBS radio since 1942.
Malcolm Forbes, billionaire...
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Outstanding Dramatic Series: Lou Grant (CBS)
Outstanding Comedy Series: Taxi (ABC)
Outstanding Variety Program: IBM Presents Baryshnikov on Broadway (ABC)
Outstanding Dramatic Series: Hill Street Blues (NBC)
Outstanding Comedy Series: Taxi (ABC)
Outstanding Variety Program: Lily: Sold Out (CBS)
Outstanding Dramatic Series: Hill Street Blues (NBC)
Outstanding Comedy Series: Barney Miller (ABC)
Outstanding Variety Program: Night of 100 Stars (ABC)
Outstanding Dramatic Series: Hill Street Blues (NBC)
Outstanding Comedy Series: Cheers (NBC)
Outstanding Variety Program: Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever
Outstanding Dramatic Series: Hill Street Blues (NBC)
Outstanding Comedy Series: Cheers (NBC)
Outstanding Variety Program: The 6th Annual Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of...
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Desi Arnaz, 69, Cuban-born actor, musician and producer, created the television comedy I Love Lucy (1951-1956) with wife Lucille Ball, 2 December 1986.
William Bernbach, 71, founder of the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising firm, 2 October 1982.
Barry Bingham Sr., 82, publisher of the Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal and Times, 15 August 1988.
James Burnham, 82, political essayist and founding editor of the National Review, 28 July 1987.
Cass Canfield, 88, publisher and author associated with Harper and Row for more than sixty years, 27 March 1986.
Milton A. Caniff, 81, cartoonist and creator of the Terry and the Pirates comic strip, 3 April 1988.
Gardner Cowles Jr., 82, head of the Cowles publishing and communications empire, 8 July 1985.
Broderick Crawford, 74, television actor, 26 April 1986.
Dave Garroway, 69, long-time host of the Today program on NBC, 21 July 1982.
Jackie Gleason, 71, television comedian best known for his 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners, 24 June 1987.
Arthur Godfrey, 79, television and radio host, 16 March 1983.
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Ken Auletta, Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way (New York: Random House, 1991);
David Armstrong, A Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981);
Thomas G. Aylesworth, Great Moments of Television (New York: Exeter Books, 1987);
Ben H. Bagdikian, Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon, 1990);
Barnouw, Eric, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990);
Gwenda Blair, Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of the American News (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988);
Alex Ben Block, Outfoxed: Marvin Davis, Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, Joan Rivers, and the Inside Story of America's Fourth Television Network (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990);
The Bowker Annual of Library & Book Trade Information (New York & London: R.R. Bowker, 1981-1990);
Les Brown, Les Browns Encyclopedia of Television (New York: New York Zoetrope, 1982);
David S. Broder, Behind the Front Page (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987);
Jack Casserly, Scripps: The Divided Dynasty (New York: Donald I. Fine, 1993);...
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Important Events in the Media, 1980–1989
- On June 1, Atlanta entrepreneur Ted Turner debuts the twenty-four-hour news channel, Cable News Network (CNN).
- On July 2, in Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, the Supreme Court rules that the press and the public have a right to attend criminal trials.
- From September 15 to September 19, NBC's miniseries Shogun, starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune, captivates audiences.
- On October 14, President Carter signs a law forbidding the unannounced search of newsrooms except in special circumstances.
- On November 21, the nighttime television soap opera Dallas captures the largest audience in history for an episode of a TV series. The episode answers the question from the spring season concerning an attempted assassination of the lead character J.R. Ewing: "Who Shot J.R.?" Some 83 million viewers find out.
- Warner Communications, owners of the Superman character, sue the students of Richard J. Daley College in Chicago for trademark infringement when they name their student newspaper The Daley Planet.
- On January 12, ABC debuts the prime-time soap opera Dynasty.
- On January 15, Hill Street Blues, a police drama produced by Steven Bochco, debuts on...
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