Pay TV vs. Free TV – Sylvester “Pat” Weaver – Vincent Wasilewski – Commonwealth Club of Calif. May 15, 1964 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
A debate featuring former NBC President Sylvester “Pat” Weaver and Vincent Wasilewski, President of the National Association of Broadcasters. The subject was Cable Television, or Pay TV as it was called at the time. Weaver was a proponent of Pay TV and Wasilewski was an opponent.
What’s striking about this debate, aside from it being over 50 years ago, is the fact that it’s one more instance of a new technology being touted as a cultural savior in an otherwise cultural wasteland overrun with crass commercialism, lowest common denominator appeal and escapist entertainment.
Weaver, who was President of an organization called Subscription Television Inc. argued that commercial (or free) TV had abandoned its promise long ago – trading in the opportunity to present programming of a cultural nature, for escapist entertainment weighed down by endless commercials. What Weaver suggested was utilizing cable technology to offer the audience something completely different in exchange for charging a monthly fee to access. Weaver was a staunch believer that Media had the power to entertain but also to educate – and his two crowning achievements at NBC were proof of that – on the radio side, Weaver developed Monitor, a weekend radio service that promised to be “going places and doing things”. And on the TV side he developed The Today Show – a weekday morning program that was a two-hour exploration of the world on any given day. Likewise, he also developed The Tonight Show – both programs became prototypes for the talk show format that exists even to this day.
Like every technological advance for the past hundred + years, a promise of cultural riches and vast improvements in quality captures the imagination and people flock to it. Radio, it must be remembered, was the promise of Symphonies and Opera and cultural events – all laid out for the person of modest means, who didn’t have a New York Philharmonic in their hometown but who wanted the cultural experience. And it was that way, for a while – and then The Depression hit and radio suddenly became the place to escape to, and culture took a backseat. The same with Television. The early ads for TV touted a vast world of cultural and arts programming. The best drama from Broadway – a visual feast for the living room.
But with each of those technological advances, the promise was never fully fulfilled – and TV, like Radio became the place of escapist diversion and mind-numbing mediocrity.
And the initial promise of Cable eventually became the Free TV you paid for. All the “regular” channels wound up as Cable channels and an endless number of Cable channels have sprouted up as no more than platforms for info-mercials.
Ironically, Wasilewski argues that cable would eventually be in every home in America and what was once free would no longer be free and that Cable TV was a cleverly disguised ruse to take something that had been offered as free and put a price-tag on it.
Both debaters were right. Weaver argued that Cable TV would offer things Free TV never would. And Weaver was approaching his idea as one with an optimistic view of things – that people really wanted Culture and useful information and were curious about the world. Wasilevski saw it as an erosion of what was free and turning into something it was never initially intended to be and that people ultimately wanted to escape and not be challenged and certainly not have to pay for the privilege.
What is fascinating is, some 55 years later, we have to pay for “free TV”, and have to pay for Internet, another Technological advance weighed down with the promise of bright and hopeful futures and “information super highways”, and radio is virtually extinct – but we didn’t know that in 1964 and cable seemed like an unattainable goal just by sheer logistics.
As a reminder of promises kept and promises abandoned, here is that debate between Sylvester “Pat” Weaver and Vincent Wasilewski at the Commonwealth Club of California as it was broadcast on May 15, 1964.