Cavett's Cure for Commercial Television: "Start All Over"

The host of "The Dick Cavett Show" on television started his show-business career as a comedy writer.

Photo Gallery: 75 Years of U.S. News Photography

This story originally appeared in the June 4, 1979, issue of U.S.News & World Report.

"Networks are at fault" for trying to clone hits
I don't watch much commercial television, because I really don't find many programs that are entertaining. There are exceptions, but many programs are so weightless and nonentertaining that I cannot imagine how even the so-called mass audience finds them interesting.

What's lamentable is that I don't see any way of improving commercial television short of starting all over. So many of the programs are merely duplicates of each other; it all seems so homogenized.

Networks are at fault because they're great imitators. TV hits are generally determined by the numbers who watch them. The networks see this and try to imititate the hits. The problem is that the imitation generally comes of slightly weaker than the program imitated, and it all spirals downward.

Yet one often hears the network executives say in public how they're trying to raise the level of television programing. "This is our responsibility to the public," they say. But when it comes to the crunch, can any network executive afford to go for quality when a stockholders' meeting is coming up and a quality program may mean sacrificing ratings and money? I don't know of a case where that's happened yet.

"A nation of spectators—that's the real danger"
Television may have made this a nation of spectators. That's the real danger. All those evenings, weeks, months and years of people sitting there passively staring at screens cannot help but numb the brain.

This is not an indictment of talk shows, but I suppose many people cannot make conversation—so they watch other people talk on television. Or perhaps they have no sex or violence in their lives, but they would like to—so they watch television and are vicariously thrilled or repulsed by it. It's quite possible that the mental and intellectual health of the country would be better off if people didn't stare into that glowing box for so many hours.

"It's amazing how people sit in front of a television set but never seem to laugh? The laughter comes from a sound track—but the average viewer never asks him-self: "Why am I not laughing?" They hear the canned laughter and figure it must be funny.

Fallout from "living in blander times"
These are less interesting times for talk shows.

A few years ago, the subject of politics always provided for interesting discussion on television. Three magic words—Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon—could polarize an audience. Now I have very few opportunities to get mad at guests, or for a guest to get mad at me or the audience. I miss that sheer excitement.

Today, shows are a little blander. You have to be very careful that living in blander times does not result in blander programs.

Public TV as "an intellectual refuge"
I hope public television doesn't become an intellectual refuge. It should be a place where a viewer is exposed to higher-quality shows than on commercial television.

Some public-television people say they are not interested in ratings, but that isn't entirely true. They have to be interested in ratings because of the companies that underwrite many of the programs. They must have something to show for their money.

I can interview a classical violinist and the show may receive a very low rating—while if I interview a famous comedian, the rating may be much higher. The quality audience may prefer the violinist, but a station manager might prefer the comedian for "numbers" purposes.

It's quite possible for a show to go off the air because it is often of very high quality but does not have enough viewers. That's a serious problem.