More and more the name of the game for the networks became: "How do I win Tuesday night at 8 o'clock?" The substance of a program became almost incidental. We know the result now. The networks' share of prime-time audience has slipped from 92% in 1978 to less than 78% today. ABC has been acquired by Capital Cities and is still in trouble. NBC has been acquired by General Electric. And the once pre-eminent CBS, even after laying off hundreds, acts as if it is struggling to keep its head above water.
I would suggest that the fate of the networks befell another Big Three many years before--the Big Three auto makers. They, too, failed to heed the handwriting on the wall and refused to innovate, refused to sacrifice a current quarterly profit statement to invest in the future. There is the ailing steel industry that refused to modernize and invest in its future. There are the labor unions that fought only for added wages and benefits--and not for protecting members' jobs in the long term. There is the consumer electronics industry that surrendered the compact disc technology to Japan and Holland--where firms were willing to make long-term investments.
We worship at the altar of the numerical bitch-goddesses: Nielsen ratings; Dow Jones index and opinion polls. Politicians give more credence to polls than their own gut instincts. Students surrender self-image to SAT scores.
Despite our reliance on this imperium of numbers, we too easily forget that no numerical scale can truly represent the values that are most important: The spirit that makes a worker give his or her best. The altruism that yearns to be used.
There is a hurt and confusion in this nation to which attention must be paid. There is fear, resentment and anxiety among our fellow-citizens, making them ripe for extremists who offer promises of easy salvation. Many Americans are losing, or have lost, faith in institutions and in their leaders; there is little in the culture to satisfy the needs of the soul.
Robert Louis Stevenson said, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." We think we arrive with each moment of success--the high rating or the improved profit statement--and we ignore the human values, the meaning of traveling hopefully.
Conservative columnist Michael Novak has said: "A commercial system needs taming and correction by a moral-cultural system independent of commerce." I believe that. But what we have today is a commercial system that is, itself, the dominant force; its influence and impact is largely responsible for the moral-cultural system. Then how can we reclaim the commonweal from the mindless game show it has become?
We can start by recognizing that government has a major responsibility. I am a product of the free-enterprise system and cherish it. I am also a human being and cherish my humanity. But everything I know about human nature tells me we are innately selfish. When we, the people, must care for things that are \o7 ours\f7 --our water, our air, our safety, our protection from myriad harmful things we reasonable, good people are capable of doing to each other--we have to rely on government. Through government, we provide for the common welfare.
Business nurtures the conceit that its behavior is purely private--but take one look at the largess it receives from government: It once accounted for 29% of federal tax revenues, now down to 6%. Take a look, too, at corporate funding in the political process and it is clear why government must play a more influential role in protecting the commonweal.
As individuals, all of us need to rehabilitate the idea of public service, to set new ethical standards for business, to harness the natural idealism of young people and to encourage leadership everywhere to assume a greater burden of responsibility to lead. As I said, the villain is the climate. It needs changing.