Traveling Hopefully in the Long Term (1984)

Norman Lear on Business, Politics and Culture

Speech Excerpts, 1972 – 2011

Traveling Hopefully in the Long Term (1984)

Success is not a destination.  It is a journey.  Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”  There is only one arrival in life – and that is at the end of life.  All the achievements, the moments of success, are merely milestones along the way.

As a nation, we thought we had “arrived” when we achieved the world’s highest standard of living; when we had the atom bomb; when we and our allies defeated the Axis Powers; when the American motor car was the standard of the world and American technology reigned supreme.  Only 20 minutes ago, it seems, our consumer electronics industry had “arrived” to the point that we manufactured the bulk – over 85 percent – of the world’s radios and TV sets and hi-fi’s and typewriters, and on and on….

As a nation, as individuals, as businesses, complacency sets in with this notion of having arrived.  And with the complacency that follows the end of a journey, we stop addressing the future.  We sit smug and satisfied in the present – until we are overtaken and overwhelmed – by other nations and businesses that have resisted the impulse toward complacency and have, instead, dedicated themselves to traveling hopefully and working industriously to build a better tomorrow…..

My industry, television, is perhaps the best example of the failure to continue traveling hopefully.  The name of the game for the networks, when they are deciding what ideas are worthy of air time, is  “How do I win Tuesday night at 8 o’clock?”  They do not ask, for example, “How do I program responsibly in the long-range interest of the viewer?”  They do not ask themselves how the sex, smarm and violence they program may be affecting your children.  They do not ask, “How do I innovate, how do I re-invent the wheel so as to keep network television consistently changing and maturing in the long-range interest of the shareholder?”  It is simply, “How do I win Tuesday night at 8 o’clock?”

If the heads of the three networks were standing in a circle with razors to each other’s throats, they could not be committing suicide more deliberately.  Just as, it seems clear now, the big three were doing all those years ago in Detroit, when they refused to innovate, to build small, fuel-efficient cars; refused to sacrifice a current quarterly profit statement to invest in the future, and meet the threat of the imports from abroad.  Or the steel companies when they wouldn’t modernize.  Or the labor unions in both industries, when they fought only for added wages and benefits – instead of fighting to modernize and to protect their members’ jobs in the long term.

There are no villains in all of this.  It is a matter of climate.  The average network programming executive is trapped.  Imagine yourself in this job:  You wake up in the morning and read in The New York Times that your network didn’t have one show in the Top Ten.  Your palms sweat.  On your way into the office, you pick up The Wall Street Journal, which now prints an analysis of projected earnings based on ratings.  Your network’s projected earnings are down.  You walk into the office and a warm Xerox of last night’s overnight ratings are on your desk.  You didn’t win a single time slot.  Now your first appointment of the day is with tomorrow’s Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky who has a fresh, innovative idea.  I submit that you are in no condition to hear a new idea.  What you must have, and quickly, is a new version of something that is working on one of the other networks….

Television must, of course, pay attention to business, and prosper economically.  But it must never overlook the human essence, that spirit which defies the marketplace and its economic calculus of motives.

From “Traveling Hopefully in the Long Term, ” at The Securities Industry Association,Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, May 7, 1984.