Golden Age of Television Drama
If one promise of TV had been a "theater in your home," in the first half of the 1950s it was impressively realized in weekly showcases such as
The Kraft Television Theater, Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio One, and
The Philco TV Playhouse. The preeminent television publication, TV Guide—the national television magazine introduced in April 1953—even printed a separate listing for the live dramas of the week.
In their early seasons TV dramas and comedies offered employment for stars from screen and stage, but more often such shows were testing grounds for emerging young talents. Typically,
The Kraft Television Theater on January 25, 1950, offered "Kelly," a romantic comedy with newcomers Anne Francis and E. G. Marshall and starring veteran actor George Reeves, one year before
The Adventures of Superman would make him a household favorite as the extraterrestrial fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. Almost two years before his Academy Award performance in the film
Cyrano de Bergerac, Jose Ferrer appeared as Cyrano on The Philco Television Playhouse on January 9, 1949. And on June 22, 1949, unknowns Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint starred with the well-known actress Glenda Farrell in "June Moon," an early production on
The aesthetics of live programming tied television to the theatrical tradition of intimacy with the audience. Some called it the "two seats on the aisle" theory, in which the viewer was approached as a member of a large theater audience. Others subscribed to the idea that programs needed to unfold as if there were four viewers in the audience. Compared to the distancing qualities of motion pictures, either theory projected a sense of proximity and immediacy intended to lure viewers.
Even when live performances were telecast as kinescope recordings—and in the early 1950s most dramatic showcases were so filmed and distributed—the sense of theatrical presence was communicated. As explained in 1949 by Marc Daniels, a director for
The Ford Theater Hour—and later director of the first season of
I Love Lucy—“Legitimate drama in television is basically theater. It is true that we use the camera techniques of moving pictures and the time element of radio, but all the other factors of production most closely resemble the theater.”
Television in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a new medium with vitality and uncharted potentialities. For many involved with the industry, these were exciting and creative times. This was particularly true for the directors, writers, and producers mounting weekly dramatic plays. Here were young directors such as George Schaefer, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, Yul Brynner, Delbert Mann, Daniel Petrie, and George Roy Hill. Many had come to television with experience in theater. Unlike their counterparts in film, who could rely on multiple takes, intricate editing techniques, and large budgets, these first TV directors had to handle large casts in live shows that were staged with no room for mistakes and completed within restricted periods of time—often with lowly paid neophyte actors.
The medium was also a creative experience for a generation of postwar American playwrights. Television was open to young writers such as Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Robert Alan Aurthur, Horton Foote, Gore Vidal, and Tad Mosel. Even book publishers recognized the artistry of these times, periodically printing anthologies of the best TV scripts of the year. ."For the writer, television is a godsend," wrote dramatist David Shaw in 1954, "for here at least is a medium which will give him a chance." He continued, "Television is the greatest school for writers ever devised, and I don't doubt but that some of the better writers of the future will get their start and their encouragement from the great new medium."
Despite the importance of actors, directors, and writers, from the beginning the producer was the most vital element in the nascent industry. There was no handbook explaining how to become a TV producer. As Herb Brodkin remembered it thirty-five years after arriving in television, "I became a producer almost out of self-defense. We had to get a show out every week and nobody really knew how to do that, so we just did it."
To the budding medium came energetic young producers such as Brodkin (The Elgin Hour, The Plymouth Playhouse), David Susskind (The Kraft Television Theater), Martin Ritt (Starlight Theater), and Worthington Miner (Studio One, Curtain Call), and Martin Manulis (Climax). Responsible for everything from accepting scripts and hiring a cast to arguing with meddlesome sponsors and advertising agencies, the producer quickly emerged, in the words of Paddy Chayefsky, as "the brains of TV." In describing one of his favorites, Fred Coe of
The Goodyear Television Playhouse and The Philco Television Playhouse, Chayefsky illustrated the controls that producers exercised over what was seen on television:
I worked with Fred Coe and—oh, my—what a fine producer he is! Coe got more freedom for the writer than most television producers, but he fought for every inch of it. His programs were a success, so he enjoyed the confidence of the networks and the advertising agencies. I really don't know much about the backdoor fighting in the TV world because when you worked with Fred you were never troubled by anyone—not the networks, not the agencies. If he said "sounds like a good idea, go ahead and write it," that was the deal. I wrote about ten or eleven scripts for Fred. The third was
Because early video nurtured talents such as Coe, Chayefsky, Lumet and Lemmon, it is incorrect to assume that TV programming was always an artistic triumph. For every memorable dramatic success, the medium offered hundreds—many hundreds—of shows that were average at best. Turned out according to familiar formulas of boy-meets-girl, good-triumphant-over-evil, love-conquers-all, and the like, these productions fed the great showcases as well as the filmed half-hour programs that thrived. During the 1954-1955 season, for example, the eight network series offering live dramas staged 343 plays. And the ten filmed anthology series used about 400 scripts. Such productions came from sources as varied as respected dramatists and unknown writers submitting unsolicited scripts. Furthermore, the financial reward for such creativity was not impressive: in 1955 fees for hour-long dramas extended from $500 to $750 on
Robert Montgomery Presents to $1,000 on The Kraft Television Theater and $2,500 to $3,000 on
In a Golden Age of well-remembered theatrical giants, however, there were many creative pygmies at work. With an enormous appetite for mass-appeal programs and with myriad influences from inartistic, self-interested sources, network TV necessarily accepted much that was mediocre. For Mrs. A. Scott Bullitt, president of the King Broadcasting Company in Seattle, the dynamics of such shows could be reduced to a simple recipe. Speaking in 1952 before a group of educators and industry officials, she shared her "recipe for an average program."
Take 1 cup of Sponsor's Requirements and sift gently, next
2 tablespoons of Agency Ideas, carefully chilled, add
1/2 dozen Staff Suggestions, well-beaten. However fresh and flavorful, they will curdle
when combined with Agency Ideas, so they must be beaten until stiff.
Stir together in a smoke-filled room and sprinkle generously with Salesman's Gimmicks.
Cover the mixture with a tight lid so that no Imagination can get in and no Gimmicks can get out,
and let stand while the costs increase.
Then take 1 jigger of Talent, domestic will do.
Flavor with Production Problems
A pinch of Doubt
And, if you have any, a dash of Hope.
Fold these ingredients carefully together so they can get into a small studio.
This requires a very light touch as the slightest jolt will sour the results.
Be sure to line the pan with Union Regulations otherwise the mixture will stick.
Place in the oven with your fingers crossed.
Sometimes it comes out a tasty delicacy, and
Sometimes, it's just cooked.
Lest the playwrights of fledgling television—even the quality writers—forget they were creating for a mass medium with its roots in commerce, they inevitably confronted limitations on what they could say and show, especially when their dramas treated controversial issues. Whether the impetus came from sponsors and their agencies anxious about taking sides, or networks and local stations fearful of the reaction of viewers and advertisers, pressures toward blandness were powerful. Interference could be petty, such as the insistence of Alcoa (the Aluminum Company of America) that a lynching in "Tragedy in a Temporary Town" on
The Alcoa Hour in 1956 could not be set in a trailer camp because most mobile homes were constructed of aluminum. Writer Reginald Rose had to substitute wooden shacks for aluminum trailers.
Advertiser involvement could also involve political issues. Describing why he could not write a TV drama about the civil rights controversy demanding national attention in the late 1950s, Paddy Chayefsky claimed that "you can't write the Little Rock thing because they can't sell the sets down South...or you can't sell the aluminum paper down South." Reginald Rose described how in 1954 he was compelled to alter his play "Thunder on Sycamore Street"—a drama about a black family beset by white racists—because it "was unpalatable to the network since many of their stations are situated in southern states, and it was felt that viewers might be appalled at the sight of a Negro as the beleaguered hero of a television drama."
Although writer Gore Vidal could maintain that "TV is a wonderful place to experiment. A writer can tackle anything if he learns how to dodge around the 'forbidden subjects'," Rod Serling was more convinced that censorship was "the big problem." As he told an interviewer in 1957, "I've found censorship always begins with the network. Then it spreads to the advertising agency. Then the sponsor. Among them, when they get through, there isn't very much left."
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