The Golden Age of Television
In describing the place television was to occupy in the American future, Richard W. Hubbell in 1942 essentially predicted the medium that emerged within a decade. For all its insufficiencies, national television performed for most Americans as "a combination movie theater, museum, educator, news reporter, playhouse, daily picture magazine, political forum and discussion center, propaganda and counterpropaganda dispenser, art gallery, vaudeville show, opera and ballet theater, plus a few other things rolled into one." Significantly, Hubbell added, "Television is also a new branch of the business world—a new form of advertising infinitely more powerful than any other form."
Whether purchased for personal enjoyment or to placate clamoring children, whether embraced to keep up with neighbors or to satisfy personal curiosities, most Americans bought receivers and did not question the medium or its impact. Yet the sudden availability of television challenged traditional social patterns. By 1949 government statistics suggested that TV was the cause of major declines in movie attendance, book purchases, admissions to professional sport events, radio listening, and attendance at the theater and the opera. Cab drivers complained that since the arrival of TV fewer people were using taxis in the evening hours. Restaurant operators and bar owners blamed the attractiveness of TV for business losses. Educators claimed that video was undermining the study habits of students.
On a personal level, too, television made its impact. In the late 1940s and early 1950s owners of television sets were visited by neighbors and relatives eager to view the new medium, often on a recurring basis. The degree to which such socializing became a national phenomenon was apparent in the humorous guidelines for "television guests at your home" read by Don McNeill on his ABC program
Don McNeill's TV Club on May 9, 1951:
- Seating: The front row, floor level is for kids. Grownups venturing there do so at their own risk. Owner is not responsible for damage done by water pistols, half nelsons, or lollypops during Westerns, wrestling, or puppet shows. The overstuffed chairs are for members of the family, guests over eighty, or anyone with the miseries. Latter must bring own bottle of Hadacol to prove it.
- Picture quality: Guests will not tamper with the brightness, clearness, focus, volume, or anything else. If the picture is too bright, too dark, too high, too low, too this, or too that, remember the set is adjusted to suit our eyes. It's much cheaper to change our guests than to change our glasses.
- Refreshments: Please don't expect food or drinks to be served. We don't have a lunch
counter license. We don't believe in indoor picnics. Guests bringing lunches will be expected to share same with the family. After all, TV has changed our mealtime schedule, too. And for those who need liquid refreshments, you'll find clean glasses on the kitchen sink, and the faucet on the right is the cold.
- Comparisons: We have no interest in names, makes, or locations of television sets that are supposed to have larger screens, produce clearer pictures, are easier on the eyes, or are better in any way. Of this set we simply say that (a) It's ours; (b) It's paid for; and (c) It's a Philco, and there goes your argument.
- Exits: All doors open outward and can be used at any time. In any case they should be used within fifteen minutes after the program is terminated.
- Program termination: A simple majority of the immediate family may vote when to turn off the set.
- A final word: Good night.
In this national stampede to TV, the television set became a common household appliance that was marketed as a perpetually improving. Much as automobile manufacturers sold new and improved models every year, set manufacturers offered their products as improved year after year. This is most obvious in a viewing of the elaborate Technicolor sales pitches for the
1956 models of RCA-Victor television receivers.
The appeal of television cut across educational and economic levels. By mid-1953 a total of 43 percent of families with grammar-school educations possessed receivers; that figure was 57 percent for the high-school-educated, and 48.4 percent for the college-educated. In occupational terms, 61 percent of those in the crafts and skilled labor owned television sets; for other professions the percentages were: laborer and operator, 53.6; professional and executive, 54.9; and clerical, sales, and service, 52.4. More reflective of poor reception than rural disdain, only 20.3 percent of farm families owned sets in mid-1953.
If Americans bought television sets it was primarily because they liked what they saw. And what they saw was the visual realization of familiar types of diversion, often derived from other media and hosted by or starring celebrities from the world of entertainment. Comedic performers such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Eve Arden, and Lucille Ball came to TV from success in the theater, motion pictures, and radio. Veteran private detectives and policemen of popular culture such as
Mr. and Mrs. North, Ellery Queen, and Mr. District Attorney appeared in their own series. Western champions such as Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and The Lone Ranger—from movies, radio, novels, comic books, and comic strips—found quick approval on TV. And with the emergence of network daytime programming by the early 1950s, the networks took a popular radio art form, the serialized weekday soap opera, and adapted it to audiovisual specifications.
Network TV also produced its own pop culture heroes and celebrities. There were new crime-stoppers such as private eyes Mike Barnett of
Man Against Crime and Martin Kane of Martin Kane, Private Eye, as well as stalwart police officials in series such as
The Plainclothesman and Rocky King, Detective. New cowboy characters appeared: Kit Carson, the Range Rider, and Wild Bill Hickok. Video even offered renewed opportunities for those —such as Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Jackie Gleason, and Milton Berle—who had been unspectacular in other media.
From the outset, television established a substantial range of programming. Almost four million people saw part of the 1947 World Series live on TV (more than 87 percent of these on receivers in public places), and with its live coverage of the heavyweight boxing championship bout between Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott in June 1948, TV realized what its most optimistic supporters expected in sports coverage.
As a political medium, television's network coverage of elections and government happenings suggested early that the medium would be a significant addition to American politics. Early coverage of the proceedings of the U.N. General Assembly helped to popularize that international organization and reverse traditional isolationist American foreign policy. Veteran radio newsmen such as Edward R. Murrow, Robert Trout, Eric Sevareid, and H. R. Baukhage, broadcasters who had helped inform the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, now brought their prestige and authority to television reportage. And they were joined by new broadcast journalists, among them John Cameron Swayze, Pauline Frederick, Douglas Edwards, and Walter Cronkite.
In the search for popular program forms, network TV even turned to religion. Of course, there were long-running religious series on Sunday mornings, such as
Frontiers of Faith and The Eternal Light on NBC and Look Up and Live and Lamp unto My Feet on CBS. But from 1951 to 1954 evangelist Billy Graham appeared on
Hour of Decision, a quarter-hour program in ABC prime time. More memorably, Roman Catholic bishop Fulton J. Sheen was a sermonizing presence on evening TV in
Life Is Worth Living on DuMont from 1952 to 1955, and then Mission to the World on ABC from 1955 to 1957. On
Crossroads, moreover, religious dramas—half-hour stories sponsored by General Motors for Chevrolet that featured renowned movie stars in tales based on the actual experiences of priests, ministers, and rabbis—was an anthology series on ABC from 1955 to 1957.
Above all, this was the Golden Age of live television, marked by achievement in two distinct types of entertainment: great comedy-variety shows that brought the leading comedians before the national audience, and dramatic showcases that temporarily turned television into a training ground for a generation of gifted writers, producers, and actors.
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