Television Basics – Episode 2: The Early Years
Previously, on Television Basics: We covered the most crucial facts about television – as its first and most important role, TV is an advertising delivery service; that the technology of the device itself sometimes overshadowed the actual programming and forced viewers to purchase more televisions to keep up with the tech changes and TV is not able to properly reflect our society as it must cater to the companies that buy commercial time. This time, we will look at the early part of the mass hysteria that brought this form of mass media into everyone’s lives.
I mentioned that there were many early cases of what could be called “censorship” on television, and I want to touch on that briefly before we go any further. As an outlet that needs to be “protected” for the sponsors (who clearly want their products presented in the best and most wonderful light possible), television immediately made certain that proper language, etiquette, and appropriate themes were always in place. This concept was known as the “Television Code” and even had its own logo: The Seal of Good Practice. Television, in its eagerness to become a platform for its advertisers, had guaranteed that it would do anything and everything to make them the most important element of broadcasting, and that their sponsors need not fear any controversies over broadcast material. Watch for this theme throughout, as it will reoccur.
1948 was a very important year. Television was still in its infancy, and most people still considered it “Radio With Pictures” at this point. But in the Autumn of 1948, the first ever World Series was carried on television, The Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves, and it was simulcast on all four networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and Dumont. For the first time, people could see a baseball game without going to the ballpark: America’s National Pastime came home.
The idea was to sell TV sets, get those sets into people’s houses and start getting those commercials into those family’s heads. But buying a television was an expensive business! A twenty inch diagonal black and white console set you back about a thousand dollars, or just about the same price as a new car at the time!
It made sense that television would want the most affluent people to purchase their receivers, because those people would also have the most expendable income and could purchase the most frivolous products on their cathode ray tubes!
And, in its way, television was helping to maintain a racial divide because of this: the people with money in the USA were white, and those were the people the sponsors sought out, so television created a platform where minorities were all but excised from existence! This was also echoed in real life, where many Caucasians were “escaping” the cities to a new life in the suburbs, where minorities often could not go: Levittown famously did not permit people of color to buy homes in its community.
On the positive side, the US economy improved during the post war years, and as soldiers and sailors took advantage of the “G.I. Bill” to start their families, television promised education, entertainment and everything short of miracles, so that needed to be a part of the scene.
By 1949, television was becoming the “must own” item for every USA family. If you didn’t have one, you had to visit your friends or neighbors who did, and who really wanted to have to do that? In America you had to have your own. That’s as true now as it was then! But what was on television that was so important to see? This is the secret that helps explain the genius of how this medium became extra large.
First you have to understand the limitations of TV at the time. Cameras were big, bulky, hulking monsters that had huge lenses that sometimes warped the picture, fisheye style for the broadcast, and long cables for tails that prevented a lot of motion. As such, many of these early shows featured static shots, sometimes called “master shots,” where you see a full stage and the camera is fixed in a single location. Just as often, there were mid range or close up shots that also didn’t move very much. The idea was to show what they could while making sure they didn’t screw up the picture, something the wire antennas were already doing on the rooftops of houses.
However, the people who appeared on screen were the draw. Many of the programs from this early era of TV went to folks from the Vaudeville circuit: Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, George Burns, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby. It was crucial that the names that got headlined on television were people that were recognizable, and had larger than life personalities, because everything was being shrunk on the small screen.
So, in 1949, you had a full complement of programs on these networks, and that was all the more reason to tune in and watch. Also notable is that our ever present sponsors were actually helping craft the shows that you saw, and did so blatantly, by having the name of the company in the program title: Texaco Star Theater, Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, The Voice of Firestone.
Television needed to be “important” and just the fact that you could watch a live picture from New York while sitting in St. Louis gave people pause. Who wouldn’t want that in their living rooms?
There was more. Television was providing entertainment for the entire family. Kids delighted in the “Howdy Doody” program. Housewives got their fill of drama from the soap operas. Politicos got to hear newsmakers talk on “Meet The Press.” And everyone got to laugh at themselves on “Candid Camera.”
And a Cuban bandleader named Desi Arnaz came up with a concept that is still in use today: “the three camera shoot.” Knowing the limitations of how cameras could move (or really, couldn’t move!), Arnaz created a form to show things on screen, as part of a method of storytelling which came to be known as “the situation comedy.” By devising a placement of the three cameras with angles that covered the same scene, he was able to get the master shots, close ups for reactions and mid range views that permitted a very natural looking set up for the viewer. Shooting a program with a live audience on hand for actual reactions, Arnaz and his wife, Lucille Ball, created “I Love Lucy,” and it became a sensation that continues to entertain, even today.
But keep in mind that at its root, television was still working to get people to purchase more products, whether it was a new car, a different brand of coffee, that cigarette that will make your day perfect or, of course, a new and better television set, the commercials were often more outstanding, more creative and more memorable than the shows that aired them!
By 1950, television had moved from art to science, and it was clear that the networks were dividing up the viewership in their own way. CBS and NBC, being the more storied of the 4 existing networks at the time, were battling it out for viewers of all sorts, while ABC and Dumont both scrambled to get a toehold. The Alphabet managed to position itself to get younger viewers, by tying its program schedule to Disney: Walt himself launched a program for the network he called “Disneyland,” (a precursor for the eventual theme park) which showed feature films and documentaries produced by the Disney studios. Perhaps more importantly, a new daily program for kids that rivaled the popularity of “Howdy Doody,” “The Mickey Mouse Club” began in 1955 and featured a full cast of kid performers and went on to sell billions of black felt beanies with round plastic ears stapled to them. You can see how the network connections we think about today were very deeply rooted in the things that were happening a half century ago! Another example: the famed NBC three tone chimes are the musical notes “G-E-C” for “General Electric Company.”
When Dumont wasn’t able to slice a significant piece of the viewership pie, or make a corporate connection like the others managed, they fell by the wayside, leaving what was to become “The Big Three.”
“Three is a Magic Number,” we’ve been told. And for years, it was CBS, NBC and ABC. These three networks controlled the audience in several ways, not the least of which was all agreeing to abide by the aforementioned “Television Code.” This is crucial to how television worked. Had any of the networks held out and chosen to put the advertisers second to the content, perhaps this would have been a different broadcast world today (and in considering this now, that very issue could have been Dumont’s hook to remain on the scene, had they been bold enough to try it). I’m not saying they needed to throw a “Chicago Hope” style “Shit Happens” comment on every show they aired, but if they had just chosen to portray life as it was instead of the 1950s sitcom the advertisers were luring their potential customers with, who knows what might have happened?
The programming throughout this era was filled with new concepts and old movies. Programming had to come from someplace so that place was Hollywood, with films that were edited, and then all of the other programming available. New York was the center of the TV universe, with most of NBC’s programs originating from the RCA Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and CBS had production facilities on Broadway, including the former Oscar Hammerstein Theater on 53rd Street, where a new show, “The Toast of the Town” was getting going. Its host was a newspaper columnist named Ed Sullivan, and he would select acts that had a wide variety of interest for the audience, and arranged the lineup of the show so that everybody in the family would find something they liked. This concept, the “variety” show, was lifted directly from Vaudeville/Burlesque and managed to work perfectly for the small screen.
But there were also local channels. If you were in a major metropolitan area, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Philadelphia, you were sure to have not just the network affiliates of the 3, but also little independent stations that tried to rival the giants with their programming. It’s almost impossible to think of small stations working on their own today, since there literally are no television affiliates in any of the major markets that are truly “independent” any more. Everyone must answer to a network. And this is also because of money issues, because networks provide not just programming, but facilities, promotion, guaranteed revenues from the sponsors that advertise nationally, and equipment which they can use on local programming, like their own newscasts.
“The Golden Age of Television” is a phrase often associated with this era in broadcasting, and the “innocence” and “purity” that was portrayed in the programming of this time was clearly at the heart of why it was beloved, but when you examine the reasoning behind it, the concepts that inspired it, and the elements that were clearly blocked, like minorities in the majority, perhaps the gold was more tarnished than many television historians are willing to admit.
Your assignment this time is to think about how TV would be different today had they not created “The Television Code,” and how sponsors might have dealt with it. Are there cases where the “Code” was a positive thing for audiences (as opposed to advertisers), or was this simply self-censorship for profit? Was television a passive or an active player in the continued oppression of non-whites in their ignorance of minorities on screen?
Next time, we’ll enter the Space Age and we’ll get serious.