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Television Basics – Episode 2: The Early Years

November 27, 2010

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.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2010 1:05 am

    Loving this series, so much! The early years of television are heavily idealised and I enjoyed delving into their darker aspects here.

  2. November 28, 2010 10:35 am

    Great work here!

    I’d just like to add that the Television Code was based directly on the Motion Picture Production Code, but in some ways it was even stricter. For example, the networks agreed not to show “fortune-telling, astrology, phrenology, palm-reading, and numerology” in any way that might encourage audiences to try these things. Now, I don’t think phrenology (the reading of bumps on people’s heads) had been practiced in any significant way since the 19th century, but the networks were still scared of looking like they were endorsing it.

    Also, famously, Lucile Ball couldn’t tell her husband, “I’m pregnant.” She had to say, “I’m going to have a baby.” And I guess the stork was going to bring it…

  3. November 28, 2010 12:31 pm

    @ s.e. thanks very very much! I think what you can see when you examine television as a place for advertisers is how that radically alters what everything is all about. Compare that to the development of the internet, which really was more about communication between various parties. This is also why many companies are having problems getting a handle on how to advertise online. The “sponsor” model was not built into the world wide web the way it was with TV.

  4. November 28, 2010 12:38 pm

    @heathereff you’re exactly right. the Television Code was a direct descendant of the Motion Picture Code, which had other odd rules, like if a man and woman were sitting on a bed together, they each had to have a minimum of one foot on the floor!

    Not being able to say “pregnant” was one of the more bizarre decisions that came through this era. But, on television at that time, every conception was an immaculate one, and brought to you by Ajax: Stronger Than Dirt!

    And actually, we also had the issue of married couples sleeping in separate single beds… so when Lucy and Ricky became with child… the big question was did Ricky go over to Lucy’s bed, did Lucy go to Ricky’s or…

  5. November 28, 2010 5:04 pm

    I thought Ricky and Lucy pushed their beds together for coitus and then separated them once they were finished.

  6. evmaroon permalink
    November 28, 2010 5:09 pm

    I always asked that question, but about Bert and Ernie. Having the beds apart on many shows just made me think that everyone was a couple.

  7. November 28, 2010 7:07 pm

    @Snarky’s I think those beds were stuck to the floor, so they didn’t move, so maybe Ricky was endowed with more than just musical talent!

    Opps… I’m sorry, “Television Code!”

  8. November 28, 2010 7:08 pm

    @evmaroon That’s brilliant! Bert and Ernie really were an old-time television couple!

  9. Lani permalink
    November 29, 2010 11:53 pm

    I remember watching I Love Lucy reruns growing up and wondering why they had two separate beds, and now I know. I had no idea the Television Code existed, but it makes a lot of sense. As s.e. smith said up top television’s “Golden Age” always seemed to get the rose-tinted glasses treatment, and something about that always seemed off to me, so it’s good to get a glimpse of what was the driving force behind the scenes.

    Love this series!

  10. November 30, 2010 4:00 am

    @Lani That’s very high praise, so thank you much for your comments. When you look at the parallels of television and internet, things just really jump out at you, like the “separate bed” issue. And looking at the whole thing through the sponsor concept, at least it is “understandable,” albeit completely insane! But that’s why I wanted to look at it in this way, and as we come into the 1960s and 70s you’ll see more things of that nature… Stay tuned!

  11. November 30, 2010 10:47 am

    I always asked that question, but about Bert and Ernie. Having the beds apart on many shows just made me think that everyone was a couple.

    I thought the same thing! So Laverne & Shirley were married in my mind too.

    Dean, this is such a great primer. I was just thinking last week about advertising inexorable entwinement with entertainment, in the form of all the college bowl games no longer having the regional names (Peach Bowl, Orange Bowl, Aloha Bowl) and instead are named after products, and how advertising is really the only way sporting events would exist at all……just like television, as this post reminds me! Looking forward to the Space Age.

  12. November 30, 2010 10:56 am

    The Staples Center. Or Nexttel Bowl.

  13. November 30, 2010 12:58 pm

    @raymond in a lot of ways, all the bowl games with corporate names are really tragic. I mean, I like a bowl of Tostitos as much as anybody, but…

    Really sports, television and advertising are all tied together in an permanent knot, and, as I pointed out as the series began, was the really the spark that turned TV from an experimental curio into the item everyone wanted. And that’s also why boxing was such a popular sport to show on TV in those early days: because it was easy for cameras to shoot. Boxing, wrestling and roller derby were popular early sports just because they could be covered by television in a low-impact way: just place a couple of cameras in their proper places and let the athletes do the rest.

    Today, sports is still the hook to get people to purchase those new sets: last year we had the first 3D Baseball game telecast.

    @Snarky’s it’s very funny: The New York Mets play at Citi Field now, however the MTA that prints up all the signs and maps for the subways refused to label it that. They just put the word “Mets” everywhere in the subway. Maybe they know that it won’t be Citi Field forever? Or really that buying the name of a stadium only gets you *so much* publicity!

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