Tag: TV history

Our Moon: Cars and Color TV


Isn’t it remarkable that the later Moon visits–when we were getting better and better at it–are almost forgotten now?  Simply being on the Moon seemed a miracle, but it can’t be denied that the first Apollo landing missions looked very similar: a hazy fixed-camera view of the lander and two phantom figures in slow motion, grey against grey. Most people remember only “One small step…” and the ghostly image of the US flag.

Apollo 15 was going to be different, and the big audience came back for it. It had a much better TV camera, and in color. Most of all, it had a car on the Moon. As most of the world marveled or jeered, what could possibly be more American than that? To some, the lunar rovers were a flashy and extravagant gesture, a show-off stunt for television. The whole space program was a stunt in many people’s eyes by then. I resented those skeptics, who gradually got the better of the political argument. But even Apollo fans like me overlooked and underestimated what it accomplished.

ABC, The Untouchable(s) Network


The American Broadcasting Company wasn’t like the first Big Two networks, both founded in the mid-twenties by pioneers of national radio. A funny thing about ABC: Time and time again, whether on the air or in real life, its history involved Washington hearings and federal task forces of one sort or another. FDR’s “new deal” Department of Justice ruled that the NBC radio network was too dominant, and needed to be broken in two. The lesser part, the Blue Network, soon to be renamed ABC, was spawned by court order in 1943 after five years of federal litigation.

By the laws of the time, the Feds had a point: NBC had so many affiliated radio stations, often competing with themselves in so many overlapping markets, that AT&T engineers needed red and blue pencils to trace the wires connecting them. The red pencils mapped out NBC’s main network, the archrival of the Columbia Broadcasting System. Blue was the next tier down in prestige and audience size, a network for up-and-coming or fading talent. The Blue Network was packaged for divestiture, as the US government demanded. It sold to Edward Noble, who made his multimillions from Life Savers candy. He immediately made plans to get into television.

What’s a TV Show?


Television was widely anticipated for a half-century before it finally appeared in the home. You see it as futuristic science fiction in films like Metropolis, Things to Come, Transatlantic Tunnel, and Modern Times. Someday it would provide to every American a front-row seat at public events, like the inauguration of a president, a horse race, or the World Series. There’d be live remote broadcasts from big city theaters, with dramas, operas, and vaudeville, as in International House, complete with pretty singers, leggy dancers, and black comedians. All of that would eventually come to pass, in one form or another. Live news events, sports, and variety are mainstays of television even today. But when we say the words “Last night I watched a TV show,” what we usually have in mind is different.

There was a blank spot in science fiction writers’ imaginations: scripted entertainment. One simple, obvious thing these tele-viewers of tomorrow never seemed to do in these futuristic visions was spend any couch time watching TV, at least in the sense that we know the term. The futurists of the 1920s didn’t anticipate that very soon we’d have a national habit of hanging out each week with the likes of the Ricardos and the Kramdens. Flash Gordon never kicked back with a cold brew to catch an episode of The Adventures of Superman. Inventing television was hard enough; inventing the kinds of programs and formats that people would want to see, week after week, took another kind of talent. In retrospect, it all happened quickly, but it didn’t happen overnight.

Entertainment for Ladies


Radio entered American homes about a century ago. It changed life everywhere. It transformed rural life most of all, giving listeners a tenuous, vital connection to the wider world. At first it offered morning farm market prices, news, prayer, and a separate evening session of music before signoff, which in most of the country came early. Once most local stations were wired into national networks, big advertisers made more lavish programs possible, and what we now call old time radio flourished. Relatively few women worked outside the home in those days, so the afternoon became the traditional time for radio sponsors to reach and entertain them. Women, generally being more sociable than men, were especially glad to have radio’s substitute companionship during long hours of housework. Serial dramas with appealing and/or hissable characters instantly became popular.

Being a homemaker has always been a tough job, but 70-100 years ago it required physical labor to a degree that few of us lucky moderns realize. Hanging the wash, keeping an anxious eye on the clouds, and bringing it in were tiring enough, but the washing was also done by hand, scrubbing on a washboard. Variety had a once-amusing, condescending 1920s term for daytime drama, which it continued to use for three decades: “women’s washboard weepers.” That general line of midcentury wit is where the term “soap opera” comes from.

Start Your Weekends With Fridays!


That was the ad line that promoted the first-ever episode of ABC’s live comedy series, Fridays, April 11, 1980. It’s fitting and ironic that the one and only thing that anyone remembers about this nearly-forgotten show, the first thing they say about it, even to this very day is the subject of its first “cold open”. A couple of young writers are sitting at a table, complaining that everybody’s comparing their new ABC show to NBC’s comedy sketch show, Saturday Night Live, and it seems so unfair. After all, Lorne Michaels was far from the first producer to put sketch comedy on the air mixed with rock performers. All of the unseen cast members on the other side of the table can be heard, agreeing about how unfair it is. Then the camera reverses angle, and we see that all of the Fridays comedians are dressed up in classic cliché SNL outfits: bees, coneheads, Blues Brothers, Roseanne Rosannadanna, Point and Counterpoint, Weekend Update.

Text scrolls up the screen: Lorne Michaels didn’t invent scrolling words on the screen to make an ironic point underlining or contradicting the spoken lines of the performers. Why isn’t anybody calling him an imitator? It was not only very funny, but nervy, a perfect start for a show whose young adult comedy genre requires at least the illusion of a little sassy bravery in the face of the powerful, and by 1980 that’s what SNL had become.

‘50s Broadcast Tech Tales


The UK had gone through hell during the Second World War, and its early postwar years were bleak. “Austere” was the accepted, understated way of putting it. Food and heating fuel were expensive and scarce. In 1952, Princess Elizabeth became Queen when her father died. This was formally confirmed in elaborate rituals throughout England and Scotland, leading up to her grand coronation in June 1953. It had been eight years since the end of the war. The UK economy was finally looking up. The English were ready to kick up their heels a little. So they staged what amounted to the first worldwide television spectacular.

With the Queen’s acquiescence—in fact, her insistence—the BBC’s cameras were permitted to observe almost all of a ceremony once held to be all but sacred. Announced long in advance, the Coronation resulted in the purchase of millions of TV sets, no longer exclusively associated with the upper classes. The live television signal was microwaved across the Channel to France, where it was broadcast in Paris and relayed onwards to Holland and Germany, whose viewers also watched the ceremonies in a growing number of fortunate private homes, and thronged the many bars and meeting places that already had television sets.

TV’s Color Wars: Autumn 1946, ‘49, ‘51 and ‘53


The colorful autumn leaves had fallen and the season’s final tourists all packed and left, weeks ago. In the early chill of the fall of 1946, in one of New York’s once-numerous plush summer resorts north of the city a group of CBS executives were hosting a lavish, no-limits private dinner for a selected number of officials of the Federal Communications Commission. After brandy and cigars, they went to see the secret purpose of their out of town meeting: the first over the air demonstration of color television. It was on a private frequency, not for broadcasting. By all accounts, it went over smashingly well, making instant converts of technical skeptics, who were unanimous: It looked gorgeous. Looking especially gorgeous in color was the hostess, the official Miss CBS Color Girl, with the chromatically charmed name of Patty Painter. The FCC men, who seem to have been respectable married middle-aged men with lively eyes too easily tempted to roam, were smitten. The CBS man shrewdly lifted a phone handset and told them to talk to her. They watched, as transfixed as corrupt Biblical judges, as the polychrome angel in a Manhattan studio thirty miles away answered their questions with a gentle smile.

The demonstration included film clips and a fashion show. The men from Washington all but stood up and cheered. Color TV had arrived and no one could doubt it now. The early color was finicky, and it would be Patty’s job and that of other women for the next seven years to continue to sit under the hot lights, letting CBS technicians adjust the equipment to transmit (Caucasian) skin tones properly and attractively.

TV History 10: Face-to-Face Television


1927 Illustration, Wagner Magazine, Germany: Women of the year 2000, flying their personal airplanes to meet friends at lunch.

Drinking in midday and smoking as casually as men, both women at the table are distracted by the little video screen in their hands, paying more attention to it than to each other. In one woman’s case, she’s looking in on her child, and on the other’s tiny round screen, a man, a lover in all probability. There’s a lot of fashionable, imaginative conjecture here in one picture, but nearly a century later, minus the aviatrix hats, wouldn’t this be a pretty close 2019 approximation of two young women at lunch, wearing earbuds, using FaceTime on their phones? For almost 90 years this idea looked futuristic. Now, the liberated lifestyles of those modern ladies of leisure and the pocket “mirrors” of their hand-held video screens are commonplace 21st century reality.

TV History 9: Surveillance Television


In the late 19th century, when television was first imagined and written about, no one talked about television as broadcasting at all, because the concept of one voice or image speaking to many others in remote locations didn’t exist. It wasn’t even widely understood that there would have to be a camera sending you the picture; many early sketches imagine it as an electrified super-telescope, able to randomly focus in on distant events. Even as late as 1933, Paramount Pictures produced “International House”, a zany, racy comedy about a Chinese hotel full of scheming global businessmen competing to buy “Radiovision”, a television invention that can form an image of entertaining events anywhere in the world.

Historically speaking, the mid-Thirties is pretty late in the game to be presenting TV as a fantasy, because after what was then about fifty years of speculation and anticipation the world was about to see the real thing—TV as we know it: One camera, millions of viewers. Programs, sponsors, station identification. Show business. Mass media.

TV History 8: High Definition Television


Ask any critic: We’re living in the era of Peak TV, when major cable and streaming projects have become as important and glamorous in our world as theatrical films are, sometimes even more so. Television’s been an important part of our lives for seventy years, but other than for live events, it’s always been the (relatively) family-friendly, 21 inch-wide, generally low prestige cousin of the movies. That all changed in this century, and this post will claim it’s partly due to a non-artistic advance that’s supposedly “merely” technical, as if anything is “merely” technical: The stunning quality, size, and affordability of today’s high definition home screen.

The traditional movie theater is increasingly reserved for spectacle; your living room flatscreen is now your movie screen, just as your laptop or tablet has become your kitchen table TV, and your mobile phone became your daily, carry around computer message center. Just considering sheer cultural impact, “The Sopranos”, became “The Godfather” of our era, and “Game of Thrones” has been “The Lord of the Rings” of the past decade. It’s hard to recall how recent this all is. Even a quarter century ago, you’d have to have been a Hollywood millionaire with a 35mm home theater to see a picture anywhere nearly this good in your living room. Now you only need $500, and 55 inches (diagonal) of wall space. The story of how video reached film quality, and is now approaching the limits of human eyesight, involves enterprise, decades of backdoor deals, art, science, the politics of the Sixties through the Eighties, and a high money stakes engineering fight with Japan; which we won. Here’s how it happened.

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In August 1973, my girlfriend (and future wife!) wanted to visit some friends in Maine, so we drove up there from New York. She loved all this healthy air and the break from living in a city. Me, I was … less enthusiastic about a week or so of rural life, but damned if I […]

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Thursday Night TV History 6: Syndication and Reruns


In “Back to the Future”, one resident of Hill Valley, California in 1955 is puzzled by a word that Marty McFly uses. “What’s a rerun?”, she asks. Like much of the film, it’s a witty exaggeration. Television viewers of the mid-Fifties were just beginning to see reruns show up in morning and afternoon TV time slots.

But if you go back only a few years before that, Bob Gale’s BTTF joke is literal truth; at the beginning of the Fifties, there were, for all practical purposes, no reruns, because there was no market in old TV shows yet. At that time, programs were still owned by their sponsor and/or their major broadcasting network. Radio shows, even with the biggest stars, had never been worth a lot of money years after they’d gone off the air, and there seemed no reason to think TV would be any different.

TV History: Christmastime and Color Television


When I was a kid, children’s books had holiday stories about getting in the family car and driving to Grandma’s farm. (Schoolbooks back then were usually old and worn, and the cars in the pictures had that lumpy round prewar look, so strange to “modern” kids of the Fifties). Amid the ducks and the horses and the sheep, they’d chop down a tree at dawn on Christmas morning and decorate it with candles and strings of popcorn. Then, after a big country breakfast, they’d go to church. More strange stuff: they had “ministers”, not priests, and they were addressed as “Doctor” or “Reverend”, not as “Father”. Weird place, the American countryside. We used to wonder if it really existed. Christmas was nothing like that where we lived.

This was the New York City of The Honeymooners era, of West Side Story. You see a bit of it in The Godfather. For the price of a subway token, you could visit Macy’s, Gimbels, the F.A.O. Schwartz toy store, the gigantic Lionel train layout at Madison Hardware on 23rd Street, and the big tree at Rockefeller Center, a convenient stroll from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (Protestants had their own cathedral farther uptown, St. John the Divine.) New York was always a city of tiny apartments. Back then it was also a time of big families; I was the oldest of six boys. Everyone had lots of relatives nearby. Grandparents almost invariably had European accents of one kind or another (In my family, a thick Scottish burr; in my wife’s family, Yiddish). The city’s churches and synagogues were packed year round, but Easter/Passover and Christmas/Hanukkah took it to the highest level.

TV History Thursday Night, Part 4: You’re (Not) Watching PBS


That’s an article from 13 years ago, at a critical moment in the history of broadcasting. Yes, the American Cinema Foundation was hosting a big Hollywood event, a national online conversation about the future of PBS, sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Yes, the American Cinema Foundation was well known as a group of Hollywood conservatives. The irony of that title is that what keynote speaker Rob Long demanded wasn’t a seat at the PBS table at all. He wanted it ended, but in the nicest, wittiest, most reasonable way. For weeks, the “blob” of employees and administrators of PBS stations sputtered in rage. But what they didn’t do—the only thing that might have saved most of their jobs over the following decade—was to listen to us. We were polite. We were entirely polite. We said, “You’re doomed”.

Public broadcasting wasn’t always a political issue. Well, it was once only a mildly political issue. When the first college instructional stations signed on in the mid-Fifties, there was still widespread, bipartisan belief that TV could bring the very best teachers into every classroom within reach of an antenna. The US armed forces, faced with the Cold War job of instructing hundreds of thousands of recruits about the new mysteries of electronics and atomic energy, worked hand in hand with universities and the corporate world to explore the possibilities of mass teaching through television. This was true on the other side of the Iron Curtain as well.

Your local college TV station was probably started by a professor of electrical engineering who learned his stuff in the Army. It might have been built from donations of Raytheon, General Electric, and Texas Instruments parts. Those were the earliest, most naive days of educational TV. If you watched old Doc Jensen talk about Egyptian mummies and pyramids every morning at 7:45 and passed a test, you could get college credit.

TV History, Episode 3: “Personal Video”, A Rare Progressive Defeat in the Arts.


Two weeks ago, we made a nostalgic return to the launch of America’s small market television stations. Last week, we took a look at an early form of television that could have blanketed the country twenty years before it did. This week we do an autopsy on a flashy offshoot of television that became famous, then forgotten.

You’ve spent most of or all of your life in a world where you could buy or rent a copy of a movie and see it whenever you wanted. “Let’s run ‘The Godfather’ after the kids go to bed tonight” is a privilege that only a couple of well-heeled electronics hobbyists enjoyed before roughly 1980. That’s the home video revolution you grew up with. It’s centered around pre-recorded tapes, usually Hollywood-made entertainment.

Thursday Night TV History: TV Could Have Shaped the ’30s and ’40s


In last week’s premiere edition of Thursday Night TV History, we talked about the little-known, dollars-and-cents realities of how television came to smaller cities and rural areas between the coasts. Many commenters on that thread contributed their own memories of what the first generation of TV viewers thought about what they were seeing. That was the start of American television as we know it. But what about television as we don’t know it? What about the forgotten What-Ifs that could have happened differently? This week’s TV History is a couple of examples of paths not taken, or long abandoned. First of all, television might have come to the American home much earlier; fifteen to twenty years earlier, in most cases.

Here’s history as it was: A relative handful of rich or fairly well to do people had TV in their homes before World War II. (One of them was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a set at his Hudson Valley estate.) The price of a television set had dropped since they first went on sale in 1939, but was still roughly half as much as a car. Of the roughly 5,000 U.S. sets sold by late 1941, about 2,000 were in the New York City area, more than half of them in bars or a handful of other public places like hotel lobbies, department stores, or the YMCA. The other 3,000 were split between Schenectady-Albany, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. There, too, most people’s first encounter with TV wasn’t in someone’s living room, but in a bar watching wrestling. Pictures were small—about the size of a 12- to 14-inch screen today—but clear enough to be seen halfway down the bar.

TV History Thursday: Getting In on the Ground Floor Cheaply, 70 Years Ago


It’s 1948. After the war, it seemed like everyone was impatient for television to reach them, but incredible as it seems now, radio station owners had a hard time deciding whether or not going into television was worth the financial risk. There were two competing, less expensive prewar experiments ready to be big time postwar realities: FM and facsimile. FM got shafted almost immediately, when the FM frequency bands were abruptly shifted upwards, making every existing prewar FM radio in the country useless. It would take until the mid-to-late Sixties before the superior quality of FM gave it most of the music audience, by then a rock audience. AM went from being “radio,” period, to something you listened to in your car.