Who Wants To Be A Mid-two-figures-aire?

How luck, television, and a saintly lurker on the Internet combined to let the author visit 1953 for half an hour.

And now let’s see what the panel can do with another challenger. Would you sign in please, sir?

A grainy black-and-white kinescope flickers on our television screen. A close-up on a chalkboard. A hand—the right—holds a thick piece of white chalk. It begins to write in a sure, round style that I have never seen before. A voice off-screen reads:

Marshall . . .”

The hand drops down a line and continues to write.

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A Biography Of America


DURING THE FALL OF 1997, our production team at WGBH-TV, Boston’s Public Broadcasting System station, began developing a television project that would capture the sweep of American history with, we hoped, real rigor and drama. We knew we wanted to merge the art of master teaching with television’s powerful visual and narrative techniques, but that was as far as our planning had gone—when I suddenly recalled the image of a man and a moment. • The man was a hard-edged history professor, unsmiling but not humorless, ferociously intimidating to us freshmen.Read more »

The Four Days That Made Tv News

What you don’t remember about the day JFK was shot

It was a series of sounds and images that had monumental impact and will always remain in the minds of those who watched: the bloodstained suit, the child saluting the coffin, the funeral procession to the muffled drums, the riderless horse. More than thirty years later American culture is still obsessed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and by its greater meaning. Yet, viewed purely in television terms, the impact of the four-day coverage of the Kennedy killing and funeral looms almost as large.Read more »

Inventing The Commercial

THE IMPERIUM OF modern television advertising was born in desperate improvisation

It was 1945, and everybody needed everything. If you knew how to build a car, a house, or a washing machine, you could sell it faster than you could make it. Car dealers, including fine old names that soon would be history—Hudson, Nash, Packard, and Studebaker—all had long waiting lists. Many dealers bluntly Quoted not the price of the car but the price of getting on their waiting lists. Read more »

He Was There

An Interview With Walter Cronkite

As the editors discovered right at the outset of planning this issue, it is all but impossible to think about the course of the past forty years without also thinking about Walter Cronkite. He helped invent broadcast journalism, brought it to a level of professionalism that has never been surpassed, and for decades on “The CBS Evening News” explained to the nation the events that have since coalesced into history.Read more »

The Great Coronation War

In the infancy of television (but not of American royalty-worship) the networks fought their first all-out battle for supremacy over who would get to show Queen Elizabeth II being crowned

When American television was very young, but American royalty-worship was not, the biggest, loudest, most pointless battle for supremacy among the networks was over which would be first—by mere minutes, if necessary—to show pictures of the coronation of the British queen.Read more »

“The Great Arrogance of the Present Is to Forget the Intelligence of the Past”

The maker of a fine new documentary on the Civil War tells how the medium of film can evoke the emotional reality of history

Ken Burns is no stranger to me. We first met in 1983 at a party that the historian David McCullough gave at the Yale Club to wish a happy hundredth birthday to the Brooklyn Bridge. If David had not introduced Ken to me as the maker of an acclaimed film about the bridge, I would have mistaken him for a high school student—perhaps the older brother of the infant he was holding in his arms. It was actually his daughter Sarah, and Burns was then thirty.Read more »

The Quiz-Show Scandal

Stempel’s winning technique was simplicity itself: He got all the questions in advance.

In October 1956 the twenty-nine-year-old scion of an illustrious American literary family took up a suggestion that countless Americans were then making to their more erudite friends and relations. He could use some extra money; Columbia University paid him meagerly enough to teach English alongside his famous father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren. So why not try to get on one of those new television quiz shows? If he happened to get lucky, he might win a few thousand dollars.Read more »

Where The Media Critics Went Wrong

The early critics of television predicted the new medium would make Americans passively obedient to the powers that be. But they badly underestimated us.

Way back when I was a teenager, it was common knowledge that the mass media—newly reinforced by television—were generating mass conformity, mass passivity, and mass “loss of autonomy.” They were even producing a new kind of dismal American, a truly ominous being, grimly referred to as “mass man.” In other words, it was common knowledge that the one thing we could not expect from the forth-coming 1960s—still hidden then in the womb of time—was exactly what we got from that turbulent era: a vast revival of political activity, a vast throwing off of the chains of conformity,Read more »

Forgotten Laughter: The Fred Allen Story

The dour radio comedian regarded his work as totally ephemeral, but a new generation of comics has built upon his foundations

Satire, according to the playwright George S. Kaufman, “is what closes Saturday night,” but for seventeen years Fred Allen used his satiric brand of humor to create some of the nation’s most popular radio comedy. Read more »