Television Looks Back At Television

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My family came late to television, or so it seemed to me and my equally impatient younger brother. The first set I ever saw was in the home of a kindly couple named Bowersox who lived just up Ingleside Avenue from us in Chicago. Mr. Bowersox was retired and spent a lot of time in his bathrobe. Mrs. Bowersox sometimes baby-sat for us and must genuinely have been fond of children, for at four-thirty in the afternoon, then the beginning of the broadcast day, I believe, we neighborhood kids were invited to the Bowersox apartment, served cookies and milk, and encouraged to gather in front of their set to watch “Howdy Doody.” I was eight or nine then, already a little too old to be fully captivated by the strident adventures of Buffalo Bob, Clarabell, and the other inhabitants of Doodyville, but riveted, nonetheless, by the simple fact of being able to see them all move around within that tiny, ovoid screen.

Mrs. Bowersox, beaming from the back of the room, seemed content just to have us there. But her husband sometimes appeared a little impatient with our slack-jawed, staring silence; perhaps he missed the cheerful noise of his own long-grown pretelevision children. “Get a load of this, kids,” he finally said one afternoon, putting down his pipe and leaning slowly forward from his chair until he was standing on his head. The sight of our elderly neighbor, slippers in the air, blood filling his already florid face, was spellbinding. “That’s great, Mr. Bowersox,” we said, and we meant it. He did it again the next day, and the next. We were still polite, but when we were pretty sure he wasn’t looking, our eyes began to shift back to what was happening on the screen.

I thought often of Mr. Bowersox and his losing battle for our attention while watching “Television,” the ambitious series now about midway through its eight-week run on PBS. In 1950, when my brother and I left our neighbor’s living room to crouch at last in front of our own TV, there were fewer than five million sets in the world; today there are two and a half billion viewers, a quarter of a million sets are manufactured every day—roughly as many as there are babies born in the same time period—and in the average American home the screen glows steadily seven hours out of every twenty-four. In less than half a century, television has become as important around the world, says a Soviet woman in the first episode, “as having bread with our meal.”

 

“Television” is based upon a Granada series first shown in Britain but transformed by PBS producers into an almost exclusively American tale. Like the medium whose history it traces, it is at once superficial and irresistible.

It is also fairly predictable, I’m afraid; I doubt you’ll hear a thought expressed you haven’t already had yourself. The host, Edwin Newman, who has a deserved reputation for being incisive and amusing in other contexts, is here reduced to saying things like “most important of all...comedy makes us laugh.” Praise is duly rendered to “Sesame Street” and “See It Now,” to grand opera and modern dance, Carl Sagan and “Masterpiece Theatre.” Commercialization is inevitably deplored; so are lack of courage and imagination, and the current dearth of investigative documentaries and original drama.

But television is a branch of show business, and despite a good deal of solemn talk about challenges not met and promises unfulfilled, the overall impression is self-congratulatory. Even Fred W. Friendly, the former head of CBS News and a frequent television scold, asserts in an interview that blanket network coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and funeral in 1963 “held the nation together...[and] may have saved this country,” despite the fact that America had survived the same sort of trauma three times before without coming apart. It seems to me equally plausible that all that coverage, complete with our first on-air murder, actually exacerbated the feeling of dislocation Americans experienced.

“Television” tries at least to touch upon everything that ever appeared onscreen—Westerns, sitcoms, sports, political conventions, talk shows, quiz shows, docudramas, the Olympics—and in the process inevitably becomes a long succession of snippets too short to savor and impossible to summarize. In this, too, the series is true to the medium. The first program’s opening montage nicely captures television’s kaleidoscopic frenzy: it includes Kojak shooting a make-believe bad guy, followed by Jack Ruby really shooting Lee Harvey Oswald; “The Flying Nun”; Jacob Bronowski; “Father Knows Best"; the agonized faces of Christa McAuliffe’s parents as they watch the shuttle rocket explode against a splendid Florida sky.

The series may not finally add up to much, but the memories stirred by all these images—some painful, some pleasant, most mindless—remain evocative despite the viewer’s surprise at how crude much that we once considered sophisticated seems. The grave rectitude of Edward R. Murrow is undiminished forty years after he first appeared, and Sid Caesar is still hilarious as a German general, frosted with decorations, preening in front of his mirror; but clips from the live productions of the fifties—the universally lamented “golden age” of television drama—look primitive and sound overwritten. I found them interesting mostly for the glimpses they provide of Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and other stars who got their starts in them, all looking impossibly young.