Television Looks Back At Television

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It is all the raw material of history, but for anyone interested in the past, perhaps the most startling moment actually comes in the frothy episode called “Fun and Games” when an elderly contestant on “I’ve Got a Secret” confides that he personally witnessed Lincoln’s assassination.

It is the evolution of television news —explored in two episodes—that interested me most. For better or worse, our memories of the recent past are largely patched together from television’s images of it, and for anyone accustomed to the way in which unfolding events in the most remote parts of the world now routinely appear before us each evening, it is fascinating to see how rudimentary those first images were. In the beginning there were not even still pictures with which to illustrate the news, and Edward P. Morgan of CBS, anchorman of “Sunday News in 1948,” sought to enliven his program by reading from his script while pacing briskly behind his desk. Next came blown-up photographs, held up before the camera one by one and exclaimed over by Douglas Edwards. News film was first regularly featured in 1949 on NBC’s “Camel News Caravan,” which promised “today’s news today,” served up nightly in the determinedly hearty style of John Cameron Swayze. The sponsor played a remarkably prominent role in this fifteen-minute program: shots of Swayze’s smoking cigarette, resting in an ashtray emblazoned with the advertiser’s name, were interwoven into the program, and all film of statesmen who visibly preferred cigars was barred. (A singular exception was made for Winston Churchill.)

Television’s impact is clearly enormous. By eighteen, the average American child is said to have survived 350,000 hours of commercials; at twenty-one he or she has watched three solid years of TV. But that impact is also enormously difficult to gauge. Television does reduce political campaigning to the manufacture of fifteen-second “sound bytes” for the convenience of the nightly news, for example, as critics will remind us again and again this election year, but I’ve never been certain how different this relentless trivialization of issues really is from, say, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.”

Live productions from the universally lamented “golden age” of television drama look primitive and sound overwritten.

The television camera is sometimes said pitilessly to reveal the character of those who appear upon it, and the spectacularly public self-destruction of Joe McCarthy lent initial credence to that theory. Yet television actually saved Richard Nixon’s political career when he delivered his lachrymose “Checkers” speech in 1952, and it failed utterly to probe beneath John Kennedy’s cool surface. (In fact, no revelation about JFK’s private weaknesses ever seems to dull his luster on the little screen. A sampling of his shrewd, self-mocking wit made me laugh out loud all over again, something the whole program devoted to comedy only rarely made me do; Milton Berle falling down didn’t seem funny to me at nine, and still doesn’t.)

In our overheated century yesterday’s miracle is today’s standard issue, of course, but even after forty years neither I nor a good many members of my generation have ever quite gotten over our initial excitement at seeing live pictures in our living rooms. On the evening of July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong was scheduled to step down onto the moon, my family and I were living in an eighteenth-century house in rural New England, the walls of its attic still insulated with tattered pages from William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. Full of high-minded thoughts about the accelerated pace of our history, I determined that my six-year-old son should not miss witnessing this momentous event, even though it was to take place long after his bedtime, and brought him downstairs in his pajamas just in time to see the bleary, live, black-and-white image of the astronaut flicker onto the screen.

My son tried hard to look interested —he could see that the other adults and I were truly excited, and he was at least as polite as I had been with Mr. Bowersox twenty years earlier—but he had been watching television since birth; his shows about men in space were always in focus and in color. Surrounded by rapt grown-ups, he curled up on the sofa and went back to sleep.

Michael Winship, the screenwriter who struggled to weave all eight episodes of “Television” together, has also published a cheerful, unpretentious companion volume with the same title, made up mostly of transcripts of interviews that offer entertaining insider’s insights on everything from the special lighting challenge presented by Cybill Shepherd’s idiosyncratic nose to the extraordinary popularity of “Roots,” the mini-series about slavery, as measured by the sudden lowering of municipal water pressure in a small New Hampshire town during the commercials.