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.

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.