April 30, 2011

Wide World @ 50

You've probably heard that Wide World of Sports, ABC's legendary sports anthology, premiered 50 years ago yesterday. It was originally projected as a summer replacement series; I doubt that anyone back then could have predicted its legendary run of 37 years.

TV Guide certainly didn't know what was coming; as you see in this close-up for the premiere episode (April 29, 1961, on Channel 9, the Minneapolis ABC affiliate) they didn't even know quite what to call it. By the end of May they had the title right, and it pretty much remained in the same place, expanding depending on the event, for the next three decades.

A milestone, certainly. But one of the great things about perusing an old TV Guide, even one containing a significant program like this, is to see what else you might stumble across.  And in this issue, it was something the very next night - a documentary on the upcoming manned spaceflight. The first American spaceflight, that is. Frank McGee, NBC's longtime space correspondent, hosts the Sunday evening program, seen on Minneapolis' Channel 5.

At this point it had been less than three weeks since the Russians had put Yuri Gagarin into orbit, and while this American suborbital flight would not be nearly as ambitious, it was extremely important to a nation suffering from a space inferiority complex. Notice that the announcement of the first American astronaut hadn't even been made public yet; the astronauts themselves knew it would be Alan Shepard, but only knew it would be either Shepard, Gus Grissom, or John Glenn. In fact those were the first three Americans to go into space, and at the time everyone thought Shepard had come out on top - it wasn't until Glenn's historic orbital flight that people realized he had been the big winner after all.

Even though we're expecting the penultimate space shuttle launch this weekend, I think that for the general public, the glamour and drama of space travel probably ended with the conclusion of the moon program at the end of 1972. Wild World of Sports, by contrast, would continue until 1998.

April 28, 2011

Sullivan's Travels

Right Here on Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan’s America
by Gerald Nachman
University of California Press, 466 pages, $18.95 paperback

(review is of hardcover edition)

Jonah Goldberg once said, “Our lack of imagination about how different the future will look causes us to extend the present off into the future.” In the same sense, our knowledge of the present causes us to extend that knowledge to the past. Since this is the way it is now, it’s not hard to imagine that this is the way it’s always been.

And that’s the problem when it comes to appreciating someone such as Ed Sullivan; For anyone under the age of 40, the name Ed Sullivan is a notation in a history book, someone you’ve read about or seen but never really experienced ; Most people have probably seen clips from the Sullivan show (which ran on CBS for a staggering 23 seasons, from 1948 to 1971), particularly the four appearances by the Beatles in 1964-65, but even then what we’re seeing is nothing more than a reference point for a history that is already understood. We watch it on YouTube already knowing how it turns out, what kind of impact it makes, how the future plays out – but imagine seeing it for the first time, not understanding the chaos on the screen in front of us, wondering if it’s all just a fad while perhaps asking ourselves what the world is coming to. In other words, while today we watch in order to see what happened, back then people watched to see what was going to happen.

For millions, the Sullivan show was a window to a landscape many of them had never seen before, a world of Broadway plays and grand opera, dancers from Russia and puppets from Italy, ventriloquists and comedians and plate spinners and nightclub singers, stars that had been heard of but never seen, and others that had never been heard of but would never be forgotten. It was a show the whole family could watch and often did, not only for what was on at the moment, but what might come on next.

Clearly, we live in another world today, beholden to the past but with only the most tangential of resemblances. And so one might be forgiven for wondering why all the fuss about a man who had the stage presence of a cigar store Indian, moved in stiff, stilted gestures, and spoke in garbled sentences about that night’s “really big shew.” What can a dusty old show like that tell us that we don’t already know? Plenty, according to Gerald Nachman in his book, Right Here on Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan’s America.

April 20, 2011

So what's the big deal about television?

And why should anyone out there care about It's About TV!, let alone waste your time reading it?

I could be considered a child of television, having lived my entire life within the all-encompassing grasp of TV. It’s not surprising, therefore, that I’ve had a lifelong interest in it – watching it, reading about it, being glued to it for hours, turning it off in exasperation. My interest in television, however, actually predates the year of my birth. Some people tend to deride anything that happened before they were born. I’m not one of those people. Hence, you’re likely to find me writing about a lot of programs I couldn’t possibly have seen when they were actually aired. (But that’s OK, because TV was better then.)

I've written frequently about television in my role as cultural archaeologist over at Our Word and Welcome to It,  including my weekly "Retro TV Friday" feature. But finally it seemed to me it was time to start a site devoted solely to television, where I could post articles that were longer and more in-depth, on a weekly basis rather than the (more or less) daily grind of "Our Word." Hence, "It's About TV!" But this isn't just a television blog; you probably won't come here to read the latest celebrity gossip about who's in, who's out, or who's coming out and is now in because of it. No, what we're interested in at "It's About TV!" is primarily the relationship between television and the shaping of American culture. For instance, does television drive culture, or reflect it? Did the cathode ray tube of the old RCA console act as a looking glass into the future or a mirror reflecting the present?

The answer, as is almost always the case in questions like this, is "Yes."

It’s not surprising that, being a child of the TV era, I’ve tended to look at my own personal view of history through the prism of the camera lens. Ask me about a year, a season, a moment in time, and I’ll likely relate it to something I saw or heard on television. And it’s not just the major events: JFK’s assassination, the moon landing, 9/11 and the like. It’s also the last episode of The Fugitive, Tiny Tim getting married on Johnny Carson, or the creation of an institution like Carson or Walter Cronkite.

For most of us, the knowledge of these events came to us because we saw it on television. And oftentimes, the impact of that broadcast took on importance that far transcended the event itself. Who could have guessed, for example, that the telecast of the Notre Dame-Michigan State college football Game of the Century in 1966 would not only change the future of sports on television but also play a crucial role in the desegregation of college campuses?

We’re entertained by television, we’re frustrated by, and sometimes we’re frightened by it. But what can we learn from it? For one thing, we can learn about ourselves, our history, and the shaping of our culture.

Why watch Mad Men interpret the 50s and 60s for us when we can watch an episode of Route 66 or East Side/West Side and see for ourselves how the era looked, what styles were like, how people talked. Watching a drama from the Golden Age of Television can tell us volumes about what Americans liked, thought about, valued, or worried about, and the cultural historian who tries to explain our times without consulting TV is extremely shortsighted.

And there are few history books written after the fact that can give us a flavor of a time in quite the way a TV Guide can. Just flip open a page at random from an issue, and you can see the latest fashions, find out about future technology twenty years before its time (Cable TV! Video Recorders!), or just learn about television’s Next Big Thing. (January 25, 1964: Bob Denver to star in new CBS sitcom about castaways stranded on desert island.)

Now this doesn’t mean that everything we saw or read back then was “the way it is,” to borrow from Uncle Walter. Maybe Ozzie and Harriet weren’t the typical American family and Father didn’t always Know Best. Maybe that starlet was really three or four years older than she wanted you to believe, or a leading man’s marriage wasn’t nearly as stable as it sounded. Maybe minorities were shown in stereotypes, and those hippies you saw on Dragnet in 1968 (or the beatniks on Dragnet in 1955) weren’t really like that at all.

The point is, those hippies and beatniks were portrayed that way because Jack Webb wanted you to see them that way. And doesn’t that say something equally important about the culture? What we see on TV may not always be the truth, but oftentimes it’s what we want to believe. Far from invalidating the experience as some kind of high camp, those Dragnets actually give us an insight into a generation struggling to come to terms with and understand the new culture in which it found itself.

Ed Sullivan, for example, didn’t understand rock ‘n roll, nor did he especially like it. What he did understand and like, however, was ratings – the higher, the better – and he knew it was important to stay ahead of the audience curve. He may not have liked what he saw and heard, but he did like the bottom line. But in giving his blessing to Elvis, the Beatles and the rest and telling Middle America it was safe to let them into their homes, did he unwittingly help to create the very youth-oriented counterculture that eventually brought him down and changed everything he understood and valued? It just goes to show that TV can be a fickle mistress indeed.

There’s probably nothing that illustrates my own relationship to TV quite as much as the fact I’ve blabbering on here, instead of getting to the point. Enough of what TV is all about: what about this blog?
Well, for one thing, it’s made up of my personal opinions – it’s not intended to be definitive, nor will it be perfect. On occasion you might find yourself with one of those “Wow! Really?” moments. Other times you’ll probably find yourself thinking, “What a total waste of time.” Hopefully, you’ll mind most of it fun and interesting, and you’ll decide it’s worth putting on your Favorites list.

Most of all, I hope I can bring back some memories, tell you something you might have forgotten or never knew, or give you a laugh or two. Maybe you’ll want to read a book I’ve mentioned, or buy the DVD of a show I’ve talked about. And if I can help steer you away from a real turkey by suffering through it myself so you don’t have to, then I’ll have done my job.

So if you wondered how 50s sitcoms helped fight the Cold War, or how The Gong Show could have an entire episode devoted to the song “Feelings,” then “All About TV!” is all about you.