April 20, 2016

When television was live—and living

You'll recall that in Saturday's review of TV Guide's top shows of all time, I mentioned in passing the thought that anthology series such as Playhouse 90 should perhaps have had their own category, rather than being lumped in with the rest of TV's dramatic series.

I wrote that primarily because I thought there was a distinct difference between an anthology, in which different actors and actresses tell different stories each week, and a "orthodox" series in which regulars tell a continuing story that may or may not also be serialized. However, there's another reason to think of anthology shows as their own genre, as noted in the book Fifties Television, written by William Boddy—for the most part, at least in the '50s, they were live.

Today, aside from sports and breaking news, there's very little live television, aside from the occasional network musical or other big event. In TV's early days, however, many shows were live—not only the anthologies, but series television as well. I think it was I Love Lucy that finally turned the trend once and for all, but I could be wrong about that.

So why do we think live television is special, worthy of being considered its own genre? Let's start with a definition of live television, one that goes beyond the obvious, that the show is happening as it's broadcast. Just what does that mean, and why is it relevant? Jack Gould, the television critic for The New York Times, wrote in 1956 that

Alone of the mass media, it removes from an audience's consciousness the factors of time and distance. . . . Live television . .  bridges the gap instantly and unites the individual at home with the event afar. The viewer has a change to be in two places at once. Physically, he may be at his own hearthside but intellectually, and above all, emotionally, he is at the cameraman's side.

Gould's point, Boddy continues, is that "both the player in the studios and the audience at home have an intrinsic awareness of being in each other's presence." Who knew interactive television went all the way back to the '50s?

Seriously, though, I think there's a real point to be made here. Boddy goes on to quote Gil Seldes, one of television's early pioneers:

The essence of television techniques is their contribution to the sense of immediacy. . . . The tension that suffuses the atmosphere of a live production is a special thing to which audiences respond; they feel that what they see and hear is happening in the present and therefore more real than anything taken and cut and dried which has the feel of the past.

Here we begin to get to the heart of it. There's a natural tendency to think of live programming not just as quaint, but as necessitated simply because video tape had not yet come into vogue. As we know, one of the main advantages to using tape (or film) is the ability to edit out rough spots, to do repeated takes of a scene until it comes out just right, and to preserve the performance for repeated viewings; therefore, pursuing this line of reasoning, we think of a recorded performance as something desirable, in that it gives us the best possible production. But is this always the case? And is it even desirable to have a presentation that's that spot-on? Seldes, as we have read, thinks not.

Gould, in a 1952* article entitled "A Plea for Live Video," describes the benefits of live programming as opposed to recorded, saying that a live broadcast contains a "sense of depth and trueness" which recorded programs cannot match. Carrying it through to the 1956 piece referenced above, Gould states unequivocally that "In their blind pursuit of artificial perfectionism, the TV film producers compromise the one vital element that endows the home screen with its own intangible excitement: humanness. Their error is to try to tinker with reality, to improve upon it to a point where it is no longer real."

*In 1952, more than 80% of all television shows were broadcast live.

We shouldn't be surprised by Gould's insistence on the humanness of television - after all, we say the same things about movies and music. We compare"human" epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur with SFX-driven spectacles such as Titanic and The Lord of the Rings, and even though we're impressed by the artistry and incredible technology of the latter, we also acknowledge that it just doesn't seem quite "real." We hear people talk about the crackle and imperfection of phonograph records, but at the same time we understand that digital music, despite its superior sound, is "sterile." It's the same thing.

We already know that television is the most intimate of mediums; as Seldes puts it, "Every television program is in a sense an invasion; you turn on your television set and someone comes into your living room." The magic of live television was that there was that interaction between actor and viewer. For those acting in a live production, there was a constant awareness of the audience "out there," that they were seeing your movements and hearing your words at virtually the same time as you were making them. For the actor, the camera was not the important thing; that performance was being delivered for the viewer, out there in the great darkness beyond the lens. Writer Donald Curtis put it well when he wrote that "There is no place for acting here. He must 'be' what he represents. . . . The television camera goes inside of an actor's mind and soul, and sends the receiving set exactly what it sees there."

"Requiem for a Heavyweight", 1955
For the viewer's part, having invited the actors into the living room, attention must be paid. It is more like going to a Broadway theater and watching a stage play than it is going to a movie theater and watching a movie. They know that what they are seeing is real, genuine, not a product of special effects or clever editing, but the actor's actual performance. Furthermore, they know that millions of others are sharing this experience at the exact time. It becomes fodder around the water cooler the next day, or at the dinner table that night with friends. Gore Vidal, who wrote 70 TV plays in the '50s, said "If you did a good show on 'Philco' [Television Playhouse, one of the prestige dramas], you would walk down the street the next morning and hear people talking about your play."

There's something very ironic about all this, although it isn't apparent right away. But think about it: the crucial elements of live television could be boiled down to three: the actor, performing for the viewer; the director, broadcasting what is taking place in front of him and not from the editing room later on; and the viewer, sharing the experience with cast, crew and other viewers.Today, our technology has managed to eliminate all of this: the actor plays to the camera, as he must, and often finds him or herself performing in front of a green screen, imagining what will be edited in afterward. The director relies on computer programmers as much as, if not more than, live acting; even with an animated feature like Toy Story, the end product, although the result of human work, doesn't feel quite as human as it would have been if it were hand drawn. The viewer can watch all of this whenever and however he or she pleases—on a television, phone or computer screen, as it happens or recorded to watch later, one episode at a time or all at once. It's the very opposite of the experience produced by live television.

Lest you think that we're just talking about the aesthetic component of live television, there were also many who felt the subject matter itself was influenced by the format. The divide between live and prerecorded television came to be seen as the difference between the "New York" and "Hollywood" schools. Live television, with its basis in the Broadway stage, tended to emphasize character development, whereas the Hollywood school, born of the motion picture industry, made plot the key element. Seldes felt that character-driven programming was more appropriate for television, where the "casual environment and attitudes of viewers" detracted from complex plot structures.

Such character dramas were perfect for live television, with its intimate relationship between performer and viewer, and the stripped-down, basic staging required by the small confines of the TV studio. In the meantime, Hollywood was busy producing half-hour action dramas, many of which starred either policemen or cowboys; many critics felt, as did Vance Bourjaily, that "the half-hour show is too brief, and it is interrupted by a commercial too soon after it begins, to be anything but a hook, a gimmick and a resolution." Gould said it "inevitably puts a premium on the contrived plot and on action for its own sake." The hour-long live drama was a writer's medium, and the writers were the stars: Rod Serling, Reginald Rose and Paddy Chayefsky were among the best and the best-known. As long as they continued to work in New York, the Hollywood school was left with weaker scripts; the emphasis on half-hour programs followed.

Times changed, of course, as did finances. Most of the prestigious live dramas were underwritten by sponsor dollars: Philco, Kraft, Hallmark, Westinghouse, and others. As the sponsor's role receded following the quiz show scandals, the networks gained control and based their decisions increasingly on the bottom line. Serling, fed up with interference from both network and sponsor, moved to a genre that required recording, while Chayefsky and others (including Serling) moved increasingly to movies. Talent began to shift from the East Coast to the West, movie studios started to work with television rather than against it, viewer tastes changed. It's hard to see live drama, or live television of any kind, returning to TV unless it's a special event.

However, there's more than enough reason to look at live television as a genre in and of itself. It required different production values, different styles of acting, different types of stories. TV Guide, which played such a role in the advocacy of quality television—including live drama—should have known better than to put Playhouse 90 in the same category as St. Elsewhere. To compare live TV to recorded programs is foolish; they're like apples and oranges. It may be long gone, but the era of live television was a unique and glorious, moment in history, and its memory lingers on long after the tape machines took over the control room. TV  


  1. A opportunity to motivate their group experiencing remain instead of nfl live stream watching it on large display at home and to be able to feel the rush is all they search for.

  2. The recent series of live musicals - Sound of Music, Peter Pan, Grease, drew great ratings, and part of that I'm sure was the risk/excitement over whether they could pull it off.

  3. Today (Friday), I went to the Windy City Pulp & Paper Convention, out in a western suburb.

    Many sales tables, with old books, old paperbacks, really old magazines, and lots and lots of DVDs of old movies and TV - including numerous live shows from "The Golden Age".
    ( ... or as my brother used to say, "Golden Age my ass!")

    Much of what survives from that era is on kinescope film, which looked pretty cheesy even then.
    Like it or not, that was how at least half the country saw these shows; this was one of the major impetuses (impeti? impetae?) ...
    ... anyway, this is why videotape was invented.

    Some years back, the ABC soap One Life To Live did a week of live shows as a sweeps ratings stunt.
    The producers went around to the cast members (mostly younger actors), who responded to the news with enthusiasm.
    Then they told Phil Carey, at the time the oldest cast member, and the one who had actual live TV experience.
    This is what Carey said (approximately):
    "Are you out of your Mesopotamian minds? We stopped doing it that way for a reason!"

    I've never bought into that whole "live experience" folderol, and I ask that you remember that I'm old enough to actually seen a lot of it.
    I was a little kid through most of it, which I guess is my excuse, but I have gotten to see quite a few of the surviving classics on VHS, DVD, YouTube, etc.
    I've also seen many of the less-than-classics, which for some reason seem to have survived in greater numbers.

    Let me tell you about one live show from 1952, which I didn't see until years after the fact:

    Tales Of Tomorrow was a science-fiction anthology that aired live Friday nights on the ABC network (which had about a third as many stations as CBS or NBC then).
    On this particular Friday, TOT announced an episode called "The Lost Planet"; I've got a TV magazine from that week listing this show by name.
    Several minutes into the start of the play, the picture breaks up, and we're looking through a window at three miserable people: a mean drunk, his beaten wife, and his weary pal, all engaged in a bad argument.
    After a few minutes, the picture breaks up again, and we're back in the ABC studio, where the cast and crew are doing the '52 equivalent of WTF.
    As an announcer tells the viewers that the episode is being "postponed", there's another breakup and we're back at the window, with the the drunk, the wife, and the pal.
    This goes back and forth a few times; an ABC engineer tries to come up with a possible explanation, and a network executive insists that a commercial air as scheduled (one of the breakups happens midway through the commercial).
    Eventually, the ABC crew figures out that the wife and the pal are going to knock off the drunk; they try (unsuccessfully) to call the cops ...

    I first saw this on a VHS tape about 20 years ago, give or take; it's now part of good-sized Tales Of Tomorrow DVD collection.
    When I showed this to my cynical brother, he did several double-takes - at the show itself, and when he recognized the actors who were playing the window people: Frank Maxwell (the Drunk), Virginia Vincent (the Wife), and as the Pal - a young Rod Steiger (all newcomers in '52).
    All the ABC personnel were the genuine people, up to and including Robert F. Lewine, who was ABC's programming boss at the time (he's the guy who wanted the commercial to go on).
    All of this was explained at the end of the live show - and if there was any kind of blowback afterwards, I've never heard or read of it.
    On the DVD, there's a little clip at the end of the Tales episodes, including this one:
    "The preceding program, which originally aired live from New York, has come to you by special video recording. This is ABC, the American Broadcasting Company."

    As I watch "The Window" on my DVD, I wonder how the few viewers who saw the live ABC broadcast on that Friday night in 1952 reacted - if at all ...


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!