Updated: 04/14/2013

Film, Radio and TV - 25






The Golden Age

of Television




>>The so-called "golden age of television" started in the 1950s when television began its explosive growth.

Radio sets, which had dominated living rooms for several decades, had been shuffled to kitchens and bedrooms to make room for the new center of attention: TV.

Television became what radio had been in its golden age — the central medium of entertainment and diversion for almost every home. Much of radio's top, on-air talent transferred to TV during this era. However, the visual advantages of the medium weren't effectively utilized for some time. Typically, TV was simply "radio with pictures."

>>Weekly shows by comedians Jack Benny and Red Skelton made the transition to TV and were highly successful.

New stars also emerged, including Milton Berle, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who starred in the weekly situation comedy, "I Love Lucy."

Variety shows were especially successful. "Your Show of Shows" with comedians Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca was on Saturday nights, and "Toast of the Town" with host Ed Sullivan was on Sunday nights.

Ed Sullivan, who was on the air for 20 years, admitted that he had absolutely no talent, himself — except the ability to find good talent.

>>Sullivan introduced singer Elvis Presley and the British Rock Group, The Beatles, (pictured on the right) to television audiences. If these names go back a little before your time, just know that they represent the most successful names in popular music history.

Popular groups of the day ran into problems with conservative religious views and their performances had to be modified for TV. For example, the title of the popular Rolling Stones' song, "Let's Spend the Night Together," was changed to "Let's Spend Some Time Together" for their 1967 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. When Elvis Presley appeared on the show the cameras kept their shots above his waist so that his swiveling hips wouldn't offend some viewers.

>>Although, as we've noted, the Beatles have been the most popular and economically successful music group in history, when he first heard them here's how wrong a Decca Records executive was in 1962:

Another famous utterance that was soon regretted:

"We don't like their [the Beatles] sound and guitar music is on its way out."

Decca Records executive, 1962

(The Beatles went on to be one of the most
successful vocal groups in the history of records.)


>>In addition to popular artists and entertainers, Sullivan featured ballet, well-known opera singers, and many exceptional performers from outside the United States.

Many comedians (even on his own show) mocked Sullivan's stiff posturing and strange way of pronouncing some words. But, Ed Sullivan was responsible for introducing more new talent to American audiences than anyone in the history of broadcasting. Once discovered, some of his guests went on to have their own network TV shows.


Then There Were the Westerns

>>Another television staple of the golden age of TV was the Western.

Two especially popular shows of the era were "Have Gun, Will Travel" and [mouseover for more information]Gunsmoke.

Some notable radio personalities, such as the original star of "Gunsmoke," had great radio voices but weren't deemed photogenic enough for TV. In some cases TV audiences adjusted, in other cases the the programs soon went off the air.

>>As the 50s drew to a close, action-adventure programs, including westerns, represented the most popular format. As the 60s started, television networks began to show full-length movies that had played in theaters.

To make the films suitable for family viewing they were routinely edited for language and sex — and, to a lesser extent, for violence. (One of the writer's first jobs in television was to edit feature-length films for broadcast.)

As the supply of available films started to dwindle the networks started producing their own "made-for-TV" movies.


The Wonderful World of Color

>>Although color film had been around since the 1930s, until the mid-1950s, the television system couldn't reproduce color.

Just as World War II had derailed the beginning of television in the 40s, a decade later the Korean War would delay the launch of color television.

>>CBS in the 1940s developed a mechanical approach to color TV. It used a large color wheel — not totally unlike the one shown here — driven by a motor.

The colors in the wheel were synchronized with alternating black and white video images behind the wheel that represented the primary colors (red, blue and green) of the original scene. The separate color images were visibly fused into a color image.

Although it worked fairly well, like the early mechanical approach to television itself, it introduced some problems — not the least of which was the constant sound of the motor and the fact that you had to keep the bearings on the large color wheel and electric motor oiled to keep them from squeaking or failing.

Not only that, but the CBS system was incompatible with the existing black and white NTSC system (the U.S. standard originally approved by the National Television System Committee). Not only would you have to buy a new TV set to watch color TV, but also once you got it, you couldn't use it to see any of the many existing black and white programs.

In order to serve the large base of existing black and white receivers, each TV station would have to have two transmitters — one for  black and white and one for color, each operating on a different channel.

Today, it's hard to understand how an ungainly system such as this could become the standard for a country, but the FCC approved the approach, and if it wasn't for the Korean War, which put things on hold, we might have gotten saddled with some version of this mechanical system.

>>Although there isn't much about a war that's good, with much consumer manufacturing suspended during the Korean War, engineers had time to figure out a better approach to color TV. In this case, it was the RCA engineers.

The approach they came up was all electronic. No squeaky wheels. It was so ingenious, in fact, that it is considered by many to one of the major technological feats of the 20th century.

Rather than require new TV receivers and transmitters, the all-electronic process interleaved all the color information into the existing black and white TV signal.

The fact that this system incorporated a compatible color approach was critical to its success. Compatible color meant that one basic signal could be transmitted and the black and white sets could just ignore the color information.

You can learn more about how the color TV system works by – clicking here.


The "Live" Decade

>>Before 1956, all TV programming had to be done "live." Until that time, the only way to record TV programs was by using the somewhat less-than-desirable kinescope recordings. Consequently, the period from about 1948 to 1955 is referred to as the "live" decade of television.

The pressure of doing live television — if you made a mistake it just went out over the air for "the whole world to see" — was such good discipline that many famous TV and film stars received excellent training doing live television.

Their careers were undoubtedly helped by the fact that some truly substantive teleplays (TV dramas) were produced during this decade, productions that appealed to wealthier and better educated  — the viewers that could afford the high price of TV receivers.

>>Interestingly, when television production moved from doing everything "live" to using videotape in the late 50s, production costs increased dramatically. Videotaping productions meant that mistakes could be corrected by either stopping the tape and redoing segments or fixing problems in editing.  It also meant that directors and actors often were not as well prepared and simply relied on the option of doing things over. Thus, production times, which can run into thousands of dollars a minute, were significantly extended.

>>Because of this, the approach of doing things live-on-tape has been adopted for many shows. This means that the show is treated as if it is "live" and the recording is only stopped for major problems.

Although there were some famous "goofs" when everything was done "live," there were also some amazing and ingenious "saves" by actors and announcers after things went wrong (as they often did). Sometimes the script would have to be extemporaneously "rewritten" to accommodate a door that wouldn't open, an actor that suddenly got sick, or some other unforeseen occurrence.

>>The author was doing a "live" TV newscast one night when a large Fresnel light exploded over his head sending down a shower of hot chunks of broken glass. In these cases yellow dot the show mush go on, and without too much hesitation, it did. 

>>In the next module we'll look at television networks and ratings.

Interactive Test

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