Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Utterly Novel and Unlikely Ever to be Repeated

What we commonly call "the TV Age" arrived in Knoxville just 60 years ago, according to an interesting article in the October 24 issue of our local Knoxville weekly MetroPulse - http://www.metropulse.com/news/2013/oct/23/dawn-knoxvilles-tv-age/.
What really struck me, reading that article, was how different my experience had been, growing up in a major metropolitan center. We got our TV in 1952, when I was four years old. I have a very vestigial memory of playing on the living room floor when the huge contraption was delivered. At least until UHF became more common sometime in the 1960s, I don't ever remember much change in the number of channels, which suggests that we had our full complement of VHF stations, if not from the very beginning, then at least from very soon after.  Unlike Knoxville's early experience with only 2 stations, in New York we had the three major networks - CBS (channel 2), NBC (channel 4), and ABC (channel 7) - plus several purely local stations - WNEW (channel 5), WWOR (channel 9), and WPIX (channel 11). There was also WNET "the educational channel" (channel 13), broadcasting from the Empire State building, which we seldom watched and which was only a very dim forerunner of today's PBS. Channel 11 carried all the NY Yankees Games. Chanel 9 endeared itself to us with Million Dollar Movie, which showed the same old movie every evening (and practically all day on the weekend) for a week, a great godsend in that pre-VCR era.

Compared to the more limited offerings in Knoxville and so many other cities in those very early days of TV, we in New York had access to quite a variety of TV. Still, the offering were (by today's standards) quit limited. And, for all the old Westerns and cartoons, there was also - as the MetroPulse article notes - a certain high-mindedness to early TV. There was quality coverage of serious matters. There was also serious drama, etc. And that was all before the contemporary division of the TV audience into ever narrower niche markets.
It is that division which makes the contemporary TV experience so radically different from what it was like 60 - or even 40 - years ago. There were competing programs. One watched either Ed Sullivan or Steve Allen, for example. But the choices were very limited. The result was that we all inhabited a common culture - more common perhaps than ever before in this large, geographically and culturally diverse country and society and certainly more common than what we live in now. In retrospect, it was a real "golden age," utterly novel and unlikely ever to be repeated.

"Adolescence" had recently been invented and a "teen culture" was developing. But it was still in its infancy. Children still ate dinner with the parents, at which adults directed the conversation, and then watched the same programs on the same TV that their elders did. There were, of course, daytime kids' shows like Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club and Saturday morning cartoons, but prime time was a united - and uniting - experience. This included the news, which almost everyone watched together on one of the three networks (especially after the networks adopted their current half-hour nightly format in the early 60s). There were also high-minded interview shows (Meet the Press, Face the Nation), which I presume had smaller audiences, but whose format and seriousness made them quite different from the more argumentative, conflict-oriented news and commentary shows of today.

Then 50 years ago, TV really came into its own as the great national unifier in its all- weekend coverage of the Kennedy Assassination.

Even in the 1950s there was criticism of TV programming - what Newton Minow would famously call a "vast wasteland." The quality of programming today is certainly better on some levels and certainly worse on others. What has been irretrievably lost, however, is TV as a nationally unifying force and the common culture it helped to create.

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