Television America-wise 

21 August 2020

Sidelights on the nation with more than two hundred TV stations



Dust jacket of the Television Annual for 1955

From the Television Annual for 1955, published in late 1954

Mark Goodson and Bill Todman devised What’s My Line?, and now have a business providing “packaged” panel shows to U.S.A. television. From six successfully running panel games they gross one and a half million dollars a year. Thirty-four million people watch their programmes. What’s My Line? attracting the largest audience—nearly ten million.

One day they were asked if they had ever tried to guess the jobs of guests at parties. This led them to think of building a quiz around occupations. First, they suggested a roving-eye camera, picking up people in the street and having the guessing left to the viewer. Then they discarded this idea in favour of having a cross-examining panel.

They planned a serious programme, with no idea of playing for laughs. On their trial panel they put a psychiatrist and a personnel manager. But when they tried it on a trial audience they found it so full of laughs that they then spent two hundred and fifty hours polishing it into a “gimmick” comedy show.

They devised The Name’s the Same; and their other quizzes are called Winner Take All, It’s News to Me, and The Web. They have a staff of thirty, on half of the seventh floor of the New York Columbia Broadcasting System building. Mark Goodson has had six weeks’ holiday in eleven years. Bill Todman says: “Believe me, we built up because we were on the constant sell. When the opening came, we were there with the gimmick—the successful gimmick.”


A huge crowd surrounds an RCA outside broadcasting truck

This is America’s “Roving Eye” of TV at work. Cameramen on mobile units televise crowds participating in New York’s East Sunday parade on Fifth Avenue. “Remotes,” as outside broadcasts are called, are dominant in American TV.



Quiz-frenzy: “Before each quiz show the announcer goes into the audience to select contestants for the show who obviously will make some money. After watching a few of these exhibitions we have come to the conclusion that people would rather win money than do anything. But in doing so they lose all grace and dignity. Some day, some wild seeker of quiz show gold is going to cause some real trouble in a studio. Monday night at C.B.S. we witnessed the following: The announcer said, ‘Now who wants to go on the show?’ A stout lady with her hair in curlers rose out of her seat and shouted, ‘Me — I’m from Brooklyn, and I have twelve children.’ (Most experienced would-be contestants know announcers like people from Brooklyn with many children and they lie easily.) The announcer asked her, ‘What else do you do?’ She giggled and said, ‘I used to work in a hot dog stand and my hobby is raising love birds.’ (Two more good answers.) The announcer was suspicious, and said, ‘You look familiar; have you been on the show before?’ ‘No,’ said the woman, ‘I just moved here from the mountains.’ (Another good answer.) A woman sitting next to her said, ‘She’s a liar. She’s always here.’ The stout woman shrieked, ‘Never!’ She bent down, yanked at her accuser’s hair, stuck her tongue out at the announcer, gave him a Bronx cheer, kicked an aisle sitter in the shins for no good reason and stamped to the back of the studio, yelling, ‘You’re all liars and cheaters and you’re all no damn good.’ As she stepped through the door, an usher tried to quiet her and she kicked him too. There’s trouble brewing on the quiz shows.”



Public Assistance: “City of New York’s Welfare Dept, yesterday declared that the Strike It Rich quiz operates within the meaning of a public welfare agency, and must have a licence from that department.. [Cash prizes given in this programme had brought people to New York to have a go’.] “Welfare Commissioner Henry L. McCarthy declared that some 25 families out of the many who came here to appear on the programme had finally wound up on this city’s relief rolls…”

Charity: “County Relief now considers a TV set a necessity for the poor and permits arrangements to buy one on time [hire purchase]…”

Warning?: “Note the two different trends in TV in Europe and here. There the trend is towards getting advertisers to support the medium. Here it is felt TV has become so expensive for advertisers, the people are going to have to help foot the bill on special shows [by means of coin-in-the-slot TV sets]…”


WNBT news

There was some criticism of news readers being unseen when the BBC changed its news presentation in 1954. Here in a New York television studio a reporter broadcasts news of the day’s events in full view of the viewers.


Stock for BBC?:Hopalong Cassidy has 130 shows in the can, bringing in much loot, and is reluctant to make any more for a while…”

Reform School: “It will be tougher and tougher to sell sponsors on shows dealing with murder, prisons, violence and delinquency. New thinking among ad men is that people who leave the TV set in a happy frame of mind might buy the product but depression might have the opposite effect…”

Commercials Knocked: “Television commercials are strongly condemned by representatives of influential groups throughout the country on the grounds that they infuriate, bore, irritate, deceive the public and destroy their own value, in a survey conducted by New York public relations counsel Edward L. Bernays. Preponderant complaints included: demoralizing, exaggerated, insufferably repetitious, trite, obtrusive, interrupting, poorly-timed, juvenile, insulting, bad taste and lack of dignity…”

City Note: “Banks and other lending institutions have adopted a policy shying away from motion picture financing unless the producer can clear eventual TV exhibition of the films. The TV rights are added protection for the financing institutions, in the event that loans are not paid off through cinema exhibition of the films.”

Same Here!: “Happiest people on TV are the chairmen of panel shows. They laugh at everything…”




The American show-business paper, Variety, reported as follows about programmes cited as outstanding in 1953-1954:

Station WKY-TV, Oklahoma City, did an outside broadcast from its Court of Justice during an actual murder trial. It promised the Judge “no encumbrances, no lowering of the court’s dignity, no opportunity for grandstanding… After it was all over, Judge Van Meter said: “The trial coverage was handled in such a manner as not to hamper or influence the trial in any manner… In my opinion, if TV is used in an educational and factual manner, as it was in this case, without any of the spectacular portrayal, it should be very helpful.”

Station WCAU-TV, Philadelphia, with a Summer School programme, “provides youngsters during their vacation months away from school with a great deal of knowledge about things that matter in this modern world, and does it painlessly and effectively. Summer School, however, didn’t sugar-coat or over-gimmick. It did not rely on entertainers to educate, but mostly educators who could challenge and hold young audiences. No bores. No stuffed shirts… Programmes, five days a week, were organized around themes of ‘The Worlds of Yesterday and Today,’ ‘And Tomorrow,’ and ‘Man’s Conquests—of Distance, Time, Himself, Disease.’ Summer School reached more than 10,000,000 boys and girls.”

“TV is often at its stunning best,” goes on Variety, “when it leaves the studio, abandons the re-created world of scripts, props and sets, puts aside its role of entertainer and uses its cameras as observers of moments of high drama in real life. Such moments are rare, but when they happen they emphasize that live documentary TV is truly a unique medium, possessing in certain ways, powers of communication that are greater than those of films, theatre or printed journalism. WHAS-TV’s (Louisville) broadcast of a cancer operation was that kind of event.

Controllers sit at a desk overlooking an operating theatre

Television of a cancer operation was judged an outstanding feature of American TV in 1954. In this picture TV is used in an American hospital to assist medical students.

“This was a sensational programme, but it was not sensationalism. Common sense, good taste of TV staff and participating medicals were insurance against tawdry or morbid approach to delicate subject. Their motives were important: to emphasize importance of familiarity with cancer’s seven danger signals, to stress life-saving need for early diagnosis and treatment, to point-up alarming increase in lung-cancer, to promote regular use of X-ray, to spotlight American Cancer Society’s annual fund drive, and to show dramatically importance of Red Cross blood donations…

“Prime evening time was used for this documentary report of an operation for chest cancer. During hour-long programme WHAS-TV gave its audience detailed close-up of this complex surgery, including removal of entire lung…

“Operation was a success, and three weeks to the night after the operation the patient, James Durham, who in interest of saving other lives had volunteered to have TV cameras cover his operation, appeared on the screen, on his feet and looking well — to drive home even deeper the fact that early detection and prompt surgical action had saved his own life…”




❛❛Russ J Graham writes: Everything changes and nothing changes. The chief tone in the Hollywood TV Reporter and the Variety vignettes could almost be from today’s Guardian: TV is rubbish, except for the things that we say are not rubbish that nobody watches because the viewers find them to be rubbish.

There’s also an underlying tone of ‘the people cannot be trusted’, both the woman trying to get on television and the people who ‘flocked’ to New York to appear on TV and are now claiming welfare. Stupid viewers! This has two layers: the journalists thinking the viewers dumb and Kenneth Baily picking these anecdotes to prove that Americans are dumb – and, by extension, commercial television, on its way in the UK within the shelf life of this book, is also dumb.

It’s very easy to sneer at television – I’m no less guilty than anyone else for doing so – but it is the most massive of the mass media. It is present in virtually every home in the Old and New Worlds and rapidly going that way in the Third World. That has to be for a reason: it can’t be as truly terrible as critics like to caricature, else nobody would be watching.


A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Alan 24 September 2020 at 5:01 pm

1955 was a sad year for American TV the world’s first commercial TV network. In the spring DTN (DuMont Television Network) went on life support with almost all of their programmes going off the air. They would continue with occasional sporting events until the fall of 1956.

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