Early television producers experimented with almost anything that would flicker across the small, blurry screen: dance instruction, charcoal drawing, fashion shows, travelogues, local plays, music and kids shows. The programs were crudely produced, and program schedules were, uh, “free-form”.
Milton Berle, who had been foundering on radio, took to the TV airwaves in 1948. An immediate sensation, people purchased sets just to see this new energy. It resembled Vaudeville, and many Vaudevillian stars joined the early television movement.
But by the mid-50’s, viewers got hungry for new entertainment, so the TV industry joined forces with Hollywood and filmed western adventures and detective shows. Within a few years a new generation, “the baby-boomers”, joined the TV-watching ranks.
To this new group, Vaudeville was old fashioned, and dramas were boring. Sponsors wanted to capture those viewers, so wildly premised sit-coms arrived. Witches, genies, spies, secret agents, Martians, talking cars and inept superheroes vied for viewer attention. Many of these shows flourished, at least for a while. But the social climate of the country was changing.
A war was brought into US living-rooms each night. During the turbulent 60’s the US was deeply divided on a huge array of issues, and each position was vocal. It seemed it was North against South, Young against Old, Black against White and Dove against Hawk on every issue.
Television was, in many ways, responsible for the divide. News was immediate, adding a sense of urgency to day-to-day life. A single camera could carry a dissenting voice around the world. Every accomplishment, such as landing on the moon, to every tragedy, such as assassinations and college riots, could be seen, almost as they happened, and nearly always in living color.
Television capitalized on the prevailing social issues. Up until this time, it was rare for a television series to enter into current moral debates. But by the mid sixties on, blacks were promoted to more than service providers; TV shows such as “Mod Squad”, “Room 222”, “I Spy” and “Julia” were designed to portray African Americans as intelligent and positive role models. Women found liberation from the kitchen through “Mary Tyler Moore”, “That Girl”, “Alice”, and many other woman-against-the-world shows.
Direct political commentary came from “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “Laugh-In”. Political viewpoint wrapped in loud, insult-based humor were a specialty of producer Norman Lear, with “All in the Family”, “Maude”, “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son”. “M*A*S*H” took current issues and transported them back to the Korean War.
Of course, the cop shows kept coming. “Mannix”, “Hawaii 5-0”, “Columbo”, “Rockford Files”, “McCloud” and “Kojak” were beating up bad guys and solving murders. Frequently, however, they, too, would skirt racial and social issues. For example, Mannix relied on his black secretary, which was unusual at the time. Robert Kulp and Bill Cosby shared an equal relationship on “I Spy”. The character Pepper Anderson of “Police Woman” had an autistic sister that was featured in the opening season.
By the mid 70’s, all of this relevance and introspection was feeling heavy-handed. The real world, with its unpopular war, presidential resignation and continual civil rights issues, was enough reality for the television viewing public.
Viewers wanted to escape. They needed a fantasy vacation from the real world. TV gave it to them.
Next time we get together we will see how the fine folks at NBC, CBS and ABC helped America escape its problems for an evening. Until we meet again, keep that dial tuned right where it is — Vintage Allied Varieties Broadcasting!
And as always, if you have a favorite TV program you’d like us to showcase here at the TV Corner, feel free to mention it in the comment section below. We love hearing from you – Honest!!