The Box

For a medium that has transformed the world, television had unlikely, even uncertain beginnings. There is still dispute as to when, where, and what constituted the first public broadcast: Was it a toy statue of the comic-strip character Felix the Cat or a crude drawing of a dollar sign? (Either one could be seen as appropriate and would serve as an apt, even symbolic representation of the new technology and its impact.) From the first, the producers as well as the consumers were baffled: Was television a vehicle for news or entertainment? Was it radio with pictures, a newsreel in the home? Or was it—is it—something entirely different? Above all, what did one do with television—and what did it do to human beings?

Such questions intrigued the men and women who pioneered television and television broadcasting during its first forty years, and their stories have been captured in Jeff Kisseloff’s candid, iconoclastic, and ultimately revealing book, The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961. Here, in their own words, with their likes and prejudices faithfully recorded and presented, their friendships and animosities carefully preserved and displayed, are the producers, directors, writers, executives, and performers who first established television and then transformed it from a novel technology to a central feature of modern culture.

In that sense, the sense of television as a central factor in modern culture, one of the most striking things about television is how little of it has changed over the years. The technology has improved, and the presentations have become faster, slicker, and more refined technically, but the aim and message have remained essentially unaltered. Tabloid television, to take one example, has its roots in the hard-hitting, hard-nosed style of news reporting introduced in 1948 by Don Hewitt (later the long-time producer of the highly acclaimed CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes). MTV can look past even beyond American Bandstand to recordings of songs played to visual images. The confrontational style of political debate on television was created, almost spontaneously it would seem, right at the very beginning. One of the lessons clearly stated by The Box is that since July, 1941, when the first commercial television signal aired, the medium has embraced and embodied the old axiom that the more things change, the more they remain the same. As one television show once put it, “Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Indeed there were some—innocents, that is—even in the history of television. Some were innocent because they were naïve, consumed by the technical complexity of transmitting words and pictures through thin air; it appears that many, perhaps most, of them failed to file patents, so the “true” inventor of the medium remains an elusive, receding mystery. There were other innocents as well.

Some were innocent by reason of sincerity, especially the writers, directors, and actors involved in the “golden age of television,” that period during the 1950’s when original drama was broadcast nationally on a regular basis. Productions during that period, such as The Miracle Worker, about Anne Sullivan and her pupil, Helen Keller, and Marty, written by Paddy Chayefsky and created on the small screen by Rod Steiger, had an immediate and profound impact on their audience. The day after the latter drama aired, Steiger was hailed by complete strangers in the streets with the play’s tag line, “Whadda ya wanta do tonight, Marty?” The actor understood that the audience had undergone an epiphany. “This play touched the core of loneliness in the average man and swept across the country.”

There were innocents in sports, too, in those days. The rights to broadcast games were measured in thousands rather than millions of dollars, and the standard reference for calculating the amount owed to a team was how many paying seats were displaced by the camera and sound crews. Announcers such as Red Barber, already famous from radio, adjusted to the new medium, and adjusted it to their use as well: Barber had two miniature models of the ballpark, one in the broadcast booth and the other in the director’s booth; he turned on lights to show where he...

(The entire section is 1762 words.)