Nicholas Lemann: The making of broadcast television

Television swept across American society as rapidly as the Internet is sweeping across it now—and with even greater immediate effects. At the midpoint of the twentieth century, radio was the dominant broadcast medium, newspapers were the dominant news medium, and movies were the most popular form of visual entertainment. Within ten years, television had taken over. Vast wasteland though it may have been (Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called it that in 1961), television had become the basic forum of American culture.

So it’s easy to forget that everything about it was once up for grabs. There was a lot of earnest debate about what form it ought to take, and people in the business stumbled around trying to figure out how to make money at it. In “Same Time, Same Station: Creating American Television, 1948-1961” (Johns Hopkins; $35), James L. Baughman performs the basic historian’s function of taking a story whose conclusion we all know and showing that it didn’t necessarily have to turn out that way. By the end of the period he covers, there were three national broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—with the same basic regimen: news in the early morning and early evening, soap operas in the afternoon, situation comedies and dramas during prime time, and talk late at night. It was the known world. In the beginning, though, things were unrecognizably different.

In the early fifties, very few people had sets, most of those who did lived in big cities on the coasts, and most programming was live. There was hardly any news; the appeal of sports broadcasts was not fully apparent, so Sunday afternoons were a dead zone filled with public-service programming. Shows were usually sponsored by a single advertiser, who exercised a high degree of control over the content. Programming was a seller’s market: nobody who was anybody wanted to be a television star. (That was why television’s earliest star was the washed-up Milton Berle, and why several of his immediate successors—Lucille Ball, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Arthur Godfrey—couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood, either.) The most powerful person in the business, David Sarnoff, of NBC, thought of himself as an engineering whiz and electronics tycoon, and believed that the main economic purpose of his network was to generate demand for the television sets he manufactured.

The period that Baughman covers is the “golden age of television”—the much mourned era of dramas by Paddy Chayefsky and documentaries by Edward R. Murrow. Baughman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, means to demythologize it. Television is the way it is, he seems to be saying, not because vulgar or greedy people got their hands on it but because of the tastes of a mass audience....

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