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The Columbia History of American Television

The Columbia History of American Television

Gary R. Edgerton
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 512
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  • Book Info
    The Columbia History of American Television
    Book Description:

    Television is a form of media without equal. It has revolutionized the way we learn about and communicate with the world and has reinvented the way we experience ourselves and others. More than just cheap entertainment, TV is an undeniable component of our culture and contains many clues to who we are, what we value, and where we might be headed in the future.

    Media historian Gary R. Edgerton follows the technological developments and increasing cultural relevance of TV from its prehistory (before 1947) to the Network Era (1948-1975) and the Cable Era (1976-1994). He begins with the laying of the first telegraph line in 1844, which gave rise to the idea that images and sounds could be transmitted over long distances. He then considers the remodeling of television's look and purpose during World War II; the gender, racial, and ethnic components of its early broadcasts and audiences; its transformation of postwar America; and its function in the political life of the country. He talks of the birth of prime time and cable, the influence of innovators like Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, Roone Arledge, and Ted Turner, as well as television's entrance into the international market, describing the ascent of such programs as Dallas and The Cosby Show, and the impact these exports have had on transmitting American culture abroad.

    Edgerton concludes with a discerning look at our current Digital Era (1995-present) and the new forms of instantaneous communication that continue to change America's social, political, and economic landscape. Richly researched and engaging, Edgerton's history tracks television's growth into a convergent technology, a global industry, a social catalyst, a viable art form, and a complex and dynamic reflection of the American mind and character. It took only ten years for television to penetrate thirty-five million households, and by 1983, the average home kept their set on for more than seven hours a day. The Columbia History of American Television illuminates our complex relationship with this singular medium and provides historical and critical knowledge for understanding TV as a technology, an industry, an art form, and an institutional force.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51218-3
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    The idea of television existed long before its realization as a technology. The dream of transmitting images and sounds over great distances actually dates back to the nineteenth century, becoming an increasingly common aspiration of scientists and inventors in the United States and Europe after the first telegraph line opened up the modern communication era in 1844. Just over a century and a half ago, mediated information and imagery moved only as far and as fast as men and women could carry them. Today, in contrast, we see the new digital language of instantaneous communication everywhere, mostly as a result...

  5. Part I. Going Public

    • 1 AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAD COME: Imagining Television—Before 1940
      (pp. 3-59)

      The coming of television involved the most extensive and ballyhooed series of public relations events ever staged around any mass medium in American history. Throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s, no new communication form had ever been more anticipated in the press—then postponed time and again for a variety of legitimate technological, economic, and cultural reasons—than TV. In the spring of 1939, David Sarnoff, the ever driven and increasingly powerful forty-eight-year-old president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), had arranged his share of press conferences on television, often thinly disguised as scientific demonstrations. In the...

    • 2 NOT GOING ACCORDING TO PLAN: Remodeling the Tube in a Time of Crisis—1940–1947
      (pp. 60-90)

      When the New York World’s Fair closed its doors for the winter on October 31, 1939, the number of visitors had slowly been declining over the late summer and early fall months, and overall attendance stood well below projected expectations. A similar pattern was evident in the reception that TV was receiving from the general public. “Television has suffered from its own prophets,” charged the Saturday Evening Post; “too much prophecy has made the magic box something of an anticlimax.”² Indeed, the arrival of TV had been promised so often from so many different quarters since the earliest demonstrations of...

    • 3 LEARNING TO LIVE WITH TELEVISION: Technology, Gender, and America’s Early TV Audiences
      (pp. 91-110)
      Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley

      Television took America by storm during the first decade of the Cold War era, alternately fascinating and consternating its viewers and critics. “It may be a reflection on our sense of values,” reported one dazed observer in 1950, “but the sundered atom is far behind the TV tube as the greatest technological influence on the daily lives of millions of Americans.”¹ Others characterized commercial broadcast TV’s arrival at the end of the World War II as a “home invasion,” one claiming that “television began to take over the American living room as a loudmouthed, sometimes delightful, often shocking, thoroughly unpredictable...

  6. Part II. Becoming National

    • 4 HERE COMES TELEVISION: Remaking American Life—1948–1954
      (pp. 113-155)

      Journeyman entertainer Milton Berle was an unlikely candidate to emerge as television’s first bona fide superstar during the 1948–1949 season. Born Mendel Berlinger in 1908, he grew up the son of Jewish immigrants in a five-story Harlem walkup on the upper west side of Manhattan. Moe and Sarah Berlinger were desperately poor, struggling to raise five small children. One day Mendel’s mother “borrowed 20 cents carfare to take the five-year-old boy to an amateur contest after he had done an impromptu street imitation of Charlie Chaplin.” He won straightaway, “and Mom promptly went to work on his career as...

    • 5 THE HALCYON YEARS: Beyond Anyone’s Wildest Dream—1955–1963
      (pp. 156-204)

      For millions of returning soldiers and their families, the 1944 GI Bill of Rights helped democratize the American dream of owning a home and living the good life. This final act of New Deal largesse put higher education and vocational training, as well as low-interest loans for a home, farm, or small business, within the reach of many ex-GIs who would have otherwise been unable to afford such high-priced investments. By 1947, for example, 49 percent of all college enrollees were World War II veterans. This increased access to all kinds of advanced educational opportunities not only eased the country’s...

    • 6 TELEVISION AND THE PRESIDENCY: Eisenhower and Kennedy
      (pp. 205-234)
      Mary Ann Watson

      On December 7, 1951—ten years after the United States entered World War II—the promise of a better life that motivated Americans to so much sacrifice seemed to have been realized. At the end of the war, optimism for the future was the most fitting tribute that could be paid to those whose lives were given for democratic principles. The booming postwar economy steadily elevated the American standard of living.

      As the second half of the twentieth century dawned—and Dwight Eisenhower, the great hero of the D-Day invasion, contemplated a run for the presidency—a culture of abundance...

  7. Part III. Becoming International

    • 7 A GREAT AWAKENING: Prime Time for Network Television—1964–1975
      (pp. 237-284)

      The major historical and cultural currents that are typically associated with the 1960s—the civil rights movement, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, the generation gap, rock ’n’ roll music, the Vietnam War, student protests, women’s liberation, the rise of the counterculture and the subsequent reaction by the silent majority—all seemed to surface soon after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Surely these events and issues simmered for years beneath the calm exterior of postwar America before finally boiling over with a pent-up fury that took many people in the country by surprise. Daniel Boorstin once observed that the “most popular”...

    • 8 THE SKY’S THE LIMIT: Satellites, Cable, and the Reinvention of Television—1976–1991
      (pp. 285-322)

      Sports was second only to news as the programming genre that contributed the most to the growing national and international awareness of American television audiences. As recently as 1957, even the national pastime—baseball—was for all intents and purposes a regionally played major league sport with only St. Louis located west of the Mississippi River. In 1958, Major League Baseball (MLB) finally expanded to the West Coast when Walter O’Malley relocated the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles and Horace Stoneham the New York Giants to San Francisco. Both owners appeared before a congressional subcommittee investigating antitrust violations in professional...

    • 9 THE CHANGING FACE OF TELEVISION: Turner Broadcasting System
      (pp. 323-346)
      Jimmie L. Reeves and Michael M. Epstein

      No one exemplifies the changing face of television during the closing decades of the twentieth century more than Robert Edward (Ted) Turner III. The mustachioed media mogul with chronic foot-in-mouth disease made Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) into one of the primary beneficiaries of the cable and satellite revolutions—revolutions that would transform the global television experience. Though the legend of Ted Turner does not exactly conform to Horatio Alger’s ragsto-riches stories, Turner’s personal journey from the obscurity of outdoor advertising to the prominence of Time Magazine’s Man of the Year has consumed thousands of column inches of newsprint and inspired...

  8. Part IV. Becoming Global

    • 10 THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA IS SHOW BUSINESS: U.S. TV in Global Context—1992–Present
      (pp. 349-389)

      Just as cable penetration was reaching two-thirds of all TV households in the United States during the mid 1990s, this sector of the television industry was already outgrowing the top-down distribution model that it inherited from the three-network oligopoly in the mid 1970s. Besides the major broadcast networks, niche programming was the accepted norm in the rapidly expanding multichannel universe of the 1990s. When American viewers flipped through their channel lineups, they began to see all sorts of networks based on traditional story forms (Biography Channel, Comedy Central, History Channel), narrative genres that were previously popular on radio and in...

    • 11 THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH: The Cosby Show and the Ascent of U.S. Sitcoms in the Global Television Marketplace
      (pp. 390-409)
      Timothy J. Havens

      The Cosby Show (1984–1992) was one of a rare, and probably now extinct, breed of American television series that captured and held the attention of vast audiences from nearly every walk of life for year after year of its prime-time run. The show attracted more viewers than any series in television history, reaching more than sixty-three million Americans in the 1986–1987 season and posting Nielsen ratings that had not been seen since Bonanza’s 1964–1965 season. The Cosby Show also made more money than any previous series, netting over $1 billion in domestic syndication sales and close to...

    • 12 TUNE IN LOCALLY, WATCH GLOBALLY: The Future of Television in the Age of the Internet
      (pp. 410-426)

      Globalization and the new media technologies that support it are relatively new phenomena. Anthony Giddens observes in Runaway World: How Globalization Is Reshaping Our Lives that “in the late 1980s the term [globalization] was hardly used, either in the academic literature or in everyday language. It has come from nowhere to be almost everywhere.”² Globalization, in this regard, refers to a set of circumstances that have developed since the end of the Cold War. These conditions include the influence of electronic money on the global economy; the rise of multinational corporations (including the ascendancy of a relatively small number of...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 427-476)
    (pp. 477-488)
    (pp. 489-493)