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What Women Watched

What Women Watched: Daytime Television in the 1950s

Marsha F. Cassidy
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  • Book Info
    What Women Watched
    Book Description:

    In this pathfinding book, based on original archival research, Marsha F. Cassidy offers the first thorough analysis of daytime television's earliest and most significant women's genres, appraising from a feminist perspective what women watched before soap opera rose to prominence.

    After providing a comprehensive history of the early days of women's programming across the nation, Cassidy offers a critical discussion of the formats, programs, and celebrities that launched daytime TV in America-Kate Smith's variety show and the famed singer's unsuccessful transition from patriotic radio star to 1950s TV idol; the "charm boys" Garry Moore, Arthur Godfrey, and Art Linkletter, whose programs honored women's participation but in the process established the dominance of male hosts on TV; and the "misery shows"Strike It RichandGlamour Girland the controversy, both critical and legal, they stirred up.

    Cassidy then turns to NBC'sHomeshow, starring the urbane Arlene Francis, who infused the homemaking format with Manhattan sophistication, and the ambitious daily anthology dramaMatinee Theater, which strove to differentiate itself from soap opera and become a national theater of the air. She concludes with an analysis of four popular audience participation shows of the era-the runaway hitQueen for a Day; Ralph Edwards's daytime show of surprises,It Could Be You;Who Do You Trust?, starring a youthful Johnny Carson; andThe Big Payoff, featuring Bess Myerson, the country's first Jewish Miss America. Cassidy's close feminist reading of these shows clearly demonstrates how daytime TV mirrored the cultural pressures, inconsistencies, and ambiguities of the postwar era.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79694-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction: Daytime Television in the Era of the Feminine Mystique, 1948–1960
    (pp. 1-26)

    The rise of daytime television in the United States coincided with a monumental period in American culture that reshaped the image of the ideal woman. As the country’s new iridescent screen began flickering to life during the day and a nascent industry searched for ways to entice women to their sets before dinnertime, broadcasters beamed home hesitant answers to the question, What is the nature of this new femininity? Throughout the 1950s, the simulated realm of daytime broadcasting continued to inquire, Who is this new woman, and what is her place in postwar America?

    The industry’s quest for daytime viewers...

  5. 2 The Dawn of Daytime: Reaching Out to Women across America
    (pp. 27-48)

    From the first light of television, daytime programmers set their sights on women. Across the nation, producers at the local, regional, and national levels devised a curious assortment of programs calculated to attract the female spectator. During TV’s earliest years, however, the power dynamics among the country’s founding telecasters often operated erratically, making it difficult to forecast a program’s chance for success. Yet in the ongoing contest for early daytime viewership, women spectators served as the industry’s polestar.¹

    The historical overview presented in this chapter provides a necessary context for those that follow, as it highlights the complex competitive environment...

  6. 3 Kate Smith: Remembering the Future
    (pp. 49-74)

    On 10 November 1938, Kate Smith announced on her midday radio program that she planned to introduce a special song on the eve of Armistice Day that would not only salute America’s war heroes but also “emphasize just how much America means to each and every one of us.” She had commissioned Irving Berlin, one of the nation’s best-known composers, to write the song for her, asking him to create “a new hymn of praise and love and allegiance to America.”¹ That evening, Smith sang “God Bless America” on radio for the first time, reprising it just before Thanksgiving in...

  7. 4 The Charm Boys Woo the Audience: Garry Moore, Arthur Godfrey, and Art Linkletter
    (pp. 75-103)

    In 1950, as NBC showcased expensive female star power onThe Kate Smith Hour, a succession of male celebrities began hosting more informal programs on CBS that cost less to produce and appealed to viewers more.The Garry Moore Show, vaudeo writ small, premiered in October 1950;Arthur Godfrey TimeandArt Linkletter’s House Party, prosperous CBS radio ventures since 1945, joined the daytime television lineup two years later.¹ All three programs are principal examples of a significant and far-reaching development in early daytime television: the rise of charismatic male stars who reigned over participatory formats aimed at women and...

  8. 5 Misery Loves Company: Strike It Rich, Glamour Girl, and the Critics
    (pp. 104-130)

    In contrast to shows likeGarry Moore,Arthur Godfrey Time, andArt Link letter’s House Party, which offered women lighthearted amusements, another category of popular daytime programs stressed the pathos of women’s lives. Derisively called misery or sob shows, these variants of the audience participation genre required women to trade the public exposure of their life’s problems for the chance to win prizes.¹ Women’s confessions provided the nucleus for a number of successful television game shows during the 1950s, and victorious contestants acquired cash, consumer goods, and beauty treatments in reward.² By featuring the female subject in distress, two of...

  9. 6 Domesticity in Doubt: Arlene Francis and Home
    (pp. 131-156)

    That Kate Smith and Arlene Francis were both born in 1907—Smith on 9 May and Francis on 20 October—is hard to reconcile with the contrasting images they projected on postwar television. By 1950, Smith already appeared matronly and old-fashioned, her discourse outmoded, while Francis, whose radio career in New York had closely paralleled Smith’s during the 1930s and 1940s, emerged on daytime television in 1954 as a sophisticated “modern” woman and the energetic mother of a young child. If Smith’s bulk and homespun personality never transcended wartime iconography, Francis’s slim figure and Fifth Avenue charm offered television a...

  10. 7 Matinee Theater and the Question of Soap Opera
    (pp. 157-183)

    A few weeks into the 1955–1956 television season, the peak year for live drama,¹ an advertisement appeared inLookmagazine that promoted NBC’s primetime theatrical productions in the language of serious art. Promotional assessments like “inspired performances,” “skilled direction,” and the “work of some of the most important writers of our time” cast an aura of selective taste around NBC’s evening properties. Tagged onto the end of the ad was a promotion for NBC’s brand-new daytime programMatinee Theater, which had debuted on 31 October. The copy read, “NBC MATINEE is a special treat for the lady of the...

  11. 8 At a Loss for Words: Queen for a Day, It Could Be You, Who Do You Trust?, and The Big Payoff
    (pp. 184-213)

    During the second half of the 1950s, asMatinee Theatermounted its cameo dramas from an empty studio, everyday women continued to crowd the theaters of the audience participation shows, where female subjects spoke millions of words on camera. In the daytime world of television, the visibility and vitality of the speaking woman could not be denied, and her homebound sisters watched and listened faithfully.

    While the steady procession of women on daytime television validated femininity’s power to be seen and heard in a new public sphere, participation shows transmitted from their core a remarkably ambiguous feminine figure. Like the...

  12. 9 Conclusion: Visions of Femininity
    (pp. 214-218)

    Well before soap opera’s plotlines dominated daytime schedules, women’s voices, women’s bodies, and women’s stories were already populating the new small screen. In the industry’s effort to cajole women to turn their TV sets on during the day, television offered up an array of feminine possibilities. Attempts to embody an idealized television hostess—in the outmoded figure of Kate Smith, the ambiguous but promising persona of Arlene Francis, or the silenced perfection of Bess Myerson—were augmented by the camera’s eager focus on the “ordinary” homemaker in all her emotional swings. From the smiling figures on shows likeArt Linkletter’s...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 219-250)
  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 251-258)
  15. Index
    (pp. 259-264)