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The Golden Age of Television, Act III

For twenty years, the remains of television’s self-proclaimed golden age lay dormant in the vaults of the commercial networks. I remember traveling, as a young researcher for NBC, to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where the old shows of the fifties were stored, and seeing canisters labeled “Marty” and “Patterns” collecting dust. Until the late seventies, there was no economic or technological imperative to revive this history of the earliest era of television, when live, one-time-only events were the norm and network programs on film, with continuing characters, pioneered by I Love Lucy and Dragnet, were still novelties. Influential books like Erik Barnouw’s The Image Empire delineated the “short, surprising, brilliant” epoch of live television drama and comedy, but no one had the ability to review the legacy. Most of the golden programs had been seen once and then locked in the memory of the original television audience.

But in the late seventies, this began to change. The industry was being transformed by the cable and videocassette revolutions, and the new markets needed distinct programming. Executives discovered the warehoused kinescopes of the live programs, films shot off the monitor that earlier had not been considered good enough for national rebroadcast. Now, though, the technology existed to rejuvenate the video and audio of the kinescopes, and these programs suddenly became valuable to cable programmers and VHS distributors. The so-called lost Honeymooners episodes of the early fifties became one of Showtime’s shining jewels of the eighties. At the same time, baby boomers were discovering that television defined their generation as much as music. Shows such as Saturday Night Live satirically re-created those black-and-white days, emphasizing TV’s role in shaping the countercultural sensibility.

Fifties television was also beginning to be better appreciated on ­levels beyond the nostalgic. Universities initiated media courses, and archives—including the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media, where I am a curator)—began to preserve this heritage as a vital reflection of postwar culture. In 1980, Sonny Fox, an energetic Renaissance man of television, began a quest to bring back into the home the finest dramatic programs of the live era. Fox, who had been an on-air personality, a programming executive, and chairman of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, now wanted to make sure that his medium did not forget its illustrious past. He selected and remastered a series of exemplary dramas for a landmark public television program, The Golden Age of Television. These fifties dramas were originally seen as part of umbrella series sponsored by large corporations. Now they were being presented as major artistic works on their own. It was the first time these productions were seen in the medium they originated from since their original broadcast, and their release prompted critics to reassess the evolution of the industry. The respected Tom Shales of the Washington Post opined that the live, “sponsor-controlled television was superior to the network-controlled television we have now.”

We are now another generation away from the birth of the golden age. Again, we’re experiencing a revolution in the electronic media. The Internet has disrupted the way we receive entertainment and information, just as television and then cable did in previous ages of technology. And with this new DVD collection, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the analog beginnings of our now-digital culture.

The Magic of Live Television

Right after the Second World War, the industry and the press were enthralled by the utopian possibilities of television to remake American culture. In fact, the September 16, 1950, issue of TV Guide predicted “The Dawn of TV’s Golden Age!” Much of this enthusiasm was based on the transfer of established radio talent to the new medium. The aural of yesterday became the visual of today. Certainly the video presence of such multimedia stars as Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, and Bob Hope gave the fledgling medium an instant popularity and respectability.

Liveness defined fifties television, a quality that the medium shared with its predecessor, radio. The networks wanted unique programming that only they could produce and feed to affiliates around the country. Any local station could lease syndicated film, but the major networks controlled the production studios from which programs could be transmitted simultaneously into homes. Live programs became the networks’ calling card, and the press embraced this concept. Gilbert Seldes, one of the most influential critics of popular culture, explained in 1952 why live was the essence of television: “The tension that suffuses the atmosphere of a live production is a special thing to which audiences respond; they feel that what they see and hear is happening in the present and therefore more real than anything taken and cut and dried, which has the feel of the past.”

In the pantheon of early live programming, drama held the most esteemed place. The intimacy of the viewing experience seemed ideally suited for the authentic revelation of character. In the most direct way, the TV audience could invite visitors into the home to share dramatic experiences with them. From the planning days, broadcasting executives understood the communal power of live drama, experimenting with the form before the medium seized the popular imagination. In the forties, two visionaries, CBS’s Worthington Miner and NBC’s Fred Coe, laid the foundation for translating the theatrical experience to the electronic screen.

Drama back then was conceived as a singular event. Unlike theater, where plays could run for years, or movies, which were seen simultaneously for weeks in cities around the country, the TV drama was seen once by an entire nation. Those shared experiences were sometimes spectacular: it’s possible that more people saw the 1953 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of Hamlet, with Maurice Evans, than had cumulatively seen the play since it was staged in Elizabethan England.

The economy of television was orchestrated to produce single live plays, mostly running an hour, as part of larger anthology series. Sponsors, usually large manufacturing companies, underwrote these series. Two originating in the late forties, NBC’s Kraft Television Theatre and CBS’s Westinghouse Studio One, created the model for such other corporate patrons as Philco, United States Steel, Armstrong, and Goodyear. The corporations worked with advertising agencies and creative talent to produce live dramas on a weekly basis. Each week, the cast would be completely different, but the behind-the-scenes crew was generally employed by the show, which helped to give each anthology series a distinctive personality.

The Generation That Made the Live Era Golden

The first five years of live drama, networks specialized in adapting classic works of literature, plays and short stories in particular. The works of Dickens, Poe, and Maugham were especially popular as television raided material that was in the public domain. TV directors developed their own visual vocabulary, relying on the intense close-up to convey psychological states. Television was creating a new art form, which in the words of historian William Boddy uniquely synthesized “the immediacy of the live theatrical performance, the space-conquering powers of radio, and the visual strategies of the motion picture.” These early results were tasteful, if sometimes overdone, but not golden.

The first era of live drama (1947–52) created a language but had nothing original to say. When the public-domain well began to run dry, producers like Fred Coe decided to reach out to young writers for fresh ideas. Authors like Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, and James Costigan had dabbled in other media but hadn’t found the appropriate venue for their ideas about postwar society. Most of these fledgling artists had served in World War II and saw a new America being born after the Allied victory. Live television gave them the chance to envision characters and situations that reflected an America transforming as they wrote. Veteran writers in Hollywood were often cogs in a machine; these newbies were given control over their scripts. It was not a team of writers working on a TV drama but a solitary voice. Although the writers were often not under contract and freelanced from series to series, they became household names, even recognized as “artist-playwrights” by the press.

These ambitious writers seized the creative challenge, developing stories and characters that resonated, in the span of an hour, for national audiences. Many times following the script through production, the writer was able to control his destiny (yes, this was the workplace before the early sixties of Mad Men, and women had even more limited roles). Chayefsky excelled in what he described as “the marvelous world of the ordinary,” and his iconic character Marty exemplified the pressures on the working-class male of the early fifties. Serling looked at how men behaved in groups, delivering blistering critiques of corporations (Patterns), the sporting world (Requiem for a Heavyweight), and television itself (The Comedian). The visions of this generation ran the gamut from the poetic (James Costigan’s touching evocation of frustration in A Wind from the South) to the piercing (JP Miller’s disturbing unmasking of the American dream in Days of Wine and Roses). As vital and reverberant as any movie, book, or play, these live television dramas illuminated the hidden, dark corners of fifties society, occasionally to the consternation of sponsor and network. These ideas were so powerful and innovative that TV plays were often adapted for the movies and theater. In five short years, television drama went from being the scavenger of old works to the originator of new revelations.

The writers were complemented by a restless generation of actors defined by their psychological immersion in roles. Performers such as Paul Newman, Rod Steiger, James Dean, and Kim Hunter studied their craft at the postwar mecca of the Method, the Actors Studio. Live television became the laboratory where these young artists could practice publicly this new acting technique, which would later be the standard. The character-driven teleplays became the perfect vehicles for delving into the psyches of individuals who were striving for a place in contemporary society. And the actors were deftly orchestrated by an emerging group of directors who were attuned to the visual intricacies of chamber drama. In the sixties, such golden age directors as John Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Sidney Lumet would bring the same refreshing adult sensibility to cinema. The artistic lessons of this era of television percolated throughout the media industry.

How to Think About the Golden Age of Television Today

The label “golden age” may conjure up a distant epoch of master artists: Virgil, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo—indisputable geniuses of the human imagination. We are much closer in spirit today, however, to the formation of the golden age of television, a different kind of golden age. It was not created by a few visionaries who dominated the cultural landscape. This electronic golden age arose from a postwar generation of writers, actors, and directors who were seeking a new form of storytelling.

They seized upon the live TV drama as an exploration of America’s developing atomic soul; they were the Beats with a new medium. They spoke with the same urgency as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but to a much larger audience. This golden age was not about a reverence for the past but an intense concern for the now. The present in the fifties was so complex and transformative that it required a new mode of expression to reveal the underlying changes.

The golden age of television was a synthesis of a hungry young generation with something to say and a new technology to express their ideas. Past golden ages were culminations; this twentieth-century golden age was a beginning, but it would vanish just like all previous intensely creative periods. The era of live television would be replaced by the domination of continuing series produced on film, which allowed for syndication and great profit. Television became a ritual and not an event, with audiences gravitating toward the formulaic pleasures of the western and the situation comedy. But many of the principles developed by the golden age remained in place for television. Most importantly, the writer would continue to be paramount in the creation of programming, with Chayefsky and the gang being successively followed by Norman Lear, Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley, David Chase, and J. J. Abrams. Like their golden age counterparts, these creators explored new genres and formats to uncover truths about the American present.

When intrepid producer Sonny Fox first put together his series for PBS in the early eighties, most of the artists associated with live drama were still living. Fox was able to interview many of the survivors, giving the series a historical and cultural context. In the intervening years, we have lost many of the key voices. Soon only the programs will survive, but they will always have something to say. We should not view this exemplary collection as one of remarkable artifacts from our past but as a possible gateway to the future. In these black-and-white films, we see a young generation making a new technology its own. That passion and artistry will always be a template for innovation.

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