Books: Same Time, Same Station

I ended up reading this book about the early history of television because I had been reading a book about teaching Sunday School. I know that seems like an unlikely jump, but there was a logical connection. Honest!

(The book I was reading about teaching Sunday School recommended, more or less in passing, that if you use puppets, not to have them talk about God. I emailed the author to ask why. Her response – that puppets are not real so they can’t have a relationship with God – did not entirely satisfy me, so I found an internet forum about puppets and found someone who seemed to use puppets in Christian ministry. I joined the forum so I could contact him by email, and asked him about this. He not only saw nothing wrong with having puppets talk about God, he told me that the word marionette comes from the name Mary because early Christians used puppets to teach. Wanting to learn more about that history, I looked for books in the library catalog about marionettes. One was about Howdy Doody, a show I’ve heard about but never seen. I wondered if I could find a DVD I could borrow with episodes from Howdy Doody. My search didn’t turn up much in the way of DVDs, but it did list Same Time, Same Station, a book about the early decades of television.)

The topic  of the book was interesting, but just barely enough to motivate me to finish reading the book. Despite what the flyleaf says about “Baughman’s engagingly written account,” I found it far from engaging. The flyleaf also reveals that Baughman is a historian and a professor; perhaps he wrote this with students of Journalism and Mass Communication in mind.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with so many endnotes. They take up over 25% of the book! That means, of course, the that text is chock-full of quotes, historical details, and other data that may be of interest to the historian but probably not to the average reader. Often I thought Baughman could easily make his point with a single quote. But he piled one on top of another. I wondered if he was trying to use every possible historical citation, and if so why.

I did learn some interesting facts about the early history of TV, however. Having grown up in the 60’s and 70’s, I took the division of stations into VHF and UHF for granted. I had no idea why I watched NBC on UHF and CBS on VHF. (The third network, ABC, had no local station, and only came in very fuzzily on one VHF station and one UHF station – and then only on a good day.)

I thought of ABC as the best network, and whenever we visited a home where it was available, I eagerly watched shows unavailable at home (Bewitched, Scooby-Doo). I was surprised to read that ABC had long been a minor network, struggling for stations, advertisers, and viewers. The history of UHF and VHF, and the way stations were assigned in different viewing areas, had a lot to do with it.

Some factors that affected the early decades of television were a surprise. Many people who had successful programs on radio were reluctant to do TV. Unlike radio, where they could read from a script and no one cared how they looked, TV required them to memorize lines and to look good. Men even had to wear makeup – a real barrier for some.

There was also strong disagreement between those who wanted to see television as a force for promoting culture and education, and those who preferred to let the market decide – which inevitably meant appealing to the lowest common denominator of the population. When I heard people denouncing TV as a bad influence on children when I was growing up, I assumed that was a relatively new issue. But television had been denounced as a corrupting force from the very beginning.

Sometimes the networks produced programs that appealed to the cultural elite. This wasn’t due to market forces – it was because the cultural elite were also those who could decide how stations were assigned, and what laws were passed that affected the networks. If key officials or legislators liked the show, it was worth producing, even if the accountants would report that the show lost money.

This morning at work, people were talking about the debate last night, and how childishly they thought both candidates behaved. (I didn’t watch the debates myself; we don’t get any channels except the local public information channel, and streaming from the internet is too bandwidth-intensive.) One person said she was sure candidates used to display more maturity in debates, back in the 40’s or 50’s, or even earlier.

I mentioned that I had just read this book, and that TV had probably had a detrimental effect on the whole process. In the 40’s and 50’s, people relied on radio and newspapers for news, not television. There was little news available on TV, and few people watched what there was. Advertisers didn’t want to sponsor programs people didn’t watch, and journalists didn’t want to be associated with what was considered a frivolous medium.

I remember my father always listened to the news on the radio in the morning. He rarely if ever watched news on TV, except for getting returns on election night. Radio had the advantage of convenience, of course – he could listen to it while he got dressed, and while he ate breakfast. TV news, on the other hand, was inconveniently aired at dinnertime, and watching it would have required leaving the table and going into the living room.

Now that I read this book, though, I realize that a bigger reason for his preference for radio was likely that it was the tried and trusted news medium, along with newspapers. I doubt that my grandparents had a TV – I certainly can’t remember one when I try to visualize their house. I’m sure my father had always heard the news on the radio and considered that the best way to get up-to-date reports.

During the 60’s and 70’s people came to rely more on TV to get the news, but that meant that more effort had to be put into the presentation of the news, perhaps to the detriment of the content. Certainly political campaigns seem to have come to pander to the TV viewer who has little comprehension of the issues, but who will remember a candidate’s good (i.e. trustworthy) looks and sound bites.

TV viewers in the 70’s and later also came to prefer “authenticity” over the rules about what was considered acceptable to put on the public airwaves. I don’t know that we can blame TV for the trend to greater acceptance of public rudeness rather than following the older rules of courtesy, but it probably played a role in convincing people that this is simply how people act today. Even presidential candidates.

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