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Can 52,600,000 TV Set Owners Be Wrong?: Look Magazine Assesses American Television in 1960

Although experimental telecasts began in the 1920s and commercial broadcasting made a tentative start in 1939, the television industry first blossomed after World War II. In 1949, one million sets were in use, mostly in urban areas. By the end of the 1950s, Americans had purchased more than 50 million sets. As with earlier forms of mass culture—especially radio and movies—the advent of television on a national scale brought forth a debate in popular forums on its quality, societal effects, and potential. While writer Paddy Cheyevsky in 1953 characterized television as “the marvelous medium of the ordinary,” Federal Communications Commission Director Newton Minow, eight years later, charged that broadcasters had created “a vast wasteland” inhabited predominately with “game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.” The following article shows how a popular magazine assessed television’s past, present, and possible future in 1960.

Ten Years of TV: How It’s Better; How It’s Worse; What’s Ahead


PHASE 1: Novelty mesmerized viewers. Anything went, from wrestlers to the station’s test pattern.

PHASE 2: Uncle Miltie seemed intent upon reviving vaudeville.

PHASE 3: Philco and Studio One mood plays treated plain people with sensitivity and imagination.

PHASE 4: Situation comedies focused on all the funny things that seldom happen to anyone.

PHASE 5: Common folk exhibited dazzling memories on big-money quizzes until Dotto was exposed; then most quizzes were blotto.

PHASE 6: Extravaganzas were called “spectaculars,” then “specials.” A few managed to possess both qualities.

PHASE 7: Success of adult Westerns such as Gunsmoke inspired many variations—even an Eastern-Western.

PHASE 8: Violence on the range was joined by big action in the underworld and in exotic locales.

PHASE 9: Quality plays, with such artists as Uta Hagen, syndicated to local stations, earned loyalty from viewers tired of formula shows.

This year, the people of the U.S. will devote more time to watching television than to any other pursuit except sleeping. And any industry that has grown so fast and changed so rapidly is sure to create a confusing [image]. During the past decade, TV’s center of production moved from New York to California; film and tape largely replaced live shows; a third major network arose. To complicate this growth, the industry, the critics and 52,600,000 set owners are often in conflict over TV’s functions and obligations. Intellectuals complain that so potent a medium will undermine our values with its escapism, materialism and repetitiousness. Some worry about the might-makes-right philosophy exploited in cheap melodrama. Others look upon TV as primarily an entertainment medium, whose purpose should be to act as a giant tranquilizer. Enthusiasts say the quality is high, considering the quantity of material required. What then are TV’s successes, its failings? What lies ahead?

HOW IT’S BETTER: In technical achievement, TV has improved tremendously in 10 years. Smoother productions have evolved, and the 30- or 60-minute strait jacket that once prevented longer dramas has been abolished. News coverage is more immediate and of higher caliber. Telecasts of European events now are seen within hours of the occurrence, through use of transatlantic cable film and other methods. Coverage of the United Nations debates and of this year’s national political campaigns was thorough and enlightening. Offerings of an informational and cultural nature have increased. On CBS, you can see Tomorrow, devoted to future scientific developments; Leonard Bernstein’s concerts; Twentieth Century; Eyewitness to History and CBS Reports. NBC offers The Nation’s Future, debates between public figures; The NBC White Paper; Our American Heritage; A.T.&T. specials; Project 20; The Divine Adventures and the Bell Science series. ABC has Expedition!; 15 Bell & Howell public affairs specials and The Walter Winchell Show. In syndication, the success of The Play of the Week on 50 independent stations exposes many viewers to ambitiously conceived drama while the wit of Oscar Levant, the gab of Open End and the charm of WBC’s Reading Out Loud give promise of future achievement on an independent level.

HOW IT’S WORSE: Ten years ago, thoughtful critics were already lamenting that TV seemed to be losing its creativity. Today, there is little opportunity to experiment. Costs for a 30-minute show have risen from $25,000 to almost twice that amount, while audiences are split among three networks. Formerly, specials added excitement to regularly scheduled shows. This year, there will be approximately a 50 per cent reduction in specials, and among those offered will be Playhouse 90 and Omnibus, which once were weekly series. Controversy in entertainment is considered potentially offensive and—despite such notable exceptions as The Sacco-Vanzetti Story—is avoided. Consequently, gifted writers who once lent stature to TV drama seldom write for the medium now. Weekly shows are often based on formulas developed in the 1950’s and are not unlike B and C movies in quality. Further dullness is engendered by a trend toward the use of more reruns. But probably the most damning comment lies in the fact that no furor was created when, during the writers 'strike, scripts written for one series were reused on another, with only a change in names and a few minor revisions. The conclusion must be that the public failed to notice—or did not care.

WHAT’S AHEAD: Pay TV? Despite the apparent success of the Toronto, Canada, experiment, the impending tests in Hartford, Conn., and other U.S. cities, and the eagerness of Hollywood to reactivate major studios through “feevee,” pay television will not be a major force this year. Questions of economics, public acceptance and technical operation are still to be answered. In addition, clearance of UHF channels must be achieved before either pay or educational TV can expect large-scale expansion.

Color: NBC is increasing its colorcasts by 25 per cent, making a total of 1,000 hours this season. But most experts say color must wait two to four years for full acceptance.

Post-1948 films: Warner Bros. are offering 100 recent films, and other companies are readying packages. But the big hits will be held for theaters, pay TV and special leasing. A policy of caution, shared by networks, independent stations and film studios, precludes a deluge of recent films,

Ratings: The House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight has arranged for three scientists to examine and evaluate the methods of rating services. Prognosis: headlines. ...

HIGH JINKS ON WEEKLY SERIES: When you’re watching the new series this fall, if you’re disturbed by the feeling that you’ve seen them all before, don’t rush to your doctor. The majority of new shows are reminiscent of the smash hits of the 1950’s. They are, in fact, based on the pre-tested formulas of such favorites as I Love Lucy, My Friend Irma, December Bride and Father Knows Best. One offering, however, has a built-in difference. It is ABC’s The Flintstones, a situation comedy set in the Stone Age, produced as an animated cartoon. Two legal comedies, The Law & Mr. Jones, with James Whitmore, and Harrigan and Son, with Pat O’Brien, Roger Perry and Georgine Darcy, are also new to ABC. Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy play entertainers flirting with retirement on NBC’s Peter Loves Mary. At CBS, the network that is leading the trend toward comedy, Cara Williams, Verna Felton and Harry Morgan star in Pete and Gladys. The characters they play were originally developed for the old December Bride show. Other CBS offerings include Bringing Up Buddy, with Enid Markey, Doro Merande and Frank Aletter, Oh, Those Bells!, starring the Wiere Brothers, and The Andy Griffith Show....

WHERE TV IS BEST: Apologists for follow-the-leader programming claim that TV viewers will not accept egghead or public-service shows. Yet political columnist Walter Lippmann, in the special CBS Reports show, Lippmann on Leadership, last July, decisively outrated his “popular” competitors in Arbitron’s survey of viewers. Today, each network, following an FCC hint, is showing at least one hour of public-service programming in prime evening time each week. It looks as if the best in television will finally have its inning against mechanical jokes and endless exercises in violence.

Source: George Eells and Stanley Gordon, “Ten Years of TV, ” Look, 27 September 1960, 23–24, 26, 31.