Glued to the Setby Steven D. Stark
From "I Love Lucy," "All in the Family," "The Brady Bunch," and "Saturday Night Live" to "Meet the Press," "Roots," MTV, and "ER," television has done more than simply record history and echo our culture. Television has in many ways become part of our history, shaping our culture and defining our morals. In Glued to the Set: The 60/i>
From "I Love Lucy," "All in the Family," "The Brady Bunch," and "Saturday Night Live" to "Meet the Press," "Roots," MTV, and "ER," television has done more than simply record history and echo our culture. Television has in many ways become part of our history, shaping our culture and defining our morals. In Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today, journalist and political commentator Steven Stark has managed to chart how America came of age though the evolution of this provocative and pervasive medium.
"It is fair to say that there have been two eras in America: Before Television (BT) and After Television (AT). Popular culture has been around for centuries, but never so persistently to the exclusion of so much else and with so much influence, as now," writes Stark in his introduction to Glued to the Set. Stark distinguishes a variety of shows and events in the last 50 years that have molded us into the nation that we are today, explaining such things as:
- Why shows like "The Monkees," "Mister Ed," and "America's Funniest Home Videos" are far more significant than "The Honeymooners" and "The Simpsons."
- Why the events surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination turned television into the nation's primary news source, and why Oswald would not have been assassinated if television did not exist.
- How the popularity of "Dallas" paved the way for the Reagan era.
- How television, through shows like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "All in the Family," and "The Cosby Show," has made it easier for Americans to come to grips with rapid social change.
- Why the '90s sensibility is better reflected in the traditional "Home Improvement" than in the ultrahip "Seinfeld."
Now that cable television is in a majority of American homes and 500 channels are in the offing, the once unassailable cultural hegemony of the three networks is rapidly disappearing. Will 7 out of 10 TV sets, for example, ever again be tuned to the same miniseries, as happened with Roots? As Stark, a writing instructor at Harvard Law School and pop-culture commentator for NPR and CNN, makes clear, television has played an enormous but subtle role in molding our perceptions and attitudes, often in unexpected ways: "Television's ubiquity makes it a pop-culture version of the air we breathe." Comedies have been particularly influential. Making up more than a third of his list, they have dealt with everything from women's entry into the workforce (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to prejudice (All In the Family) to multiculturalism (The Cosby Show). As Stark notes, "By packaging troubling cultural shifts in the guise of comic fantasy, these shows made it easier for Americans to come to grips with rapid social change." While one could quibble with a few of his omissions (Soap, The Simpsons, Cops, any of Aaron Spelling's oeuvre), Stark has done a remarkable job of compilation, sifting the millions of hours of fluff and dreck to find what really mattered. This is also some of the best and most informed writing on television around. Stark is always looking for explanations beyond the usual explanations. For example, TV is frequently criticized for its violence, yet Stark believes that shows like Dragnet helped shape overly positive and uncritical attitudes about the legal system.
A vital and engaging analysis of the television "canon."
- Free Press
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Today, Barbara Walters, and TV's Definition of News (NBC: 1952-Present)
For the Today show, January 14, 1952, was not an auspicious beginning. At the time, television scheduling was much like the movies: There were prime-time and weekend shows broadcast when everybody was home, but there wasn't much else on at other times of the day, and there was nothing at all on early in the morning. This was also a full decade before the news became a significant TV institution. As conceived by Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the NBC executive who also created The Tonight Show (and the father of Sigourney), Today would fill this early-morning dead-air time by mimicking radio, and thus steal its audience with a mixture of news, light comedy, conversation, and music--while exploiting television's ability to give the public a "window on the world." The program was originally supposed to be called The Rise and Shine Revue.
Running on 26 stations, the first Today show went according to plan--more or less. Host Dave Garroway, a low-key former Chicago radio personality, called London and Frankfurt, played some records, reviewed the weather, showed scenes of the New York skyline, displayed a few newspaper headlines, had someone review the day's news, and chatted up some guests. ("How's the Navy going these days, Admiral?" "Guess it's all right. It was there last night all right, when I left it.") "I really believe this begins a new kind of television," said Garroway as he introduced the show, though it wasn't readily apparent what kind that was. "We tried to do pure television as against translating vaudeville to television," Garroway would saylater.
He was right, of course. The program had its roots in a garrulous style known as "Chicago talk." In the very early days of television, local Chicago TV had Garroway at Large on one station, writer and interviewer Studs Terkel on another, and the kids' show Kukla, Fran and Ollie, as well as Hugh Downs. Terkel described the unscripted, easygoing, conversational style as "nonformula." "It was as fresh as jazz," he once said. "It had an air of improvisation to it."
Yet the New York critics--used to formal theatrical scripts and vaudeville--reacted with scorn to that style on Today, a response that was ratified by early advertisers and audiences. Today premiered with only one sponsor, the Kiplinger newsletter, while John Crosby, in the New York Herald Tribune, described Today as "an incredible two-hour comedy of errors, perpetrated as 'a new kind of television.'" "Do yourself a favor, NBC," wrote another critic. "Roll over and go back to sleep." The problem for the network wasn't simply that the show's concept was so new. This was an era when most households had only one television, so a program like Today had to offer something for everyone in the house in order to gain an audience in the early morning. That problem was solved a year later when the show added to its cast of regulars one J. Fred Muggs, a chimpanzee owned by two former NBC pages. Muggs appeared in skits, and pretended to read the morning papers. It was said that he was added to the cast in order to appeal to children, but the undeniable effect was to convert Today almost overnight from an iffy proposition into a network institution. "His charm," said Garroway, "is his unpredictability--same as any animal's." To his credit, Muggs did once bite Martha Raye.
And so, by and large, the show has remained true to its conversational origins--"[A]s American as Frosted Flakes," Newsweek once wrote. The show's cast has been a kind of "Who's Who" of television, or at least of the various types of personalities who have populated what passes for television news. From Jack Lescoulie, Garroway, and Muggs (who stayed four years, leaving--as the network's release put it--to "extend his personal horizons"), to Frank Blair, Betsy Palmer, Hugh Downs, former Miss America Lee Ann Meriwether, John Chancellor, Barbara Walters, Frank McGee, Tom Brokaw, Joe Garagiola, Jim Hartz, Gene Shalit, Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumbel, weatherman Willard Scott, and on to Katie Couric, Today has always represented television's uneasy attempt to balance journalism and entertainment, public service and ratings.
This, let it be remembered, was the show famous for presenting an interview with a senator, next to a scene from Caesar and Cleopatra, next to a kidney-transplant operation, next to the filmed sinking of the Andrea Doria, next to the recitation of 100-year-olds' birthdays, next to consumer and health news, next to the once-ubiquitous ads for Alpo and other products that often were presented by Today personalities such as Willard Scott--a former Bozo clown.
Forty-odd years later, some things are different: Women obviously have more of a role on the show than in the days when they were allowed only limited appearances on camera. The evolution from the quirky Garroway--with his famous daily goodbye, "Peace"--to the pugnacious Gumbel and the perky Couric is a story of how TV talk moved from true conversation to an exchange of sound bites. The comic skits were eliminated in 1961, when the newly formed news division took over the program. And, over the years, the show has been allowed to travel more from its New York base: The show's first out-of-studio trip was to Miami Beach in 1954, and it's been just about everywhere else since, becoming a kind of Wide World of Sports of news.
Yet the wonder of the show, and its clones, like Good Morning America, is not that they have changed so much, but that they have changed so little. Television is a visual medium, but Today--designed to be heard more than watched, and at that in sound bites and snippets, by people on their way to work or school--has always been essentially a radio show with a few pictures, making its influence and continued appeal all the more astonishing. In the end, it may only prove that the distance between J. Fred Muggs and Willard Scott is smaller than one might think.
The show's significance in television history is not merely that it had an almost virtual lock on its time slot for almost 25 years, a rare enough occurrence in the annals of television. (CBS certainly tried to challenge it in the fifties, with shows hosted by Walter Cronkite, accompanied by a puppet lion, and Dick Van Dyke.) Nor is it merely that this show ended up defining practically the only type of programming that the networks will try during the morning hours, not just here, but abroad, too. "The package of news, culture, and entertainment is like the first cup of coffee," Chicago Sun-Times radio-TV critic Paul Molloy once said. "The hardest part was getting stations to start in the morning," Weaver told a reporter, but once they did, they never broke the habit.
Instead, the show's principal contribution to television was its style, which became a paradigm. There were the bite-size programming chunks with the repetition of news and weather every half-hour: Today set the country on a road that led to its current case of attention deficit disorder. Moreover, by giving the locals five minutes every hour to insinuate their own news, and thereby sell more local ad time, the show's producers provided many markets with their very first taste of local news--an institution which would change the country markedly, beginning in the 1970s.
This was also the show that made the world safe for news chitchat (the hosts all sitting around a mock living room, joking and drinking coffee), thus launching the format that would come to dominate the local news in the seventies and beyond. The show's mingling of news and entertainment--later dubbed "infotainment"--soon became the model for virtually all TV news except the staid evening variety, and even that would eventually fall prey to some of its charms. Indeed, from Entertainment Tonight and Larry King Live to Prime Time Live and The Oprah Winfrey Show, it's hard to think of a television newslike show which doesn't have its roots somewhere in Today. It's not an exaggeration to contend that perhaps no show in the history of TV news has ever been so influential.
"You had to make it entertaining," Weaver once said. Describing the show's origins, he continued:
"I was trying to make the news department do it, but I finally threw them off the show because they yelled and screamed at me for putting on people who were not totally newsmen. Jack Lescoulie did sports, but he was there to be funny."
This was the show that had Lescoulie wear a certain famous New York baseball Giants hurler's uniform and demand that the real pitcher, Sal Maglie, interview him; the show also, Ó la David Letterman, once put a $20 bill in a glove, then dropped it onto a New York sidewalk, to see what would happen when people picked it up. "Weaver didn't like the news department, and the news department hated the Today show with a venom," Gerald Green, the show's news editor once said--and that Weaveresque zeitgeist lived long and prospered, even after the news division took over Today in the early sixties.
The program's influence even spread far beyond television. Consider the one person who best symbolizes the Today definition of news, Barbara Walters--who is to TV news what Lucille Ball was to TV entertainment. Edward R. Murrow didn't change television, but Walters did big-time--taking the Today approach of mingling the personal and the political, hard news and showbiz news, and turning it all into a prime-time institution. The perennially underestimated Walters joined Today in 1961 as a writer-assistant, and by 1964 had made it onto the show. Soon she joined host Hugh Downs in interviewing guests, and she went on to cohost the show for years with Downs, Frank McGee, and Jim Hartz.
Walters' dual trademark was her preparation and persistence--Variety called her "a victory of brains over mannequin beauty." (Her speech impairment would have certainly prevented her from becoming a superstar on radio, but it became almost endearing on the small screen.) Walters soon became known for asking the kind of impertinent, personal questions that viewers at home (particularly women) really had on their mind: whether Mamie Eisenhower had heard the rumors that she drank too much; whether Lady Bird Johnson knew the stories about her husband's infidelity. "Were you made fun of as a child because you were different?" Walters inquired of Truman Capote, while Ingrid Bergman was asked, "What's it like for great beauties to grow old?"
Walters, with television's first million-dollar news contract in hand, left Today in 1976 to coanchor The ABC Evening News, amid a flurry of charges that network news had sold out to the entertainment division. "When I first heard the offer," said CBS's Morley Safer, "a wave of nausea was my first reaction--with my second reaction being a spasm of nausea." Yet, as a news anchor, Walters wasn't allowed to act much different from other news anchors, and her talent was hidden. "The days of the Olympian commentator are over," she said (mistakenly), and she ended up holding the anchor job for only several years.
Walters' contract, however, also called upon her to do four prime-time specials a year, and they ended up, in one ABC executive's words, as "the tail that wagged the dog." In her first ABC prime-time appearance, Walters interviewed the reclusive Barbra Streisand ("Why don't you get your nose fixed?") and the newly elected Carters--thereby invoking the old Today formula of mingling hard news with entertainment. She made TV and political history of a sort by asking the Carters if they slept in single beds or a double. "Double bed," Carter replied, opening the way some 15 years later to another president to reveal his underwear preferences. "Be wise with us, governor. Be good to us," she implored at the end of the show--a kind of mirror image of Edward R. Murrow's old salutation, "Good night and good luck." (Now she ends every 20/20 broadcast with "We're in touch--so you be in touch.") Critics lambasted the show for its "banality," but as the ratings showed, the show had garnered an unbelievable-for-a-news-show 36 rating in prime time.
Neither television nor public life would be the same, as Walters helped lead the way in personalizing our politics--intermingling the status of its stars with those of the show-business celebrities with whom they shared top billing on her specials. First ladies, like Eleanor Roosevelt, had been political figures in their own right before Walters, but by giving these women such prominence and exposure, Walters helped push them to the forefront. By 1996, Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton were the virtual stars of their husbands' political conventions, assuming roles that no one would have predicted before Walters arrived on the scene.
For her part, Walters went on to host more than 75 specials and display her brand of journalism on 20/20--one of the first of the successful magazine shows. Over the years, she would become the queen of the celebrity interview, racking up every big Hollywood star imaginable, as well as Boris Yeltsin, Desiree Washington (the victim in the Mike Tyson rape case), Fidel Castro, and the Shah of Iran.
Obviously Walters wasn't everyone's cup of tea. Over time, in fact, a number of interviewees and critics alike gave her strong feedback. The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once described her as "a hyena in syrup." And critic Mark Crispin Miller would come to dub Walters' shows "The Theatre of Revenge" for the way she would abuse the stars, acting out an elaborate hostility play which embodied the jealousy and occasional loathing with which Americans view their entertainment and political royalty. "Can you have sex?" she asked singer Teddy Pendergrass, severely disabled since an auto accident. She inquired of Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she would choose to be. One of her favorite questions, according to TV Guide, was this: "If you had to spend three weeks in a hospital, who would you want in the bed next to yours?" ("The best damned doctor in town," said Johnny Carson.)
Walters' success in prime time helped convince the networks that the Today approach to news could sell to the masses, in the evening, on a scale which morning TV, with its limited audience, never could. Until recently, news and public affairs had been television's loss leaders. Except for 60 Minutes, prime-time documentaries and news shows were almost always at the bottom of each week's ratings until the networks stopped doing them. Once Walters proved otherwise--with an approach which was far less expensive than the average dramatic show (no actors or crews to hire; no exotic settings to stage)--it was only a matter of time before TV became overrun with news magazines in prime time that aped both the Today format and approach. Conventional newscasts took note of her ratings success as well, and became Waltersized. "As this society becomes the celebrity society, she is the progenitor
Meet the Author
Steven D. Stark is a regular commentator on public culture for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday and The Voice of America. A former lecturer on law at Harvard Law School and columnist for The Boston Globe, he has written extensively for The Atlantic Monthly, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts.
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