Television of the 60s and its attempts to deal with youth culture.
“Bodroghkozy is right-on when it comes to the details of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, CBS’s firing of us, and the surrounding controversy. Her observations are certainly worth taking the time to read.”—Tom Smothers
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GROOVE TUBESixties Television and the Youth Rebellion
By Aniko Bodroghkozy
Duke University PressCopyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Clarabell Well the First Yippie"
The Television Generation from Howdy Doody to McLuhan
In 1949 an enormous RCA Starrett television set arrived in the home of writer Donald Bowie. In his "confessions of a video kid" Bowie, who was four years old at the time, describes the momentous occasion and how the installation of the set drew children from around the neighborhood to his house. As the delivery men fiddled with the knobs, a picture came on. There was Buffalo Bob, a grown man in cowboy raiment talking to a boy puppet in similar garb. And there was the clown Clarabell squirting liquid from a seltzer bottle right into the face of "father figure" Buffalo Bob. Remembers Bowie: "My friends and I were hypnotized on the spot." From the vantage point of adulthood Bowie hypothesizes that this children's series, Howdy Doody, "was leading us, while we were still in our single-digit years, toward adolescent rebellion." Surely the lessons for the juvenile audience could only be a celebration of antisocial behavior and disrespect for adults.
Another baby boomer writer, Annie Gottlieb, also remembered bonding with television. Like Bowie, she, the members of her generation, and thenew medium of television moved from "childhood" to "adolescence" together. She observed, "Television was growing up with us, slowly gaining skill at delivering the images that would make us one organism with a mass memory and mythology. When Ed hosted Elvis in 1956, TV entered its inhibited, yearning puberty along with us. I was ten, and, watching the famed manoeuvres of the Pelvis-primly censored just below the waist-I felt the first stirrings in my own."
These baby boomer memories suggest a potentially subversive relationship between the medium and the first generation to come of age watching it. Bowie and Gottlieb described a symbiotic association: a television childhood learning antiestablishment values, a puberty sharing an interest in verboten sexuality. Television, as Gottlieb implied, forged baby boomers into a special community-one that recognized itself as such by the way its members all shared a common television culture.
Aging boomers reminiscing about their childhood from the vantage point of the 1980s were not, however, the only commentators who reflected on the special relationship between television and its first young viewers. A number of popular-press writers in the late 1940s and early 1950s pointed out the connection between TV and the tots. The Nation in a 1950 piece observed, "No Pied Piper ever proved so irresistible. If a television set is on at night and there is a child at large in the house, the two will eventually come together." Television critic Robert Lewis Shayan also used the Pied Piper analogy in his Saturday Review piece about children and the new medium published that same year. He went on to characterize television as a genie, with its young viewers as Aladdins. Television would grant any wish, fulfill any dream-all at the touch of a dial. According to Shayan, one of those wishes was access to the adult world. "The child wants to be 'in' on the exciting world of adult life," he argued. Television provided "the most accessible back door" to that world. For these adult critics, then, the connection between fifties children and television was a cause for anxiety. There was something unprecedented in the relationship. But what did it mean, and where would it lead?
From the moment of television's introduction into the American home, it was discursively linked to the children. Television, a postwar technological phenomenon, and the baby boom, a postwar demographic phenomenon, both led to profound political, social, and cultural changes in the landscape of American life. Arriving in U.S. homes at about the same time in the late 1940s and 1950s, these electronic and anthropoid new members of the family circle seemed allied in fomenting social revolution.
In the 1960s the phrase "television generation," which had first been coined in the mid-1950s, would function as a site of semiotic struggle over the meanings of youth in revolt. Diverse voices-from within the rebellious youth movement itself; from academic ranks, both administrators and professorial theorists; from the television industry; and even from the nation's vice president-all attempted to make sense of young people's rejection of dominant institutions and values by examining the generation's link to television. All agreed that television was important, but few agreed on how or why. Reflecting the deep generational divide and the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the ways the disaffected young constructed the world and the ways their elders did, the discourses about the meaning of the "television generation" were equally irreconcilable. "Television" became a sign, another marker of a generational battle that ripped apart the smooth functioning of adult and establishment power in the postwar social order of the United States.
Coming of Age with Television
With the end of the Second World War and with the promise of prosperity not seen since before the stock market crash of 1929, Americans embarked on a procreation blitz that confounded demographers and social planners. The birth rate, which in the United States had been going down steadily since the 1800s, suddenly began to rival birth rates in some Third World countries. The Great Depression had seen birth rates plunge because of the era's profound economic uncertainty. By the Second World War most able-bodied American men were in uniform, and many women were taking over the jobs those men had left. When war rationing was added to the picture, the situation did not prove conducive to the formation of families.
When the war ended, everything changed. Government propaganda and the advertising industry promised a return to normalcy, to stability. Women were encouraged to leave-or were forcibly removed from-the well-paying, often industrial, jobs they had held during the war effort. Government-sponsored advertising campaigns encouraged them to embrace domesticity and traditional modes of femininity along with maternity. Yet couples in the postwar period largely embraced a domestic ideal of rigid gender roles and focus on family building as a response to the severe dislocations associated with the Depression, world war, and the new terrors of nuclear annihilation. Paired with a cold war policy preoccupied with the containment of a (communist) threat was a domestic preoccupation with containing myriad other threats to stability. "In the domestic version of containment," writes historian Elaine Tyler May, "the 'sphere of influence' was the home. Within its walls, potentially dangerous social forces of the new age might be tamed, where they could contribute to the secure and fulfilling life to which postwar women and men aspired." In facilitating the creation of such homes, the federal government offered low interest loans for returning vets to pay for inexpensive, no-money-down bungalows in expanding suburbs. To the largely white and middle-class beneficiaries of this largesse, the brand-new subdivisions they moved into with their homogenous and uniform character seemed tailor-made shelters from upheaval, social struggle, and change. They also were tailor-made for the creation of nuclear families. The white, affluent baby boom generation, which precipitated so much upheaval, struggle, and demand for change in the 1960s, ironically was nurtured in an environment that found such turmoil anathema.
In the postwar period Americans linked the promotion of stability with the promotion of consumerism. If General Motors was doing well, then (at least according to the head of GM), America was doing well. American industry's return from a war-based to a consumer product-based market necessitated an expanding population of buyers. As Vice president Richard Nixon's 1959 "kitchen debate" with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev implied, American superiority over the Soviet Union lay in the U.S. population's ability and eagerness to purchase household appliances. So as "homeward bound" Americans moved into their ranch-style, prefab houses, their generation went on both a baby-making and a product-buying binge.
One of the products they bought was television. Ironically, however, this new purchase would not serve as a tool for stability. Television would prove to be a force for change and upheaval just as would the suburban boomer children who so thoroughly embraced and found themselves linked to the new medium. As birth rates sky-rocketed, so did rates of first-time television purchases. In 1951 almost one quarter of American homes had televisions; by 1957 that figure had jumped to 78.6 percent. By the early 1960s the medium had achieved a near saturation rate of 92 percent. The single greatest factor in determining television purchase was the presence of young children in the household. According to statistics, between the years 1952 and 1954 childless families made up 19 percent of new television households; families with teenagers accounted for 23 percent; and families with young children made up the largest percentage. Parents with children under two made up 32 percent of television purchasers. This latter group comprised the parents of baby boomers. Another study showed that although entertainment was given as the primary reason for the purchase of a set, pressure from young children was also a key factor.
The introduction of television into postwar homes created cultural anxieties marked by both utopian hopes and dystopian fears. Many of those hopes and fears revolved around the perceived effects of the new medium on children. Cultural historian James Gilbert has argued that in the 1950s mass media such as television became linked with anxieties about social and generational change. New forms of commercialized youth-oriented popular culture seemed to be erecting barriers to mark off a new youth culture incomprehensible and potentially hostile to adult society. In both the pessimistic and the optimistic arguments about television and its effects, commentators and critics couldn't help but assume that some fundamental change to the nation's young would inevitably result.
In the utopian vision of the new medium, television would bring the outside world into the home. Television sets were promoted for their ability to be "your new window on the world" and to bring faraway places into the home theater. Those touting the benefits of television for children echoed this theme. Douglas Edwards, a CBS news analyst writing in Parents magazine in 1951, proclaimed: "With television today, the children get a sense of participation, of belonging. Contemporary events are brought to them in their homes. Korea is more than a tiny colored nose jutting out of the broad Asiatic face into the blue sea shown on a map in a geography book.... The chances are thousands to one that when you were a kid you never saw a President of the United States being inaugurated, [or] the great political parties holding their national nominating conventions." It is unlikely that Edwards, with his purple prose, could have imagined the impact on those same children two decades later, when television broadcast images of another war in a southeast Asian country and when the medium televised another national political convention-that of the Democrats in Chicago in 1968.
The theme of television providing children with "a sense of participation, of belonging" was particularly important. In the conformist 1950s, when fitting in and being part of the group were not only signs of proper personal adjustment but were also signs of good citizenship, having television meant fitting in. Edwards undoubtedly thought television allowed children to participate in the larger world of social and political events and that they would feel a sense of belonging to a world made smaller and more comprehensible through the new medium.
However, in the 1950s this notion of "belonging" through the purchase of a television set implied necessary and successful conformity. Baby boom children conformed by becoming television children. The advertising industry helped to construct the concept of a television generation by manufacturing parental fears that children without television would carry a "bruise deep inside." One notorious ad campaign pictured woebegone children who didn't have their own TV sets. The bruise that such children bore meant being "set apart from their contemporaries." In the social climate of the 1950s nothing could be worse. Thus television became one means by which to link this segment of the population together. Baby boomers would not only have their huge numbers in common; they would also have their shared rearing with the television set to knit them together. Television, according to social scientific research of the period and according to the discourses of the advertising industry, was primarily something for the children. Children without television were pitiful outcasts among their peer group. Therefore, being a well-adjusted, "normal" child in the 1950s meant possessing and watching one's own television set. And so the television generation was born.
Even as television was touted for its ability to set off a new generation of youngsters as more worldly and sophisticated than their parents' generation, the medium was also promoted as facilitating family togetherness. Rather than setting children off as different and incomprehensible to the older generation, television would unite all its members into a unified nuclear unit characterized by harmony and shared activities. Lynn Spigel, in her examination of advertisements for early televisions in women's magazines, shows how the industry attempted to speak to postwar Americans' desires for a return to "family values." "The advertisements suggested that television would serve as a catalyst for the return to a world of domestic love and affection." This promise may have been all the more seductive considering the dislocations and tensions of the war years and the immediate postwar period. Television-inspired family togetherness could be particularly useful in knitting children and adolescents firmly into the family circle. Parents and children would bond over their shared enjoyment of programming, thus eradicating any generation gaps. Television would also prevent potential juvenile delinquency by keeping "problem children" off the streets. Audience research suggested that parents believed having a television in the home kept the young ones from trouble outside. Proclaimed a mother from Atlanta: "We are closer together. We find our entertainment at home. Donna and her boyfriend sit here instead of going out now." Presumably without the television Donna and her beau would be prowling dark alleys, fornicating in the backseat of a Chevy, or mugging old ladies.
Despite these utopian visions of children's protoglobal villages and family TV circles, pessimistic fears abounded. Rather than bringing the young and their parental generation together, television, a frequently circulated anxiety asserted, created an unbridgeable cultural chasm between the two. Well-known social critic David Reisman acknowledged the gap in a New York Times article in 1952 but sided with the TV-molded young. He was quoted arguing that "refusing to consider the possibility that there can be anything of value in the average television program amounts to an announcement on parents' parts that they live in a different psychological and cultural generation from their children. If they cannot in good conscience share television and discuss the programs with their children ... they should at least allow their youngsters the right to live within reason in their own cultural generation, not their parents'."
Excerpted from GROOVE TUBE by Aniko Bodroghkozy Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Aniko Bodroghkozy is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Alberta.
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