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ONE NIGHT ON TV IS WORTH WEEKS AT THE PARAMOUNT Popular Music on Early Television
By MURRAY FORMAN
Duke University Press Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Music, Image, Labor
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Popular music and television are inextricably entwined. When television was nothing more than a dream in the mind of visionaries or a conundrum troubling scientists around the world, there was a clear sense that the sounds and images of musical performance would one day converge in a single broadcast transmission. The widely circulated notion of "radio with pictures" in the 1920s made sense then since much of television's invention, financing, and program planning emerged directly from the radio broadcasting industry. As countless historians have explained since, even though radio was less than a decade old and still developing as a standard facet of daily life at the end of what was termed "the roaring twenties" or "the jazz age," the earliest television broadcast experiments regularly incorporated musical performances (Fisher and Fisher 1996; Koszarski 2008; Magoun 2009; Rodman 2010). Documents show that many radio network executives believed that their approaches to programming and scheduling (with popular music prominently featured) would prevail although they could not forecast what television's content might actually look like. The issue of visualizing popular music consequently presented an early dilemma in TV content development.
When synchronized sound was still relatively new in cinema (having been successfully launched in 1927 following the release of a series of short synch-sound films) musicals quickly won public favor (Gabbard 1996; Mundy 1999; Koszarski 2008). Featuring spectacular imagery structured upon the thinnest of narrative scaffolding and musical performances by some of the era's most popular artists, the early film musicals were indebted to Broadway's presentational logic. Yet by the mid-1930s there was still nothing that could be described as a tradition of film musicals that television pioneers might emulate.
Television's early indeterminacy presented a major conceptual barrier but, of course, the challenges accompanying such indeterminacy can also inspire expansive thinking and lead to incredible innovation. Broadcast executives were expected to project how television might fit within their existing range of services and those in charge of radio programming and content development attempted to predict how abstract audience formations would respond to hypothetical TV shows. Imagining television—what it would be, whom it would be for—necessitated deep and probing analysis of an array of cultural factors encompassing the spirit and conditions of an era.
Somehow, during an economic depression and throughout a horrific war, the television industry continued to grow and evolve even as various other industrial sectors stalled and a great many original ideas withered on the vine. And while television's creators worked to improve the medium, musicians were intrinsically involved in the ongoing television experiment, at times toiling as full-fledged collaborators. After the war there was a remarkable burst of invention with several crucial developments facilitating the convergence of popular music and television.
In each of TV's transitional phases, discussions always incorporated popular music and the broadcast value of musical performances. The dominant discourses and public debates concerning early television and the role of popular music are noteworthy for they often illuminate other important features of the period, revealing a dynamic cultural vortex. By exploring some of the key sociocultural elements at television's inception (involving art and aesthetics, technology, and institutional entities) and the ways in which television was positioned among them, we might generate a better sense of the underlying values that informed the nation's cultural expression and leisure practices and the concurrent stakes for popular music and its performers.
Preparing for television: the 1930s
In a December 1930 corporate memorandum, George Engles, National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) vice president in charge of programs, wrote that with the emergence of visual broadcast capabilities it would be increasingly necessary to review and vet the physical or telegenic attributes of the singers hired by the network. Engles gently upbraided Bertha Brainard of the network's Program Department, reminding her that with "the forecast of oncoming television and the new requirements it would demand in the pictorial quality of our artist personnel" there was intensifying pressure to "revamp" the musical talent under contract "with a view to having when needed a picture that would pass the censors" (1930a). In this context, the "censors" to which Engles refers were internal network executives charged with evaluating the look and comportment of prospective TV talent, ensuring that no one deemed to be of sub-par physical appearance would be hired as television broadcasting progressed.
Brainard was the extremely rare woman in an organizational cadre dominated by men, having entered radio broadcasting in the early 1920s and risen in NBC's Program Department, where she worked closely with senior executives including Engles and John F. Royal (Halper 2001). Memoranda from the 1930s reveal Brainard's firm principles, shrewd mind, and sharp wit, and in her reply to Engles she subtly requested examples of any incidents where she and her programming unit may have failed to adequately assess the visual potential of vocalists, further suggesting that such a process of judgment requires an agreed-upon set of criteria. Noting the apparently subjective nature of such visual appraisals, she writes, "I find, unfortunately, a question of who is and who is not good looking, arising in the men's minds" (Brainard 1930).
As these exchanges indicate, during television's earliest phase no one had a clear sense of how the medium would accommodate the various expressions of art and culture, including musical performance, nor was there a stable notion of a visual standard for musical presentation. The discussions were fully in the realm of abstraction. Those such as Brainard and Engles (as well as countless engineers, directors, and programmers who were tasked with designing television) strived to meet as-yet-undefined broadcasting goals, to predict and then fulfill viewer expectations. Profoundly lacking rules and formal guides, television's first decision-makers—both independents and those working under the aegis of corporate broadcasters—stumbled forward with speculation more than fact at their disposal. In retrospect, theirs seems an almost impossible undertaking.
The dialogue between Engles and Brainard points to an emergent visual strategy at the network. It articulates the beginning of an industrial process that involved TV's appropriation and instrumental attitudes toward popular music and musicians that would only intensify over the next twenty-five years. Their interaction also indicates that the visual regime championed by Engles evolved at the network as a source of pressure and even coercion, challenging the prevailing practices and audio supremacy associated with radio broadcasting. Brainard's push back against Engles should not, therefore, be regarded as insubordination but as an example of two paradigms colliding within the specific contexts of 1930s corporate broadcasting.
Engles further outlined the problem of visualizing music in a lengthy response to Brainard, explaining, "Several rumors had come to me that various members of the Program Department were pushing artists whose sole claim to distinction lies in their voices" (1930b). His barely contained ire was based on the belief that employees in the network's Program Department evidently remained committed to the established talent recruitment and hiring practices of radio broadcasting. In his view, Brainard and her colleagues in the Program Department lacked proper foresight as plans for the network's television broadcasting branch evolved, as well as falling short of NBC's corporate objectives. David Sarnoff, president of NBC's parent company Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and a driving figure responsible for the formation of NBC in 1926, was an early and constant supporter of television. The network's executives and middle management were exposed to a stream of directives and corporate statements from Sarnoff addressing the medium's development. Indeed, Sarnoff staked much of his reputation on television's success. The issue of musicians' image and appearance developed into a central topic as television evolved, creating conflict and debate about visual or aural primacy in musical presentation.
The interaction between Engles and Brainard conveys a pressure that is common within hierarchical, top-down structures of power. As an executive representative, Engles exerted a coercive force extending institutional authority. He communicated NBC's corporate line within a chain of command and as volumes of published records confirm, his emphasis on television reflects Sarnoffs priorities at the time. Sarnoff 's corporate support for technical research and his aggressive legal maneuvering pertaining to TV patent issues represent two fronts in an effort to dominate early television; programming represents a third front. Engles and Brainard were not merely encountering an insignificant impasse but, rather, they were engaged in a discussion about the process through which the corporation would integrate music in the manifestation of television.
In urging the Program Department to consider television's particular visual demands pertaining to singers, Engels introduced the terms "salable outstanding radio artists" or "salable talent" to his discourse about musical performances. The implication was that the commercial practicality of any given artist and, by extension, any given television program would eventually be judged according to the combined standards of performers' appearances and their musical talent, drawing television nearer to stage performances and cinema than to radio. In one sense, Engles's reference to salability points to a perceived need for musical artists to make a solid impression; to "sell" a song was a common expression among entertainers, referring to a quality performance that registered positively.
Engles implies more, however. He also addresses the need for musical artists to essentially sell themselves to audiences through their engaging performances and innate visual appeal. Here we get closer to the evolving notions of artists' commodified congeniality and television presence that was regularly attached to the concept of television in its nascent period. In yet another related sense germane to the era, the commercially oriented terminology suggests that it is television itself that must be "sold" to a public that was, by the mid- to late 1930s, highly familiar with radio broadcasting and with the performance aesthetics of film musicals and live theater or nightclubs but that was also skeptical of the early TV industry's promise of a fuller, visually enhanced entertainment experience (especially one that necessitated the purchase of an expensive new electrical appliance). Music was going to help sell the concept of television to the public.
The discourse of commercial/commodity value and televised musical performances speaks to the extent to which culture was ensconced within a capitalist logic at this historical moment but it also reflects how deeply invested in commercial media and music industry economics NBC, television's industry leader, was at the time. Russell and David Sanjek (1991) explain how Sarnoff oversaw both the implementation of NBC's nationwide broadcast network and the acquisition of the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) theater chain and film production company in 1928 and spearheaded RCA's purchase of the Victor Talking Machine Company (creating the RCA Victor phonograph company) in 1929. After the 1930s, popular music lay at the center of each of these sectors and the corporate jockeying for dominance notably affected television's trajectory.
Industry executives injected a pronounced capitalist sensibility into television's development even though the programming structure and content—the medium's main selling point—had not fully congealed. The popular music sector had by this point already proven its strengths and value in relation to the commercial culture industries and radio, too, was confirmed as a valid medium within purely corporate and capitalist ideals. By conceiving TV's programming content in relation to abstract commodity values before any norms or standards existed the industry was operating within a symbolic realm whereby cultural texts are understood as objects with commercial worth. The programs and the musical performances were all oriented toward the logic of commodification and consumption, setting a pattern for the entire future of the medium.
Establishing a workable program schedule and ensuring top-quality performances was a prime objective if the public was to be "sold" on the new medium. In this reading, televised musical performances can be attached to a range of other commercial interests, and, in fact, the whole notion of TV viewer expectation, pleasure, or satisfaction can be linked to commercial and commodity values. Engles and other executives were, thus, dedicated to creating a commercial medium that could deliver consistently engaging and pleasurable shows that featured visually attractive musical performers.
The industry's early deliberations surrounding the role of popular music on television indicate a tendency toward the brute appropriation of musical talent, reflecting attitudes that prevailed throughout the medium's developmental phase and over the next quarter century. Without explicitly declaring that an artist's visual appearance and telegenic qualities trumped his or her musicality, Engles (among others) seems to place these attributes at least on par in the commercial contexts of television broadcasting. Although this position may have seemed contentious to some at the time, the perspective was not unknown in the realm of musical theater or cinema where physical appearances were crucial in casting. Such concerns were also an integral factor in the production of modern icon status; good-looking actors or musicians fared inordinately well in the nascent celebrity culture of the early twentieth century.
The film industry had confronted somewhat similar issues, if in reverse. When synchronized sound technology facilitated the "talkies" in the 1920s (the first feature-length film with synchronized musical selections being The Jazz Singer, in 1927), a host of attractive screen actors quickly found that, despite their acting talent, physical attributes, or film experience, their vocal abilities were under close scrutiny and subject to intensified critique as dialogue-laden scripts and musical scenes were popularized. For some (rumored to include the top silent film stars John Gilbert and Norma Talmadge), looking good or moving well onscreen was not always enough; they had to sound good as well in order to "sell" both the individual movie and the concept of the talkies. For artists faced with imminent irrelevance, the enlistment of vocal coaches and elocution lessons was a desperate attempt to maintain a footing in the changing industry. Musicians hired to provide musical accompaniment for the silent films in the nation's movie houses were also summarily dismissed with the advent of synch-sound. With the prospect of television, NBC's Engles expressed an apparent willingness to hire marginally inferior musical talents possessing better-than-average physical traits, urging his staff to identify appropriate-looking singers, especially those already under contract with NBC's radio branch, who could be efficiently plucked from the existing talent roster on the network's payroll.
The rather blunt exchanges that flitted between NBC executives over musical talent and telegeneity in the 1930s align with two of Simon Frith's observations, that "the dominant use of music on television, one might conclude, is to sell things" and "looking good on television has always been essential for success" (2002: 281-84). It is important to acknowledge, however, that the social practices and the discourses informing early television's commercial trends and its visual character also have their own unique histories. Each evolved in a nonlinear fashion as various industrial and cultural factors ebbed and surged. As television progressed through the 1930s, there was never a doubt that it would be anything other than commercial (the balance between culturally edifying content, strictly educational fare, and popular entertainment remained a point of considerable debate), yet in this early instance, television was not a fully realized technological medium or a commercially viable broadcast option. Much of the commentary in the 1930s was subsequently hypothetical, projecting various cultural values, hopes, and ideals as much as solid plans for television's future.
Excerpted from ONE NIGHT ON TV IS WORTH WEEKS AT THE PARAMOUNT by MURRAY FORMAN Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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