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Television in the Age of Radio

Modernity, Imagination, and the Making of a Medium

Philip W. Sewell

Publication Year: 2014

Television existed for a long time before it became commonplace in American homes. Even as cars, jazz, film, and radio heralded the modern age, television haunted the modern imagination. During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. television was a topic of conversation and speculation. Was it technically feasible? Could it be commercially viable? What would it look like? How might it serve the public interest? And what was its place in the modern future? These questions were not just asked by the American public, but also posed by the people intimately involved in television’s creation. Their answers may have been self-serving, but they were also statements of aspiration. Idealistic imaginations of the medium and its impact on social relations became a de facto plan for moving beyond film and radio into a new era.

In Television in the Age of Radio, Philip W. Sewell offers a unique account of how television came to be—not just from technical innovations or institutional struggles, but from cultural concerns that were central to the rise of industrial modernity. This book provides sustained investigations of the values of early television amateurs and enthusiasts, the fervors and worries about competing technologies, and the ambitions for programming that together helped mold the medium.

Sewell presents a major revision of the history of television, telling us about the nature of new media and how hopes for the future pull together diverse perspectives that shape technologies, industries, and audiences.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This book and its author benefited from a tremendous amount of support. I am especially indebted to my adviser, Michele Hilmes, for her counsel, encouragement, and wide- ranging interest in media and cultural history and to the members of my committee: James L. Baughman, Michael Curtin, Julie D’Acci, and Vance Kepley Jr. At key moments in this project and my life as a scholar,...

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Introduction: The Substance of Things Hoped For

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pp. 1-15

Pulp publishing mogul Hugo Gernsback kicked off the June 1927 issue of Radio News with an editorial proclaiming, “With the official recognition of Television by the Radio Commission, as well as the actual successful demonstration early in April by the American Telegraph and Telephone Co., it may be said that television has finally arrived.”1 This was not television’s first moment of arrival,...

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1. Questions of Definition

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pp. 16-50

By the early 1930s, “high- definition” electronically scanned television was said to be “just around the corner,” but mass consumer investment in the technology did not pick up until after World War II. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, public discourse on television was haunted by the twin ghosts of satisfaction and obsolescence. In the case of the former, the fear was that audiences/buyers...

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2. Engendering Expertise and Enthusiasm

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pp. 51-92

The era of mechanical television was not just a moment of setting standards and definitions that conformed to the sociocultural order. At the same time that the medium’s technical identity was being pinned down, television became an important front in attempts to stabilize the relations among institutions, enthusiasts, and the public— particularly the radio public— by means of several...

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3. Programming the System for Quality

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pp. 93-127

As television’s supposed technical nature came to be defined along increasingly narrow lines by the mid- 1930s and hierarchies of authority concretized into a few sites of institutional power, the evaluation of television’s content— particularly as organized around notions of quality— became a key area of struggle in debating the US television system. Continuing a tradition from sound...

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4. Seeing Around Corners

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pp. 128-159

Throughout the 1930s, television programming in the United States was largely an adjunct to experimental work. We saw some of the consequences of this situation in the prior chapter, which investigated the ways in which arguments about program quality were used to support the consolidating regulatory and economic regimes of American broadcasting. This chapter examines another...

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Conclusions: Why Not Quantity Television?

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pp. 160-166

The realization of television— its authorities and audiences, its textual forms and technical articulation— was presented not on a “blank canvas” but amid an existing panorama of contending institutions and expectations.1 Made manifest in a vacuum tube but not in a vacuum, the medium’s relationship with the...


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pp. 167-200

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 201-208


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pp. 209-220

About the Author

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pp. 221-222

E-ISBN-13: 9780813562711
E-ISBN-10: 0813562716
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813562704
Print-ISBN-10: 0813562708

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 865508918
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Television in the Age of Radio

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Subject Headings

  • Television broadcasting -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Television broadcasting -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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