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128 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 facet of television’s slow unveiling. As television programming was imagined and realized largely outside public view, early television practitioners and critics founded their evaluative frameworks on essentialist claims on human nature and the nature of television and its programs.1 Although such appeals to essentialism are fairly typical in the development of new media, television’s extended and not particularly public experimental period amplified this tendency. During the period prior to 1939, this imagination occurred in trade press accounts of experimental broadcasts, speculative essays about the nature of television programming and its impact on the anticipated audience, and the practices of aspirant broadcasters such as CBS in the early 1930s and NBC’s Television Programming department in the middle of the decade. After RCA’s decision to press the case for television in 1939 and the eventual accord on standards reached by the NTSC and endorsed by the FCC, several additional major manufacturers such as General Electric and Philco increased their production of experimental programs , and this experimental programming was broadcast to small audiences of early adopters and employees throughout the Second World War. During this later period, earlier imaginings of television programming and its qualities were tied to some of the practices and precepts that would shape national television broadcasting in the late 1940s and early 1950s.2 Spanning these periods was also the continued interpenetration of theory and practice, and emblematic of this was the critical and practical influence of 4 Seeing Around Corners SEEING AROUND CORNERS 129 Gilbert Seldes. In a process complementing that discussed in the prior chapters , in which executives like David Sarnoff and inventors like Charles Francis Jenkins and Ernst Alexanderson had been drawn into express articulations of theories of history and culture, Seldes, the cultural critic, was swept up in practice, becoming director of CBS’s experimental television production unit in the late 1930s. Seldes served as a vital—though certainly not singular—figure straddling criticism and execution, inspiring rivals and disciples to invoke television within a matrix of pragmatism and analogy, whereby television would be realized in managed and justifiable difference from precedent media.3 As a consequence of this growing confluence of principle and pragmatics, evaluative schemes were actively discussed among those who would make and speak for television. In these debates the ellipsis lurking in the contemporary invocations of “quality television”—the missing “high” or “good” or “professional”—collided with questions of the medium’s intrinsic nature, resulting in meditations on television’s true purpose. Popular critical discourses of this era asked what compromises among art, communication, and economics were necessary to make it, in Rod Serling’s words, “the happy medium.”4 That is, conceptions of quality served both to negotiate competing aesthetic and economic aspirations and to articulate visions of television’s ontology and sociological significance. For American television, first under experimental wraps and then wartime limitations, the consequences of these emergent evaluative frameworks were significant. Regulatory resistance to both commercialization and audienceoriented experimentation on a wide scale combined with the effective obstructionist lobbying of various manufacturers to place American television in a position where it would be asked to work out its aesthetics prior to its introduction to a mass audience. This is a significant contrast with the development of sound broadcasting, the motion picture, and television in Great Britain. At the same time, public prognostication about the tastes and habits of the television audience set expectations for the medium’s programming in something of a paradox, presuming an attentive and demanding audience but one nonetheless obsessed with the supposed superficiality of the image. Thus, the frameworks for evaluating television’s programs were erected in the name of the audience but largely absent its participation. Likewise, the debates over techniques and formats that would shape the aspirational language of television production occurred mostly in conference and control rather than living rooms. Consequently , notions of quality would be imported from sound broadcasting along with a more ambivalent adoption of notions of proper technique from Hollywood cinema. Theorizing about television’s aesthetics and effects presumed a reciprocity between the two as notions of...


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