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Television as Historian | Special In-Depth Section RETHINKING TELEVISION HISTORIOGRAPHY by Douglas Gomery, University of Maryland The writing ofthe early history ofU.S. television has long concentrated on the rise of dominating national networks. Here historians, whether coming from a textual, personal, or national approach, shape TV history for the U.S. from solely the network perspective. Yet based on principles of social, demographic, policy and urban history, we should rethink this seemingly "obvious" historical analysis, attend to TV's early history at the local level, and then integrate and synthesize a complete historical analysis of the coming of television to the U.S. Let us begin with Monday the 21st of January 1957, a day when nearly all Americans watched TV. This day of high viewing totals bom symbolizes the potential ofthe new medium to unite and inform a nation while revealing a snap shot of basic trends of historical change. The choice of 21 January 1957 is not arbitrary. To those who heralded TV as "a window on the world," this day was an historical one because of the extensive live coverage ofthe second inauguration ofDwight David Eisenhower. Ike and the Republicans appreciated a nation would be watching, and prepared a proper and unprecedented TV spectacle they hoped would mesmerize a nation of whom three-quarters had TV sets. On the prior Friday, for example, they held a mock parade, as technicians from the three networks timed the exercise, and sought to deal with sub-zero freezing weather. Republican officials took no chances, even bringing in Cecil B. DeMiIIe to direct the Inaugural Balls. DeMiIIe, reported The Washington Evening Star, demanded "take" after "take," shouting to Republican volunteers: "Please, ladies and gentlemen, let's try it again."1 The networks heralded their coverage as "historic," to be covered in more detail and seen by more people than any event ever telecast. For the 43rd Presidential inauguration, both CBS and NBC heralded the first use of video tape, with newly developed Ampex apparatus to "re-broadcasting" the actual swearing -in ceremonies. NBC re-played the noon swearing in by Chief Justice Earl Warren at 12:45pm; CBS followed at 12:55pm. The trade press reported "no discernable difference between the live and the recorded versions of the ceremony." A whole nation saw their first view of videotape in action, and NBC and CBS Country music legend, Patsy Cline, in a publicity photo about the time she was becoming a star on Washington, D.C television. told proudly of their technical achievement. NBC boasted that it was airing the swearing in twice "mainly for the benefit of schoolchildren who miss the event while having lunch."2 Ampex had introduced its 2-inch machines six months earlier at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. By the end of November of 1956 CBS was secretly using it for West Coast feeds of Douglas Edwards and the News, but not telling viewers. It was the much praised use of video tape for the 1957 inauguration that formally kicked off a new TV era. This was a reel-to-reel $45,009 apparatus the size of an office desk. But its use at the inaugural led to innovation and so shortly afterwards CBS began to re-invent prime time by pre-recording Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, one ofits most popular programs, to enable Godfrey to go off to Africa "on safari " in late February 1957, and still keep Talent Scouts on its highly rated Monday night schedule.3 Inaugural coverage was indeed extensive. CBS and ABC commenced at 11:30am, and ended five hours later. NBC started a half hour earlier, and continued to 4:45pm — 15 minutes past when the parade ended. The DeMiIIedirected Inaugural Balls started at 11:15pm, after the local news. The networks reported a total of $380,000 in lost advertising as late morning game shows like Strike It Rich, and afternoon soap operas such as Search for Tomorrow, and The Guiding Light, were canceled . In an era well before satellite distribution, the networks paid dearly to tie up much of AT&T land line capacity and microwave facilities. The big names of the news — David Brinkley...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 17-28
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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