- One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television by Murray Forman
On 28 January 1956, Elvis Presley made his television debut on CBS’s Stage Show – an unadventurous variety series in the manner of a traditional vaudeville show. Presley was welcomed by ‘one of radio’s most listened-to disk jockeys’, Cleveland DJ Bill Randle, who told the audience, ‘we think tonight that he’s going to make television history for you’.1 For once, a much-abused piece of hyperbole proved correct. In what became the first in a succession of controversial performances, Presley subverted established on-stage etiquette: on reaching the instrumental interlude of ‘Shake, rattle and roll’, he stepped back from the microphone and, still strumming his guitar, began to gyrate. The studio audience went wild. His act was enhanced when, in June of the same year, he ditched his guitar (allegedly having been persuaded by Milton Berle to leave it backstage and to ‘Let ’em see you’).2
Presley’s early television appearances played a significant part in the establishment of his star persona, as well as in the growth of rock ‘n’ roll; but scholars have also come to view them as a crucial moment in the relationship between television and popular culture – one in which television ceased merely to ‘bring stage acts into the living room’ and began to ‘change performance conventions’ (6). A particular concern has been how television inspired a new, dynamic type of performance.3 It is perhaps unsurprising that scholars have leaned so heavily on Presley’s television debut: its legacy is testimony to its significance. But controversy has a tendency to polarise opinion and, especially when clouded by half a century of mythologising, to obscure more nuanced perspectives. Scholarship on Presley has consequently been characterised by a simplistic understanding of how his style related to the generic and aesthetic conventions of television performance, the emphasis on rupture obscuring important continuities with the medium’s brief past (8). More broadly speaking, Presley’s allure has detracted attention from the earliest years of music television broadcasting, which had been possible since the 1920s. Indeed, despite the fact that the boom in television sales began in the late 1940s, histories of popular music on television have tended to focus on the period post-1956.
One Night on TV is a welcome attempt to redress this scholarly [End Page 89] shortcoming. Forman’s concern is the industry’s seminal quarter-of-a-century before Elvis – the fascinating period in which television, far from being a fait accompli, was an unstable, emergent cultural form. Indeed, although it is hard to believe from today’s perspective that television’s eventual cultural hegemony was anything other than inevitable, Forman reminds readers that, as late as 1948, there was even uncertainty about what this new medium should be called: ‘TV’, it seemed, had failed to ‘catch public fancy’ (11–12). But even before ‘TV’ secured its place in Western vocabulary, Forman contends, this new medium had begun to impact on popular music practices. ‘While television’s presentational power was more fully realized in the period after rock ‘n’ roll’s emergence’, he explains, ‘the transformations of musical performance and broadcasting conventions were already well under way by the time Presley hit the screen’ (6). Forman’s monograph charts the evolution of television performance practices, setting an array of documents from inside and outside the industry alongside audience feedback and analyses of early programmes (many of which can now be accessed via Youtube). In particular, Forman seeks to clarify the process by which music television became standardised – a question he approaches from a variety of perspectives, including the aesthetics of early television performance (Chapter 4); the role of genre (Chapter 3); and the economic issues surrounding performing rights (Chapter 1).
Underpinning this account is the question of how the industry negotiated a distinctive place in the cultural sphere for television. As is often the case with new technologies (cinema’s notoriously...