Television: The First Fifty Years
The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
Weighing in at over five pounds, Jeff Greenfield’s Television: The First Fifty Years is a huge slab of a book, ugly and sumptuous. Other efforts have been made to honor the kaleidoscopic complexities of TV—e.g., How Sweet It Was, by Arthur Shulman and Roger Youman, TV Book, edited by Judy Fireman—but their texts were wistfully nostalgic and the photos lacked beauty, clarity, suggestiveness.1 Television, celebratory and lavishly produced, seldom descends into scrapbook drabness: even the black-and-white shots from TV’s infancy have a faintly luminous glow. A still from a 1948 “Studio One” play shows Margaret Sullavan—head bowed, eyes shut—sitting at a table in a saloon, flanked by an officious waiter and an apprehensive man in a trenchcoat. The photograph is doubly evocative, capturing not only the glum, sunless realism of TV drama during what is called the “Golden Age,” but Sullavan’s own tragic loneliness. Other shots are cheerier: Arthur Godfrey sways in a grass skirt; Ed Sullivan chats with a demurely slutty Ann-Margret.
What makes Greenfield’s book unique among TV books are its plentiful color photographs. A few are smeary, like one from “Star Trek” that looks like something seen through a View-Master; or badly chosen, like the full page of Telly “Kojak” Savalas squinting under harsh sunlight, every pore painfully visible. But most of the color plates have a tacky glamour. Browsing through these pages is like ascending into Kitsch Valhalla: a boom mike hangs ominously above Miss Vicki’s head during her “Tonight” show wedding to Tiny Tim. Dean Martin, surrounded by plump songbirds in pink dresses, croons soulfully, while at the Ponderosa, Hoss and Little Joe play checkers.
The photos are like TV images—immediately accessible and cartoon-bright—but there are no details for us to linger over. So despite the book’s heftiness, it seems trashy: a no-deposit/no-return tossaway at $35.00. Not surprisingly, the most striking photographs can be found in the chapter on advertising. A full page is given to Jesse White, who portrays the Maytag repairman: the blue of his cap and jacket is startlingly vivid. Another features a sleek blonde sipping on a can of Royal Crown cola; her teasing, smirky smile tells you that RC is a prelude to something friskier.
There’s a contradiction in Television itself about the purpose of all these glistening lovelies. For the book-jacket someone at the publisher’s wrote, “The text adds spice and substance to the story told by the pictures.” However, in the preface Greenfield claims, “It was our intention in this book to use the hundreds of photographs not simply to stir nostalgic memories among our readers, but to illustrate some of the themes of the text….” Obviously, somebody’s blowing smoke rings, and I think it’s Greenfield. His 50,000-word meditation on the history and influence of television is marginalia, little more. In part, the text is diminished by the typography: the Helvetica sans-serif type is too thin to hold our attention. Sentences slide off the slick ice-white pages.
Greenfield has worked in television—as a “media consultant” (with David…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.