Television in America, 1951 - 19 January 1951

Well, the winter is really on us and the life of anyone living in the north-eastern states is settling down to a routine very, very different from the life of last summer and autumn.

I mean the cyclical life, not just because there are air raid shelters going up and signs all over town. The Department of Sanitation in New York, for instance, once again has its night staff on call in case of a blizzard. It has, as usual, a whole new set of gadgets, some new-style snow ploughs with electronic buzzers out front that thrash through snow drifts and pile everything in neat rows on the side along the gutter.

The newspapers are running their perpetual winter series on the common cold, which, for all the wonderful advances in bacteriology of the past 30 years, defies any form of treatment but hacking and snuffling and watching and waiting.

For the third year in succession, New York is full again of suntanned young beauties from the West Coast, girls who have given up struggling up the Hollywood ladder and have come to New York, or come back to New York, where there are jobs galore for them in television.

For the first winter in history, the papers print a daily half-page in fine print of television programmes just as long as the radio list. It used to be a little corner in a single column with the stations opening for business around five in the afternoon and going off at ten. Now they start at nine in the morning with a programme called Morning Chapel and The News, and then end at midnight with The News.

These new habits sneak up on you so slyly and quickly that it’s rather hard to realise what morons we were a couple of years ago. In those primitive days, a housewife had to make her own mind up, after breakfast, where to shop and what to buy. But now, after Morning Chapel, comes the Television Shopper. There was a time, too, when housewives, busy sweeping and washing dishes and vacuuming, used to have to amuse the baby on the side; but presto, 10am, The Babysitter Show, meant to rivet the baby’s wayward attention while mother gets on with the chores.

The conscientious housewife, once she’s through the daily dusting and cleaning, used to look over a couple of mixing bowls, an egg beater, and whatever meat was in the icebox, and think about the old man’s supper. Now, between 11 and noon, she has a choice of advice – new wrinkles, new recipes – all being demonstrated, mixed and cooked (usually looks like lava) on two programmes, Kitchen Fare and Kitchen Kapers.

If she should begin to feel lonely any time before lunch, there’s no excuse any more for calling on Mrs Brown next door. Mrs Brown has come to the television screen and, with other unemployed matrons, can be seen prattling over this and that on a programme called The Coffee Club.

From noon on, if the housewife isn’t through her work, she ought to be. The networks give themselves over unashamedly to amusement: the Kathi Norris Show, the Joe Franklin Show, the Johnny Olson Show. And then a few more half-hours of intensive cooking lessons and demonstrations, and the News is beginning to rear its ugly head. Then music and comedy shows and music and Homemaker's Guide and interviews with celebrities and models and dress shows and advice to parents.

Evening is coming on, naturally. And then, as the twilight falls, a barrage of news programmes. And then Hopalong Cassidy and puppet shows and cowboy films, and the weatherman from Chicago and a quarter-hour at The Zoo.

At this point – by which time mother has either turned the darned thing off and gone back to life or gone into arthritis and lost her wandering baby through the bedroom window – at this point, I ought to say that one of the discoveries of American television has been an assortment of odd, anonymous characters, usually middle-aged and middle Western, with a genius for rambling on, in a fascinating way, about some scientific speciality. There’s a man out in Chicago who loves animals like nobody since Noah and comes up with little shows about ptarmigans and pandas and racoons and snakes with all the easy wonder and the proud knowledge of a father of quadruplets.

The weatherman is another who comes over one network every night. He’s also from Chicago. He turns to a great empty map of America. Empty, that is, except for the mountain ranges lightly sketched in. He talks about the weather the way some people talk about football and others about murder trials. Of course he has a continent to play with and, for anybody interested in weather, America is a rich playground. Cattle may be going down for the third time in oceans of snow in Montana while blondes are frisking in the warm, green waters of Florida.

The weatherman always licks his lips and cocks his eyebrows, not in an annoying, actorish way, but because he has a genuine relish for the surprises he has in store. “Well,” he says, and he takes a menacing brush – I mean a paintbrush, about five inches wide, in his hand – “Well,” he says, “there’s trouble ahead for you people who live in the north-west there and up all the way along the midwest to the Great Lakes. A full-size blizzard came roaring in from the Pacific last night.”

He takes his brush and he paints in (I’m told) red paint a stream of roaring blizzard across the Pacific north-west and across the Cascades and the Bitterroots. He says, “It’s across the great plains today and it’ll be here, in Iowa and Illinois and Wisconsin tomorrow. But here’s good news for you people on the lake shore.” He sweeps his brush right across the western half of the nation and lets it stop short of Lake Michigan.

“Seems”, he says with a foxy smile, “there’s a high pressure belt, just an itsy-bitsy high pressure belt stuck somewhere north of Milwaukee down to Indiana. It’s going to hold off that blizzard; may even divert it north for a day or two. So you folks here in town or up in Wisconsin, you don’t have to worry about a thing till I see you again. You ought to be right snug inside that high pressure belt.”

Isotherms and equinoxes are just a couple of baby bears to this man, and I swear that he teaches more people – adults as well as children – more about how weather is made than all the textbooks they never looked at.

He saves a mean punch line. Just before he goes off, he remembers something. “Oh yes,” he says. “The temperatures. Well let’s see now. Through the midwest it’ll be around 20 degrees tonight.” That’s 12 degrees of frost, a form of expression never used, by the way, in the United States. A number means above zero, thus 30 or 12. Ten below means below zero.

Then he rattles off a few significant figures: “Chicago, 12 tonight, up around 30 in the day tomorrow. A little higher way across New England. In the Northern Great Plains it’ll be between 20 and 25 below zero. Great Falls, Montana, somewhere down around 45, around 70 at night. Goodnight.”

Television, as you may have noticed, is a great thing to kick around and have fun with, but I think I’d better tell you that although for hours it is possible to drown in mediocrity, there are by now quite a lot of first-rate programmes. Not so much plays and ballets, which are obvious stuff but nonetheless fascinating if done thoroughly with lots of rehearsal, something that American television doesn’t go in for so far. The really outstanding things in American television are group discussions of all sorts, big and small, news programmes and comedy shows. The best comedy shows are not necessarily the ones done by comedians who are famous in radio or on the stage, though two or three of those big evening shows are incomparable.

For another animal the television has thrown up is the young man, usually in his early thirties, who is glib, inconsequential in a Groucho Marx sort of way, and very much at home with a microphone wandering around a big studio audience interviewing people and sometimes the crew, the television crew, talking back at them, insulting them. Now there’s no point in my mentioning any names because they would mean nothing to you. They meant nothing to us six months ago. There are about a half-dozen of them – spry, easygoing, irreverent – who just have a natural sense of irony and rely on it to fill a nightly hour or half-hour with a studio audience. Nightly.

One of them the other night had no set routine, couldn’t think what to do with his audience, and just ordered his dinner up. It came in with real non-actor waiters, and he sat and ate it for half an hour and thought aloud and kidded the waiters in one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Now it’s obvious by this time that television is murder on anybody who must rely on a writer, on a script and, just as the talking picture doomed to sudden death the beautiful profiles with rasping voices, so television has already registered a high mortality among actors and actresses and comedians who must learn lines. The race is to the quick-witted and there’s already a fine crop of such.

The news programmes, I think, are just about the best achievement of television so far. The news commentators are beginning to throw away their news tape and talking about the news (some of them) swiftly, easily and accurately without script. In fifteen minutes one network opens with its news announcer. He gives you the main headlines and then they switch to Washington for a movie of Congress that morning, and then to a studio in Washington for a couple of minutes with a couple of senators thrashing over the topic of the day, then back to New York for spoken news read against still pictures, maps and diagrams of Korea, and then a three-minute shot of Korean newsreels flown in that day, and then out to Chicago for movies taken last night of a blizzard, a mine disaster, the British Ambassador making a speech or whatever. And then back to New York for the late flashes and so on, end.

There has been quite a bit of comment here in the last week or two on Mr TS Eliot’s comment that Britain should beware of television as a grave threat to – these were not his words but I think his sense – as a grave threat to leisure, to intelligence and culture in general. The great question, "What will it do to our children?" rocked around the nation last year.

A lot of us sympathise with Mr Eliot, but honestly see the facts going against us. For instance, mediocrity practically doesn’t exist to a child. Mediocrity is in the eye and the judgement of the beholder, and I would hesitate to say what is good or bad for a ten-year-old. I know what’s educational, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the same thing as what is good or bad.

However, to the dismay of us conscientious, culture-conscious and perhaps slightly hypochondriacal parents, North Western University has just published the results of its survey on what television does to the child. And its answer is nothing. Nothing that hadn’t already been there, or been done before. Television, it seems, is a reflector of what’s in the child, not a poisonous snake infecting him from outside.

They found, for instance, that the amount of time spent on television by any one or any 100 children has no sort of correlation with their marks in school. Perhaps it does, after all, go in through one eye and out through the other, causing no pain and, I must confess, a lot of pleasure.

The rising generation, then, is going to the dogs just as fast, or as slow, as you and I did. Remember? It’s a hard world for us moralists, isn’t it?

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

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