This volume in Lucent’s World History series explores the export of American culture through the medium of television, and its effect on everything from the information available to the electorate to the decisions of consumers. It opens with a timeline of important dates in the history of television over the last century, tracing the origination of that term to a Russian physicist in Paris 21 years before Philo T. Farnsworth began his electronic experiments.
The book provides credible information for students researching specific topics, such as soap operas, game shows, children programs, "Saturday Night Live", "Seinfeld", "Friends", "TV Guide" and even TV dinners. The book also includes up-to-date passages on the technology, including discussion of high-definition televisions and digital video recorders. Text in each provocatively-named chapter is dense, but relieved with evocative, high-quality illustrations.
Television has antecedents in both radio and vaudeville, but the newer medium originated new types of entertainment and animation. The first major television demonstration was NBC’s broadcast of the World’s Fair in 1939, but the 1946 heavyweight title bout between Joe Louis and Billy Conn from Yankee stadium became the first televised event to reach private homes. There are descriptions of television shortages in post-war Britain, where demand far outstripped supply for more than five years. In the U.S., Milton Berle’s variety show alone is credited with pushing television penetration from 9% of American household in 1950 to 22% in 1951. Though color television was introduced in 1949, only 25 consumer models of the technology had been sold by 1951, which did not justify the prohibitive expense of filming in color. Not until 1960-61, when NBC’s "Disneyland" began color broadcast, did that format gain widespread adoption.
Sections of television history are particularly well-done. It begins with a discussion of the cathode ray technology that underpins the incarnation of television that dominated the market until digital sets. Farnsworth, an Idaho farmboy, used the cathode ray in his early invention, which he called an "Image Dissector." The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), determined to control the technology, litigated Farnsworth into penury, depression, and eventual death in obscurity, though his ownership of the patent was vindicated by the courts.
Nardo documents how the rise of stay-at-home television entertainment in the 1950s coincided with a shift to a more suburban, family-oriented lifestyle, as is evoked by the common tableau of Eisenhower-era family gathered around a flickering set. By the 1970s, network programming began interjecting social issues and representing more racially and ethnically diverse characters, reflecting a national plurality achieved through the civil rights movement.
The volume gives particular emphasis to the role of television programming in shaping global societal values; by 1958, exported American television shows were reaching 26 nations. The volume also provides a critical examination of the relationship of network television and advertising sponsorship, which Nardo suggests makes programming especially vulnerable to corporate interests.
Trivia included throughout is fascinating. For example, DuMont – a fourth major network which competed with ABC, CBS and NBC until 1955 – launched the first televised soap opera, "Faraway Hill", in 1946. And Desilu Productions, Lucille Ball’s company, revolutionized video productions with all-purpose fixed lighting and a multiple-camera set-up, both of which help create the aesthetic at-home viewers experience today.
A section on television news includes an accounts of Edward R. Murrow’s coverage of the McCarthy hearings reduced that senator’s influence, and the role of television in the presidential elections of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon. Also discussed are network news coverage of the Vietnam War and Walter Cronkite’s archetypal role as paternal newsman.
Citations throughout are linked to source material through endnotes. Resource lists offer books and websites with more information on the topic, and there is a comprehensive topic index. Recommended for school and public libraries.