BROOKE GLADSTONE: The power of television to shape our view of America was noted even when the medium was a relative infant.
[TV MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] We think of a simpler time, of nuclear families in black and white – well, actually, almost entirely white – of fathers who knew best and problems neatly resolved in 30 minutes, minus the commercials. Media historian Eric Burns has written a book called Invasion of the Mind Snatchers that’s a history of TV’s emergence in the '50s. He charts not only the invention of TV, but also the social context surrounding its birth, a reality far more turbulent than that depicted on the small screen. As he recounts, the very birth of television was marked by conflict. David Sarnoff, a longtime RCA executive, has often been credited with TV’s invention, but now we know the credit should probably go to a man named Philo T. Farnsworth, a precocious young inventor blessed with a love of electronics, but cursed with a disastrous dearth of business sense. Farnsworth fought a long and fruitless battle to protect the patents on his technological discoveries, a battle already lost when he gave what seemed to be a nice Russian enthusiast a tour of his factory.
ERIC BURNS: A man named Vladimir Zworykin was a kind of spy for Sarnoff and, in fact, once went to Farnsworth’s lab and pretended to be just someone who was fascinated with Farnsworth’s ideas. Farnsworth, in all innocence, gave Zworykin a tour, told him everything he could about television. And as soon as Zworykin finished the tour, he stole Farnsworth’s ideas, gave them to Sarnoff, and that was the beginning of a battle of lawsuits that lasted for decades.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So TV is invented, one way or another, and it takes off. One of the most fascinating parts of the book for me was the fact that the kind of skepticism that people might apply to what they heard on the radio seemed to get suspended when they saw it on TV.
ERIC BURNS: One of the most popular shows in the '50s was Our Miss Brooks. Eve Arden starred as a schoolteacher.
EVE ARDEN AS MISS BROOKS: I'm Miss Brooks of Madison High. I teach English.
MALE STUDENT: Yeah, we don't want none, ma'am.
EVE ARDEN AS MISS BROOKS: Well, I don’t want none neither but it’s a living.
ERIC BURNS: The show was very successful, and after a few years she got offers to teach in American high schools. People believed either that she was really a teacher or that in preparing for the role that she could be a teacher just because of the research she had done. People who starred in westerns were asked what it was like to travel through Indian country. People who starred in shows about outer space -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] No.
[OVERTALK/BOTH AT ONCE]
ERIC BURNS: - were asked if travel from one galaxy to another was tiring for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the evolution of the relationship between television and advertising. Back in those days, the sponsors of television shows were very much identified with the programs.
ERIC BURNS: There were dozens and dozens of show, Philco, General Electric, virtually all of them sponsoring dramatic shows and exerting almost unimaginable control over the content. For instance, Camel cigarettes sponsored a newscast with John Cameron Swayze as the anchor, and although Swayze smoked during the show the show refused to cover the stories of the link between cancer and cigarettes. It went so far that a television producer once was told not to have a character say “ford a river” because the show was sponsored by Chevrolet.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] It was absurd, and in some cases it was very troubling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s the famous example of the American Gas Company sponsoring a teleplay of The Judgment at Nuremberg, about the trial of the Nazis involved in the Holocaust.
ERIC BURNS: It was the American Gas Association, which at the time was a virtually unknown trade group, and it wanted to get some a) notice and b) prestige. The show was filmed, but it didn't occur to anybody with the Gas Association until after it was filmed that it was gas that was the implement used by the Nazis. And when the American Gas Association realized this - of course, it wasn't American Gas Association gas that the Nazis used – but they were horrified. And what they did was simply take out the word “gas” every time it was mentioned in the show, and it was mentioned often, so that a character’s lips would move and there would be a nanosecond of silence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So they were sent to the – pause – chambers.
ERIC BURNS: Yes. Pause, lip flap, chambers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Let's talk about race and television. What were the portrayals of African-Americans on TV in the '50s and '60s?
ERIC BURNS: Entertainment television reflected a lot of negative attitudes about blacks, and there was a great desire not to offend racists. Television journalism, on the other hand, was never so noble as it was in the '50s because that was when television journalism put aside its apprehensions and covered the racial disturbances in the South in a manner that I think was more compelling to Americans, more powerful to Americans in forming racial attitudes than was Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of the mid-'60s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile in entertainment programming there was a version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without Jim. [LAUGHS] There was a story about Emmett Till written by Rod Serling which the network forced him to set in New England with Till not as a young black man but as a white adult. I mean, the whole thing was completely wrecked.
ERIC BURNS: It may be the worst single example of television giving into an outside force that I've ever encountered. The force in this case was Southern racists. Emmett Till was a young black boy who had been savagely murdered in the South when he was visiting there. The jury knew that the two men on trial were guilty. They were immediately acquitted. As a matter of fact, the verdict took two hours to reach. A juror said, we would have come out a lot quicker but we had a few soft drinks while we were in the jury room. When Rod Serling wrote his teleplay of Emmett Till, he was a white man from another country who came to New England. The story made no sense whatsoever, and Serling, he was just mortified by what he had done. Four years after this, he got the idea for a show called The Twilight Zone, and his career was salvaged. But he could never get the taint of the Emmett Till teleplay out of his mind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about women on TV. They didn't fare so well either.
ERIC BURNS: Women and blacks were treated similarly. Both were very often background figures who, when they moved to the foreground, were shown to be the inferiors of white males. The interesting irony is that one woman who watched some of these shows was so angry that she wrote an article for TV Guide about this treatment of women and expanded it into a book called The Feminine Mystique.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] The woman was Betty Friedan. And most people who have studied the matter will tell you that The Feminine Mystique was, in fact, the start of the women’s movement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's move to another genre. I remember when I was a very small kid I saw some episodes of a most peculiar program called Queen for a Day -
ERIC BURNS: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - where women would come on, compete for who had the worst life, and the one who won got a refrigerator.
ERIC BURNS: There were two shows that really stood out in this genre. Queen for a Day was one of them and another show was called Strike It Rich. Queen for a Day employed what was called a misery meter. At the end of the show, the audience voted by applauding on which woman had told the most sorrowful story, and that woman got, if possible, what she asked for.
ANNOUNCER: I crown you Queen for a Day, Queen Diva Burke.
[MUSIC: POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE]
ERIC BURNS: One woman on Queen for a Day said she needed someone to come in and put a hole in her ceiling. She said - the only heat we have is on the first floor. Our children sleep on the second floor, so we wanted to put a hole in the ceiling so the heat could go up and heat the children’s bedroom. Well, this woman won and got a new furnace instead of –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - a hole in the ceiling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you close the book with a scene of Philo T. Farnsworth, in the late ‘50s, as a guest on a quiz show.
ERIC BURNS: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was called I've Got a Secret. And, in this case, the contestants on the show had to guess who Farnsworth was. It’s, it’s such a bizarre scene.
ERIC BURNS: Philo T. Farnsworth came on I've Got a Secret, and his secret was that he had invented television.
MODERATOR: Now, we're not going to identify this contestant, panel, because to identify him would be to tip off his secret. We will call him simply Dr. X.
ERIC BURNS: The panelists were stumped.
FEMALE PANELIST: Do you work in any kind of a laboratory or a place like that?
PHILO T. FARNSWORTH: Yes.
FEMALE PANELIST: Would this remotely or in any way be connected with psychiatric cases?
PHILO T. FARNSWORTH: Well no, not especially.
ERIC BURNS: They had no idea who he was. So Farnsworth went away shaking his head, with his 80 dollars in cash prizes and his Winston cigarettes, because he had stumped the panel with his anonymity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the questions a panelist asks is, you say you’re an inventor, does your invention cause people pain?
[CLIP FROM I’VE GOT A SECRET]:
MALE PANELIST: Is this some kind of a machine that might be painful when it’s used?
PHILO T. FARNSWORTH: Yes, sometimes it’s most painful.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER/BUZZER SOUND]
ERIC BURNS: Farnsworth had come rather quickly to disdain the medium he created. At one point he had eight televisions in his house and none of them worked, and that was by intent. Vladimir Zworykin was similarly offended by the medium.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was Sarnoff’s spy you talked about at the beginning of the interview.
ERIC BURNS: Sarnoff’s spy. He was asked by an interviewer on one occasion what he was most pleased with, with television, and he said “da svitch.”
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And the interviewer said, pardon me? Zworykin still had a very thick Russian accent. He repeated, “Da svitch, so I can turn the damn thing off.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thank you so much, Eric.
ERIC BURNS: I'm happy to have been here, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Burns is a cultural historian, and his book is called The Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the ‘50s.
BLACK FLAG: T.V. party tonight! We're gonna have a T.V. party tonight! Alright! We're gonna have a T.V. party alright! Tonight! We've got nothing better to do
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Nerida Brownlee and Bonnie Watt, and edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Robert Granniss.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs, and our Big Kahuna. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
BLACK FLAG: That’s incredible. Hill Street Blues, Dallas, Winsave. We sit glued to the T.V. set all night And every night! Why go into the outside world at all? It's such a fright! We've got nothing better to do