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The Big Picture

Rick Marschall is a prolific author of more than sixty books and hundreds of magazine articles in various fields, from popular culture – he is “perhaps America’s foremost authority on popular culture” – to history and criticism of country music, television history, biography, and children’s books.1 He has taught at Rutgers and the School of Visual Arts and is the former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics.

History Of Television, written by Rick Marschall, reflects upon the growth and development of television and its means of reaching the American nation. From the early 1940s to the 1980s, a variety of genres successfully dominated the television institution. Newscasters, comedians, and actors alike personified popular American characters on-screen. Broadcasted and with increased availability, television became a popular source of entertainment in the United States that connected its people. The history of television, in the United States and in Britain, reflects the truth of the old saying, “Nothing is constant except change… [but] it also attempts to confirm that nothing is better than excellence.”2

In the beginning chapters, Marschall reviews both the sparks and hindrances of televised entertainment. He accredits cartoons as the medium that looked forward to the day when pictures and sounds could travel through the ether. He attributes literature and art, the combination of story and image, as precursors on the converging courses for centuries– from “cave paintings that told stories; medieval tapestries that recounted whole battles; Renaissance triptychs that portrayed the Passion story; the morality cartoons of Hogarth and Gillray and the picture-stories of Rodophe Topffer and Wilhelm Busch.”3 Technology also helped advance the vision of broadcasted story-telling. Inventors and tinkerers came a corps of Electronic-Age for communication; Hertz discovered waves; Marconi sent messages over them; and Zworykin received patents for the iconoscope and kinescope, which enabled the capturing and transmission of television images. As the first television live drama began in England, revolutionary beliefs regarding the success of television were widely spread. David Sarnoff, an official of the Radio Corporation of America and the National Broadcasting Company believed strongly in wireless impulses as essential modes of communication, and envisioned entertainment as communication and commerce. In 1916 he wrote in a memo to his superiors, “I have in mind a plan of development which would make radio a household utility. The idea is to bring music into the home by wireless. The receiver can be designed in the form of a simple ‘radio music box’ and arranged for several different wave lengths… events of national importance can be simultaneously announced and received. Baseball scores can be transmitted in the air. This proposition would be especially interesting to farmers and others living in outlying districts.”4 However, despite Sarnoff’s radical predictions for television’s success, Life Magazine surveyed progress and concluded that “television is a scientific success but [is yet] a commercial headache.”5 Unlike Europe’s impressive mechanical and broadcast innovations, from the funding available to the BBC which received three-quarters of the use-tax, Americans did not have many advertisers to support the fledgling television industry. Nevertheless, the millennium was always being preached. When the RCA announced the marketing of home video sets in 1939, DuMont Labs announced plans to market their television sets and broadcast Paramount movies. This began the first assembly-line production of television sets. As televisions went on sale at places such as New York’s Bloomingdale’s, Abraham & Strauss, and Davega, NBC announced a permanent broadcast schedule of five hours—minimum—of television a week.6 Then finally, in 1939, a milestone to the television fiscal issue was reached; for the first time, American television was sponsored. Television entering the 1940s was not only a scientific success, but a commercial one too.

In the following chapters, Marschall touches on the developing television institution and its beginnings in the 1940s and 50s. By 1948, television had arrived in America to stay. The country’s new love affair with television was accounted by foreign visitor Alistair Cooke, a transplanted Englishman who observed in his essay ‘The Televised Craze in America’ for the BBC in 1949, “… Television is going to be part of our world. And people who try to ignore it, or preach against it, or keep their children away from it, are soon going to show up as ‘nutty’ people, exercising their virtue in a vacuum, like old gentlemen who brandish sticks at motor-cars… We are doomed—or, privileged, according to your point of view—to be the television generation.”7 In the first decade of the Television Era, television, astonishingly adaptable and gifted, postponed turning to two-dimensional comedies, hackneyed quiz shows, and formula dramas; instead it thought critically about the limitations as well as the special potentialities of the form. Slapstick comedy was built on unsophisticated premises and stage settings, and relied on visual humor. Live drama was directed towards intimacy, not just towards an elite audience, allowing viewers to be more engaged in drama than ever before. As television’s schedules rearranged, so did its main audience. In 1949, when daytime schedules premiered, housewives were identified as the target audience, and correspondingly, household items were advertised. Also, new personalities were revealed throughout different faces proving the all-around entertainment television provided. John Cameron Swayze became the first “news personality” when Camel News Caravan found success; he continued his career with intermingled stints as a quiz-show host, a commercial pitchman, and even an actor. Robert Ripley, a strong character himself, hosted Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and “spawned the tradition of viewer-participation anthology pastiches like You Asked For It, and another generation’s Believe It Or Not.”8 Bizarre personalities and names of athletic actors who played with serious ferociousness in sports proved TV could be a theater of the absurd. Jon Gnagy turned a generation of American youngsters into aspiring artists. Strong, diverse characters shown on screen began to evidently affect societal actions. In the 50s, television surpassed radio’s abilities in the realm of special qualities. Via the TV camera, “the interviewer could be as much a star as the subject”; the lighting and set design could set the mood for the entire interview.9 Background shots, camera angles, and artful lighting techniques were always present. The interviewer’s persona displayed in his raised, concerned brow, or heard in the inflections of his concerned voice could utilize the television set as an astoundingly effective propaganda device. By the very choice of subjects week after week, See It Now was able to be an editorial as much as news, commentary as well as reporting. The development of special television innovations in the 50s was proved by a prevalent adulation for an ideal character was installed in the classic, I Love Lucy– the “textbook example of what inspired comedic talent and quality writing can do.”10 Lucy’s character was the key to the show’s success. With her childlike innocence, instant contrition, and her genuinely honest character, Lucy met the fine compelling line between childlike and childish, which gave the most popular comedy show in television history a magic touch. Finally, the decade closed with one of television’s brightest and darkest series: The Twilight Zone. What moved many people’s hearts through this series was its fresh array of assortments—an anthology program sometimes served up science-fiction, sometimes fantasy, sometimes humor, but always “What if?”—with an abstract theme.11 With top-flight writers, and big-name stars, and classic tight writing in each episode, the series ended an era when television had become a necessity, not a luxury.

Throughout the next couple of chapters, Marschall continues to observe television’s routes from the 1960s to the 1980s. Television, “a figure trudging through the mud of mediocrity, was characterized slightly differently by a public figure in the early 1960s”.12 The Federal Communications Commission determined to play a stronger role in television programming. During the presidential fight between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, presidential debates—for the first time in history—were televised. Whereas surveys proved the equal favor of both candidates from radios’ audiences, on-screen, John F. Kennedy looked the better candidate. This proved television’s impact on the United State’s political stand. During the 60s situations were intensified in terms of relations with the Soviet Union. The Russians had Sputnik up, and Camelot was setting up camp on the Potomac. As the 1960s dawned, the nation at large had reasons to feel both bad and good, and television provided the escapist panacea for whatever ailed one. Throughout the 60s, comedy, as it has throughout every year, dominated the television institution. One trend that television comedy reflected in the 60s was the spy genre. Not only was international intrigue on the front pages; James Bond was prevalently known—President Kennedy had even praised it as favorite fiction.13 Crime fighting was elevated to even higher camp on Batman, a smash hit. The series was a satire on every cliché of television and comic books, and even of itself. In the latter part of the 1960s, youth was served too during the Youth Generation. A classic, The Brady Bunch was largely about the pitfalls of adolescence. The story of a broken family became formulaic for success in gaining the audience’s favorable attention. In 1960 the Federal Trade Commission surprised many by cracking down on the absurd advertising claims that had become a trademark of television. Confronting the electronic-age equivalents of snake-oil pitches, the FTC filed claims for products of Lever Brothers, Standard Brands, Colgate-Palmolive and Alcoa “phony” and characterized a campaign for Rapid-Shave “deliberate fraud.”14 Though the dust soon settled, the commercials continued as before; it seemed the public was incapable of having its intelligence insulted, and either stared blankly at offending ads or were amused by their humorous trappings. Lastly, children’s programming in the 1960s reflected innovation. Children no longer watched silent films. Instead, they watched Casper the Friendly Ghost and the entire Warner Brothers crew including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester and the Road Runner. In 1967, Fred Rogers introduced Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to the nation; “[Rogers] and his ensemble, through plays, secular sermonettes, and experiments in science and values, aimed beyond cognitive levels to behavior patterns. It was part of a movement in educational circles to bring humanism to children’s television, and in 1969 censors cracked down on violence in kiddie cartoons.”15 The Children’s Television Workshop’s first success was Sesame Street. The show based its techniques on the very obvious but clever system of presenting children’s entertainment and education; they were summoned to teach kids the pronunciation of dipthongs and counting by fices. Including all of the popular characters, the formula “proved irresistible” to children. In the 1960s throughout wars, crises and assassinations, the TV set became the primary source of contact. In the 1970s, one of television’s classic parodies and satires was premiered by ABC. Though parody and satire are two distinct forms and are difficult to combine, Soap was successful. The series satirized everything in sight—“family life, suburbia, senility, homosexuality, death—in a format that lampooned TV’s traditional soap-operas”.16 Family, which began in 1976, was an extremely low-key drama series that sympathetically dealt with individual problems and relationships within a large suburban family. The series had a unique talent for seeing each member’s experiences on his or her level of maturity. Throughout the 70s, television news carried on clad in Emperor’s clothing; “the industry had revealed that its primary goals oftentimes were not journalistic but entertainment; that ratings (or sometimes politics) was the standard, not ethics; that instead of a news tradition, TV willingly planted itself in a show-biz tradition.”17 During the mid-1800s, apart from all previous familial sitcoms, a new sort of show with quality and creativity reigned: The Cosby Show. The veteran of nightclub comedy and several sitcoms, variety series, animated cartoons and even an adventure show, Cosby’s family, unlike those from the 60s and 70s, was not the type to shout out insults at each other across the yard of the housing project. Their children underwent normal experiences of adolescence—dating, schoolwork, coping; “underpinned by excellent situational writing and memorable reaction-lines, The Cosby Show was a success.”18 Ultimately, TV has been a precisely perfect mirror reflecting American familial values.

In the final chapter, a brief history of television in Britain is written. In Britain, people made television; it was a public-spirited initiative. The BBC productions were world-acknowledged in the early days of television. ITV, too, secured world markets for programs like Upstairs, Downstairs, the story of a middle-class family during changing times earlier this century.19 With perhaps an innate feel for historic interest subjects, television producers excelled in tackling classic works. The Age of Kings, a series based on Shakespeare’s plays, created a new sense of television’s possibilities in the early 1960s. Values and traditions are much questioned in the light of change in television, and “no one would deny that times have changed since the days of John Logie Bair’s experiments …but it would be amiss merely to blame television for that.”20

Rick Marschall uplifts television and credits it “has offered more people more entertainment than any other medium in history.”21 However, he does not recognize television as a completely original creation out of context. Instead, he suggests that television should have a “new syntax and vocabulary”; he states that “ultimately much of TV’s programming to the mid-1980s even the best of the best, will be seen in a theatrical or stage context” in the future, and “has yet to assert its own language and structure.”22 Marschall parallels the prologue of television as symptomatic of the American culture. Whereas the Greeks gave the world a culture, and the Romans law, Americans have woven their piece of culture in the last gasp of Western commerce-oriented expansion; in the same sense, the ability to “catch” the world’s shows on back-yard satellite dishes could likely mean to just a unique, short burst of technology and invention. However, Marschall sets stage for a bigger statement: “TV in America has been a precisely perfect mirror. Comics and jazz are America’s two native art forms, so there must be no embarrassment that television may be America’s theatrical legacy.”23 Like music, American television is a pot composed of various different influences; this nevertheless does not strip the legitimacy of television’s American values in its institution. \

Historiography indubitably plays a significant role in American television. American society had deep influence in television broadcasting, since its very beginnings. During the late 30s and early 40s, Americans suffered from the Great Depression. Bank failures, one main cause of the economic downfall, scarred Americans with fear and a loss of hope. In these times, a doubt in the commercial success of television was only reasonable. Also, for example, during the presidential run in the 1960s, it’s no surprise that John F. Kennedy took his advantages—of his positive and favorable image on-screen—for aiding his campaign needs and winning the election. Marschall, surprisingly tolerant with the “show-biz tradition,” understandingly states, “Sensationalism is a better selling point than the simple truth.”24  

Reviewer and critic, Laura Burlacu states that the range of topics covered in Marschall’s book is “quite extensive” and that the “chapters provide easy-to-follow lines of argumentation that could prove to be interesting even for those who are not particularly interested in the topic of television research.”25 However, one draw-back Burlacu highlights is that “at no point during the book does anyone draw attention to limited applicability of the developments that are being discussed.” Another draw-back is that “despite all of the many qualities that television has to offer and whatever changes they bring about, the inherent structures of television, programming, or fame remain the same and they are more likely to be transferred onto the new platforms, rather than the platforms reshaping them.” Finally, Burlacu states that although, at the end, the readers are “left with the task of putting the pieces together, with no real insight from the author,” the book is an enjoyable and an informative read.

Different genres of television—comedy, news, live drama and the like—prove Marschall’s thesis: television is indeed one of the most special, unique means of entertainment. However, he is also correct in stating that it lacks a new syntax of creativity. Even the most popular shows, like Batman, Get Smart, and James Bond were simply accommodated “spinoffs” of each other.26 Shows that proved to be different, such as The Bill Cosby Show and The Twilight Zone, however, proved that not all television programs had to belong to a certain archetype in order to be successful. These programs affirmed that with a sense of creativity and a dialogue flooded with humor and wit, any television show can rise against the predominance of typical, traditional television.

The broadcasting of television is an essential art form that has changed the world. It is the only form of entertainment—unlike radio, and before the Internet became popular—that has given service world-wide. From covering the Olympic Games at Berlin in 1936 in Germany—“filmed by a movie camera, developed in two minutes, and broadcast”—to broadcasting baseball’s World Series played between the Yankees and the Dodgers in 1947, to finally the covering news all over the world, television united the nations.27.

1. "Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University." Operation Opper â Bostonia Winter 2001.<>.
2. Marschall, Rick. History Of Television. New York: Gallery, 1986. 251.
3. Marschall, Rick. 8.
4. Marschall, Rick. 11-12.
5. Marschall, Rick. 18.
6. Marschall, Rick. 20.
7. Marschall, Rick. 26.
8 Marschall, Rick. 30.
9. Marschall, Rick. 42.
10. Marschall, Rick. 50.
11. Marschall, Rick. 88.
12. Marschall, Rick. 96.
13. Marschall, Rick. 104.
14. Marschall, Rick. 126.
15. Marschall, Rick. 128.
16. Marschall, Rick. 151.
17. Marschall, Rick. 183.
18. Marschall, Rick. 195.
19. Marschall, Rick. 247.
20. Marschall, Rick. 248.
21. Book Jacket: front flap
22. Marschall, Rick. 211.
23. Marschall, Rick. 211.
24. Marschall, Rick. 183.
25. Burlacu, Laura. “Book Review: On Television,” 2011.
26. Marschall, Rick. 104.
27. Marschall, Rick. 16.