Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Boddy - Fifties Television

Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Illinois studies in communications. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Boddy's stated aim "is to suggest that the development of American television, and specifically the era of network hegemony which stretched from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s, was not "natural" or inevitable, but indeed the result of specific economic and political forces and structures with complex determinants." (8) In thematic chapters, arranged in a rough chronology, Boddy explains these factors. He claims to be one of the first to bring together more specialized research into 50s television with broader social science perspective. However, his discussion is mostly focused on the effects of networks, studios, advertisers, the government and the FCC on the transition out of the "Golden Age", and the critical response to this transition. Other than critics and passing mention of ratings as they were being understood by networks and advertisers, he leaves out audience reception. The actual programs are mentioned only in passing. (see Critique) To his credit, Boddy takes a neutral - even contrarian - position to the standard narrative that television got worse in this period (typified by the work of Erik Barnouw).

Key Points

Chapter 2 - Early hopes for television were that the medium would not be "corrupted" by advertising as radio had been.
Chapter 3 - NBC, owned by RCA, tried to block attempts at opening up the UHF bandwidth as its produced televisions were exclusively VHF. CBS, the second largest early network, wanted the UHF bandwidth opened to allow for more stations.
The Freeze - between Sept 1948 and April 1952 the FCC suspended license approvals (50-51). This was the result of an earlier ruling to narrow station separations, which resulted in disastrous station interference and a flood of license applications. At the same time, the number of stations on the air exploded (50 to 108), as did the number of television sets (1,200,000 to 15,000,000). The result was a firming up of network control over the industry. NBC and CBS benefited hugely, while ABC and DuMont were (respectively) almost critically and critically effected.
Chapter 4-6: The Early 1950s - To the approval of critics, networks avoided Hollywood-produced content intent on reaping the rewards themselves of produced shows. Live television tended to be single-sponsor. Programs were created in New York in the dramatic theater style rather than the "lower" Hollywood style.)
Chapter 7-10: Eventually, networks (led by ABC which charged back from behind) found it cost-effective to buy Hollywood studio-produced content. Live broadcasts, which were praised by critics as the epitomy of the artistic possibilities of the medium, faded away. Multiple sponsors moved in, and the prestige of writing for television declined, ex. Rod Serling. Meanwhile, the FCC did its best to break up Network control of too many stations and too much of program creation, further incentivizing the network search for programs created by Hollywood studios.
Chapters 11-14: 1958-60 - The Quiz show scandal, followed by Newton Minnow's "Vast Wasteland" speech led to a public relations crisis for the networks. Boddy argues the Minnow speech had less of an effect than the Quiz show scandal. Advertisers blamed networks, networks blamed advertisers. Network presidents changed the way they talked about their programs, turning towards an argument that "mass audience indicates serving the mass public interest." Critics screamed, but at the same time the newspaper TV column disappeared accross the country, as critics had less serious drama to comment about and were left mainly criticizing the medium as a whole over and over.

This book has to be read along with Castleman and Podzrazik's "Watching Television" to get a sense of what the networks were actually putting on, because Boddy barely does that. He merely describes the type of show on TV rather than the actual show. Without examples, the prose is terribly dry. It was a fast read, quickly digestible, but largely because it is written plainly with little attempts at argument and insight. Perhaps Boddy takes his claim at being a neutral observer of the decade too seriously. This is yet another book about television that I feel could be written much better.

1 comment:

  1. Haha, so I had to read just a section of this for my Historical Methods class this week (Chapters 4-6). I was googling around for reviews, because I found it to be maddening. Glad to come across this, and I agree about Castleman and Pordrazik, I felt the same way after reading Tube of Plenty. At least C&P seem to actually like television, neither Boddy or Barnaouw seem to have much affection for the medium.