Bill Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 17
April 26-May 2, 2001
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TV Rules

A Quick Tour Through the 78-Year History of the Boob Tube

Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882: The Theologian's Tale

n the above, the great New England poet was referring to ships that pass by night, but how appropriate those words are at the moment. This is, I'm told, National Turn Off the Television Week. Ah A look at the big screen, the usual voice followed by canned laughter, then darkness as the picture tube is turned off and silence prevails.

One might even suggest that the bard's Village Blacksmith do better than pull the plug. He could make the week's observance permanent with a mighty blow from his hammer.

Just think. Had television been around on April 19, 1775, today we might all be watching BBC's higher grade of telly programming, seeing we could have lost the Revolution because the Minutemen and their families of Lexington being glued to their screens wouldn't have heard the silversmith ride by with his warning - the British are coming.

The Birth of IC ...

Thankfully, it wasn't until 158 years after the legendary ride across the countryside that the first mention of television appeared in the press - but that's not what it was called. On Dec. 23, 1923, when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, there were reports of something called the iconoscope - imagine telling someone today that you're going to catch Survivor on the iconoscope. What would be the abbreviation? IC?

Only 17 days before, Coolidge became the first president ever to address the nation via radio, and Silent Cal's message was heard by thousands. Incidentally, what goes around comes around: The president's message was on tax cuts.

Radio was still in its infancy, but 34-year-old Russian-born engineer Vladimir Zworkin had the idea of creating a picture on radio sets. When he demonstrated a crude prototype, people didn't know what to think. More than half the nation hadn't even heard a radio.

On April 7, 1927 - the year that Gene Tunney survived the controversial long count to unseat Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth swatted 60 homers, Lindy and the Spirit of St. Louis crossed the Atlantic and Sacco and Vanzeti were electrocuted - something called television was formally introduced to Americans.

And the image wasn't some scantily clad lady with suggestive words, or cops and robbers in shoot-outs, or someone trying to make a million bucks by out-surviving someone else on an island - in between commercials, of course. There was Cal's Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in Washington addressing a group of bankers and investors in New York City 225 miles away.

Credit for refining the new movie pictures on radio went to Scottish inventor John L. Baird, with help from Albert Einstein (then still a German). Baird had the audacity to predict that someday television would become a household appliance.

On April 30, 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did Silent Cal one better. At the New York World's Fair, he became the first president to appear on the tube (NBC). It was an occasion I well remember seeing. I was on an eighth grade trip to the Big Apple at the time and got my first glimpse of television at one of the exhibits. But I found Ripley's Believe It or Not display more exciting. After all, I had seen picture shows in movie houses.

On August 26 of that year, there were only 400 TV sets around and black and white images were rather fuzzy, but Red Barber was in the catbird seat broadcasting the first game of a doubleheader played by the Cincinnati Reds and the Dodgers, then still firmly planted in Brooklyn.

...and Couch Potatoes

That, my friends, was also the beginning of another byword across the nation: couch potato. Until then, via radio, sports fans could take in a game while reading the daily newspaper or a book, fixing the porch screen or leaky kitchen sink, maybe even painting a ceiling. But once a picture of the action was available, the couch would become the grandstand.

Of course, all that didn't come about that quickly. A big war was impending and television had to wait - though on August 29, 1940, CBS announced plans to begin experimenting with color TV on its New York station, WXAB.

By 1948, the first TV was installed in an aircraft, a Capital Airlines flight from between Washington and Chicago, and Candid Camera, Arthur Godfrey and Milton Berle were on the menu in homes. Programming was fairly decent back then. Still many homes were TV-less, and those who didn't have sets visited those who did. The big picture tube was round and vulnerable, and if it didn't burn out, one of the smaller tubes did, and everyone would head to another household with a working set.

In 1950, as more homes got sets to pretty much put to an end the potluck supper routine and lugging younger kids in pajamas from house to house so parents could watch I Love Lucy, a not-very-well-known Yankee gave us an inkling of what was to come. He wasn't very popular for speaking out.

Nation of Morons

Daniel Marsh, president of Boston University, delivered the shocker. "If the television craze continues, we are destined to have a nation of morons," he said as he backed up his assertion with the news that a national survey showed children watch TV 27 hours a week, which was only 45 minutes less than they spent in school.

That was about the time that colored screens were becoming available to everyone watching Your Show of Shows, The Gary Moore Show, The Kate Smith Hour, The Steve Allen Show, What's My Line, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and Truth or Consequences - all still reasonable family-type productions.

By then, the couch potatoes were not just men taking in sports and The Lone Ranger, but also women and children. People knew what day of the week it was by what was playing on the tube. In the evening, kitchens were lonely places, occupied only long enough to pop TV dinners in the oven, and dining rooms were dark as families took bites with their eyes glued to the tube.

This nation and much of the world has changed. Not only are there television sets in the kitchen, living room, den, workshop, all the bedrooms and the office, but also portables on the beach, in the boat, the RV (primitive camping is setting up in a park without a 19-inch color set complete with video capabilities) and even hooked up to the computer. Let's not forget the hand-held sets used by some to steal a look-see when the golf tournament is on during church services, weddings and - who knows - maybe even funerals.

Kids don't read, they watch. Same with parents, and usually they don't do it together. No one knows who's watching what, and too many of the shows warrant parental nixes, yet the craze continues. TV rules.

And now, this curmudgeon writer who watches probably less than a hundred hours of programming a year learns there's the big week to turn off the TV, which prompts the thought that there's even something wrong with that.

Turning the television off means it has to be on in the first place. Which is the biggest mistake of all. Enough said.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly