Golden Age of Television
The Golden Age of Television in the United States began sometime in the late 1940s and extended to the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Evolutions of drama on television
As filmed series, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, began to dominate during the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the period of live TV dramas was viewed as the Golden Age. Although producer David Susskind, in a 1960s roundtable discussion with leading 1950s TV dramatists, defined TV's Golden Age as 1938 to 1954, the final shows of Playhouse 90 in 1961 and the departure of leading director John Frankenheimer brought the era to an end.
As a new medium, television introduced many innovative programming concepts, and prime time television drama showcased both original and classic productions, including the first telecasts of Walt Disney's programs, as well as the first telecasts of Mary Martin in Peter Pan, MGM's classic The Wizard of Oz and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Critics and viewers looked forward to new teleplays by Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, Reginald Rose, Rod Serling, WIlliam Templeton, Gore Vidal and others.
Most of these programs were produced as installments of live dramatic anthologies, such as The Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. Live, abridged versions of plays like Cyrano de Bergerac, with members of the cast of the 1946 Broadway revival recreating their roles, were regularly shown during this period.
Limitations of early television
Early television broadcasts were limited to live or filmed productions (the first practical videotape system, Ampex's Quadruplex, wasn't available until 1956). Broadcasting news, sports and other live events was something of a technical challenge in the early days of television, but live drama with multiple cameras was extremely challenging. A live, 90-minute drama might require a dozen sets and at least that many cameras. Major set and other changes had to occur during commercials, and there were no "second takes." The cast and crew operated with the awareness of as many as 10 million people watching and any mistake went out live. After the adoption of videotape in 1957, many live dramas were shot "live to tape," still retaining a "live" television look and feel but able to both preserve the program for later broadcast and allowing the possibility of retakes (still rare since videotape editing required a razor blade and was not done unless absolutely necessary). The pressures of live dramatic television gives a tension that is not present in filmed or videotaped broadcasts.
Response to television's popularity
By about 1958, television had become the dominant form of home entertainment, depleting audiences in movie theaters. It was the fear of this that drove movie studios to begin using widescreen and 3-D processes in 1952, an effort to lure audiences back with technical innovations they could not see at home (such as color, which was not common in television until the mid-1960s). Widescreen became a permanent feature of film; 3-D's popularity was shorter-lived and would not become widespread until the late 2000s and 2010s.
High culture dominated commercial network television programming in the 1950s and 1960s with the first television appearances of Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini, the first telecasts from Carnegie Hall took place during this era, the first live American telecasts of plays by Shakespeare, the first telecasts of Tchaikovsky's ballets The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker and the first opera specially composed for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors. The Bell Telephone Hour, an NBC radio program, began its TV run featuring both classical and Broadway performers. All of these were broadcast on NBC, CBS and ABC, something that would be unheard of today. Commercial networks now concentrate on more popular items. The networks then had their own art critics, notably Aline Saarinen and Brian O'Doherty, something that was mostly discontinued (with the exception of film critics) by the start of the digital television era.
This high culture approach to television could be interpreted as a product of its time. At its earliest, television was still a new product and a large investment available mostly in the cities, and as such, the niche market of wealthy, more urbanized audiences (precisely the kind to have an interest in fine art and classical music) were more likely to own and watch television. As television expanded and reached critical mass, more of the low culture gained access to television, thus compelling the networks to shift their programming to accommodate their more popular interests.
Many programs of this era evolved from successful radio shows that brought polished concepts, casts and writing staffs to TV. This is one reason why quality was so consistently high during this period. Even an original show like I Love Lucy drew heavily from radio, since many of those scripts were rewrites from Lucille Ball's late-1940s radio show My Favorite Husband. Shows like Our Miss Brooks, Gunsmoke, The Burns and Allen Show and The Jack Benny Program ran concurrently on both radio and TV until television reception reached beyond the major metropolitan areas in the mid-1950s. Others, such as Father Knows Best and Fibber McGee and Molly, attempted to "flash-cut" from radio to television, to varying degrees of success. By the early 1960s, about 90% of American households had a television set, and the roles of television and radio (which was largely saved from obsolescence by the invention of the far more portable transistor radio in the 1950s) had changed so that radio was primarily a medium for music and scripted programming became wholly the domain of television.
- British television had a head start on American TV, with the BBC Television Service beginning regular broadcasts in 1936; however, these ceased in 1939 (as did the production of television receivers) – resuming in 1946 after World War II.
- The golden age of British TV enjoyed its peak around the same time as in the United States, ranging from approximately 1949 to 1955 – although the term has been used to describe the period right through until the 1970s.
- Writers such as Nigel Kneale and producers like Rudolph Cartier produced classic programming such as The Quatermass Experiment and Mystery Story (of which no recording exists).
- Other notable programs include serials by the producer Francis Durbridge and classic children's programs such as Muffin the Mule and Andy Pandy.
- Canada's Golden Age of Television timeline is very similar to the US's (in fact, most Canadians were within the broadcast range of at least one American television station by the 1950s), but there is an overall five-year delay because of the country's sparser population. CBC Television, the country's official national broadcaster, launched in 1952, and CTV Television Network, the oldest commercial network in the country, followed in 1962. Although there were a handful of efforts to produce domestic content for the Canadian networks, most Golden Age shows were imported from the United States until the Can-Con requirements took effect around 1970.
- South Africa was one of the last nations in the world to have TV; the apartheid government resisted TV broadcasting until the mid-1970s, with experimental broadcasts only beginning in 1975 and nationwide service starting in January 1976.
- The development of TV in South Africa can at least be considered in NZ or Australian context – although the social and political constraints limit the length of the 'Golden Era' in this nation.
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