Golden Age of Television

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The Night America Trembled was Studio One's September 9, 1957, top-rated television recreation of Orson Welles' radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938. Alexander Scourby is seen in the foreground. Warren Beatty (not pictured), in one of his earliest roles, appeared in the bit part of a card-playing college student.

The first Golden Age of Television is the era of live television production in the United States, roughly from the late 1940s through the late 1950s. According to The Television Industry: A Historical Dictionary, "the Golden Age opened with Kraft Television Theatre on May 7, 1947, and ended with the last live show in the Playhouse 90 series in 1957;" [1] the Golden Age is universally recognized to have ended by 1960, as the television audience and programming had shifted to less critically acclaimed fare, almost all of it taped or filmed.

Limitations of early television[edit]

Prior to approximately 1948, there had been some attempts at television programming using the mechanical television process. One of the first series made specifically for television to have a sustained run was CBS's 1931–33 murder-mystery series The Television Ghost, which ran for all 19 months that its flagship television station, then W2XAB, was on the air. The limits of mechanical television inherently meant that these productions were extremely primitive; The Television Ghost, for example, consisted entirely of a 15-minute monologue of a single actor, with the only visual shot being the actor's head. By the time electronic television took over in the late 1930s, some more varied experimental programs, including live sportscasts and some game shows (such as the CBS Television Quiz and Truth or Consequences), were appearing; most television service was suspended beginning in 1942 because of World War II. The decade-long period of developing television techniques allowed broadcasting companies to be prepared when the war ended and the ensuing post-war prosperity allowed for increased consumer adoption of television sets.

Early television broadcasts were limited to live or filmed productions (the first practical videotape system, Ampex's Quadruplex, only became available in 1957).[2] Broadcasting news, sports and other live events was something of a technical challenge in the early days of television and 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).[3]

In Britain, from the very beginning of regular television broadcasting in 1936 and up until the 1980s, interior scenes for television drama and comedy shows were shot with electronic cameras, while exterior scenes were shot with 16-mm film cameras. This arrangement conditioned British viewers to identify "live" look with interior scenes and "film" look with exterior scenes. In the U.S. and West Germany, most shows were produced completely in either film or video to avoid jarring difference in frame rate. Most other countries avoided outdoor shots for television productions as much as they could until portable video cameras became available.

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 and the concurrent rise of higher-fidelity FM radio) had changed, so that radio was primarily a medium for music, and scripted programming became wholly the domain of television.

Evolution of high-culture drama on television[edit]

The early days of television introduced hour-long anthology drama series, many of which received critical acclaim.[4][5] Examples include Kraft Television Theatre (debuted May 7, 1947), The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre (debuted September 27, 1948), Television Playhouse (debuted December 4, 1947), The Philco Television Playhouse (debuted October 3, 1948), Westinghouse Studio One (debuted November 7, 1948), and Your Show Time (debuted January 21, 1949).

High culture dominated commercial network television programming in the 1950s with the first television appearances of Leonard Bernstein (on Omnibus) and Arturo Toscanini, the first telecasts from Carnegie Hall, 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, Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. The Bell Telephone Hour, an NBC radio program, began its television run featuring both classical and Broadway performers. The networks employed art critics, notably Aline Saarinen and Brian O'Doherty, something that was mostly discontinued by the start of the digital television era.[6][7]

As a new medium, television introduced many innovative programming concepts, such as the diverse cultural programs of Omnibus that debuted on November 9, 1952 and won 65 awards during its run until April 16, 1961.

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.[8] The first screen adaptation of a James Bond story was a teleplay that aired in 1954. 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.[9][10] A few of these teleplays, including Rose's Twelve Angry Men and Chayefsky's Marty, would be adapted for film and other media and go on to great acclaim.[4][5][11]

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 such as Cyrano de Bergerac, with members of the cast of the 1946 Broadway revival recreating their roles, were regularly shown during this period.[12][13] Playhouse 90 was one of the last shows of its kind; by the late 1950s, production of most American television was moving to Hollywood, which itself carried a contrasting culture and sensibility to shows based in New York City, where most Golden Age programs originated.[14]

This high culture approach to television could be interpreted as a product of its time as networks were concerned with "cultural uplift" and viewed it as a way to cultural legitimacy on the new medium.[15] A similar uplift occurred in the late 1990s - early 2000s, when the networks were switching to high definition format. This was the time when Discovery Channel commissioned Discovery HD Theater to broadcast HD documentaries about nature and history, while BBC released Planet Earth. This coincided with the rise of the new Golden Age of Television that arose in the twenty-first century.

Blue-collar sitcoms and rural dramas[edit]

Many lightweight television programs of this era evolved from successful radio shows, which in turn originated from vaudeville stages, many of them in the Borscht Belt within driving distance of New York City. The radio stars, casts and writing staffs brought existing concepts to television. The New York location also gave television networks access to established Broadway stars. Many of the early stars of television also had extensive film experience, either through short subjects or B-movies (though headline stars rarely made the jump); Lucille Ball, for example, was one of a number of women nicknamed "Queen of the B's" for her film work.[16] This is one reason that quality was so consistently high during this period.[17]

I Love Lucy drew heavily from both film and radio. Many of the show's scripts were rewrites from Lucille Ball's late 1940s radio show My Favorite Husband. Shows such as Gunsmoke and The Jack Benny Program ran concurrently on both radio and television until television reception reached beyond the major metropolitan areas in the mid-1950s.[3] while others, such as Father Knows Best [18] and Fibber McGee and Molly, attempted to "flash-cut" from radio to television, with varying degrees of success.[19] I Love Lucy, in particular, took extensive steps toward matching the quality of the radio writing with a cinematic look worthy of feature films; to this effect, they established a multi-camera setup (a revolutionary process that would become an industry standard in the decades to come) to allow for a live studio audience, hired cinematographer Karl Freund to oversee filming and recorded the series on movie-quality 35mm film (the relatively high cost prevented the show from being filmed in color as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had originally hoped).[20][21]

End of the American golden age[edit]

By the late 1950s, as television began reaching larger portions of rural America, their viewing habits began to be reflected in overall television ratings. Sylvester "Pat" Weaver was fired in 1956 after his strategy of programming highbrow "spectacular" productions once a month on NBC proved to be a ratings failure against more conventional fare on CBS.[22] Rural sitcoms[23] and Westerns boomed, perplexing even the writers of the shows[24] and being treated as an opportunity for callous exploitation by the network executives, who nonetheless hated the programs,[25] as did most critics. Americans' fondness for the rural sitcom and Western formats would last well into the 1960s.[26]

James Aubrey, the president of CBS Network from 1960 to 1965, introduced to television the shows such as Mister Ed, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Danny Kaye, in addition to already well-established Danny Thomas, Ed Sullivan, What's My Line?, Perry Mason, I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke. Characterized by a former colleague at ABC as having "a smell for the blue-collar", Aubrey later admitted:[25]

We made an effort to continue purposeful drama on TV, but we found out that the people just don't want an anthology. They would rather tune in on Lucy.

The nation as a whole was also tiring of high-culture programming as the Baby Boomers were beginning to come of age; over the next several years, high-culture programs would be relegated to public television, where older audiences with more money were tolerated. By the 1980s, enough highbrow enthusiasts had died off that even public television began resorting to more popular fare to maintain donations.

A general decline in quality had been noticed as early as 1958, as the Peabody Award committee, in issuing an award to The Steve Allen Show that year, lamented that television was "conspicuously lacking (...) genuine humor and frank experiments."[27] 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 television dramas was viewed as the Golden Age. Although producer David Susskind, in a 1960s roundtable discussion with leading 1950s television dramatists, defined television's Golden Age as 1938 to 1954, the quiz show scandals of 1958, a writer's strike in March 1960, the final show of Playhouse 90 (which debuted October 4, 1956) on May 18, 1960 and the departure of leading director John Frankenheimer brought the era to an end.[28] Indeed, the 1960–61 television season was noted by Time magazine as being the worst season in television up to that point,[29] a sentiment echoed by Newton Minow, the head of the Federal Communications Commission, who lambasted the television networks for creating a "vast wasteland" of inferior programming in his speech "Television and the Public Interest."[30] (The United States Steel Hour would survive until 1963.)

Dennis James, a Golden Age host who was still active into the early 1970s hosting game shows that were not always critically acclaimed, noted that as television gained critical mass, it had picked up viewers uninterested in high culture and the networks were adjusting to maximize their viewership. Defending his upcoming series The New Price Is Right in 1972, he remarked:[31]

The critics will always look down their noses, but you can't have The Bell Telephone Hour on and still stay in competition. They can sit around and talk about the great wasteland and everything else. If you want to read books, read books.

In November 1960, Weaver commented on the end of the Golden Age of Television in The Denver Post, saying: "Television has gone from about a dozen forms to just two – news shows and the Hollywood stories. The blame lies in the management of NBC, CBS and ABC. Management doesn't give the people what they deserve. I don't see any hope in the system as it is."[32]

The quality of television in the United States would begin to recover in the late 1960s with more experimental shows such as The Monkees[33] and He & She,[34] even as gimmick-driven sitcoms continued to dominate for a few years after[35] until the rural purge of the early 1970s.



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,[36] most Golden Age shows were imported from the United States until the Can-Con requirements took effect around 1970.


Nigeria has the earliest television industry on the African continent and one of the earliest in the world. The Western Nigeria Television Service (WNTV), Nigeria's and Africa's first television station, began operation in the then Western Region in October 1959. The other two regions of the country soon followed suit; with the establishment of the Eastern Nigeria Television Service (ENTV) in Enugu, in 1960, and the Radio Television Kaduna (RKTV) in Kaduna, in March 1962. Also in 1962, The Federal Government established a fourth station, the Nigerian Television Service, in the then capital, Lagos.[37] The numbers grew rapidly and in the mid-1980s, that every Nigerian state had its own broadcasting station.[38]

Laws were made by regulating bodies to limit foreign contents on television, with the National Commission recommending a minimum of 60 percent local programming content for all broadcasting stations. This led television producers to begin the broadcast of local popular theatre productions.[38] Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart was adapted as a television series on National Television in 1987 and became very successful.[39] At this time, Another very successful television adaptation was the adaptation of D.O. Fagunwa's 1949 novel Igbo Olodumare. The television series, which is of the same title witnessed a tremendous success, especially in South western states, where it was reported that the show constantly left streets deserted during its broadcast on Sunday evenings.[40] Other television successes witnessed in the 1980s include series such as Adio Family, The Village Headmaster, Cock's Crow at Dawn, The Masquerade, Mirror in the Sun, Checkmate, Sura The Tailor, Second Chance and Awada Kerikeri.[39] Hausa comedy soap operas such as Karkuzu and Karambana were also quite popular in this period.[41]

South Africa[edit]

South Africa was one of the last nations in the world to have television; the apartheid government resisted television broadcasting until the mid-1970s, with experimental broadcasts only beginning in 1975 and nationwide service starting in January 1976.[42]

United Kingdom[edit]

British television, like its American counterpart, began developing in the 1930s, with the BBC Television Service beginning regular broadcasts in 1936. The early British television drama borrowed a great deal from dramatic radio productions developed between the First and the Second World Wars. In the 1920s the BBC pioneered dramatic readings of books. In 1925 it broadcast A Christmas Carol, which has become a holiday favourite. Later, John Reith, wanting to use radio waves to "part the clouds of ignorance",[43] came up with the idea of a classic serial, based on a "classical" literary text.

In 1939 the BBC adapted the romantic novel The Prisoner of Zenda for radio broadcast. Its adapter, Jack Inglis, summed up his approach as follows: "The story is simple, with clear cut characters, and falls easily into episodes. It always seems to me, that it is the first duty of an adapter to reproduce in another medium the original flavour and atmosphere of the book". Inglis compressed several characters into one and simplified the plotline. The production struck a chord with listeners and served as a prototype for dramatic productions that followed it.

BBC television broadcasts ceased in 1939, as did the production of television receivers, resuming in 1946 after World War II.[44] The golden age of British television 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.[45]

Soviet Union/Russia[edit]

The "Golden Age" of the Soviet media culture is usually associated with Khrushchev Thaw, which spanned from the mid-1950s until the end of 1960s.[46][47] The live nature of television and relatively young age of the people involved in its development afforded certain level of exuberance, edginess, debate and criticism.

Like in the United States, this period is notable for great many television plays broadcast on Soviet television. For example, in 1951–1954 the Central Television Studio broadcast three to six plays a week.[48] As time went on, the quantity and quality of the theatrical television productions diminished. The reasons were technical, social, and economic. Staging a new production in a television studio every other day was expensive. The shortage of mobile cameras often precluded broadcasting live performance from a theater. Theaters became increasingly reluctant to offer their shows to television, claiming that television draws the public away from theaters. Some theatrical directors prohibited actors to participate in television shows. Theaters started demanding payment for broadcasting of their plays, and by the end of 1960s the frequency of theatrical shows fell to one show a week.[49] Because the State Committee for Cinematography would hold freshly released movies from television broadcast, television studios started producing their own made-for-TV movies.

The Thaw ended with the crackdown of the Prague spring. The Soviet government deemed Czechoslovak mass media, which hosted political disputes and broadcast news about protesting students and young workers, to be complicit in undermining Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Sergey Lapin, installed as the chairman of the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting in 1970, increased political oversight over television and banned shows that were critical of the system. Most programs except for the evening news were recorded beforehand and censored. This effectively ended the first "Golden Age" of the Soviet television.

The second "Golden Age" of television in Russia is associated with perestroika and glasnost of the late 1980s and with creation of private television companies in the 1990s. This period is notable for edgy talk shows and comedic productions that targeted youth, such as Outlook, Till 16 and older, 12th Floor, Before and After Midnight, Oba-na. Political and economic news, live broadcasts from state Duma, critique of the government became standard fare of 1990s.

In 2000s the Russian government increased its control over independent television companies, and applied political and economic pressure to discourage them from criticizing the government and its policies. In 2001 Gazprom took ownership of the private television company NTV, which aired several gritty programs. The satirical show Puppets, which mocked major politicians and celebrities, was terminated in 2002 after pressure from the Kremlin. In January 2002 another independent television company TV-6 was terminated. In 2014, TV Rain was heavily criticized for asking viewers whether Leningrad should have been surrendered to the invading Nazi army in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives (since Hitler did not offer surrender as an option, only death). After that, the largest Russian television providers stopped carrying the channel. Ultimately, left without money from broadcasters and advertisers, TV Rain was forced to move its studio to a private apartment. Contemporary independent television broadcasters stick mostly to unoffensive soap operas and talk shows, leaving the political programming to government-owned channels.

List of selected shows[edit]

List of selected notable artists[edit]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Averson, Richard (1971). Electronic Drama: Television Plays of the Sixties. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. ISBN 0-8070-6178-6
  • Bergmann, Ted; with Skutch, Ira (2002). The DuMont Television Network: What Happened? Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-4270-X
  • Brooks, Tim; with Marsh, Earle (1981). The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946–Present. New York: Ballantine. ISBN 0-345-29588-9
  • Gianakos, Larry James (1992) Television Drama Series Programming A Comprehensive Chronicle, 1984–1986. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-2601-1
  • Gitlin, Todd (1994). Inside Prime Time. London: Routledge ISBN 0-415-08500-4
  • Hawes, William (2002). The American Television Drama: The Experimental Years. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0-7864-1132-5
  • Herskowitz, Mickey (1990). The Golden Age of Pro Football. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company. ISBN 0-87833-751-2
  • Hess, Gary Newton (1979). An Historical Study of the DuMont Television Network. New York: Ayer Publishers. ISBN 0-405-11758-2
  • Kindem, Gorham (1994). The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film Directors: Interviews with Seven Directors. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0-89950-986-X
  • MacDonald, J. Fred (1994). One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV. Chicago: Nelson-Hall. ISBN 0-8304-1362-6
  • McNeil, Alex (1996). Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-024916-8
  • Menta, Richard (October 24, 2005). "Can iTunes Resurrect Old Time TV?". Retrieved October 30, 2011.
  • Miner, Worthington; with Schaffner, Franklin (1985). Worthington Miner. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-1757-8
  • Newcomb, Horace (2007). Television: The Critical View. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-530116-8
  • Patton, Phil (1984). Razzle-Dazzle: The Curious Marriage of Television and Professional Football. Garden City, NY: The Dial Press. ISBN 0-385-27879-9
  • Powers, Ron (1984). Supertube: The Rise of Television Sports. New York: Coward-McCann. ISBN 0-698-11253-9
  • Rader, Benjamin G. (1984). In its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0-02-925700-X
  • Skutch, Ira (1989) I Remember Television: A Memoir. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-2271-7
  • Stemple, Tom (1992). Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-0562-2
  • Sturcken, Frank (1990). Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946–1958 in New York. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0-89950-523-6
  • Wicking, Christopher; with Vahimagi, Tise (1999). The American Vein: Directors and Directions in Television. New York: Dutton ISBN 0-525-05420-0
  • Wilk, Max (1999). The Golden Age of Television: Notes From the Survivors. Chicago: Silver Spring Press. ISBN 0-916562-49-2

External links[edit]