Screen Memories: The Pioneers of Television
When I was a kid, January routinely saw the appearance of a seasonal television announcement, reminding nonimmigrant aliens to register their addresses with the U.S. government. Failure to do so could result in immediate expulsion from the country. I didn’t know what “aliens” meant—other than creatures that turned up with great regularity on The Twilight Zone. And I would have been amazed to learn that half of my neighbors and many of my friends met the government criteria for nonimmigrant alien status. What I did understand—from the graphics of the ad, the soundtrack, and the stern voice of the announcer—was that there were beings living among us so potentially dangerous that the government had to keep track of them.
This was the era of Conelrad (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) System tests. At the time, it was assumed that Soviet bombers could hone in on American targets by using radio or TV Stations as beacons. And the Conelrad system had two purposes: 1) to thwart Soviet missile tracking through a timed relay of broadcast signals and 2) to provide civil defense information in the case of an emergency.
During a Conelrad system test, television and radio stations would shut down for five seconds, return to the air for five seconds, then shut down again for five seconds and finally transmit a high-pitched tone (the kind that sends dogs into a pained barking frenzy) for 15 seconds. This procedure was followed by the familiar announcement—“this has been a test.” If it had been a real alert, the announcer informed us, if missiles were really coming at us, we would have been told to switch to the specially marked numbers on our little civil-defense portable radios, and to head for bomb shelters.
In the early 1960s, the nation was in the throes of Sputnik-envy. Public Service Announcements from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, exhorted us to buff up for America, and the space race was big news. The National Council of Churches advertised regularly. In San Francisco, nightly station sign-offs were packaged as an affair of State. The National Anthem played, while onscreen the flag waved proudly “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” On some stations, this flag shot was followed by images of planes flying in formation, a visual reminder of the Armed Services that watched the skies (aliens and missiles again) and kept us safe while we slept. Television did not resume until about 6 a.m., and it resumed with a similar nationalistic tribute.
I begin with these reminiscences for several reasons. The most obvious is that serialized TV histories (histories of TV) tend to leave out the most interesting aspects of TV flow, what might be called TV’s excess or its historical paracinematic (or perhaps para-televisual) appeal. In fact, they tend not to treat TV flow at all, opting instead for a discussion of celebrities, genres and specific programs. The Pioneers of Television (PBS and Boettcher Trinklein Productions; currently running on most PBS stations) is no exception in this regard, dividing the history of early TV into eponymous genre episodes and focusing primarily on celebrities and beloved programs, rather than on networks, institutions, ephemera, ads, PSAs, or programming trends. The clips of the individual television shows themselves are wonderful, but the way the series constructs TV history is highly problematic. Even within the framework of exemplary actors, genres and programs, a great deal is omitted. Not a word about the innovative Ernie Kovacs show in the Variety segment, for example (aired January 16, 2008 PBS), even though the show ran off and on for 5 years on NBC and CBS (1951-56). Nothing about Amos and Andy (1951-1953, CBS) during the Sitcoms episode (Sitcoms, January 2, 2008 PBS); nothing really about any African-American performers with the notable exception of Nat King Cole.
More troubling is the way the series constructs the historical TV-viewing audience and the way it depicts the cultural work of TV itself. Toward the end of Sitcoms, the narrator tells us the genre would change in the 1970s; “innocence,” he opines, “would be replaced by relevance” as shows like All in the Family (1971-1983, CBS) succeeded the Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966 CBS). That notion of an early innocent or naïve viewing audience has driven much of the Pioneers series to date. And, of course, such a view can be constructed only through the careful generic exclusion of documentaries and anthology dramas, the political exclusion of the Red Scare, and the celebrity exclusion of Edward R. Murrow, Rod Serling, Paddy Chayevsky and Ida Lupino—to name just a few. Even the discussion of the Quiz show scandals (Game Shows, January 23, 2008) does little to trouble this tale of an idyllic and child-like televisual past, as images of Mark Van Doren segue seamlessly into an explanation of Standards and Practices, and finally into a discussion of the panel shows (whose format did not allow for cheating, the announcer tells us). The entire episode is orchestrated to prove the voiceover claim, made early in the hour; namely that Americans love to play.
The Pioneers of Television is vested, then, in an image of TV as what Richard Dyer might term “utopian” entertainment—entertainment that makes us feel wonderful. There is a certain irony in this, since the utopic value of Broadcast TV is precisely the quality which PBS generally critiques when it cites its own difference from “regular,” commercial broadcasting. What Pioneers ignores is what I tried to re-introduce at the beginning of this essay; namely, the degree to which television of the 1950s and 60s was invested not only in utopic entertainment and in information, but also in the production and performance of nation, nationalism and notions of citizenship.
In fact, the presumption behind Conelrad was not only that television should be used to inculcate notions of citizenship, but that television itself—its transmitters and broadcast signals—could be used as both weapon and defense. Civil Defense procedures outlined for stations were detailed and frightening. In the event of an attack, all television and FM radio stations were required to stop broadcasting. Most medium-wave radio stations were also required to shut down. The radio stations remaining on the air would transmit on either 640 or 1240 kHz (and every radio set had these frequencies clearly marked—with a special civil defense logo—on the radio dial). Each station would stay on the air for several minutes, then it would go off the air, and another station would take over broadcast responsibilities—in a round-robin transmission chain.
Then duck. cover, and kiss your sweet bippie goodbye.